rand(Loot Pinata)

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

8 thoughts on “rand(Loot Pinata)”

  1. Really interesting! I just googled Harrah’s, their idea is just great. Too bad I won’t be in Vegas anytime soon. :)

    I personally hate our modern achievement systems. They do not provide the players with a feeling of achievement, but to me they are rather TO-DO lists. And just take a look how achievements are organized in the achievement tab. The second point is what you already noticed: Achievements are given out for everything, a popup for everything and entry in your to do list for nearly everything one can imagine. Even single-player games copied achievements, often in a so crude way that it hurts. The achievement page of “Sins of a Solar Empire” full of really ridiculous things to do really cried:

    We noticed that there is something cool about achievements. So we copied them. Unfortunately, we apparently did not understand and get it why they are great at all. This is why you got this crap.

  2. I REALLY enjoy systems where the drop matches the mob.

    Age of Conan does this well. Kill animals, get pelts, claws, etc. Kill Human based mobs, get cash, weapons, etc.

    That to me is a good system.

    But, I also agree with your well written post (enjoyed the quip at the end) that rewards of a different nature, like tokens for doing things a specific way…

    Achievements are ok for example…but, all it shows is a badge of honor. How about something to reward that badge?
    Guild Wars is one such game that rewards specific “achievements”, like the Hero’s Handbook, where you complete quests, which give you XP, etc…but, then you can turn in the book for a reward..A Novel (hehe, punny) approach, eh?

    I think most of the games do not do well thought out loot systems, and I really want one game to be worth it.

    I want The Secret World to offer me cash or ammo for my weapons after killing human mobs. How about items of power when killing mythical creatures (like claws from a creature to use in making an antidote for their poison…).

    Good post, and cheers.

  3. Very interesting read that puts a lot of stuff I’ve come across in other places into a clear and comprehensible narrative.

    I absolutely agree with openedge that getting logical drops is the best loot system. That mechanism alone makes me feel more loyal to a game and more interested in combat than any other.

    On the rest of the bio-psychological motivators, not unusualy I find only a slight tally with my own experience. I think I may just have an extremely low “pain point” in gambling terms. I have enjoyed playing fruit machines and other mechanical and electronic gambling machines since I was a child (yes, when I was a child that wasn’t just permitted, it was encouraged). However, I have never lost any significant amount of money in a session (in dollar terms probably never more than a couple of dollars).

    I’ve always been one of those annoying people who knows exactly how much they are prepared to lose when they start playing and can stop at exactly that point. I was banned from playing poker with a group of friends at college because I would happily play for four hours and never go more than a few coins above or below the stake I statred with. I loved playing the game but I had no interest in gambling on it.

    Similarly, in MMOs, while I do love opening up the mob after the kill I don’t really care what I get. There certainly is some biochemical hit when something good drops, but I am always mildly pleased to see anything. Rat ears, whiskers, rusty daggers, slime, you name it I will loot it. I’ll also enjoy looking at it and examining it, soemtimes even for the hundredth time (why I expect to see anything new in a rat’s whisker after a decade I couldn’t say, but you never know..this one *might* be different). Then there’s more fun sorting the stuff in my bags, before I sell it. I sell everything. Even if I have thousands in gold in the bank I still sell all the 2cp piece drops.

    Mechanisms like the one you describe where you get noticed for doing something, even by an NPC, and rewarded for it utterly creep me out, though. I hate to be noticed. I detest it when NPCs begin to address my character by name or salute them. I loathe it when they “remember” who I am. I don’t like that in real life and I don’t like it any more in a game.

    The introduction of targetted rewards like that in a big way wouldn’t make me more addicted but they might possibly make me look for a new hobby.

    1. This ^

      Though I do kinda like when the NPCs have something different to say after something has happened. Saluting is silly though.

  4. Team Fortress 2, while certainly not an MMO, has a similar kind of reward mechanic.

    Every time you die (and you typically die every minute or two), you are told how you’re doing compared to previous attempts. The game keeps many stats, and generally chooses the one that makes you look best – “You lasted longer as a Scout than ever before”, “You almost tied your record for most damage as a Heavy”, and so forth.

    This system rewards you for improving compared to your past experience, rather than in comparison to other players. Even if you are brand new to the game (in fact, especially if you are brand new to the game), you receive constant reward and positive feedback. It feels like a real accomplishment when you beat your old record.

    Achievements in MMOs come close, but I’d like to see more: “You just beat your previous best DPS”, or “Highest lifetime crit”. We always look bad compared to the hardest of the hardcore players, so give us more personal accomplishments to focus on.

    In WoW, the Deadly Boss addon has an element of this – when you down a boss, it tells you the time you took as well as your previous best time.

    1. I’d quite like something like that to be in the base game – it would be totally fun. I really dislike having to be loaded up with addons though as I hate having to update them when they break, or worse, break other things in the game. Bad enough that I need Decursive and Imp[roved]Ignore (and now my guild is requiring me to have Deadly Boss Mods but I’ll only turn it on for raids).

  5. Random loot drops don’t do much for me unless they are something I can immediately use. If it the Sword of Uberness that binds on pickup, but I’m a squishy Mage, it’s just vendor trash. Bleh. That’s a headshot to the ol’ enthusiasm. DDO handles this pretty well by giving players class-relevant loot when that pinata pops.

    As to the idea of rewards other than loot pinatas, it’s going to matter what the player is looking for. I’m not creeped out by NPCs like Bhagpuss, but I do just ignore them. Let me change the *world*, though, and I’m a happy camper.

  6. The most powerful reinforcement schedule is the Variable Ratio, Variable Interval, Variable Schedule, which results in rats pounding the crap out of the button. Additionally, these variable reinforcement schedules result in a very high resistance to extinction behaviors, due to the Partial Reinforcement Extinction Effect (PREE).

    great stuff, really, makes me happy to see skinner’s work in MMO’s and casinos.



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