Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

Roleplaying games are pretty much built around the use of random number generators (RNG). The history of this derives from the tabletop world of course, but there’s a reason randomization has stayed a part of the genre throughout it’s years of moving to the digital world of computers: player skill isn’t what is considered important, but that of the character – hence the term roleplaying game. The player does not play themselves but a character with a distinct set of skills and abilities.

Another reason for the existence of randomization is that it’s an easy and cheap way to make gameplay more varied. In the tabletop world this point isn’t as crucial because no campaign will ever be exactly the same, even if run by a the same game master, but fighting for example the same monsters in a computer RPG would get boring much more quickly without RNG as every fight against a particular monster type would be exactly the same as the one before. Here we step on the main point of randomization: it spices up the gameplay.

While previously pretty much an unquestioned part of the genre, as competition has become a regular aspect of the multiplayer CRPG, especially the massively multiplayer online variety of it, random number generators have come to be a subject of debate. Especially in games that involve player versus player combat the subject is seen as one of great importance. It of course also affects another form of competition, the competition between raiding guilds to down encounters faster than others, but this is  to a lesser extent and hence I will not go into that in this post.

Its easy enough to understand why randomness is regarded as such an important subject in PVP-focused games – after all, continuously losing to another player due to bad rolls can with fair reason be called lame. It makes one question whether a game is suitable as a competitive platform to begin with.

With that in mind, it is surprising to me that, from my subjective experience at least, in games where losing in PVP can present a far greater penalty, RNG isn’t discussed nearly as often as in some games where losing to another player presents little to no penalty at all. I am talking about two distinct game types here: the open world, free-for-all, full loot games such as EVE, Darkfall or the bygone Shadowbane, where death can mean the loss of your entire property at worst, and games where just about all PVP is instanced and rather sterile, and where defeats represent nothing but a mere loss of time and rating – for example the Arena minigame in World of Warcraft.

At first glance it seems weird RNG is discussed as little as it is in open world PVP games in comparison to ones where competition happens in a far safer environment in terms of what one can lose. But what it maybe comes down to are two things.

First, because open world PVP is already not artificially limited by a set of rules that would, for example, limit the amount of participating players, there already exists such a great level of randomness that the addition of randomized damage ranges, hit tables and whatnot does not seem like such a big deal.

The second reason is social: the game types appeal to different kinds of people. From my personal experience, players in open world PVP games tend to have backgrounds in the RPG genre, where as people into instanced PVP often have at least some background in esport-type games – FPS, MOBAs and the like – and often little to no background in roleplaying.

While in instanced PVP randomness is especially frowned upon, just about no game that offers this feature has completely gotten rid of it. There’s has to be a reason for this. What that reason probably is is that developers realize having at least some randomness to combat is actually beneficial even in a competitive game. The question to ask is: what is a suitable amount of randomness to spice up the game without making it too random.

Once again it comes down to what a game’s playerbase expects from the game – what sort of player the game appeals to. The competitive arena player who watches esports streams on Twitch probably despises randomness and wants things to be decided based on player skill. That being said, while some would claim otherwise, having a level of randomness doesn’t completely eliminate player skill, not even close, and despite numbers sometimes being more in favor of another team, in the long run randomness always balances out. A reasonable amount of randomness in a game of this sort can make it slightly more interesting to watch and play without completely deciding matches – critical hits, damage ranges and the like. Pseudo-random systems are not bad either, and many MOBA games utilize them despite these games being very balanced.

Contrast to arena players and the like, players of open world PVP games tend to be more used to traditional RPG mechanics and expect them.This alone makes them more prone to be acceptable of randomization, but in addition to this, world PVP is already almost always unfair in one way or another. Of course a randomly generated streak of missed strikes causing a death and loss of property is annoying, but just about equally annoying is getting killed by a group of two players who happened to stumble upon you as you were adventuring alone. In such an unbalanced, unsterile environment RNG does not get to stand out in a negative way very often due to the huge amount of other factors that affect who actually wins a fight. This, I would conclude, is the reason RNG is so little discussed in open world PVP games.

Now, if we did want to completely remove randomization from combat, one could ask: what harm would that do? The problem is that as for PVE, random number generation is almost necessary, because encounters are normally tightly scripted. Without randomization, PVE would quickly become extremely dull, because the exact same strategy without the slightest bit of variation would work every single time against the same encounter.

Few games have a completely separate combat system for PVE and PVP, so the two must overlap – if randomization is part of PVE, it must also be part of PVP. That has to be accepted by the developer. But the amount of randomization should probably depend on the type of game they are making, and the type of playerbase they are aiming for – different types of players expect different things.

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One response to “Balancing randomization in MMORPG combat

  1. With regards to skill and randomness: there is of course an element of risk in these games and beating the odds is always a great feeling…managing those odds and having back up strategies for diverse encounters is all part of the game. Although in reality, I have found, at a certain point most PVE does revert to the same strategy being applied ad infinitum.

    Another great article 🙂

    Like

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