Uncertainty in Games

June 10, 2018 • 12:00 AM

I’ve recently finished Uncertainty in Games, a short but excellent book by Greg Costikyan. Towards the end of the book, Costikyan presented one idea I found particularly insightful (emphasis mine):

Typically, when designers think about tuning gameplay, they think about tuning the difficulty of existing systems […]

What designers rarely do is introduce a new and different form of uncertainty, because this is not an immediately obvious way to handle the problem. And yet, doing this can be quite powerful and lead to highly original work […]

Combining different sources of uncertainty, or injecting a novel source of uncertainty into an otherwise well-understood genre, can create highly original games and should be one of the tools in any intelligent designer’s toolbox.

Of course there are examples. Triple Town would’ve been a dull match-three without the randomness of bears; Portal would’ve been another puzzle game if it didn’t let players jump to places in the information-deprived first-person perspective…

In short, games are games because they contain uncertainty. A healthy and clever mix of different kinds of uncertainty, each tuned to the right amount, makes a great game.

The 11 Kinds of Uncertainty

In the book, Costikyan summarised there are 11 kinds of uncertainty:

  1. Performative uncertainty: whether the player can jump at the right time, land at the correct position, or dodge deadly missiles.

  2. Solver’s uncertainty: whether the player can solve a puzzle.

  3. Player unpredictability: when other players may affect your decision making.

  4. Randomness: essentially dice rolling; luck.

  5. Analytic complexity: the difficulty for a player to make optimal decisions.

  6. Hidden information. Think of war fog in Starcraft or the shadowed areas in Civilization. This essentially drives the player to explore what’s unknown.

  7. Narrative anticipation, such as a twist in the story plot.

  8. Development anticipation: players can do more things as they level or progress; game developers provide more content over time.

  9. Schedule uncertainty: players return to the game and may be surprised at what they may have gained during their absence.

  10. The uncertainty of perception: whether the player can make of what they see or hear, and obtain useful information.

  11. Semiotic uncertainty. Games may design against norms to create surprises. For example, when you jump off a cliff you may get a secret weapon instead of dying.

Score Cards for Mobile & Desktop Games

Game Title 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Total
Severed X     X     X X   X   5
Factorio X   X X X X   X   X   7
Cosmic Express   X     X             2
Cuphead X X   X       X       4
Splasher X             X       2
Overwatch X   X   X X       X   5
Downwell X X   X               3
Alto’s Odyssey X     X       X   X   4
Triple Town   X   X       X X     4
Traveling Frog1       X X X X X X     6

Of all the games I love, only Splasher and Cosmic Express scored two.2 Great games are designed to be an organic combination of 4, 5, or even more kinds of uncertainty. They are designed to be full of surprises. After all, they are games.

Uncertainty in Crypto Games

Now, we’ve all seen the crypto games out there. Crypto Kitties is the first famous crypto game and it took off with the concept of digital collectibles. There is some randomness in the genome of a kitty you breed, and you cannot be sure how the market (other players) will price your kitties. As the game development progresses, different kitty traits are added or unlocked, and there’s always a sense of being unfinished with the game… Crypto Kitties may have made their name by being the first serious crypto game, but they are certainly still among the best in terms of playability.

Ether Goo, a crypto idle game made by the one-man shop, is also a good example of incorporating uncertainty. You never know when you will be able to afford with the goo you’ve accrued during your absence. Without diving into the source code, you cannot figure out how the “attacking” and “stealing” actually works in Ether Goo so there’s a lot of experimenting. Then there’s cliché player unpredictability because it’s a multiplayer game after all.

Many other games, however, are terrible examples of games. Crypto Countries, Crypto Celebs, and all those whats-its-name hot potato games have one thing in common: delicate uncertainty design was never part of the game mechanism. Yes, Kitties and Goo are both, in a sense, hot potato games; the values of the collectibles rely entirely on how other players price them. But the games themselves are fun to look at since there’s always new stuff to experience; they provide value beyond a prospect of winning more money than you spend.

Let’s look at how they stack on the score card:

Game Title 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Total
Crypto Kitties     X X X     X       4
Ether Goo     X         X X     3
Ether Online       X       X       2
Crypto Countries     X                 1
Generic Hot Potato     X                 1

Note that the “Generic Hot Potato” is probably 20-50 crypto games out there, using some plagiarised code.

The problem with those games is, they are only designed to be crypto apps. You can design a crypto version of roulette, but you would end up with an app that serves predictably; you do not arrive at a game.

My Two Cents

Taking a step back, I think the benefit of using the blockchain concept as a promotional leverage is (thankfully) fading fast. It will be more serious business as more money flows in, and as the audience matures over time.

When designing crypto games, I think it’s important to remember we are designing games. Games are something delightful, something of a surprise. The blockchain is a new technology that enables us to do things we couldn’t have done before. It doesn’t mean we have to do all of them.

  1. Also known as 旅かえる 

  2. Splasher won my heart because of its flawless execution; Cosmic Express (as well as its spiritual predecessor A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build) is a delight with mathematical beauty.