Expect the Unexpected

It is very likely that something unlikely will happen. There are many unlikely possibilities, and many things happen, so at the meta-level you should not be surprised that you are frequently surprised. This is a probability refresher for players and fans of weighted random number generators with attached narratives, although it applies generally in life. In a world with seven billion people, one-in-a-million events happen all the time.

Many people see something suspicious, meaningful, portentous, etc. in unlikely occurrences because they are over-specifying the event and ignoring the population of possible events. There probably is no conspiracy against you, nor did they change the accuracy code in your game.

I call the event “over-specified” because you are pondering how unlikely the particular event is rather than the likelihood of a member of that class of events. What is the chance that the car in front of you will have your spouse’s birthday in its license plate number? Pretty small. What is the chance that at least one car in front of you today will have a number that is somehow interesting in its license plate number? That is a long list of possible unlikely events, and while it might be surprising to notice a particular one, we have a lot of winning numbers in that lottery. Remember that this particular unlikely event is not the only one that you would have found surprising if it came up.

The “population of events” is how many chances there are for something unlikely to happen. We forget how very, very many of these there are. My standard example is having streaks of misses in a game. If you have a 90% chance to hit, the chance of missing 5 times in a row is 1 in 100,000. That is pretty unlikely. But if 2 million people are playing WoW every day, and each of them attacks once every five seconds for an hour per day, several people should have that 5-miss streak every minute. If even a small percentage complain about it, it will sound like a constant cacophony about horribly buggy code in the game’s to-hit rolls, but it is just a perfectly normal result of a random process with a lot of trials. Flipping back a paragraph, the more you drive, the more chances you have to see unlikely license plates, and then add in everyone else who might tell you if s/he saw one. Given enough rolls of the dice, incredibly unlikely chances become absolutely certain.

: Zubon

For your linking convenience the next time someone indicts the developers for perfectly predictable streaks in random number generators without suggesting why this streak is meaningful, or for instances of “it’s a sign” more generally. Try not to stomp on anyone who finds simple joy in noticing license plate numbers, so long as s/he is not making major life decisions based on them.

13 thoughts on “Expect the Unexpected

  1. distilled

    @Kyle well, when your weapons are surprise and ruthless efficiancy, you will always be unexpected.

    Your sentiment mirrors the thoughts of Tim Minchin, Zubon. Except he applied it to miracles. Unfortunately, as you say – the vocal minority will always have their feelings heard, and they do not usually understand the concepts you talk about in this post.

  2. ArcherAvatar

    “Coincidence” is a word used by the uninformed to describe what they do not understand due to a failing in either examination, or analysis, or both.

    “Wisdom” is the personal understanding of how much you don’t know.

    I try to always remember that at one time, the entire world full of people believed the Earth was flat… they were seeing the same thing we see now, they just weren’t analyzing the information correctly… sadly, and predicatably, there are folks who STILL believe the Earth is flat… I try to remember this fact whenever I’m playing MMOs and interacting with large numbers of folks who I will refrain from categorizing at all in this comment…

  3. bhagpuss

    The world *is* flat for a given definition of “world”. If you were born, grew and died in the same village, your world would indeed be flat. Well, probably a bit lumpy, but certainly not spherical. The *planet* wouldn’t be flat, but then you’d have little or no concept of what a planet might be, so that really wouldn’t enter into things.

    Leaving that aside, why do we need the RNG in the first place? How would MMOs function if instead of a variable chance of, for example, your character hitting an orc with an axe he would always hit it, and always for an exact and unvarying amount of damage based on the relevant stats of both participants?

    In other words, why do we need the variation at all? Would we even notice it in gameplay if there was no (pseudo)random element in the calculations of combat? Would your gameplay be materially affected? I doubt mine would, since I routinely play with all combat information switched off and haven’t parsed a log since about 2002.

    I would have thought that there are more than enough actual variables in most MMO activities (your gear, your stats, who else is there and what they are doing, what other mobs join in, environmental factors and so on) for most fights to be sufficiently different one from another without needing to use the RNG approach to add further variability.

    1. Zubon Post author

      Many RTSes function that way: you always hit for X damage, barring other factors. A City of Heroes developer said he would have removed a base chance to miss, had he to do it over again: (players’?) attacks always hit, unless the target has an active defense that gives a miss chance.

  4. Lobstilops

    Random is always fun, never know what you get. Also provides different gaming experiences. Look at Minecraft’s success. A lot probably based on randomly generated worlds. If there were only a few preset worlds it would be boring. It is cool to make new worlds and discover these random elements inside. The same in games and it works in most. It would be pretty boring if when attacking something you hit a constant number, that would be why weapons are like 24-30 damage instead of just one number. It provides variety, change, something we all want. It is awesome!

  5. Nom

    To-hit chances in MMORPGs is probably a D&D-ism. Introducing a RNG is a mechanism to add noise / variance to a slow (ie non-twitch) and shallow (ie not planning 10+ moves in advance, eg chess) game situation.

    The “faster” the game, the less need for an RNG, though at the extreme it then becomes a game of reflexes (and low latency), reducing the thinking component. However, relative slow games have succeeded with either no RNG or a more limited RNG.

    Example: GW1 uses auto-hit but randomised damage for weapon attacks, though there are some RNG pure miss chances. GW skill/spell attacks have no inherent random component. Noise and variance comes from multiple entities acting and re-acting at once, and a smaller “speed” component.

    Example: EVE uses RNG for gun attacks, both hit-miss and damage. But the effect of each individual sample is usually small with a lot of samples, and a lot of the skill in small fights is manipulating the RNG average in your favour. Eve guns could work as well removing the RNG and just applying “average” damage.

    RNG “swingyness” is most noticeable when there are fewer samples and the effect of each sample is high. As you push away from this, at some point the RNG becomes swamped by the “law of large numbers” and perhaps should be removed.

  6. MMOverflow

    Indefensible RNG, like a crit percentage modifier in a game without a means to reduce crits upon oneself is garbage. In a PvE game, it keeps the scripted/somewhat dynamic content interesting, but it really makes PvP hell to balance. If a game is PvP centric, RNG has to be toned down significantly. Every stat must have a counter, and a win should be determined by timing/reaction/rotation and not 2 monster crits and a wicked proc in a row.

  7. Merrick

    It’s funny, just yesterday something got me considering this exact principle. I was playing Guild Wars, doing the daily vanquish, which was in Elona, and going through my loot afterwards I had three of those Geode trophies dropped from beetles. I always salvage them because they salvage dust or granite which are both valuable. The first one salvaged dust, and the second one salvaged… a sapphire! Never before have I salvaged a sapphire from a Geode, in all the hundreds of times I have salvaged them. But that’s not what was actually amazing, what was actually amazing was that the third one ALSO salvaged a sapphire. I practically shat myself. Two sapphires in a row from these stupid little Geodes that have never produced anything more than dust or granite in all my years playing.

    It got me thinking. How few times has this happened over the course of the entire game? Probably very very few, I can comfortably assume. But I know that random numbers, in the end, are responsible for it and technically there was an equally good chance a fourth one would have produced another sapphire… And with millions of players in the game it’s going to happen to a few of them, just like so many other extremely unlikely random things are certain to happen to a few of them. I mean, after a while, you can be certain that an extremely unlikely thing is going to happen to just about every player who actually plays for enough time to allow it to happen.

  8. Bronte

    Merrick’s story reminds of the time in WoW when the Ahn’Qiraj event was underway in Silithus. I was killing several Hive’Regal Spitfires with a party of two other friends. One Spirfire dropped a Krol Blade. Seconds later, another one dropped the same weapon.

    My next epic drop from a world creature was TWO YEARS later in Northrend…

  9. i-err

    “But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.”

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