Jeff Smith


Learning from the Pros - Super Smash Bros.
Random Elements in Gameplay


For some odd reason lately, I've been playing a lot of Super Smash Bros. The funny thing is, we don't even own the game - although it does seem to be on permanent loan from the neighbor kid. Anyhow, I've been playing this game quite a bit, and I've come to realize something: that game is really irritating.

Before I expound on this stunning revelation, let's review the gameplay. For those completely unfamiliar with the game, Super Smash Bros. is a side view fighting game, ala Street Fighter, for the N64. It features all your favorite and not so favorite Nintendo characters, including Link (The Legend of Zelda), Fox (Starfox), Pikachu (Pokemon), and Mario (uh... Mario). While it plays very much like traditional fighting games, it has it's own way of doing things in several areas. The most noticeable, and also the one I wish to focus on, is the life system. Rather than settle for a fixed life meter, like the ever-popular health bars, SSB has a system that is, as far as I know, completely unique. When a character takes damage, a certain amount of percentage points is added to his damage indicator. The amount is dependent on the strength of the attack. As the damage percent gets higher, the character becomes "weaker". This weakness does not affect the strength of his attacks, what it affects is the distance he travels after being hit. You see, each attack has two properties. I have no idea what the design team called them, but I'll refer to them as "damage", and "power". Damage determines how much damage percent is added to the character being hit; Power refers to how far an attack throws him. (Which, of course, is also dependent on his damage percent.) The way a character dies is by either falling off the bottom edge of the screen, or by crossing a boundary set a bit off-screen to either side of the level. Are you confused yet?

"Wait just a darn tootin minute!" I hear someone shouting in the background. "The title of this column is 'Random Elements in Gameplay'. Now what in purple pig planet precipitation does this life system have to do with randomness?!" An excellent question, my astute observer. If you look closely, technically - there is nothing random at all. The damage and power properties are both fixed. The product of damage percent and power is a simple mathematical result. The death boundaries are also, as far as we know, fixed in space. Not a single random number generator to be seen! There is another kind of randomness, however, besides mathematical randomness. I like to call it perceived randomness, and to the player, it has the same effect.

You see, with SSB's unique life system, it is entirely possible, and in actuality quite common, for players to die at different values of damage percent. One player dies at 130%, another survives to 310%. Despite the fact that no random numbers were used to calculate the deaths of the players, they died at different percentages - and one player feels cheated.

If you think about it, you may take the opinion that the player has no right to feel cheated. If a fixed health system were used instead, the same situation could arise. Instead of both players ending at different health points, it would simply take one longer than the other to get there. The problem, then, is in the presentation. If a player feels like he's being cheated, it's just as good as if he really is. And lest you hold any delusions, cheating the player is the biggest no-no you can ever commit in game design.

Are you beginning to see where the irritating part comes in? Randomness is a very powerful tool, but it's easy - extremely easy - to use it the wrong way. If you're not careful, you'll have the player hitting his keyboard and yelling at his monitor. As a designer, it is your job to prevent this. To help you out, here's a simple rule to keep in mind - do not let random elements affect the outcome of competitive gameplay. This rule is not written in some game designer's handbook somewhere. It is not a universal law that games must adhere to. It is simply common sense, something I have observed over years of playing games. Now, I realize that it might not immediately appear to be common sense - so let's explain it a bit further.

They key thing to understand here is the phrase "competitive gameplay". There are other forms of gameplay, mind you. Competitive gameplay refers to those games that involve skill level. A game that can be practiced at to get better is competitive. A game where one player can be better than another is competitive. Now, obviously, we cannot simply separate games into categories of competitive and non-competitive. Many games are both, to different degrees. But it helps to try and gauge how skill-based a game is, and scale down the randomness accordingly.

It's example time. Take just about any card game. There is a certain degree of strategy involved, but it's to a point - sometimes you just get a terrible hand. Card games do not suffer from the randomness, they actually benefit from it - because everyone knows that you simply can't be the best card player there is. Aside from cheating (which is another article altogether), there is a limit to how good you can get in random games.

The problem with Super Smash Bros. is that it purports to be a competitive game. The entire idea behind it - a fighting game - connotes the idea that the best player should emerge victorious. This is certainly not an ideal setting for random elements. And yet, the game is filled with them. Besides the life system, there are randomly generated items (weapons of varying power or health pickups), and a random threat unique to each level (a tornado in one, a ship that shoots players in another). Imagine for a moment a first person shooter where on a completely random basis, at any given time, a player spontaneously combusted. Do you think that would go over well? I can picture the arguments that would ensue after such a battle: "I would have beaten you if I hadn't just blown up for no reason!" "Oh, shut up, you're such a loser." "But I was winning!" Get creative, I'm sure you can imagine the havoc. And as stupid as that seems, ironically, it is not far from what happens when playing Super Smash Bros.

Now, after all that ranting and raving, some of you might be ready to write me off as just upset with a game I hate, or even just mad because I can't win at it. I assure you this is not the case - I might not win as much as I lose, but I do keep coming back for more. Indeed, despite it's shortcomings, the game does have enough of a fun factor for me to keep playing (albeit with most of the items turned off and several "house rules" in effect). SSB is not a terrible game, but it made some mistakes. It is important for us, as game designers, not to repeat them.

I hope you've found this article to be informative, possibly helpful, and in the least, slightly entertaining. But even if you didn't... ah, heck, I had fun writing it. Until next time...


Random Music of the Moment: Dark City Theme. Short and sweet, with a creepy flavor that I find to be definitely worth the download.

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An Introduction

Jeff Smith is:
An excellent programmer very involved on many forums. Currently a programmer on Darkness Rising