Making Your Own Luck In Games
I spent a few days between Christmas and New Year’s Day engage in a different type of gaming than I normally do — gambling! I spent most of my time playing Poker (the machines, that is; I didn’t bring enough gambling money for the tables), and I observed as I was playing that I had settling into this betting system: each time I won, I would increase my next bet, but I would decrease it with each loss. Why was I doing this?, I wondered.
At first, I thought it was because I was willing to risk more with “the House’s money” — that is, my winnings. But that wasn’t strictly true, since I would follow this system even when I had less money overall than when I started playing. I then realized that I would risk more money on a bet if I were on a winning streak. But if that streak was broken, then I would decrease my bet to put less of my money at risk.
The problem with such a system is that there is no such thing as being on a streak, at least as far as predicting future events goes. You can win several hands, or dice rolls, or slot machine pulls in a row and say that you were on a streak, but unless the game is rigged somehow, you are no more likely to win or lose the next round. There is no magical luck aura that surrounds you, making you more likely to win than other players.
Yet the illusion of luck is a very powerful motivator in gambling games. Most gamblers will look back at their past few rounds and pick out perceived patterns in random events to determine if they are lucky or unlucky. If they perceive they currently on a winning streak, they are motivated to keep playing in the mistaken belief that these random but favorable occurrences are not random but part of a trend. Yet even if players believe they are on a losing streak, well, they might still keep on playing in the hope of getting into a winning streak. Either way, luck keeps players very engaged in the game.
Is there any way that designers of non-gambling games can take advantage of such a powerful motivator as luck? Well, the only way to truly design luck into a game is to have the game system cheat by not being truly random but instead purposely present the player with a series of favorable circumstances. However, many players will eventually notice such cheating and may become disengaged from the game, feeling that their choices don’t really matter.
Of course, we do want players to experience success early on in a game so that they feel confident they have the skill to potentially win the game. The best way to do this is not by messing with the random numbers so that they are guaranteed favorable results, but by giving them challenges that do not take much skill to achieve. We can also present them with positive feedback so that they feel like they are lucky or special, so long as such feedback does not come off as patronizing.
Another way to make players feel lucky is to allow them to have an influence over the random elements of a game. In board games, we allow players to roll the dice or spin the spinner, and in digital games we can simulate this through the game controls. For example, in one early role-playing game I designed, when the player was generating character stats, a series of random numbers would flash on the screen. When the player pressed the space bar, the stat assigned to his or her character would be the very next number generated. This prevented the player from choosing the number by seeing a favorable one and then pressing quickly enough before it changed, but still allowed the player to feel that he or she had influence over the random number chosen, even without knowing what it would be.
Still another way to make players feel lucky is dramatize the disastrous consequences that did not happen. In the movies, we often see scenes of the hero stopping just before going off the edge of a cliff, and we feel relieved for the character. But if a rock or vehicle goes over the edge to dramatize the danger avoided, we feel that the character was lucky. In games, we can do this with near-miss messages to let the player know how close they came to being injured in combat or suffering some other unfavorable circumstance.
Again, luck is not a real thing, except when looking at past events. The trick is not giving the player true influence over what will happen in the future, but looking at the past and making the player feel good about the decisions made.