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August 16, 2018

Wheel of Misfortune

Wheel of Misfortune

This week we had about a day of Wheel of Misfortune, making this its 9th appearance in 119 weeks of weekly mutations. And while it was promptly replaced by a brand-new mutation, I will take a closer look at it.

The issue I see with this mutation is the pairing of high difficulty and high randomness. A small amount of randomness adds variety and leads to surprises that make the game more interesting. However, the goal should be to provide challenges that can be overcome. Being completely at the mercy of randomness is neither fun nor does it encourage continuing playing. In Self Determination Theory, one of the intrinsic needs is competence that can be described as "seeking to control the outcome and experience mastery". This is crucial for players' intrinsic motivation and thus for their desire to play the game. I finished every one of Wheel of Misfortune weekly mutations, but I can't say it was because of my skill or good decision-making; it was only luck. I see this lack of player agency and perceived competence as the main problem.

We can feel unfair and unavoidable effects of randomness in the real world, but their absence in games is partly what makes games great. No sane game-designer would let a random meteorite or lightning hit you without any chance of preventing it if it meant losing twenty years of progress. The cost is nowhere near as high in a match of Co-op, however, players will get invested in it very quickly.

What could be changed about this mutation? The goal is to either reduce overall difficulty level so players can consistently overcome its challenge; or reduce the randomness to the level that it won't be the main cause of players' failure. To lower difficulty, decreasing the number of active mutators to two could work. Challenge would be reduced to the levels of easy weekly mutations, but each game would still be unique. As for lowering randomness, removing certain mutators from the pool would help. Ideally, each mutator would have a difficulty score, and the total score of all active mutators wouldn't rise above a certain threshold. Notifying players about upcoming mutators in advance could give players more control over the situation. However, intervals between mutator changes would have to be longer so players wouldn't get overloaded by messages and had time to prepare.


High randomness doesn't pair well with high difficulty. It's important that outcomes are kept in the hands of players and not randomness. Mutations and mutators that take control from players should be handled extremely carefully. A similar example are Fatal Attraction or Micro Transactions mutators that go against what many players enjoy about StarCraft 2—controlling units. This again will naturally turn many players away.

Update: relevant video on the difference between challenging and punishing games

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