Randomness and its place in Gaming

Randomness (also called RNG – Random Number Generator) is a technique often seen today in gaming and entertainment services. Randomness eliminates patterns and principles of organization, introducing unpredictability. It relinquishes all control from the individual and leaves all prospects to chance. Strategy and planning are completely thrown out the window in most cases. Randomness elements seem to be present in a wide variety of games and services, often going unnoticed by most users.

Why do some people not notice Randomness and the Random Number Generator

Most people cannot differentiate randomness from predetermined patterns and sequences. A study published in 1985, identified that 62% of the sample group misinterpreted random sequences as something other. Furthermore, a paper from 2013 explains that this is because randomness is inherently ambiguous and the human mind strives to make sense of it, attributing systemic causes to outcomes. Some people may find the chase for a particular random outcome exciting i.e. gambling and others are not even aware that randomness is a factor.

Reward and Effort

Imagine a class of students where you have a wide range of academic results from each student, most likely following the normal distribution. These students are expecting, and rightfully so, that their grades or outcomes, will be proportional to their effort (consisting of time and resources) – high effort and high reward. However, their professor informs them that this semester, everyone will be receiving random grades. The amusing thing is everyone with low effort expecting low grades would celebrate this announcement whereas students on the opposite end of the spectrum would be absolutely livid. We cannot accept randomness when it is not proportional to outcomes or does not meet our expectations.

Students celebrating success not earned due to the random number generator

This is because randomness should only help decide the outcome when the individual’s effort is low. The national lottery is a good example of where randomness is used correctly. The cost of a lottery ticket is quite low, hence low effort on the part of the individual is also low.

Randomness done right

When it comes to game design, the stark differences between the board game, snakes and ladders, and chess highlight the correct uses of randomness in game design very clearly. Snakes and ladders is a game of absolute chance, where every move and turn is only decided by the roll of the dice. Chess, however, every move is under control by the player. This is why there are grandmaster chess players and not grandmaster snakes and ladders die rollers.

Modern comparisons of the Random Number Generator in gaming

However, this does not mean that serious competitive environments can only exist where randomness does not feature and that a game featuring heavy randomness features cannot be successful. Two very popular strategic collectible card games, Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering demonstrate this quite well.

Hearthstone is a digital-only card game started in 2014 based on fictional content from the WarCraft games. Being only digital, random elements are easily implemented in Hearthstone’s code. The randomness in this game has not been positively received by all players, where randomness can cause large swings in game outcomes. Furthermore, many professional players exploit randomness mechanics to win high-level tournaments. Hopeless situations are often turned around by sheer luck. Despite these problems, the game enjoys a massive global following due to its casual appeal, easy to understand mechanics, and its digital platform.

In contrast, Magic The Gathering (MTG), often considered the first collectible trading card game, began in 1993 as a physical version but has slowly appeared digitally over the past few years. It contains extensively fewer randomness mechanics although not completely free of them. The randomness elements that do exist still frustrate players, but most of it can be circumvented using good deck design and game knowledge. Many consider MTG to be more competitive and serious than Hearthstone, however, Hearthstone has a significant market share in comparison, also available on more platforms including mobile devices. MTG utilizes many complicated game mechanics, creating a hurdle for new players, and the game content is designed to appeal to an older audience. Furthermore, the increased randomness in Hearthstone allows the game to appeal to newer audiences where a stroke of luck may allow them to win matches against more seasoned opponents.

Loot Boxes

Again, this randomness and Random Number Generator results in frustration for competitive players who have put in considerable effort but results in elation for new or casual players who have put in very little effort. A similar randomness element pertaining to gaming exists in the form of “loot boxes”. Loot boxes are consumable virtual items that can be redeemed to receive a randomized selection of further virtual items, which may be purely cosmetic or provide advantages to players who purchase them.

Due to the random nature of these items and the fact that they are often purchased directly or indirectly using fiat currency, they have come under great scrutiny across the world and have been classified as gambling in some cases and deemed illegal. Loot boxes use a similar approach to lottery tickets, but in contrast, loot boxes can cost more than lottery tickets with rewards dismal in comparison. Another case of effort not proportional to the outcome.

Loot boxes using the random number generator
An example of Loot Boxes in a game


Using randomness and the Random Number Generator to determine reward outcomes is an easy methodology for developers to apply. No tedious balancing is required nor extra work to design the processes. In some cases, using randomness to generate outcomes may be the correct choice. But in other cases unfortunately a very poor design decision and quite frankly, lazy. Where I believe this is true is when the designers have not taken into account the individual’s effort and equated it with the outcome.

I’m afraid that the gaming and entertainment industries continue to use randomness in their products, to attract new players, providing challenges (however frustrating) to experienced players based on the role of the dice and simply because randomness is easy to implement. In particular, players in competitive settings who have put in considerable effort in the form of time and resources (assuming this correlates with player skill), should not have their chances of victory stolen by randomness mechanics.

Furthermore, rewards such as loot boxes should also not employ randomness, especially if the rewards impact the gameplay and the likelihood of success. Until the industry realizes that rewards should be proportional to the effort from the players, we will continue to be frustrated with the way randomness is implemented.

What are your thoughts on the implementation of randomness in the gaming and entertainment industries? What solutions or steps could be taken to allow more positive experiences for all players?