Sometimes, video games are good. Other times, they suck. Here is a thing some good games do that really sucks.
Lots of video games give you rewards for your victories. You beat a level and get a nifty new outfit for your character to wear, or a powerful new weapon to use. Maybe you get some emblem or other signifier that shows the world that you did something difficult.
Some games introduce an element of randomness to those rewards. You beat a boss, and you have a one in five chance of getting something really rare and good. That’s more or less fine. Using a random number generator (RNG) to keep players coming back opens a game up to exploitative design, but a little randomness never hurt anyone. Assuming the numbers aren’t cooked, eventually you’ll probably get something good.
But let’s go one step further. Say you’re playing your favorite role-playing game. You go fight a boss in hopes of getting a special sword. That sword only drops from that boss, and only about 10% of the time. You’ll probably have to do the fight a few times to get it. Now imagine the sword itself also has randomized perks. You could get a fire version of the sword, or a lightning sword, or an ice sword. Or… you could get a HOLY sword. The holy sword is the rarest, best sword in the game, because it’s the only holy sword you can get. Everyone wants the holy sword.
You beat the boss for the seventh time and finally the sword drops for you. You go into your inventory to see what you got. Your heart rate quickens, just a little. You click “expand” and… it’s the fire sword. You didn’t get holy.
You sit there contemplating this inferior version of the thing you really wanted. You finally got it, but it’s not the best one. Should you take the time to level it up anyway? Each time you see its flame-kissed blade, you’ll be reminded that it isn’t the holy sword. Your joy at finally winning the thing you wanted is tainted by gnawing disappointment.
What’s more, someone else in your party has gotten the holy sword by now. You remember them freaking out about it when it happened. You know how they felt, because you’ve had good luck in the past. You want that feeling, too. Deep down, you know you’ll never be happy with this stupid fire sword. It looks just like the thing you wanted, but it’s not the thing you wanted. Some part of you hates it for that.
Players refer to this as double-RNG, or maybe “RNG on RNG.” My primary experience with it was in Bungie’s shooter-RPG Destiny, and it is easily one of the most exploitative design tricks that I’ve come across while playing video games. In Destiny, many of the most coveted unique weapons drop with randomized perks. You might get a Grasp of Malok or an Imago Loop, but you almost certainly won’t get one with the best possible perks. You’ll look at it and think, so close. I came so close. Can I live with this? I don’t know.
Thousands of players are experiencing the agony of double RNG with Nintendo’s new smartphone game Fire Emblem Heroes. In that game, you fight tactical battles to earn orbs that can be spent summoning new heroes for your team. (Popular in Japan, this type of RNG hero collecting game is known as a gacha game.) You’re constantly hoping to get your favorite characters from the Fire Emblem franchise. Please give me Camilla or Tharja! I want a Chrom or a Sully! But it’s not enough to get the character you want. Each character you get has up to five stars attached to it, and a three-star Tharja is inferior to a five-star Tharja. So, you can get a shitty version of the character you wanted most. You can win and lose at the same time.
When I rolled my starting party in Fire Emblem Heroes, the next several hours of my life flashed before my eyes. I knew that, in the gacha game tradition, many players would delete and reinstall the game over and over until they got a starting party they could live with. I imagined myself doing that and thought back to my time with Destiny. I remembered the way I’d grind for a perfect Imago Loop; the hours I spent at the gunsmith, rolling and re-rolling my Hopscotch Pilgrim. What if I got a one-star version of a hero I wanted? Worse, what if I got a four-star version? What if I got one good character and one bad character, and one lousy version of a good character? Would that be enough? How would I know when to stop?
I wound up sticking with my very first roll. I think it’s pretty good, though I’m sure I could have done better. I’m fine with a game that rewards me with some degree of randomness, but when it starts to layer randomness on top of randomness, I gotta draw a line. Life is too short.