How Designers Engineer Luck Into Video Games

Computing Aesthetic’s video is just one of nearly 20,000 such YouTube clips labelled with the words “Peggle” and “Lucky,” uploaded by players so amazed at their good fortune in the game that they were moved to share the achievement with the world. But these players may not be as lucky as they’ve been led to believe. “In Peggle, the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” Jason Kapalka, one of the game’s developers, admitted to me. “The Lucky Bounce that ensures that a ball hits a target peg instead of plunking into the dead ball zone is used sparingly. But we do apply a lot of extra ‘luck’ to players in their first half-dozen levels or so to keep them from getting frustrated while learning the ropes.” Tweaking the direction of any given bounce by just a few compass degrees—but not so much that the ball swerves unrealistically in mid-air—is enough to encourage beginners and not make the game too unbelievable, Kapalka said.

Fairness is the unspoken promise of most video games. Controlled by an omniscient and omnipotent designer, a video game has the capacity to be ultimately just, and players expect that it will be so. (Designers also have an incentive to be even-handed: A game that always beats you is a game you’ll soon stop playing.) And yet, when video games truly play by the rules, the player can feel cheated. Sid Meier, the designer of the computer game Civilization, in which players steer a nation through history, politics, and warfare, quickly learned to modify the game’s odds in order to redress this psychological wrinkle. Extensive play-testing revealed that a player who was told that he had a 33 percent chance of success in a battle but then failed to defeat his opponent three times in a row would become irate and incredulous. (In Civilization, you can replay the same battle over and over until you win, albeit incurring costs with every loss.) So Meier altered the game to more closely match human cognitive biases; if your odds of winning a battle were 1 in 3, the game guaranteed that you’d win on the third attempt—a misrepresentation of true probability that nevertheless gave the illusion of fairness. Call it the Lucky Paradox: Lucky is fun, but too lucky is unreal. The resulting, on-going negotiation among game players and designers must count as one of our most abstract collective negotiations.

In ancient times, luck was routinely ascribed to divine intervention; games were as much a playground for the gods as a test of human ability. Luck was a central component in the games of the ancient Egyptians, whose deity Theuth was the inventor of dice, according to Plato. In practice, the dice were typically made from astragali, knucklebones of hoofed quadrupeds, which were polished and used in Egyptian board games and in a type of fortune-telling divination called astragalomancy. Loaded dice have been found in tombs alongside ancient game boards; even if the ancient Egyptians believed that a throw of the dice somehow expressed divine will, they weren’t averse to lending a helping hand.

Really Bad Chess, by contrast, gives each player a randomly selected set of pieces at the start of each match. The sides don’t mirror each other, so it’s possible for one player to end up with five queens and the other with a battalion of pawns. “This accomplishes two things,” Gage said. “It makes weaker players feel like they have a chance against stronger players because they can end up with better pieces. And it makes the relative strength of the board hard to analyze, even for an expert.” Here, as in poker, victory is determined as much by the luck of the draw as by the talent of the player. The design also allows Gage to secretly stack the probability of the initial draw—making it more likely, say, that a new player will hold more powerful pieces, while an experienced player will be left at a starting disadvantage.

In mechanical games, luck is the player’s saving grace against the mechanism itself. In the early 1950s, the Chicago-based pinball manufacturer Gottlieb noticed that novice pinball players would occasionally lose a ball in the first few moments of a game. So it introduced an inverted V-shaped metal wall that, during a game’s opening seconds, would rise between the flippers at the base of the machine in order to keep an errant ball from disappearing down the gulley. In newer pinball machines, the blocking gate, known as a “ball saver” (a phrase invented by Chicago Coin for its 1968 pinball machine, Gun Smoke), is controlled by software; whether the wall rises or not is a matter of luck, of a kind that has been engineered into the algorithm.

While some instances of pseudo-randomness are designed to create the feeling of fairness, others are designed for profit. With the rise of so-called freemium games—free games that make real money during the course of play by selling virtual items—comes the temptation to manipulate what looks like a random act of chance in order to encourage further spending. Sottosanti pointed to the popular virtual card game Hearthstone as an example of “pity timers” being used well. “The chance of getting a valuable card increases with each pack that doesn’t contain one,” he said. “You’re virtually guaranteed to open one after around 40 packs.” The packs are available for sale to players.

It’s a technique straight out of the 1950s playbook of the American psychologist B.F. Skinner. Whether the subject is a pigeon, rat, or person, Skinner found, the strongest way to reinforce a learned behavior was to reward it on a random schedule. The designers of free-to-play games, by using an intermittent variable to dole out small prizes, found that they could keep players engaged—and spending—for longer.

Natasha Schüll is an associate professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and the author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. When a player feels favored by luck, she said, “you can pin it to certain neurotransmitters spiking, and you know dopamine is released. Even the compulsive search and hunt for recreating that sense of euphoria is driven by the reward center in the brain.” Dopamine’s power to turn us into luck-chasers can be seen most vividly in the effects of some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease, which, in flooding the brain with dopamine, have been shown to turn patients into gambling addicts.

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