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How and why game devs manipulate 'luck' in games like Peggle

Maintaining the balance between luck and fairness isn’t always easy, but sometimes game design can benefit from replacing pure-luck with more controlled randomness.
"As soon as the player becomes aware of any sort of pseudo-randomness, it risks undermining the joy of getting lucky."

-Riot Games designer Paul Sottosanti explains one of the risks to consider when designing luck-based systems.

A recent issue of the science magazine Nautilus shared a handful of essays on the idea and concept of luck, one of which dug into how both video game developers and players perceive chance-based rolls within games. 

By looking at games like Peggle, Civilization, World of Warcraft, Really Bad Chess, and League of Legends, this essay is able to offer game developers a closer look at how luck can be artificially manipulated within game design to ultimately create a more enjoyable experience for players. 

The story covers a lot about chance in games, from modern releases like Really Bad Chess that sometimes manipulate randomness to create a fair game for players of different skill levels, all the way back to ancient civilizations that counted on dice rolls to dictate the will of the gods.

“In Peggle, the seemingly random bouncing of the balls off of pegs is sometimes manipulated to give the player better results,” said Jason Kapalka, one of the developers of Peggle. “The Lucky Bounce that ensures that a ball hits a target peg instead of plunking into the dead ball zone is used sparingly. But we do apply a lot of extra ‘luck’ to players in their first half-dozen levels or so to keep them from getting frustrated while learning the ropes.” 

But changing variables behind the scenes doesn’t always sit well with players. The article notes that when people become aware that luck-based drops or victories aren’t purely based on a random chance, they can easily start to lose the feeling of joy that comes with beating the odds or feel patronized to by game designers.

“Today, players almost always perceive patterns of manipulation where there are none. When I was working on online games, it was nearly impossible to convince certain players that the results weren’t rigged in some way," said Kapalka. "People came up with elaborate theories about how beginners were given better results so as to rope them into subscriptions, or veteran players would be rewarded with better results for their patronage, and so on.”

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