Performance Uncertainty

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Gameplay where the uncertainty of outcome of actions is due to how well players perform these actions.

Games can let many things affect the outcome of gameplay actions and make these uncertain to players. Performance Uncertainty is one such thing, and happens when it is how well or bad players themselves perform the actions that influence the outcome. This can of course be one or several causes to the uncertainty, but the more one has of one type the more certain one can be of the source of the uncertainty.

Note: player performance that depends on finding a solution of actions that guarantee success is covered under Solution Uncertainty.


All Sports, e.g. Figure Skating, Marathons, and Soccer, depend on how well the participants perform. Chess and Go are early examples of games that pitch players against each other and winning depends on their mental abilities. Computer Games allowed more control over which type of performance players have to do, and when they had to do it. first-person shooters, e.g. the Quake, Left 4 Dead, and Crysis series put emphasis on skillful movement and shooting but this can arguably be found already in Asteroids. Other, e.g. PaRappa the Rapper and Donkey Konga, put more focus on requiring that players can keep steady rhythms; the Rock Band series does this also in requiring players to handle replicas of musical instruments while the Dance Dance Revolution series make players dance or perform dance-like movement.

Roleplaying or enacting characters in Tabletop Roleplaying Games or LARPs also depend on player performances, but here what is at stake is not winning but rather providing enjoyment for all players by giving good and interesting portrayals of characters.

Using the pattern

Performance Uncertainty can be added to games in many ways which most often can be described as some form of Enactment. Two main categories are those related to physical activities and mental activities, although the latter can border over to activities covered in Solution Uncertainty. Physical Enactment relates to designing Performance Uncertainty regarding physical activities with Aim & Shoot, Player Physical Prowess, and Rhythm-Based Actions as more specific patterns. In games with Player Physical Prowess, the use of Reserves can be used to let players or Coaches affect the aspects of Performance Uncertainty related to exhaustion.

Action Programming, Lucky Guess Solutions, Memorizing, and Tactical Planning are examples of mental activities where it is clear that failure or success may rely on the quality of players' gameplay performance rather than correctly applying the often algorithmic procedures that can handle Solution Uncertainty (but applying algorithmic procedures can require some skill and this causes a blurred line between the patterns). While Trial and Error Solutions that allow Lucky Guess Solutions can provide Performance Uncertainty, those where potential solutions can mechanically be tested instead works against the pattern. Bluffing, Negotiation, and Roleplaying are examples of what can be called a third category, activities that rely on social performance.

Player/Character Skill Composites and Player/System Action Composites let a game system and a player's action together result in gameplay performances and this can be used to both increase and decrease the uncertainty that a player will succeed with an action. In contrast, the use of No Direct Player Influence clearly separates the performance from the realization if the actions where successful or not (Action Programming does this as well). The use of Randomness for determining the outcome of actions works against Performance Uncertainty because it lessens the influence of players' performances. This can be compounded by use of Critical Results (including the more specific forms Critical Failures, Critical Hits, Critical Misses, and Critical Successes) since these even stronger emphasizes the factor of having good or bad luck.

Challenging Gameplay and Exaggerated Perception of Influence are two patterns that can cause Performance Uncertainty by changing players' perceptions of how easy or hard it is to do what a game requires from one. In games where players can acquire Strategic Knowledge or Gameplay Mastery, this can be used to help them more correctly gauge their actual chances of succeeding, so these two patterns can modulate players' perceptions of Performance Uncertainty. Although it does not directly cause Performance Uncertainty, any game that creates FUBAR Enjoyment has Performance Uncertainty since players will have to be in chaotic situations trying to handle difficult challenges under weird or stressful circumstances to have the experience.

Spectators can both give players moral support that they can perform and cause them to feel pressure to perform, so Spectators can affect Performance Uncertainty in both positive and negative directions. Extra-Game Broadcasting and the recording of Replays can do the same, but these patterns are often used in games precisely because there is Performance Uncertainty and this is why it can be interesting to document the gameplay activities.

As AI Players replace players, the use of these naturally affects Performance Uncertainty - typically through these AI Players having different strengths and weaknesses in how they can play games compared to human players. A special cases is if AI Players have Unpredictable Behavior, in this case Performance Uncertainty is created rather than something that can be modified by the pattern (this is true for a Game System Player as well).


The main consequence of having Performance Uncertainty in a game is that it increases the Uncertainty of Outcome and Tension in that game. It thereby is likely to cause Limited Foresight and Limited Planning Ability, as well making it more difficult to have a Predictable Winner in a game that one can win. Since the patterns also requires some form of performance, it opens up for Context Dependent Reactions in that the performance can be affected by the local game state, other players, or Spectators.

Performance Uncertainty often implies that players can improve their performances. This makes the presence of the pattern likely to signify that Further Player Improvement Potential also exists in a game. This become particularly likely in games with PvP because in these situations the performance of a player depends on the performance of other players and if these are better they guarantee that there is an at least hypothetical higher performance level a player can reach.


Can Instantiate

Context Dependent Reactions, Further Player Improvement Potential, Limited Foresight, Limited Planning Ability, Tension, Uncertainty of Outcome

with PvP

Further Player Improvement Potential

Can Modulate


Can Be Instantiated By

Aim & Shoot, Action Programming, Bluffing, Challenging Gameplay, Enactment, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, FUBAR Enjoyment, Lucky Guess Solutions, Memorizing, Negotiation, Player Physical Prowess, Physical Enactment, Rhythm-Based Actions, Roleplaying, Trial and Error Solutions, Tactical Planning

Unpredictable Behavior together with AI Players or Game System Player

Can Be Modulated By

AI Players, Extra-Game Broadcasting, Gameplay Mastery, No Direct Player Influence, Player/Character Skill Composites, Player/System Action Composites, Spectators, Strategic Knowledge, Replays

Reserves in games with Player Physical Prowess

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Critical Hits, Critical Misses, Critical Failures, Critical Results, Critical Successes, Predictable Winner, Randomness, Trial and Error Solutions


New pattern created in this wiki. However, the pattern is based on the concept of performance uncertainty described in Costikyan's book Uncertainty in Games[1].


  1. Costikyan, G. 2013. Uncertainty in Games. MIT Press. Official webpage for the book.