top of page
< Back

Randomness is a double-edged sword. The opposite reception of randomness in AAA and indie game sectors


GG Vol. 

24. 4. 10.

You can see the Korean version of this article at below URL:

It seems fascinating that the same mathematical phenomenon could become the foundation of the most acclaimed and the most despised design principles of modern gaming. As I will argue in this article, this is precisely what happened to randomness.


Even though randomness has always been a part of game development, it could be argued that it has exploded in popularity over the last decade. In many ways, we live in a golden age of randomness in games.


To understand some of the observations made in the later parts of this article, we have to start with a critical distinction between perceived and objective randomness. Perceived randomness deals with our ability to recognize patterns. If an event in the game feels as if it happened "out of the blue," or if it seems that it could just as well not appear in a second playthrough, we may classify it as random. Needless to say, the fact something feels entirely erratic for us does not mean the developer didn't carefully plan it. In contrast, objective randomness is the real deal – objectively random things are genuinely random, regardless of our knowledge.


Many positive and negative sides of randomness stem from the difference between perceived and objective randomness. For example, even though achieving genuine randomness on computers has always been a challenge, programmers did not have to worry about it too much because all they had to achieve was an appearance of randomness. Designers of old recreations of casinos (such as Casino Kid for the NES) did not have to worry about genuine randomness because all that mattered was that the game delivered a decent casino-like experience. Things started to be much more problematic once gambling-like mechanics began to be combined with actual currency purchases.


The combination of randomness and microtransactions leads us to the dark side of our story of randomness in modern game design. The most well-known illustration of the problem comes from the debate on lootboxes that took gaming by storm seven years ago. When EA launched its sequel to Star Wars Battlefield II, the company surely did not expect the backlash from the players who were unhappy with how important lootboxes became to the gameplay. It suffices to point out that the Reddit post about the game received the dubious accolade of being the most downvoted message on any of over 100 thousand subforums. The upshot of this scandal was that some European countries introduced legal measures to limit or even ban loot boxes from games as the legislators started to see games as casinos in disguise. Many game developers decided to change their games and replace lootboxes with other systems, such as season passes (Overwatch 2). Other companies revealed the odds for loot boxes, forcing them to show how low these odds really were. Despite all these actions, random mechanics that function identically to loot boxes (even though they do not use the same visual representation) are very prominent, especially in so-called gacha games that started to be a global phenomenon around after the launch of Genshin Impact. It is also worth remembering that revealing the odds cannot be seen as a silver bullet – the odds of dice or roulette are clear for everybody to see, but it does not make these games unproblematic.


As I mentioned, people criticizing lootboxes mainly focused on their similarity to gambling. Even though this comparison is sometimes warranted, it obfuscates two crucial differences that make randomness in games even more problematic than in casinos. The first problem comes from the so-called "gambler's fallacy," which boils down to a sentiment that the more you lose in a game of chance, the more likely you are to win finally. Ideally, the feeling should go away once you realize that it can't be true – the next flip of a coin does not "know" that all the previous flips were unlucky. Still, many rational people cannot shake the feeling that "luck has to finally come," which leads them to continue spending. What is strange about digital games is that this feeling may actually be rational, so the risk of people spending more money on subsequent draws is bigger. Developers who fear the loss of unlucky players may easily introduce "pity mechanics" that guarantee a valuable drop. It is also fairly common to control the drops the players get during initial sections of the game as the creators want to be sure the player gets the intended, optimal experience before they are thrown in at the deep end of randomness.


The second problem relates to the so-called "sunken cost fallacy". Gamblers who lost a lot in a given game of chance may continue losing because they treat their loss as an investment. They feel that stopping during an unlucky streak confirms it was unlucky – in their mind, stopping almost "makes" the streak unlucky. This sentiment is entirely irrational in traditional games of chance, but online games make it possible for developers to target specific players. Some developers openly advise mobile game creators to target their big spenders to offer them special deals or even change the whole game to their liking. What it means in practice is that spending a lot (even if it is losing) can be treated as an investment by some players, who could then feel entitled to get special treatment from the creators.


If I focused only on the so-called AAA and Free2play industries, the dark patterns described above would have been the only topic of my article. And yet, during the same decade, the phenomenon of randomness became the central mechanism of games created by independent developers as well. What is fascinating, though, is that it was used in a completely different way that did not result in heated ethical debates. On the contrary, it can be pointed out as the main reason for the origin of new popular genres, such as open-world survival games, and the resurgence of old genres, such as roguelikes. It can be argued that randomness and the success of modern indie games go hand-in-hand.


What is the reason randomness is so popular with independent developers? It seems that it comes from a very lucky confluence of several factors. The chief reason is that employing randomness helps to cut development costs. Independent game developers do not create their games in a vacuum and must adapt to new game habits and expectations of players conditioned on big-budget games. Their games couldn't compete in production values, but they could offer the players value for money differently. For example, they could promise much better replayability, a wider variety of power-ups and weapons, or bigger open worlds. As it happens, all of these advantages could be gained through skillful usage of randomness.


Even though roguelike games are one of the oldest genres in gaming (the original Rogue dates to 1980), they functioned as a dormant, niche genre for almost 30 years just to gain mainstream popularity during the last decade. The main reason for this unusual trajectory was that the developers deconstructed the genre and infused many other genres with roguelike randomness. Two games that paved the way for this development were Spelunky (2008) and The Binding of Isaac (2011). Before the release of these games, roguelikes were often treated as very rigid wholes. They had to contain perma-death, random environments, and loot, but, more importantly, they had to belong to the RPG genre. The roguelike revolution happened when people realized that there is nothing that prevents us from using the same type of randomness in virtually any genre.


Random environment generation became the foundation for another hugely successful genre – survival games that followed the release of Minecraft. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons for their popularity was the novel mechanic of crafting and survival, which existed in older games only in a simplified and secondary manner. Still, we should not disregard how much randomness helped to popularize the genre. Independent games' budget limitations prevented developers from creating games in specific genres. Making an open-world game similar to GTA or Skyrim with small resources is challenging. The same goes for live service games that must be constantly updated and maintained. Procedurally generated worlds and the early access model popularized by Minecraft solved these problems for independent developers and allowed them to deliver experiences that could compete with AAA development regarding sales and player engagement.


Even though procedurally generated worlds cannot compete with handcrafted ones in terms of intricate detail or authenticity, they can easily surpass them with scale, promising infinite explorability. On the other hand, games that use randomness to ensure no two play sessions are the same do not have to worry about players becoming hungry for new content. The ease of production extends to more liberal design practices, making game development more manageable for small teams. Having an unlucky or lucky run in roguelike games is part of the experience, and nobody expects the developers to make sure every draw of luck is "fair" or balanced. In fact, having situations that seem broken from the design standpoint (that are too overpowered or helpless) can often contribute to the games' popularity on streaming services. Many streamers seek extreme, unique situations, and randomness is the mechanism that is here to deliver.


To sum up, the popularity of randomness in the current gaming industry and the two extreme ways it is treated may be initially surprising but is far from a coincidence. It can be explained once we look at how randomness contributed to analog games in the past. Throwing dice or sticks, shuffling cards, etc., are very old mechanics used across the globe to add the effect of surprise and replayability. They allowed simple rule sets to be used for hundreds of years. At the same time, the same actions could be easily misused whenever we make them the central mechanic and turn entertainment into gambling.



(IT University)

Pawel Grabarczyk is an associate professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and an associate professor at the University of Lodz, Poland. He is a philosopher by training and works on the boundaries between philosophy and game studies. His research deals primarily with game ontology, ethics of microtransactions, virtual reality, and the history of games. He is currently working on a platform studies book on Atari 8-bit computers.


bottom of page