Design Dive #5

Everything randomness/variance

Thank you all for attending. Here are the unstructured notes for those who couldn’t make it. I’ve bolded the key points.


Paul Stephanouk - Design Director of Candy Crush. Previously EA, Zynga, Bossfight, Schell Games, Big Huge Games. 20 years experience building and running creative teams.

Kelly Tran - Game Design Professor researching games and players. PhD in learning and tech. Personal Twitch - Group Twitch - Website

Jon Radoff - CEO Beamable. Previously Disruptor Beam. Entrepreneur, game designer, metaverse builder. Founder of Game Industry Club on Clubhouse.

Jody McLain - Developer and Designer Math Facts. Previously Published and Exec Produced branded videogames and books for PBS Kids, Bob The Builder, Top Chef, Diner Dash, World of Goo and many more.

Xelnath - Game Designer World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Snackpass Tochi. Founder Game Design Skill.

Kristina Drzaic - Narrative Director and Game Designer. Previously Halo, Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite, Galak-Z, Twitch, Amazon Game Studios.

Mohamed Abdel Khalik - Co-Founder Karnak Studios, Creators of The Daily Tut webcomic and Game Director on Tut Trials, an upcoming high action 3D platformer. Fundraising.


  • Designers that are looking at randomness as chaos are inviting streaks of failure and successes without any link to the player's action.

  • When this randomness stacks it creates for bad player experience. This sometimes happens where the agency in the world is at the fate of that failure or success which can be judged by bad dice rolls constantly.

  • If designers are using randomness chaotically then they’re not understanding the experience they’re trying to create.

  • Good designers don't want randomness, they want variance - a sequence of unpredictable events without a chain of highs or lows where player’s are denied progression or constantly winning.

  • Progressive randomness is a thing. A good application for it is in item loot. When there is randomness in loot players will either have a bad time or a great time. Designers need progressive randomness where the percentage of finding that loot increases every time the player defeats the enemy and when the item is looted it resets back to normal.

  • Randomness is only cool when it's deterministic.

  • Varied as opposed to randomness is a selection of things, properly crafted, that are mixed and shuffled up but the nature is varied and not random.

  • Variance serves as a method of introducing uncertainty.

  • Uncertainty is important. Games will usually be designed to have a golden path - a predetermined set of actions that are optimal and solves the game. Games end up being solved easily because of this.

  • Tic Tac Toe is a solved game making it uninteresting to play.

A game is a series of interesting choices. - Sid Meier

  • Uncertainty is fuel of interesting decisions.

  • Chess is a low variance game, but has uncertainty through interesting decisions in strategy. balanced game with lots of information.

  • Card games are constrained experiences. Players have unknown quantity of when a card will come but there is inevitability that the card will pop up.

  • Designers need to account for the emotional layer, uncertainty strategic planning and tactical layer.

  • Consider the asymmetrical distribution of a resource or power expressed in a slightly different way but a challenge of equal difficulty.

  • In certain games designers need to create social bond with inequities but not a point where the solo player can't progress.

  • Variance doesn't need change player behavior, just enough inequity to imbue the feel of agency.

The Three Categories

  • high skill - low variance high skill.

  • low skill - variety of the experience itself.

  • tactical - change in input for random generated.

  • There are different types of variance.

  • Short play and iterative variance compound over time to create a value that the player is chasing and not the roll of the dice.

  • Long term variance on a meta level. An example is by working backwards from a business case where designers expect players to pay a specific amount at a specific month in the game’s lifecycle and then work backwards from there to balance the gacha mechanics. This method helps achieve high retention rates.

  • Bad Beat exists where correct play doesn't have the right result because the variance. This kind of emotional variance makes the game fun. It may not be fun in the moment but players come back again and again because that emotional contract drives the engagement.

  • for that to work, designers need to create the opposite experience.

  • In Hearthstone what retained people who didn't have skill when the ladder was churning out were the early decks as they had Exodia type moments where players got just the right creature at just the right round and won because of that.

  • Those situations are improbable and difficult to play but they give the sensation of winning in style and the expected value of those experiences sort themselves out over time.

  • These decks don't win the elo system if designed correctly but they're fun to play because of high variance and they sort themselves out over time.

  • Similar to Poker - anyone can draw 4 aces on any given hand but the best players are still the best players because over time the expected value is the same and the player skill makes a difference.

  • If you're on the good side of variance you have no way to go but down.

  • Opening chests feels good, opening packs of cards feels good, moments of discovery are very powerful psychologically and can be problematic if misused.

  • Designers have to do the math because in games with millions of players, a problem experienced by one person in testing is representative for thousands once live.