As soon as any MMO player hears the word random applied to the MMO genre, as it has been throughout random week, thoughts of the loot pinata spring to mind. Every time a little dirt weasel falls to the ground a right click tears that sucker open to reveal: a melted candle, a shiny red apple, a handful of copper coins, and a 1 in 1000 chance at a small brown pouch. Now anybody can gain a few levels and slaughter lower level mobs with impunity, but the loot pinata takes on a revered glow when there is one big pinata for 25 people at the end of a 3-hour raid.
Either way, opening up dead mobs like paper mache is an addictive part of vanilla MMO play. One lucky kill or resource node can provide a player with the feeling of elation. This “windfall” granted by the random number gods seemingly puts a spike in the efficiency of time versus reward. Suddenly the lucky player is beating the system (and other players). There is a heavier term MMO lexicographers use to analogize the loot systems found in the big MMOs. Instead of a colorful, lively pinata used at children’s parties across the world, these wordsmiths liken the system to a slot machine.
Gambling in general, but specifically slot machines are based on very simple dopamine systems installed in just about every human, and those systems have been evolving for a long time to keep us alive. Basically, we are hard wired to feel good about rewards. The system gives us even more happy hormones when we get surprising rewards. Slot machines basically abuse this biological system by giving the player a surprising reward, but the effect is compounded by the misguided sense that the player can figure out the system by continuing to play the slot machine. (I want to point out that “knowing the odds,” which are usually set by state law, is not the same as “figuring out the system.”)
According to Wolfram Schultz’s predictive reward signal, the dopamine systems eventually begin to preemptively supply the person with fuzzy warm feelings when the person is merely doing the activity that might be rewarding. In the case of the MMO player, the simple act of killing a mob can supply this small burst of dopamine based on all the past experiences where we have received rewards. Guess which rewards the mind remembers most? You can bet it wasn’t that [Melted Candle].
However, every person has a “pain point” where the loss of money (at a slot machine) or time (at an MMO) is simply too great for the diminishing returns of any remaining dopamine hits. While both casinos and MMO companies realize that at some point sane people have to take a break, both entities want their consumers to come back. People have to leave with some reason to come back. For MMOs there are plenty of other reasons to return than just the act of mob bashing. Community, progression, and unexplored content are three things that quickly popped in to mind. Slot machine shrines don’t have any of those luxuries. They need another reason.
Harrah’s Casino, in particular, goes back to simply giving a surprising reward. A system watches the slot machine player to determine approximately when the player will reach their pain point (time or money). When the system sees an approaching paint point, it notifies an employee to intercept the bogey. The employee walks up to the player and offers the player something. It could be some amount of money, it could be a comped room, or it could be a free meal at their restaurant. It nearly doesn’t matter. What matters is that the player is now fixated on the fact that they just won a surprising reward with the help of their dopamine system.
Now what surprises me is that MMOs, to my knowledge, do not use this system. They do not seem to watch for a player’s pain point, especially when it comes to repeating group content. There are two mechanics, that I am aware of, that come close.
The first, which has become a widely used reward mechanic, are barter tokens. As MMO players do things, they can slowly accumulate barter tokens to get a good reward even if they have not won a good reward from the loot pinata. The problem with this is that instead of a surprising boon that hits the dopamine system, the barter tokens becomes a fall back reward. The goal, according to Harrah’s Casino, is not to diminish the pain but to replace it entirely with the sense of reward.
The second comes from Warhammer Online. When a player went out questing and killed ten, twenty, fifty rats, the player would happen upon an NPC that would cry “Oi, I’ve seen yous killed fifty rats, guvnah! I hate rats. Let me give you some stuff for doing what you done.” In my opinion, this mechanic is on the right track to giving the surprising reward outside of the loot pinata. I have to believe that Paul Barnett and Co. were fully aware of these casino tricks seeing as they wanted a slot machine mechanic for the Public Quest rewards. Unfortunately, the player had to seek out this reward, which diminished both the reward and the surprise.
I lied, there is one other: achievement systems. Achievement systems are a dual-edged sword. On one hand they create surprising rewards. I loved it in Lord of the Rings Online where all of the sudden I would be notified that I just killed 300 orcs or beat 20 zone quests, and here is a small reward. That is exactly what Harrah’s system does. However, this only works when the player is not really expecting the achievement to occur. When the player begins working towards the achievements and has to work more, the whole system loses efficacy. The system also loses its ability to create a surprising reward when the amount of achievements that pop up is great enough to numb the player to gaining any surprising achievements.
I guarantee that a well-done system that truly creates surprising rewards will raise the addictiveness of MMOs to a new level. (a) Hey, I noticed you were talking to that person for 10 minutes. Community is pretty cool. Here’s a few gold. (b) Hey, I noticed you played for an hour [after seeing you haven’t played longer than 15 minutes in the past 2 weeks]. Here’s a reward token. (c) Hey, I noticed you lost your roll on every epic item in that dungeon. Here’s a few more barter tokens. (d) Hey, I noticed you got to the end of this article. Here’s some relief.
twice as sweet