by: Richard Terrell @KirbyKid
March 3, 2014
A touch of randomness is all a game needs for its gameplay to gain the benefits of randomness (variation, unpredictability, simplicity) while avoiding its serious design drawbacks (droughts, weakening the control players have to produce expected and functional conclusions). To best illustrate what I mean by a "touch" of randomness, I'll draw a few comparisons between Starseed Pilgrim and other action-puzzle games.
Tetris challenges players to create formations within a small column of space and then clear these formations by filling in solid rows (no gaps). With only seven unique tetrimino pieces, each made up of four blocks, every piece has equal area. Tetriminos only differ by their shape. Put another way, no piece has a property that causes it to act uniquely. Therefore, Tetris has a perfectly even design space. Though the Z piece may be harder to work with than the others, all the pieces are useful for stacking and clearing lines. This is why a pure random ordering of Tetris pieces doesn't have the same drawbacks as the random seed order in Starseed Pilgrim and its wrinkly design space.
The random piece order in Tetris is the only element of randomness in the game. It forces players to adapt to unpredictable piece combinations instead of selecting pieces to use. It's not hard to imagine how Tetris would play if we could choose which pieces to use. Tetris's piece order features a touch of randomness that puts variation and unpredictability into the gameplay challenge. Even though the starting conditions, the types of pieces, and the game goal remain fixed, each game of Tetris is different. Despite the strict, quantifiable interactions of stacking blocks and all the memorized strategies players may devise, there are still countless combinations to experience. The best part is that the random piece order helps nudge players into experiencing more of these combinations.
In many versions of Tetris that feature a purely random piece order, droughts are still possible. For example, in Tetris NES, players may go 10 to 30 pieces without getting the highly valued long piece. Such a long-piece drought can be a game ender for players aiming for high scores by exclusively clearing four lines at a time, a feat only possible with the long piece. With a purely random Tetris piece order, droughts can never be prevented. So while players cannot prevent a drought from happening, in many versions of Tetris, the piece preview helps players plan for what pieces they will have to work with. Tetris NES features a single piece preview; other versions display up to six upcoming pieces. The greater the piece preview, the better players can strategize around known factors, which can give players enough forewarning to foresee a drought and make the necessary adjustments. The piece preview doesn't give players any more control in terms of gameplay actions, but it does allow them to make more detailed strategies, embrace the variation, and minimize the negative effects of random piece order.
To contrast, in Starseed Pilgrim, there's more than a touch of randomness. The seed order, seed growth, and key placement are the three major random elements. Each element can create its own drought. Players may not get the seeds they want or need. The seeds may not grow to their full potential. Finally, the keys and three-key door placement in the fleeting world can randomly be absent in the areas players explore. The seed preview above the pilgrim's head "mostly" helps players mitigate seed order droughts. Furthermore, the strategies players can develop from the seed preview can only be detailed and effective when the player also knows where the goals (star blocks) are. In other words, the most detailed strategy with the most efficient movement from the most clever seed combinations, taking into account the entire seed preview, is only good when the direction this strategy moves actually results in finding star blocks. Because there's no guarantee that star blocks will be where you search because of the variation and possible droughts, all Starseed Pilgrim strategies can never be as precise as in Tetris.
Another important difference between Tetris and Starseed Pilgrim is, in Tetris the pieces are unlimited. The core gameplay of Tetris involves building up formations and clearing them. In a very deterministic, algorithmic way, Tetris pieces are designed to fit together neatly in a staggering number of combinations to clear lines. So even when given random pieces, skilled players can effectively erase mistakes and reset the game state back to previous formations. In Starseed Pilgrim, the seeds aren't unlimited. So any mistakes players make or droughts they experience chip away at their main resource. Starseed Pilgrim isn't designed around a such a reliable gameplay loop as Tetris. Though players gain seeds and spend seeds as they explore the fleeting world, gaining seeds is subject to seed order droughts of useful seeds. So you never quite get away from the reality that you have less ability to react and correct mistakes and misfortunes.
Boxlife has a factory mode. In factory mode, bombs randomly drop on top of the endless, paper playfield. If a bomb isn't boxed-up before it explodes, the paper around the bomb will burn up, resulting in a loss of points and a hole players then have to cut around. Each bomb that drops is its own timer that gives players a limited amount of time to react to and neutralize the situation. Even before a bomb falls, it indicates its position with a slowly growing shadow. Although the bombs drop randomly, the timing of the drops is fairly even and predictable. Players can only pack up one bomb per box. So even though the bombs can randomly drop in a way that makes them impossible to diffuse, players have enough early warning to shift the endless sheet of paper before the bombs drop into an unworkable situation. Furthermore, players can attempt to recut the boxes around troubling bomb formations. This tactic stresses player knowledge skills through their ability to visualize and cut additional shape combinations. With just a touch of randomness given to bombs, Boxlife increases the range of skills stressed by introducing multiple timers for players to track and creating new obstacles for players to adapt to. Compared to Boxlife's more puzzle-like R&D mode, the bombs in the factory mode make it more difficult for players to learn the box-shape solution patterns to the challenge. Boxlife is an example of how a touch of randomness in one element of its gameplay design can have a strong positive effect on the skills stressed without suffering from the common negative effects of randomness.