Saturday, March 5, 2016

On Random versus Luck

As I hosted the Game Developers Forum at the TinkerMill last week, we began discussing the concept of luck.  It started with a video by PBS on the topic.  In it, the host Jamin Warren equated luck and player skill in the game Dark Souls.  I initially found this to be rather incompatible when it comes to player interaction; After all, when I'm rocking a game and showing it how I've mastered the mechanics it laid before me, I don't really consider that to be luck. From a developer perspective, Jamin argued that the skill of the player could be considered a form of luck.  One player can struggle with one section while another will simply breeze through it.  I'm not entirely convinced of this argument, however.

First I must try to tease out the difference between random and luck.  I don't feel that these two concepts are interchangeable.  When someone is "lucky," they are assigning either goodness or badness to what just happened. A gambler will say, "It was a lucky streak," when they win several rounds on the roulette table, despite it being an almost completely random game.  Where the ball lands on the wheel is almost completely beyond the control of the player; It is no more likely to land on one number over another (wheel rigging notwithstanding), yet the player will assign a quality to it.  "It was a hot streak," "I had a bad run," or "It was a lucky drop," are all things you could commonly hear around a roulette table.  In this context, luck is an emotional quality the gambler assigns to the random outcome, not the random outcome itself.  I feel that this nuance was somewhat lost in the PBS presentation.

With that framework in mind,  I want to re-examine the assertion that Jamin Warren postulates; That a player's skill can be considered luck in the mind of the designer.  If we agree to this viewpoint, "lucky" streaks that the player has are nothing more than anomalies when compared to the aggregate of player performance.  This doesn't really seem like an emotional response, especially with game design in mind.  These streaks are more likely the players that have mastered the game, rather than the ones that merely gotten a good run. Although interesting, this should not have an emotional component conflating the outliers.

Another view of the player skill he mentions is "luck execution."  This is the idea that no matter how good a player is, they will fail a certain amount of the time.  The reasoning he states for this is the "human factor," or the fact that we, as human beings, are not perfect.  No matter how well we know a game, we will have a lapse of judgement or something that prevents a perfect game.  Although interesting, I'm not sure that this is quite the same as luck.  This lack of a perfect game is what makes pursuits of high scores and speed runs worthwhile.  It's not exactly luck that gets the high score in games like Mario, where any given board is not likely to have a random element.  Rather, it's the focus of the player and the mastery they have over the mechanics.  A lapse in mastery is not necessarily the end for a great run.  This, too, runs into the outliers, where perfection is the goal, unlike the bulk of the player-base.

Although Game/Show has a good description of luck in games, it plays a little too fast and loose with terms to be a great resource on the topic for my tastes.  I understand the ideas this particular episode was trying to convey, but I think it misses by a bit when it tries to equate luck, random, and player mastery into one blanket term.

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