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Luck, Skill, and Chaos

January 15, 2007

by John Shedletsky

Luck, Skill, and Chaos

The other day a player, gameshark, complained to me that he did not like the new Rocket Arena map because it required no skill to play. His main criticism was this: whoever shoots the most rockets wins – just find a good place to stand and spam them. Now obviously this is not entirely correct because if the Rocket Arena map required no skill to play then it is a game of luck. One person is just about as lucky as another, so everyone should be equally good at Rocket Arena. If you visit the Rocket Arena map for 5 minutes, you will notice this is not the case.

The distinction between Rocket Arena and another map, like Crossroads, is not that the former requires less skill to play, but that it is a deadlier map. I know players who have no problem racking up twenty KOs in Crossroads without dying once. In Rocket Arena, the best ratio I have ever seen anyone achieve is around 4:1. It’s pretty much impossible to go 20-0 in the Rocket Arena. Even if you are awesome, you’re going to sometimes get hit from above, caught in a crossfire, or flipped off a bridge into the lava. Rocket Arena is a deadly map.

I’m going to argue that deadly maps are not only fun (who here likes explosions?) but also good for Roblox. In a recent issue of Game Developer, Richard Garfield wrote an article about luck vs. skill in games. His theory was basically this: for a group with large differences in skill level, games with an element of luck involved are more engaging because even the least skilled players have a chance. Roblox has thousands of players, with a vast spread of skill levels. However, there is not actually that much luck in a game of Roblox. The only random element in the official maps is where you spawn. All damage, motion, physical response, ect ect are completely deterministic. Network latency might affect the game at a critical time, and this could either be lucky or unlucky – but even in this case some people have better internet connections than others. Connection speed is more or less a constant advantage and thus in a gross argument we can lump such advantages in with a player’s skill. Therefore we have a game that is almost entirely skill-based, played by a community of players with vastly different skill levels. If we believe Richard, this is a recipe for disaster.

Enter Chaos. In the last twenty years mathematicians have developed Chaos Theory, which is less of a theory than it an observation of the behavior of complex deterministic systems. In short, they can act randomly. The Rocket Arena is such a system. It is more complex than Crossroads in the number of player-to-player interactions that happen per unit time. Put nine players in that map and they have to fight to even have room to stand. If they all fire continuously, you’ll see 270 rockets per minute being launched at players and bridges. That’s absolute chaos. Chaos makes Rocket Arena deadly and introduces an element of chance into Roblox. So gameshark was essentially correct – there is more luck involved when playing in the Rocket Arena vs. the other levels.

This makes things more interesting. I’ve been playing Roblox for six months. I know all the tricks. If I’m playing for serious in Crossroads, I almost never suffer a wipeout. It’s not really fun unless someone good happens to be online. If I see the Rocket Arena has 8 people in it, I join knowing I’ll get a good game no matter who is playing. I’m going to have to fight for every single KO.

I think games involving some amount of luck is a good thing for Roblox, and I think deadly maps are crazy fun. What do you guys think?

– Telamon