Understanding Uncertainty in Games with Survivor.io

Playing games is an uncertain activity. If your games are predictable in nature, the inventiveness and the joy of playing are lost. The need for uncertainty is very true in games and all forms of content. If you would have already known that Joffrey dies at his wedding in GoT you wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. If you expect things to go as you predicted you won’t be enjoying your books, movies, or games.

Let’s consider Ludo, for example. We know for certain that in the game of Ludo one person wins and others will lose. However, we do not know who will win or lose as the dice roll is a huge factor in the game which makes things unpredictable and therefore fun. The outcome of the game is a win-loss state which is totally uncertain. So having an uncertain outcome can make a game uncertain?

For games to be uncertain the outcome of the game doesn’t need to be uncertain. For example in high-score games, there is no uncertain outcome. You keep scoring high till you fail at a certain point. The outcome here is a failure that is certain in nature.

So that means win/loss state and score is a quantifiable outcome in the game and having such a quantifiable outcome makes a gamer uncertain. Not really? There can be a game where there is no win, no loss, and no score. Can you think of any? If you guessed Dungeons and Dragons, congratulations! Games like D&D and idle games like Cityville, Eng Inc, etc are never ending in nature and there’s no particular outcome in the game but they do contain uncertainty and it certainly isn’t in the outcome (as there is none).

It lies in the path the game follows and how players manage the problems and surprises that come along the way.

Last week I got hooked on Survivor.io and Endling. While both are single-player and survival games but completely different in nature. Survivor.io is a f2p 2d roguelike game where you fight against tons of monsters for 15 mins while Endling is an adventure survival game.

For this article, I will stick to how a game like Survivor.io creates uncertainty in the game. The game was launched in August of 2022 and by October it was already touching $2.5–3 million every day.

The game has a very quick learning curve and you quickly rise to power. In each run, you essentially have just one goal — to survive for 15 mins without dying while beating 3 different bosses. Each boss comes at a regular interval of 5 mins. The boss has a fixed set of moves which reminds me of the boss in Contra. Once you understand the pattern of how each boss moves and attacks you can easily defeat them. You don’t even need to practice how to shoot as it is automated. From the start of the game, you will see different mini-enemies attack you and your character will shoot them down or you will run to dodge them. At a certain time in the game, you will see a huge wave of enemies approach you which is also fixed. When you defeat the mini enemies in the game it drops different colors of doobers which help you level up. Collecting doobers (xp in this case) helps you level up in each run. In every new level, you get an option to select a certain weapon skill or a supply that keeps upgrading as you keep leveling up. Occasionally, you also smash different crates which gives you different power-ups (either a bomb or magnet) or another soft currency. After your session is over, you come back to the lobby and spend your currencies to upgrade your character and equipment to increase your Attack and Health.

This makes the game sound very predictable in nature. You start shooting mini-enemies and defeat the boss which keeps repeating the same moves. So how does a game like Survivor.io makes use of uncertainty to make the game fun?

To understand this let’s see how Super Mario creates uncertainty. By now most of you gamers might know the paths of Super Mario blindly. You would know each level, each navigation, and where each enemy and traps lie. There is no uncertainty in Super Mario either in motion or controls of the game. There is no strategic thinking required here. Even the outcome i.e. the player’s path is very much defined in nature. The uncertainty here lies in the player’s performance. Your ability to master the skills of hand-eye coordination. Whether you are able to time your jump and avoid enemies accurately. It is a player-skill game.

Similarly, in Survival.io even though the path is somewhat uncertain (as there is no fixed map) but many challenges are similar. The type of enemies in each level are fixed and you need good hand-eye coordination to either shoot through the enemies or navigate to avoid them. The same is for the boss level. But Performance Uncertainty is not the only source of uncertainty in the game.

When you progress in the game you get an option to choose from different weapons and supplies. The weapon and supplies are very random. Once you are well equipped with the fact that certain weapons are useful in beating certain enemies you will select that on the basis of enemies you are facing in that level. Though the selection of weapons might not have a very big impact on the outcome as you can equip up to 6 different weapons and supplies (which makes up for one or the other). But this type of Randomness helps create moment-to-moment uncertainty.

As a game designer, you can use Randomness to break symmetry in your game by distributing random resources to players just as survivor.io does. It also helps to provide a variety of encounters. (combine different weapons skills against different enemies)

Survivor.io has 75 levels and tonnes of meta-game. It has a Daily Event mode, Daily Challenge mode, Monthly mode which is similar to a royal pass (currently Ender’s Echo), Trials which in itself have 3 difficulties in each level, and different events regularly apart from the Regular mode. This type of narrative anticipation again helps create uncertainty on a moment-to-moment basis.

It creates anticipation for the user to keep exploring more content in different modes. This type of Narrative and Development anticipation works helps create games never ending in nature.

Lastly, there is one small uncertainty that is usually not found in many games. It is the Uncertainty of Perception. I talked about how killing different mini-enemies in the game helps collect doobers of different colors. You want to collect all of them but gold ones help you gain the highest xp to level up faster and gain more resources. When there are tonnes of enemies in the game and you are avoiding them it becomes difficult to see where the gold ones lie. This is a classic example of how a game like Where’s Waldo works? It creates a visual challenge for the user to scan between the enemies to identify the gold doober and other elements.

Perception uncertainty is not just visual but also can be sound-based uncertainty. Like a game like Guitar Hero where listening skills are very important or in PUBG where the sound of footsteps can help you identify where the enemy is.

I would like to thank Greg Costikyan for his book Uncertainty in Games which helped delve deeper into understanding how game designers can create uncertain elements in various ways.

Next week, I will bring to you an analysis of how an adventure game like Endling can create uncertainty. Apologies if the writing may sound not very amateur as this is my first article. I do intend to write more and get better at it. Please do leave feedback, and comments and let me know how you are creating uncertainty in the games you design.