Games have two main environments: PvP (Player vs. Player) and PvE (Player(s) vs. Environment). This article, which I guess will be Part 1, focuses on randomness’s role in Player(s) versus the Environment.
If the environment is static in every iteration of the game, there’s often not much replay value to the game. You learn where the monsters spawn, you learn the puzzles, the secrets, and there’s not much left to the game. Certainly if a game is good, players will simply play through it again, often with self-inflicted restrictions (beating Fallout 2 without the use of weapons, for example), or maybe even on a higher difficulty, but again, “Nightmare” is the same as “Nightmare” both times through, so again, there’s not much replay value left afterwards. There’s not a lot of replay value in Half-Life 2 for me, but then again, this isn’t always important. I enjoyed the game the first time through, I enjoyed Episodes 1 and 2, and I plan on enjoying Episode 3 when it comes out. Multiple play-throughs are not required to make a game excellent, but it’s always nice to be able to experience everything again in a new way.
So, if we are looking for longevity in a PvE game, how do we do it? Well, let’s look at some of the successful computer RPGs of our time, and because I’m a Blizzard fanboy: Diablo II and World of Warcraft.
WoW is special in that the designers are constantly creating new content for the game. They create and implement new raid dungeons, add new items into the game, and expansion packs come out every few years. So far this doesn’t count as randomness, they’re simply adding more into the game to get people to continue playing it. As a business model (with monthly fees and all), this makes tons of sense, and players are obviously happy, so this looks like a win-win. It is. But the one thing that keeps this interesting is that the entire reason players are continuing to conquer these forty-man raid dungeons is for the items, and this is where randomness comes into play. If “Super Paladin Awesomeness Weapon X” drops from one specific monster, every Paladin is going to walk over and slay that monster, have their awesome weapon and be on their way. The same can apply to any piece of gear for any character, and the game simply turns into killing this one monster once, grabbing your piece of equipment, and leaving. However, as item drops are random and the good items only come from the raid bosses, we have a scenario with a lot of longevity. People raid every night hoping for that tier (6?) epic drop. The randomness is what keeps the game exciting, hoping for that glorious secondary color to show up.
One thing to note about the dungeons, however, is that they themselves (as far as I know) aren’t very random. I’m sure the exact locations of the monsters and the exact numbers of each of them are made up on the spot, but everyone knows what they’ll be facing, they know where to go. People farm specific gear to resist fire, or frost, or whatever it is they’ll be facing. The difficulty of the encounter drastically lowers after the first iteration of the instance. “Oh, it’s a bunch of fire damage, we’ll beat it no problem next time.” I read an article by a man who said, “If there’s exactly one best way to invade France, just start the game after the invasion of France.” While this is mostly true, if it’s still fun to invade France, who cares? There’s nothing wrong with a linear progression through the level, nothing wrong with players preparing for a specific encounter, as long as the encounter is fun even when players are fully prepared. This fun may come from hoping for that special item drop, it can come from the slaying of monsters simply being fun, it doesn’t really matter. But both of those reasons should be included if we’re to design a dungeon.
Diablo II is a step down from WoW, I suppose. While the most recent patch included Uber-Tristram, allowing players a new unique Charm, the game has been fairly stagnant since. People build for those specific encounters that provide the best items and much of the game involves solo characters running around killing the same monsters over and over in hopes for glittering prizes. Really, this is not different from WoW. Sure, WoW adds new encounters every few months, WoW requires a team as opposed to one person, and WoW even adds in new items to look for to keep it fresh and new, and to make those who are rich keep playing. But the model is basically the same. Kill the high-level monsters with your superpowered character, hope for sweet loot.
One last game I want to mention is a custom map for Warcraft III called SWAT: Aftermath. This is another PvE game where a team of up to 9 players attempt to beat a literally infinite wave of zombies and other monsters while attempting to complete objectives. Much like Diablo II and WoW, there are multiple classes to play with a large combination of special talents to choose from within each role. The reward for completion of the game is a “rank code” which will make your character slightly more powerful the next time through. The codes carry through difficulties, the hardest of which actually require you to have reached a certain rank before playing them. One of the difficulties has actually never been beaten, for what that’s worth.
The way randomness works in this game is actually fairly significant. Most of the map itself, its terrain features and the location of the “Bomb shelters” (required for completing one of the three objectives) are stagnant. However, the location of the Power Plants (another objective), various shops, and the spawning points of the monsters and bosses are all random. This uncertainty adds a lot to the replay value of the game. It forces players into a mindset of preparedness. While we know exactly what minions Baal will spawn, we don’t know when the next Blue Dog, Super Garg, or STNT is going to come around the corner. And if they come one right after another while Mind Slay is on cooldown, well, we’re in a world of hurt. Ultimately this all puts a premium on scouting and map awareness (and thankfully there are abilities for that), and simply keeps the action fresh.
I like that every time you fight the computer something different will happen. It makes it more interesting. I can guarantee you the guys with all purples on their characters don’t really want to fight through BRD again.