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It’s All Random: Video Game Genres that Excel at Randomnessby@mosesconcha
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1,498 reads

It’s All Random: Video Game Genres that Excel at Randomness

by Moses ConchaOctober 26th, 2022
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Video games have this unique ability to transport us to whimsical worlds rich with interesting characters and top-notch stories. Most video games tend to be tailor-made levels and stages designed to deliver the same degree of fun and emotion we expect from a given genre. But a twinge of randomness – or random gameplay elements – can change the dynamics of such games. For some genres, game-warping randomness of this kind serves only to their benefit. It encourages repeat playthroughs, creates varying memorable gameplay experiences, and promotes a game’s overall longevity as a result.

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It is no secret that video games are, by design, fun. Much like a good book or blockbuster movie, games have this unique ability to transport us to whimsical worlds rich with interesting characters and top-notch stories. They offer us fresh and varied experiences every time we choose to hit “start,” press “play,” or restart the inevitable “new game.” 

Most of those experiences, however, tend to be tailor-made levels and stages intricately designed to deliver the same degree of fun and emotion we expect from a given genre. Horror games will always be creepy and seek to scare you. Action-adventure games are a constant thrill ride. Difficult platformers and puzzlers compete to see how many migraines they can induce in one sitting, and so on. 

And that’s a good thing – there’s nothing wrong with getting what you played for. 

Insert a twinge of randomness – or random gameplay elements – in there, though, and the dynamics of such games change drastically. Imagine if every zombie in Resident Evil took a random number of shots to kill, or if pivotal platforms in a Mario level floated erratically without a pattern. 

For some genres, game-warping randomness of this kind serves only to their benefit. It encourages repeat playthroughs, creates varying memorable gameplay experiences, and promotes a game’s overall longevity as a result. Certain mechanics within a specific genre even become noticeably more engaging when you throw a slice of chance into the mix.

For us to better understand how randomness can potentially make a game better, and which ones do it best, we have to first learn about the two forms they typically take. 

Input Vs. Output Randomness

If you’re interested in learning more about the nitty-gritty of game design, Mark Brown, the creator of Game Maker’s Toolkit, has an entire video on the subject. But for the sake of this article, let’s just hear what he has to say regarding the most prevalent forms of randomness in gaming, starting with Input Randomness. 

Mark describes it as “a random event [that] occurs before the player gets to make a decision.” This kind of randomness, for example, determines your starting hand in most digital card games and deck-builders, such as Hearthstone or Slay the Spire. The whole Roguelike genre’s foundation is built upon this very concept, famously supplying players with procedurally-generated environments to explore alongside a merriment of random upgrades and weapons to toy around with every time you play.

Output Randomness, on the other hand, “is when you make a decision and then luck takes over and the game tells you what happened.” For most gamers, this is the part when RNGesus takes the wheel, often evoking immense joy when the cards are in our favor, or, instead, copious levels of frustration when the deck is seemingly stacked against us. In the Pokémon series, for instance, this is the randomness that decides whether you successfully put an enemy Pokémon to sleep with status-inflicting moves like Sleep Powder or Hypnosis, as well as for how many turns that Pokémon will remain asleep if the move even lands.

Now that we have a deeper understanding of the types of randomness out there, let’s discuss the genres that stand out among the rest. 

Sandbox/Open World: More Room For Memorable Moments

I find that open worlds not only provide developers with the design space for randomness to thrive, but also give players more opportunities to experience more meaningful, and fun, randomness as they navigate these environments. Noteworthy open worlds, like Skyrim and GTA, feature a menagerie of locations that, while static and unchanging in their positions in the world, serve as dynamic set pieces for random events to occur to you or any NPC at any given moment. 

In GTA V’s Los Santos, wandering NPCs are constantly involved in unexpected hit-and-runs and random robberies, which the player can ignore or put a stop to, are taking place around the clock. You could be in the middle of sharpening your favorite Dragonblade sword at the forge and, seconds later, fall victim to an all-too-ironic random dragon attack in Skyrim.

This regular flow of random events in such spanning worlds creates a consistent feedback loop of input and output randomness, giving players a unique sense of individualism in their experience as more and more random things happen. 

To put it plainly, bigger spaces in open-world games allow for more of those funny “can you believe this happened” moments – the ones all gamers love to look back on – to happen.

Roguelike: More Ways To Play (And Win)

You saw this one coming. Randomness is practically baked into the cells of the genre after all. Its namesake, and whole schtick, is derived from a 1980’s dungeon crawler called Rogue, which relied on procedurally-generated levels and permadeath mechanics. 

Those two particular aspects make up a lot of what Roguelikes are today – you traverse randomly assorted environments, die, and do it all over again. The genre’s main draw, however, is in its profound feeling of progression its games typically feature, each new failure signifying a fresh step toward future success.

Often enough, Roguelikes also tend to mix up regular gameplay for players by throwing random items, weapons and even enemies their way. Supergiant Games’ Hades is a famous example of this, having you cleave, and die, your way through an ever-shifting underworld over and over again so you can one day reach the surface and learn more about your past.

This genre does an excellent job of capitalizing on this loop-based gameplay by always varying the ways you can play. Whenever you clear a room of baddies in Hades, another set of rooms open up, filled with hordes of random fiends to slow you down, random items and resources to help you along, and even random buffs from the literal gods of Olympus that change every playthrough. This is input randomness at its most fun and intuitive.

The point of each attempt is to learn more about your foes and get stronger, so you can eventually get further. A new attempt, the result of failure, instead becomes another chance to try a new strategy, a potential success. And when randomness is so deeply ingrained into the fibers of core gameplay, such is the case here, the possibilities of winning become practically endless. Victory feels good, especially when we’ve thought up the game plan. In the midst of its controlled chaos, Roguelikes give players the agency to do just that.

Where Randomness Can Fail 

Just because random elements work for some games doesn’t mean they will automatically work for others.

Competitive games, such as Shooters, Sports, and Fighting titles, are largely centered around logic, player agency and skill. Therefore, randomness in those games becomes jarring intrusions of the intended player experience, making them significantly less fun when something random, or unexpected, does happen. 

This is why items are typically banned in Smash Bros. tournaments, and why we don’t see guns in most shooters randomly jam like they might in real life. Randomness takes away the skill and sense of control we expect to have when we play certain games.

When you play with player expectations in the wrong way, and in unsuitable contexts, a sort of friction starts to happen in the player’s mind. Things don’t feel right, or they seem out of place. This is where randomness tends to falter and instead works against its goal of making things more varied and interesting. 

Like most things in life, there is a time and a place for everything. While randomness and skill can sometimes work together while still being fun – as is the case with Battle Royales and card games – context matters above all else. 

That said, if you enjoy surprises and unforeseen experiences every time you play, look no further than open worlds and Roguelikes, for they are constantly making strides to take randomness – and your game – to the next level.