One of the most controversial topics in Team Fortress 2 is that of its random elements, particularly of random critical hits, though random spread was another area of contention for quite some time. Why do so many Team Fortress players think that randomness is an unacceptable part of the game?
It may help to look at other games to gain some perspective. In Magic: the Gathering cards like Mana Clash are reviled for introducing random coin flip elements into the game. More infamously, the Star Wars: TCG by Wizards (not to be confused with the Star Wars: CCG by Decipher) was considered “too random” because it used die rolls for most combat actions. Similarly, imagine a form of hold-em poker where players roll dice at the beginning of each round and all those players who got the highest number get a small fee from the other players. I doubt that you will find a regular poker player who is enthusiastic about playing with this rule. But all of these are card games, where decks are shuffled and so all card draws are random. Why would the inclusion of these random elements upset players so much?
I submit that players are willing to deal with random elements, but only:
1.) If the random elements are clear from the outset.
2.) If the random elements are restricted to only certain types of randomness.
3.) If it is possible to understand how the random elements will affect your chance of success.
There is nothing wrong with randomness in and of itself, especially outside of computer games. If all actions are certain and there is no randomness to the startup, then game necessarily become affairs of long term planning with a great deal of necessary planning before the game even starts. This is the situation with games like Chess or Go, and it is fine to have such games, but not everyone is willing to deal with such intellectual games at all times. Random elements disrupt long term plans and force players to constantly readjust according to the current situation. But at the same time, most people do not want to play games which are determined by nothing but chance, so that random elements when taken too far will be hated by the players.
In the case of the card games I just mentioned players are accustomed and expecting to deal with random draws, and they have an understanding as to how likely it is that certain cards are drawn. In all the games mentioned there are only a certain number of each card per deck, so that when those cards are drawn it is less likely that another will be drawn. In the case of trading card games players have built their decks in a certain way to make it more or less likely to draw certain cards. The randomness has a controlled element which players are comfortable with. Adding coin flips or dice rolls breaks this comfortable environment and makes the arbitrary nature of the random elements more apparent, so these features are not liked.
Let’s take a look at a video game which makes heavy use of random elements: 100% Orange Juice. In this game a whole range of elements from how many spaces you can move, to how many stars you might gain or lose, are determined by the roll of a 6 sided die. For this article we will focus on how random elements affect combat. In combat the attacker rolls a 6 sided die and adds his attack stat. The defender can then choose to defend or evade. Either way the defender rolls a 6 sided die and adds his relevant stat, but damage is calculated differently depending what was chosen. If the defender chose to defend, then he subtracts his result from the attacker’s and takes that much damage, with a minimum of 1 damage. If he chose to evade, then he will take 0 damage if his result exceeds the result of the attacker, and full damage otherwise. Thus evasion is good for dealing with low attacks or when low on health, but defending is better in other situations.
Let’s look at a few examples to see how this works (I am Nanako, the character with blonde hair and a red vest):
Here I am facing an attack of 2 (which had a 1 in 6 chance of occurring with Suguri) and I have increased my stats to +4 defense and +3 evade by use of a card. Therefore even if I roll a 1, I will get at least a 4 on defense or evade, which beats out the attack. So I should evade to avoid taking damage.
In this picture I am facing an attack of 5 (which also had a 1 in 6 chance of occurring). My stats are at their base +2 defense and +1 evade. To successfully evade I will need a roll of 5 or better to avoid damage (a 1 in 3 chance). Otherwise I will take all 5 damage and die. If I defend I will need a roll or 2 or better to reduce the damage to 1 (a 5 in 6 chance), and even if I roll a 1 I will still reduce the damage to 2. So it is probably best to defend, though if I’m feeling gutsy I may still evade in order to take any damage whatsoever.
Note that in both situations I know exactly how likely it was for my opponent to do that much damage, and while I can’t say for sure what will happen when I roll, I know how likely each result is. Note that it is also very obvious that something random is going on here: the opposing character even throws a literal die at me.
Let’s compare this to a scene from Team Fortress 2:
Here I am trying to kill a soldier on the payload cart. He has fired a rocket, and I have know exactly where it will go and have a good idea of the damage it will cause if it will hit. Therefore I plan to dodge and move in for a close shot.
What is unpictured is the fact that the very next rocket that the soldier fired was a critical rocket whose blast killed me instantly. There is no visual indicator that such a thing is about to occur, and there is nothing that tells me the likelihood that a critical rocket will occur. Due to the way that random critical hits depend on damage dealt, it is impossible for me to even be sure of what the percentage was in this commentary. As such I was unprepared for such an event and did nothing to plan for it.
And that’s the problem. Team Fortress isn’t a game that advertises random elements, when random events do occur it is often unclear why they occur and the complexity and skill-based nature of the game (in aiming and maneuvering) make randomness seem unnecessary in the first place. This makes random elements seem strange an alien to the environment of Team Fortress 2. It would be like seeing a poker game decided by a die roll.
Random elements need to be crafted for the type of game that they live in, or players will grow to despise them.