Andy's Workshop

Game chat and stories along with some articles probably for the more geeky among us,
all written by me, Andy.

Click here for my Frontierville Addiction Therapy Guide

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Randomness - How it works, why it sucks, how it could be fixed

[As usual, all thoughts in this blog are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily represent the views of the admins or members of Frontierville Express.]

Randomness, oh randomness... why do you torment us so?

Randomness, chance, luck, chaos... they're all things that are interwoven deeply into the tapestry of existence, but have never reached such heights of despair as felt by Frontierville/Pioneer Trail players over the last couple months.

The addition of randomness into the game has been, in one fell swoop, the most antagonising game feature in memory. At least with repeats you know what you're getting, at least with Partnering it's workable... but Randomness, you cold-hearted shrew, you cause us pain like never before.

Let me get this part out the way first, I believe randomness and luck can be a fair game mechanic. Most games out there have some element of it, the roll of a dice, the turn of a card, something that just makes it not quite so predictable.

But luck and randomness need to be designed well and balanced well or it tumbles into frustration and unfairness. One player being more lucky than another is ok, we can deal with that... one player being a LOT more lucky starts becoming a grind. The trick with randomness is to make people win just before they reach the point where it's annoying. These days with the random stuff I'd say we're usually waaaaaay past that point.

How it works

To get to the bottom of why it's so infuriating and what could be done, lets actually rip open the casing and see HOW the randomness works. This is how drops are decided and how the random animals are chosen.

Every time the game needs to make a choice it rolls a virtual one of these...

Yes, your eyes don't deceive you, that is a 100 sided dice (this one is on sale here...). It's largely used for roleplay games like Dungeons and Dragons. The surface is ever so slightly pimpled like a golf ball so it'll stop with a number pointing up.

Now, every time we heal a random animal or try for a drop the game rolls this dice and then looks at a little chart to see what number corresponds to what prize, then gives it to you.

So, for example, in the latest random crates a dice roll of 1-40 will get you the tree, 41-70 will get you the sheep and 71-100 will get you the donkey.

The same goes for Collection items, mission drops and things like that elusive Sceptre (hmm, The Elusive Sceptre, if that's not in Dungeons and Dragons it should be...)

Every time we click the game is rolling its digital dice and finding us a number.

Why it sucks

Here's the problem, Zynga are picking their numbers like an engineer with too much logic. The roll rates for the Prank Crate above would SUGGEST it's as near as makes no difference a 1 in 3 roll with a slight bias towards the tree.

But that's not how the world works. To take a very small example I just flipped a coin (a 50p piece if you want full disclosure). That should be a simple 1 in 2 chance of being heads or tails but in fact it went tails, tails, heads, tail, tails. I know, I know, that's a incredibly small test group but it goes to show that the world doesn't like to play by the rules.

It's not 1 in 3, it's 30 in 100, and that really does make a difference. If I have 3 boxes in front of me and one contains a million pounds I'd consider my chances quite good at finding riches. If there's 100 boxes in front of me and 30 contain a million, I'd be pretty sure I'd find one of the empty 70.

We also have to remember that the game doesn't have a memory. When people talk about drop rates of 1 in 10 the game isn't counting, it won't think to itself "they've not had the Sceptre in 9 tries so this time they will", it's just as tied into luck and chaos as the rest of us.

I truly think Zynga DO think their drop rates will work as advertised, but engineering and mathematics don't work right in the real world.

Randomness works on a bell curve, but right now the number on the far right is just far, FAR too big for some.

How it could be fixed

There's two ways the whole Randomness thing could be sorted, well, actually three if you count just never doing it again but as I said at the start, I don't mind a little bit of randomness if it's fair, balanced and fun. There is a bit of fun in the thought of opening something and getting a random item inside, but that gets leeched out when we're having to do as many as we can to get them all.

Option 1 - Smaller Numbers

This one follows on from the explanation above and is pretty simple. USE SMALLER DICE!

Say we still need the Donkey from the prank crate. every time we roll the 100 sided dice there are 70 chances for us to NOT get it. Each roll is brand new, by the law of averages it's even possible someone can open 5 Prank Crates and get the SAME failing number each time.

So, instead, roll smaller dice. Roll a 10 sided dice and there's only 7 "losing" numbers we could hit, not 70. A mathematician might argue there's no difference, but they tend to work in absolutes, the simple logical answer is the less sides to the dice, the more chance of getting what you want because there's less variables.

Option 2 - Limits

The really simple answer would seem to be to give us caps and limits on what can appear. When we have random animals, code it that each animal can only have 3-5 on the homestead before the game ignores it and rolls again. We still get randomness, but nobody ends up doing insane amounts.

I think people would be more pleasantly disposed to the randomness if they knew there was a maximum amount.

"Yes, the most frogs you'll need to grow is seven, then you'll have them all for sure." - an answer most people would probably be fine hearing... but having people doing 20-30 of these items is just infuriating.

The Random things aren't BAD, just badly designed... and could be made better if you really have to keep doing them.