“Creativity is the ability to introduce order into the randomness of nature.”
– Attributed to Eric Hoffer
This week marks the return of the Marble League, an Olympics-style competition hosted by marble racing YouTube channel Jelle’s Marble Runs. In it, a couple dozen teams of differently colored marbles, with their own team names and audience chants, participate in various sporting events like hurdles, collision derby, and underwater racing.
Simultaneously, the idle sports game Blaseball enters its 21st season, with teams including the Baltimore Crabs and Chicago Firefighters jockeying for championship glory through murderous rogue umpires, rains of peanuts, and the mysterious “ownership” who seems determined to feed the entire league to extradimensional sharks.
Niche but deeply passionate audiences have been built around both of these media franchises. People will pick a team, buy merchandise, and debate their relative merits and demerits in the social media of your choice. Team mythologies spring up constantly in both – the dominance and unique chant of the O’Rangers*, the perpetual mediocrity and tiny fanbase of the Miami Dale**, and so on for every team or name that appeared even briefly.
Passionate fanbases arising for odd media is nothing new. What interests me here is that Jelle’s Marble Runs, and Blaseball less so, are essentially random – not only does the audience have no control over what happens, neither do the creators, who set the mechanical (in the case of Jelle’s) or virtual (Blaseball) gears in motion like some kind of distant god and proceed to let everything run itself.
What makes this total chaos so fascinating, and how can we capture this in our game designs? Read on for some of my theories about it.
* I am an O’Rangers fan.
** I am also a Miami Dale fan.
Real Fake Athletes
There’s something to be said about narratives constructed through chance. This was a subject frequently attended upon by artists belonging to Dada and other surrealist art groups in the early 20th century, who would do activities like Exquisite Corpse that eliminated the ability for the people participating in it to meaningfully control what was being written. While surrealist movements have been, depending on your stance, either out of favor for a century or democratized into Internet memes, procedurally generated narratives remain extremely popular because of their authenticity.
What do I mean by authenticity? Let’s look at an example of a very popular procedural narrative: Sports. While some people watch sports regularly so they can vicariously succeed through their regional team, and others like to watch athletic accomplishments writ large, the overarching appeal of sports viewing is that whatever happens on the field isn’t prewritten.
A champion so dominant his batting average enters the realm of the gods; an underdog team succeeding against all odds to prevent them from folding; an athlete overcoming hardship after hardship, only to shatter an existing world record. These things are the stuff of cliché in sports movies, and we go into it largely expecting these things to happen because that would be the most exciting option the writer could give us. We roll our eyes at them, in fact, because we feel the creator is pandering too much to our expectations. But these exact same things happening as the result of chaos – of people doing things at random with no overarching “plot” – they’re rare and therefore more meaningful and valuable.
Sports simulators like Jelle’s and Blaseball build the same environment of procedurally generated stories like “real person” sports do, but in a more condensed way. Notably, games are much shorter than their real-life equivalents would last: Jelle’s Marble Runs‘ equivalents to F1 races or Olympic events that might take most of a day only last five minutes, while the longest game of Blaseball ever played lasted around an hour and a half. For most nerds, who don’t have the patience or cultural buy-in for traditional sports, having these narratives become quicker to achieve and more likely to happen by virtue of sheer numbers is immensely appealing.
These games also possess humor elements that help liven up otherwise by-the-books gameplay. Jelle’s has announcer Greg Woods, who uses placid commentary that treats marbles on a track as flesh-and-blood athletes with mental states and training regimes. Blaseball goes much more absurd, with player names like Freemium Seraph and Mags Banananana and baseball-themed surreal horror elements like an enormous, vengeful peanut god.
However, jokes and short games aren’t enough to create a procedurally generated narrative that truly moves an audience. That requires careful attention to a randomness generator that is capable of telling stories.
To the Corner, You Fiend!
If random outputs were enough to get people excited, we wouldn’t have people writing stories at all, and just create fancier and fancier dice for people to stand around and goggle at. Chance-based narratives need to have room to create moments of special excitement or interest in order for audiences to center around those moments.
I wrote an article a few years ago on replay value that roughly covers this – in any game with a variable setup or gameplay, the random elements need to create meaningfully different outcomes. The most effective way to do this is to have a few “special” outcomes buried in a sea of otherwise unimportant noise. Cat Manning and Sam Cabo Ashwell talk about this in the context of Blaseball in depth in an article on Medium – Blaseball excites its audience because the truly special things only happen every so often, while most games are largely mundane affairs where the weirdest thing that happens is you might get a decimal point in your score. Chorby Short hitting 200 foul balls in the first game of a season is only interesting because there were so many other games and players who didn’t do anything that special.
You could boil this concept down to its barest essentials with bouncing screensavers that make it into the corner on rare occasions. If this screensaver always went into the corner, or travelled on a path that brought it into the corner about 50 percent of the time, it would be largely uninteresting – it’s both the promise of something out of the ordinary, something distinct, and the exceptionally rare fulfillment of that promise that keeps people so fixated on something so simple. The fact that it’s a corner is also important because corners are distinct – if the screensaver missed some middle inch of the bottom screen most of the time, nobody would notice it and nobody would really care.
Jelle’s and Blaseball are spectator sports, so they have the luxury of making their results 100% reliant on chance. As a designer of presumably interactive games, you can’t transplant the techniques that these games use one for one into your game, but you can draw lessons about meaningful chance-based outcomes that are useful in all but the dryest of Euros. How can you make random outcomes meaningful? What results can you make players strive for that might not even happen in a game? How can you make a component that someone might root for? These questions could be the difference between a mediocre game and a great one.