Why not events?

Over at Cryptic Comet, Vic Davis (he of Armageddon Empires… if you don’t know what that is, get over there and try it out), has written a nice piece on random events in strategy games. In it, he lists some of the purposes of these in game design: 1) the thrill of the unexpected, 2) random reward and punishment, 3) simulation of real-life challenges, 4) shaking up the snow globe, 5) choice and consequences, and 6) theme.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the development of Imperium closely that I do not entirely agree with him on this subject. I am neither a big fan of event-based mechanics nor of random events in strategy games. Of course, Vic’s definition of a random event mechanic is not quite the same as mine; for example, taking a choice and then living with the (possibly random) consequences or side-effect is not to me an example of random events – that’s simply cause and (side-)effect mechanics. Nevertheless, his post got me thinking about exactly why I have a problem with events in strategy games. Some of these, perhaps, can be better attributed to poor design – but it’s a rare game with random events that does not fall into one of these traps.

1. Theme and random events. I don’t really buy into it. Sure – random events can enhance the theme of a game. Basically, though – if the random events are the only way in which I can distinguish a game about Napoleon from a game about Caesar, then the game engine needs some work. On the flip side, if the game mechanisms do reflect the theme of the game well enough, the random events are not really needed for that purpose.

2. Random events often break the player’s immersion into the game. This is a particularly nasty problem in historical settings when things happen for no rhyme or reason – or even worse – happen in spite of reason. This is a general problem of the event mechanism – timing. Why would a revolt occur right at the moment when your huge veteran army is drilling in the neighboring province or you have just reduced taxes? Imagine, instead, if rather than being triggered by some event, the AI for the province of Farawayistan had actually analyzed the situation, weighted in that you were currently involved in a 4-front war in the other end of the kingdom and then decided to revolt.

3. Random events as a mechanism sometimes seem to have been added for the sole purpose of punishing the player for doing well. Either because the effects of the random event becomes increasingly devastating the more successful the player has been (e.g., a civil war), or because the number of random events scale with the size of the empire. Perhaps having given up defeating the player’s drive to domination by military force, the game is hoping to defeat the player by wearing out the player’s mouse arm.

4. My main issue with events, though, is that they are outside the control of the player. There is no decision involved, and if there is some attempt to add it, it is usually of the form: “would you like yellow fever or malaria?” In short, events tend to reduce the role of the player as an actor in the game. The thing is – as a gamer, I am trying to play a game, but events are things that happen to the player. There is a pretty significant distinction between those two positions. I suspect that there is a good reason that Sid Meier’s famous quote defining a game doesn’t state “A game is a series of interesting things happening to you”.

This does not mean that I think events has no place in games (they are a tool, like any other). Vic does make some good points, though as he found, he could drop the event mechanism he had planned and still end up with a great game. I suppose that last observation pretty well summarizes my take on the subject.