Can Randomness in Games be Fair?

Sometimes random elements can be fun, but other times it can be bad.

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Many video games, the Dreidel game, or any other game with dice all have one thing in common: a big amount of luck, or randomness involved. In Pathfinder (Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e) you could roll a 1 three consecutive times on a 20 sided dice (or d20). This is rather rare, but in a game were luck determines everything, you will have a bunch of great failures just because your dice rolled a bad number, hence the saying “My dice hate me!”. This is fine in a co-op game where failure is inevitable, but what about the Dreidel game, where somebody could spin Gimmel on the first turn and take everything?

Mathematically, this is considered “fair”. Everybody has an equal chance of doing nothing, taking all, taking half, and losing one. My question is if you were playing Team Fortress 2, where bullets can randomly do a critical, triple damage hit, would you think it is fair if a guy walked up to you and got four critical hits in a row before you could react? For the most part, players usually have the same chance of getting a critical hit. Skill does prevail in games like TF2 and any Battle Royale, so amazing luck won’t usually do anything if you don’t have the skills to play the game. This brings me to my next point.

You average skill will even out after a hundred games. You might be really good at Magic: The Gathering but lose a few times because you didn’t draw the right cards. If you play a hundred games, you will see yourself winning more than losing because of skill. You sometimes lose because of bad luck, but in designing a game, you should make sure players mostly lose because of skill lack, not being unlucky.

Here is an example of how luck can be bad or good. This is an example from any “Battle Royale”. You drop down into a house with an enemy, and you pick up a pretty bad gun inside. The guy that dropped with you grabs a better gun. If you had the skill and he couldn’t aim, you would win, but let’s say you both were equally skilled. That guy would win. Your “kill to death” ratio will even out to reflect your skill alone after a bunch of games, which means the developers have done a good job making it more skill based.

Randomness can be a bad thing in competitive play. If your team is composed of highly skilled people who normally would dominate any “newbie” team suddenly loses only because of a noob’s (short for a new player) random scatter bullets lining up right, you are experiencing what I call the negative side of the luck argument. This is when randomness, even if everybody has an equal chance of getting the good side of it, ends up in a certain player’s favor. The Dreidel game could technically not be too luck based, due to the fact that if you spin it just right, you have a higher chance of getting the side you want. It would take a lot of prediction of when it would stop spinning, but it would take a lot of precise knowledge, so count it as mainly luck based.

The positive side is when luck affects everybody. Playing Spelunky co-op with friends is an example. The maps and levels in Spelunky are randomly made, but everybody has to experience someone. If you and all your party members suddenly fall into a spike pit under the spawn, it affected everybody. Maps in Mario Kart tracks are randomly picked and some are easier and have more items than others, but everybody has to play the map chosen. The item boxes may be different on every map, but everybody has to use the same number.

There are 3 main types of randomness: unpredictable predictable, predictable and unpredictable, and unfair, or unpredictable and unpredictable. The first type usually can be reacted to, like hammer bros’ projectiles in most Mario games. They fire at random intervals and have no warning, but are easy to dodge. The second type usually has a warning but usually can be reacted to. In Cuphead, one boss has an instant-hit laser attack but has a long warning animation to make up for the hitscan attack and firing on random intervals.

It is very well worth noting that many games are based entirely around randomness, and that’s what makes these games fun. If everything in Dwarf Fortress was predictable, then it would not be that fun. Games that are based on luck have to make that clear or players might think they need to get more skill when it’s the game’s fault they keep losing.

My final verdict is that luck or randomness can be good if it is predictable or avoidable. It should not work in one player’s favor, because competitive games should only be a skill-based medium. Games that revolve around randomness can have as much luck involved as they want. This keeps the game fun and enjoyable, and also fair.