Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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One of the most exciting things about the English language is the way in which its users literally butcher it on a regular basis. In day to day life we place a much higher premium on being understood than we do on being technically correct, so the meaning of words warp as they're used to drive a point home. In general I'm cool with that, it's interesting to watch, speech is more playful and it makes an awful lot of comedy happen. However once in a while something ambiguous crops up, that requires definitions to be clarified so that a conversation can happen. So let's talk about "random".

Something can be said to be random if it occurs without aim, reason or pattern. In general we're happy to talk about things for which those elements are not obviously present, even where there is an underlying order. For instance most random numbers are strictly not random but have been generated deterministically by some procedure. I think that all but the strictest speakers would be happy to call a dice roll random even though an accurate simulation of the dice, the hand, the air and the surface could predict the result.

It's tricky to pin down the colloquial use. The intention appears to be to refer to things that are unexpected or out of place, but often these follow a somewhat predictable pattern. I guess a working definition would be to say that it describes non-sequiturs that have been selected specifically because they don't follow from what has been before.

Obviously my interest is in games, recently I've heard 404 described as "random" a couple of times. I started thinking about this because I obsess over anything that's said during a playtest and always look to drill down for deeper meanings, whether there are any or not. I don't think there's a big issue for 404 here, but thinking about what a 'random game' is was interesting enough to me that I decided to discuss it.

Taking a literal definition of random, there are two flavours of games that are described that way. Ones that involve a lot of randomisers and ones that have random outcomes, there's a relationship between these two but they are technically distinct.

For instance, a game might have a single randomiser that determines the outcome, in which case it doesn't have many random events but does have a random outcome. It could be described as "random" and this would probably be meant as a slur on the game's character.

Alternatively a game could consist of nothing but randomisers, yet the outcome could be based on the skill of the players. To some extent a large number of randomisers can mitigate the effects of luck and lead to non-random outcomes. Describing a game like this as "random" might fall into the "Ameritrash" category of "labels that sound worse than they are."

Finally random might be used to colloquially describe a game that generates humour from unexpected reveals. This is a tough thing to parse, since done right that could be saying something wonderful about the game, but this sort of humour has a tendancy to quickly become tired and relying on it is often the hallmark of a mediocracy. Something that says "Look at how zany I am" to distract from its flaws.

When I started writing this I figured I'd wind up talking about using different sorts of randomness to describe games, perhaps coming up with a few terms I'd use in the future, but I think I might just stay away from using the term that way. It's loaded with too much meaning to usefully discuss games; I'm going to keep to talking about impacts on particular systems or subsystems.

With respect to 404, it's clear that players aren't talking about randomness with respect to game play. Most of the game runs on deterministic effects and the randomisers that are present can all be mitigated by player actions. It's more likely that the breadth of directives and the unexpected situations that emerge from everyone's individually predictable actions are responsible for the judgement and it's generally said by people who are laughing and smiling and enjoying the game. I reckon I probably got the balance right.
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