Use Randomness Right

When I was working with the game designers at Activision in the Eighties, it was a truism that most players don’t really like randomness. They want games to be predictable. If there has to be some randomness, users want it to behave like a shuffled deck of cards — you don’t know what card will come up next, but you can be sure that you won’t bet dealt the Ace of Spades twice in a row.

True randomness isn’t like that: true randomness is the equivalent of using a zillion decks and shuffling them after every hand. Sometimes you’ll get the Ace of Spades sixteen times in a row. It doesn’t happen very often, but it really gets your attention when it does! And not in a good way. As with poker, you tend to conclude that the dealer is cheating! At Activision, we treated this as a basic fact of human nature.

So I was surprised when, all these years later, both Apple and Pandora have gotten this wrong. For example, I’ve recently started using Pandora ( as my Internet radio player. It has a spiffy thumbs-up/thumbs-down system, but it has no clue about how to repeat songs properly. It will take a song I like okay and then play it over and over across the next several hours, until I never want to hear it again, while ignoring a long list of other songs that I told it I like. It’s maddening. All they have to do is shuffle the playlist and deal it out one song at a time until they’ve all been played once. Then reshuffle.

This is what people expect, and what they want, across a whole range of options: playlists, meal plans, store specials, gambling — whatever. The concept can even be jiggered so that favorites show up more often in the rotation than non-favorites without straining the analogy. As far as I can tell, the only barrier to doing it right is that people haven’t learned what we all knew at Activision ages ago.

I Publish Books! Norton Creek Press

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Author: Robert Plamondon

Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. His publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of the best poultry books of the last 100 years.

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