Theory: What to Do If Your Game’s Not Random

Riffing on the idea that the promise of a rare lucky moment is attractive, I thought it might be interesting to look at the fate of VS System–a game where people didn’t get those lucky moments. I should say up front that I only have this story second-hand, but even if it’s wrong it’s still interesting as a thought experiment. It’s a cautionary tale about a game that ended up being unfriendly to new players, and a chance to learn lessons about what to do if your game doesn’t randomly offer new players help.

VS System was a superhero card game. If you wanted to play something Magic-ish, but instead of knights fighting dragons you wanted Captain America fighting Doctor Doom, this was your game. Its crowning achievement may have been its substantial tournament popularity; lots of people got very good at VS System, played it very seriously, and won quite a bit of money in the process.

Part of what made VS System so popular among tournament players was that, even though it was a card game, luck actually had very little to do with the outcome. Better players almost always beat worse players. For heavily-invested players who had spent a lot of time practicing, that was a valuable feature. Their hard work was consistently rewarded.

New players, however, found VS System quite frustrating. Since everyone was better than them, they lost almost every time. They couldn’t hope for a rare lucky moment; no such moment was coming.

Losing is, of course, part of getting better. I have vivid memories of going to the local arcade in Japan once a week and getting trounced for a full year before I managed to win. However, at that point in my life I was dedicated to improving at fighting games. It’s not unreasonable for people to try a game that they’re only casually interested in, get clobbered, and decide that this particular mountain isn’t one they’re interested in climbing.

That was the decision people often made about VS System. Although a dedicated group of old-timers kept the game going, fewer and fewer new players appeared to reinforce their ranks. Tournament players who moved on were not replaced, and ultimately the game folded for lack of sales.

Compare VS System’s experience to Magic: the Gathering. In Magic, the better player wins . . . most of the time. The fall of the cards can give the worse player a chance, creating the openings they need to win. When it happens it makes the better player crazy–but even Mark Rosewater believes the game is better because those moments can happen, and the sales data support him. Magic lets new players get the lucky moment they need once every so often, and as a result it can appeal to a much larger player base.

So, judicious use of randomness can help new players win, and in the process can contribute to keeping a game popular. What if a game has no randomness? Chess has no dice, no cards, nothing that’s outside the players’ control (and I depart from Mr. Rosewater’s view that opening moves are random; a decision made with incomplete information is not random, it is simply risky). Yet, Chess has lasted for a very long time. Diplomacy has a less impressive pedigree, but it’s also a popular game of long standing with no random elements. How do they keep going?

I think there are two key things that non-random games can do to avoid frustrating new players:

Ranked play: Chess’ ELO system helps players find others at the same skill level. Weaker players can avoid being clobbered by playing people at the same ELO–or can opt into a challenge by finding someone at a higher level. Players control how much frustration they experience.

Make it hard to lose quickly: Even an extremely bad Diplomacy player can’t be eliminated in the first few turns. (The writing, admittedly, might be on the wall by then.) Furthermore, the early turns are often when most of the wheeling and dealing at the heart of Diplomacy occurs, so even the newest player gets to experience what the game has to offer and feel like he or she got to participate meaningfully.

I’m sure there are more approaches to this problem, but I feel that these are particularly effective. If your game doesn’t enjoy the luxury of offering rare lucky moments to give new players hope, doing one or both of these will help ensure that they still have a positive experience. That, in turn, will contribute greatly to the long-term health of your game.