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February 18, 2005


Paul Du Bois

The "variance" you mention in the last paragraph seems different than what you're talking about elsewhere in the essay, but it lets me bring up this anecdote. In Psychonauts, a lot of the action elements ended up evolving into variance-free, PoP-like forms. Cantilevers (horizontal poles that you swing on) always send you on the same trajectory; trampolines are given a maximum height no matter how fast you land on them; trapezes always send you along the same trajectory whether you let go at the optimum angle or wait until you've reached the apex of your arc (and wasn't _that_ a pain to implement); tightropes no longer force you to balance upon them.

Internally we think of it as skill-based vs non-skill-based.


Interesting thoughts, Jamie. You might want to take a look at my old Ludonauts article, "Agonistic Integrity vs. Epistemic Conditions" (assuming you can get past the arcane terminology--you can skim through the stuff on Caillois). I take a look at one way in which game challenges needlessly dissolve: their inability to thwart factual knowledge harvesting.



Interesting ideas here.

It seems a scale from total chaos which the player can't control (like many casino games) to patterns perceivable in chaos and on which players have some influence (SSX, Spider-Man) to absolute patterns and control (chess).

The chaos can be fun to deal with as long as you have some control over it. If you just lose on the game's random whim then it ain't fun, but if you can deal with the chaos in different ways then dealing with chaos becomes one of the skills to master in the game. The better at handling the chaos wins.

Poker, for example, gives you random cards but a good player can win a lot of money on a poor hand and a poor player can lose money on a good hand. This is especially true when playing many games in a row -- the superior poker player will most likely win a long string of games even if he can lose any individual game.

Nathan McKenzie


Maybe randomness goes better with games that are generally fairly non-linear to begin with.

I think poker's pretty fun, but if I had to beat the first boss of Ninja Gaiden at a game of poker to get past him to advance the plot, and I had to reload at my checkpoint every time I lost, I'd be pretty pissed off. That boss plays like a character from Dead or Alive, not a typical linear single player Japanese pattern-based boss. I think it's kind of the same situation.

Maybe variance on a single encounter level just fits well with fighting games / sports games / racing games / tournament FPS games (like UT) / RTSes / turn-based strategy games because the whole game is built out of an enormous amount of those single encounters (so things tend to average out after a while) and because the reward for succeeding at any given encounter is the opportunity for more such encounters. It probably also doesn't hurt that when you take damage in a fighter, or die once in UT, or let a run be scored in baseball, or mess up a trick in SSX, the game isn't over, it's just impeded a bit.

The worst examples for me of variance in a game recently were several sections of Call of Duty. There were occasionally fields that just seemed to rain bombs down from the sky, and when I ran across those fields, I would usually die. Unless I didn't. It was obvious, as I was saving and reloading, that I was going to get through that section eventually. There really wasn't a question. The only question was how long the game would randomly make me wait. I probably should have turned on god mode, since that would have required the exact same amount of skill.

Anonymous Coward

Maybe this is tangential to what you're talking about, but I disagree with your characterization of DMC and NG as high-variance games. The bosses attack in somewhat random ways, yes, but each attack is avoidable or counterable. And it takes you a little time to learn how to deal with each attack, but that's totally different from what you are calling high-variance, because once you learn how to handle the attack, you can beat it every time. It's not like the game rolls a die and just deducts half your health. And it's not like you can't see the attack coming (not counting camera problems, which are a flaw in the implementation, not in the basic game design).

And in fact my personal experience in Ninja Gaiden is that it works in exactly the way you describe for a low-variance game. As soon as I figured out that after the first boss does a certain attack, he is vulnerable for a specific time only, and you will just get whooped if you attack him at any other time, I could beat him easily at will. That's the steep jump. I just had to watch and think. And I'm not just saying I'm uber or whatever, just I think NG is more like chess than you seem to think.


I'd say that variance is good as long as it doesn't set the player back and the overall difficulty remains the same (or in the case of multiplayer, is fair to all players). It improves the replayability without the player feeling like they've been cheated in some way. I would also highly agree with Scott Miller's "God concept". As a player I don't ever want to lose due to some random event(s).

My most recent experience in a game with this is in the Kotor games with the pazaak minigame. I absolutely hate the mini-game. Similar to poker, on a bad hand I'll lose and there's nothing I can do about it. Afterwards I'll reload the game because it's quicker. Probably not too good of an example though because it would be a terrible mini-game even if it was possible to win every time since there's little skill required. Not being able to win with perfect play just means it takes longer to get through. Of course I don't need to get through it, I just want the extra money and I'm a completionist. Luckily it has less prominence in the sequel than the previous one.


I think I put my finger on what Jamie was struggling with between the types of variance that he enjoys and those that frustrate him- they are the same that bother me.

Variance is different than totally random to me. A game that is completely random feels like the developers took a cheap way out. There's no way at all to determine how to "win" (which is the point of all games) because you can never predict what will happen when I do X.

The type of variance that Jamie and I like is the variance that is somewhat predictable, and it really is more like real life than not. Yes, its impossible to get exactly the same run down the hill in SSX, but you *know* for a fact that you can hit that rail everytime once you get good enough- I started out getting all bronze in Tricky and now I have all golds, I can attest to this. The variance is not completely random either- I know I increase my chances of hitting the rail if I'm not screaming down the hill at 200 miles per hour- so I slow down at a particular point and I get that rail and I get my gold.

And anyone who says that Poker has a totally random variance has never really studied the game. There are elements of randomness, its not totally random- there are distinct sets of probabilities for each individual outcome. If I have a pair of aces in my hand in Texas Hold Em, there is set probabability that I'll draw another Ace on the flop. Yes, this is random, but the skill comes in knowing whether I fold, raise, or call based on my analysis of my opponents, the probability of catching my winning card on the River, and my confidence in my ability to convince the rest of the table that I'm the Man.


Seems like you mean variance as non-determinism. Although Ninja gaiden seems random, I don't think there is much random number generation in it at all.

Basing NPC AI decisions on the very slight user inputs that you get from an analogue control can give the impression of high variance (which I think is a good thing - people laud farcry's AI simply because the baddies rarely do the same thing, even though they still walk into walls all the time) while keeping the choice of an enemy (to say, wait, use attack A, or use attack B) based in large part on the player input.

So you end up with a game that plays differently each time, yet is based entirely on patterns and the propogation of those patterns through the system. This seems more elegant to me than randomness, and it also allows for players to use their pattern recognition skills.

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Jamie's Bragging Rights

  • Spider-Man 2
    The best superhero games of all time Game Informer
    Top five games of all time Yahtzee Croshaw
    Top five superhero games of all time MSNBC
    Top 100 PS2 games of all time Official Playstation 2 Magazine
    1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die Nomination for Excellence in Gameplay Engineering Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences
  • Schizoid
    Penny Arcade PAX 10 Award
    Nominated for XBLA Best Original Game
    Nominated for XBLA Best Co-Op Game