A quick argument for 'luck' in strategy game design, from X-COM's creator

X-COM creator Julian Gollop explains the advantages of random number generation in his latest outing, Chaos Reborn.

Thirty years is a very long time, especially in the video games industry.

The leaps made in that time are staggering when looked at in perspective, but despite the incredible fidelity with which we can render worlds and realize systems and characters, good game design has remained fairly constant.

It’s why we can revisit X-COM and its core appeal still holds true, and it’s why Julian Gollop, its creator, went back to the Chaos universe to create Chaos Reborn.

Chaos Reborn is the Kickstarted multiplayer strategy game from Gollop that returns to the ideas and concepts of the 1985 ZX Spectrum game Chaos: The Battle of Wizards, published by Games Workshop. The cult classic came out years before Gollop's most popular work, X-COM, but Chaos was something he decided was worth returning to.

“There have been quite a few different people who’ve attempted remakes of Chaos," he tells me, "mostly copying the core gameplay with a few variants. What we’re doing with Chaos Reborn, even though it’s based on a 31 year old game, is still quite fresh and original compared to other games at the moment.”

Chaos Reborn

Somewhat counter-intuitively is that a lot of what feels fresh and original is only so because it’s been left behind in the moving tide of strategy game design. One of Chaos’ most prominent mechanics is the reliance on random number generation; every spell you cast has a chance of success, and a chance of failure. The bigger and more powerful the spell, the more unlikely it is to actually manifest, which turns every attempt to cast something an exercise in risk management.

In order to succeed, to some degree, the numbers need to be on your side. You need a little (or a lot of) luck.

"We have a fairly high dependence on random number generation, which in terms of modern game design is frowned upon, and lots of modern players don’t like it," Gollop says.

"[Random number generation] creates much more interesting situations for you to think about."

Which is true; the idea is that the game is somehow being "unfair" to a player if something is showing you a 90 percent chance of happening, and then it doesn’t. You played the odds and you lost, which makes you feel cheated. That said, both Chaos Reborn and the recent remake of X-COM, have a strong reliance on it, so I ask why he still considers it an avenue to pursue if it’s so out of vogue with modern game design.

“My argument would be that it creates much more interesting situations for you to think about,” Gollop explains, “and much more interesting games from one to the next. With much more deterministic games you get more predefined loadouts which create games that are very much the same, and I suppose a bit more boring."

He continues, "The random element certainly makes things more exciting, and the skill is different; you’re not deterministically thinking, ‘If I do this, then that, then that, then I’ll win. It's more that you have to take into account that your plans might not actually work, and you have to think of fallbacks before you go for your move.

"In this new version of Chaos Reborn there’s more risk management, and you can play more deterministically by using mana points to make spells more likely to cast, but even that’s a strategical decision as then you have to take into consideration mana wells and the geography of the map.”

So even here, Gollop is making a few concessions to the sensibilities of modern players, but there is still the benefit of using RNG to stand apart from the pack, as well as taking advantage of the success of his previous game design found in X-COM. Strategy players haven’t completely forgotten about random number generation, they just needed a little convincing.

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