Player Superstitions

There’s a quest in World of Warcraft called, “Are you there, Yeti?” where you have to find two pristine yeti horns to complete the quest. A couple years ago, the drop rate for these yeti horns was atrocious — 5% or less. Now, it seems to be much higher. But the internet remembers the earlier times. If you visit for this quest, you’ll see how players reacted to the extreme randomness of the drop.

Hey guys. I was frustrated after killing 60 or so patriachs and matriach and not having a single drop. Then it hit me. “No beat up or broken horns, please!” said the quest log. I’m was playing a warrior and I’ve been Executing every single one of them. So I tried letting my auto-attack do the killing.

1st try: horn dropped
2nd try: auto attack kill but no drop
3rd try: accidentally executed
4th try: horn dropped

Anyway, I have no idea with classes that relies on spells like mages and priests, etc but can anyone try this method and support my claim?

Now, there’s no way that WoW has implemented this quest in such a way that you need to use only auto-attacks to kill monsters in order to get their loot. WoW is famous for its clear quest direction, and when it fails at clarity, it’s due to errors of omission, not outright hidden mechanics. And even if they did have this weird mechanic, wouldn’t it be a 100% success rate if you followed their weird secret rule? If you search around, you’ll find people saying that this worked for them… it only took 20 kills to get the two horns. That’s not a trick, that’s just random.

But wait! There are other competing theories!

I think people are seriously right about that magic theory. I’ve killed over 40 of these mobs and the one where I decide to stay in human form and cast magic (I’ve been using bearform for Druids) I get the horn.

So now you’ve got to use magic to get the horns? That doesn’t sit very well with “you have to use auto-attacks”, does it? And if you search, you will find more and more of these theories for the quest. Most of them conflict dramatically with each other, but all of them have one or two other people who vouch for how effective they are.

And this is hardly the only occurrence of players being superstitious.

“There’s something wrong with the attack calculations!”

City of Heroes went to great lengths to remove “streakiness” from their attack rolls. Players complained when their attacks missed many times in a row, even though this is a reasonably likely occurrence given a true random number generator (and CoH’s rather low chances to hit). It was not possible for the developers to convince players that this was just randomness (and anyway, everyone agreed that it was frustrating), so they added hacks to keep the streaks from getting too long. If you miss too many times in a row, the game will cheat and help you hit.

“My tapers are burning faster!”

In Asheron’s Call, mages use “tapers” as material components for their spells. These tapers have a small random chance of “burning up” whenever a spell is cast, so players tend to carry hundreds of them at once. Then something weird started happening: players became convinced that their tapers were burning at a faster rate than before. This became a trend: “hey, you’re right, I think they are burning faster!” and so on, until the developers were compelled to get a log of the actual random rolls to make sure everything was fine. It was… but some players could never really be convinced of this. They had noticed a pattern, and they were 100% convinced it was really there.

The amusing part is that after every update, players would insist that the new update had made tapers burn even faster. If this had been true, by about the 50th game update, the change should have been pretty noticeable…

Even to this day, some wise-ass players will say “my tapers are burning faster!” which means “you’re imagining patterns that aren’t really there.” The more modern version is “Onyxia is deep breathing more!“, which is the equivalent scenario from World of Warcraft.

What’s going on here?

Human beings don’t deal well with randomness in general. Our brains are powerful pattern-matching machines, and we will see patterns no matter what it takes… even if the patterns are fake. It’s hard to convey randomness in a way that doesn’t cause our brains to tick into overdrive in order to “figure it out.”

Does it really hurt your game if players are making up crazy theories about how it works? Well, it’s not ideal. This misinformation gets propagated until it becomes “common knowledge”, at which point it can literally become impossible to convince players that it isn’t true. This, in turn, can lead players to do weird things that are frustrating for all involved, and to blame you for having to do it.

The cure for this is communication. If the quest actually said “Yetis drop pristine horns 5% of the time,” we’d have far fewer crazy theories running around. Then again, players would have just avoided the quest entirely because they would instantly know it’s not worth their time… which points out the flaw. This quest really wasn’t worth doing at a 5% drop rate. There are better ways to spend your time in World of Warcraft. Obscuring this percentage didn’t make the quest better, it just made it harder for people to realize that it was sub-par, thus delaying how long it took developers to get around to fixing it.

Another cure for it is to remove randomness entirely. I’ll get into that more next time!

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16 Responses to Player Superstitions

  1. Michael Kujawa says:

    I’ve always thought the anti-streak logic in CoH was a brilliant idea, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard about more games doing that. Then again, perhaps it was just the unusually open interaction we had with the CoH devs that let us know it was there.

  2. John Danks says:

    How about the Wi Flag? ;)

    Turbine is continuing to substitute randomness for creativity in Lord of the Rings Online. Since the game’s release players have complained about the randomness of critical results in crafting. One simple thing they could have done was to show the actual random roll for each attempt. Instead they’ve added additional components to improve critical chance, but not guarantee it.

    Now the new expansion is introducing the much-hyped Legendary Weapon system, which relies almost entirely on random results to get something “good”. Random isn’t fun, it’s frustrating.

  3. DrewC says:

    I think it’s inaccurate to say that random isn’t fun. I think it’s more accurate to say that games that feel highly random are generally less fun than games where you feel like your skill has an impact on the game. Richard Garfield wrote a really good article about luck in games, it’s in the November 2006 issue of Game Developer magazine ( Luck has several very important roles in games, intermittent reward being the most obvious and lucrative, and I think discarding luck as a design tool is a major mistake.

    Tying back to Eric’s original point: humans like to feel like they have control over their environment. If they are placed in a position where they do not, they begin to invent imaginary controls. This is why gamblers, dedicated sports fans, and criminals are generally very superstitious. Important aspects of their lives are completely outside of their control, so they invent imaginary controls, superstitions, to give themselves the illusion of control. You can see this same behavior in the origin of the player superstitions Eric sited: players are inventing controls for behaviors that are fundamentally outside of their control.

    So why don’t players have superstitions about all loot drops, only the rare ones? Because for common loot drops, players have a reasonable control on how quickly they get the items: the rate at which they kill monsters. If you have to collect 10 widgets that have a 50% chance of dropping, the rate at which you kill the monsters that drop the widgets will almost certainly have more impact on the speed with which you acquire 10 widgets than the rate at which said widgets drop. You can do math to prove or disprove this for any particular drop chance, kill speed, and number of required acquisitions.

    My belief is that telling people they don’t have control over something, or removing randomness entirely, are inadequate solutions. History is full of cases where people are perfectly aware they don’t have control over something, but invent imaginary controls anyway. Worse, you open the door for snake oil salesmen (read gold farmers) who con your players into believing that they have an add-on/hack/whatever that will give them those controls. This add-on is, of course, a key-logger. As I said earlier, I think randomness is a highly valuable game design tool, so discarding it entirely does not sit well with me.

    The solution then, in my opinion, is to give players reasonable controls over those random elements, and communicate the existence of those controls to the player. Let’s say you want to stretch some lower level content by having the boss of a particular dungeon very rarely drop a special vanity pet. You could give the pet an absurdly low drop rate (5% or less) or, you could give the pet a low base drop rate, and then increase that base drop rate if the players kill him within a strict time limit. Of increase the drop rate if the players kill him during the special once a year event. Or increase the drop rate on patch day.

    If you publish this information to the players, they have a known, obvious control over a random event. That control is not complete, you still have a strong random element present, but it gives the players that control they crave, and prevents them from having to make up new, imaginary, controls. Note that this assumes the controls you put in place have a noticeable impact.

  4. Zubon says:

    WOW has 11 million players. One-in-a-million chances will happen not just every day, but possibly every few minutes depending on how much those 11 million people play. Miss ten times in a row? If it can happen, it will.

  5. Tesh says:

    On the pet drop, WoW is built largely around a “time=reward” philosophy. Grinding is the way players advance. Giving them modifiers to random drop chances is only a partial solution. Redeemable Badges that players can spend for the rewards they want is a more comprehensive solution. Sure, players only get 1/20th of the reward each time they kill the beastie, but if they persist at it, after killing 20 beasties, they can cash in and get the reward. Period. No guesswork, no frustration of randomness, no voodoo. Do the work and get rewarded. (It also means that the beastie only needs to drop one item, the Badge, and players can turn those in for class-specific or personalized rewards.)

    Yes, that means the grind is more exposed, but at this point, does anyone really think that WoW is anything but a pretty treadmill? If we’re not going to use skill as a primary indicator of success, and if we’re going the “time=reward” route, I’d just as soon make it up front and honest, and take out the gambling factor.

    I’ve never liked lotteries, though. At least “time=reward” or “skill=reward” designs are consistent, honest and predictable. If I’m going to spend subscription money on a game, I don’t want to be falling prey to the Vegas gods, I want to see real results for my time and money. Yes, there is an audience for the crapshoot, but when I’m pondering design, I try to stay as far away from that sort of randomness.

    There’s a place for “bounded chaos” in things like “hit chance” and such, but pushing the envelope on the risk/reward calculation for loot goes too far into casino territory for me, especially in a game that I’m paying a subscription to play. A high risk/high reward metric just gets annoying at that point, and inevitably feels unfair.

    In things that under player control, like a super strong attack that has a high miss rate, it’s not a big deal, so long as players have other choices, and just go that way because they want to. In things like loot drop rates, which players don’t have control over, high reward/low chance just isn’t good design.

  6. y4 says:

    Tesh, your post reminded me about CCGs. In some countries CCGs (aka TCGs) are banned because they are considered like lotteries: the cards in the packs are random. On the other hand, there is a non-random factor in the metagame–that is, you can buy single cards without ever opening a pack. So in this sense, it’s kind of a money=reward. If you have a lot of money, just buy the singles for the deck you want to make, from the secondary market. Thus you could circumvent the randomness of packs.

  7. Tim Howgego says:

    In WoW there are a few hidden mechanics, the very existence of which give a basis for believing almost anything: The widespread variations in fish caught between different times of day naturally springs to mind. Recent content has been more straightforward, so these quirks are largely irrelevant to new players.

    From casual observation, any time-consuming random that has a success chance below 10% is likely to trigger the creation of “interesting theories” – and, basically, player frustration and annoyance that they cannot get want they want within a “reasonable” timescale.

    I’d love to see more “progressive de-randomness”, building on CoH’s streakiness: Each time you do the same thing, the probability of successfully completing it that time increases from the previous time. That rewards a player’s time commitment, while still allowing an (initially) low-probability outcome to be implemented.

    I presume that hasn’t been done historically because it requires vastly more data to be stored – we’ve just got stuck with mechanics that were designed to work on minimal hardware.

  8. Tesh says:

    y4, is there a concurrent secondary market for WoW loot? I think that’s a fair analogy, and ironically enough, my post in the other thread references MTG for design principles. That’s not really what I had in mind here, but I think you have a good point.

    A secondary market takes that lottery mechanic and gives it player demand driven value. Why are high level items in WoW Bind on Pickup? I see it as a way to encourage the loot crapshoot, which is something that I’d rather get rid of.

    These rare loot drops shouldn’t be rare because of an arbitrary drop percentage, they should be rare because it’s difficult to do the task requested. That would give a real sense of accomplishment, rather than being the bloke who pulled the Powerball. The player who comes by it first hand via skill would be rewarded for their skill, while the player who comes by it on the secondary market would be rewarded for their effort spent earning the funding to make the purchase.

  9. y4 says:

    Right, WoW is all about perpetuating the idea that items should be hard to impossible to get. I’ve heard of people bragging about the gold they have. What’s the point? Since there’s nothing worth buying, how much gold you have doesn’t really matter.

    In Magic, rare cards are not always better than the uncommons and commons. (Not to mention that Magic encourages lots of different ways to play.) So even a poor kid can build a strong deck with uncommons and commons. On the contrary, a deck with all rares are not necessary playable.

    Speaking of Magic and randomness, MTGO players also complained about streaks of lands or spells. The programmers replied that there is nothing wrong with the random number generator, that it does indeed spit out totally random numbers. So the issue here is, as Eric pointed out, the players’ impression about the RNG. In this case, it seems that being too random is not desirable.

  10. Man, there are so many superstitions about M59 it’s not even funny. People kept complaining that spawns were taking a long time, so we increased them. But, people got used to the new rates and then complained spawns were still taking a long time. They won’t believe that the spawns are much faster now than they were in the past.

    One problem in our case is that I added a feature where spawns will increase as more players are in an area, so they won’t have to fight over spawns. This, of course, lead to people planting extra characters in an area to increase the spawn rate significantly. Of course, they also got used to those increased spawn rates and complain that they are now “forced” to have extra characters around.

    In the end, player perceptions dominate. Of course, it’s still important to investigate reports of strange randoms. There have been multiple times where a bit of bad math actually did change things in the opposite way it was intended to.

    There are two developer approaches to this. First is to look into “random without replacement”. Think of a deck of random cards instead of a rolling a die. You only re-shuffle the deck once a number of cards are drawn. For a very small deck, this may not be significantly different than a die, but it can eliminate long streaks. I posted a bit about this on my own blog at:

    Another idea is to make sure you don’t over-use randomness. In WoW, I play a Feral Druid and took a talent that was supposed to give me a 30% chance to avoid fear effects. Sounds great, but it certainly didn’t feel like I a roughly 1 in 3 chance to avoid a fear effect. It felt like wasted talent points to me, so I ditched that talent. In the recent patch, that ability was changed to reduce the duration by 30%, a non-random effect. What about combining the non-random effect with a random effect as well?

    My thoughts.

  11. Django says:

    “How about the Wi Flag? ;)”

    The Wi flag was a real issue and not superstition though ;)

  12. Personally I dislike a lack of randomness in games. Randomness is one of the rare things in an MMO that can actually help distinguish your character from another, and it also helps to prevent certain activities from appearing as much of a “grind” as working 1/21000 faction. In addition to this, some of the best moments while raiding in any game are when that special item drops, because it feels like such a reward, compared to what you know, or have a high probability of seeing, will drop. Having a certain item generally doesn’t make a game more fun, especially when you’re playing to improve your character. In WoW’s Burning Crusade players were handed through a very linear progression items that improved their characters too much, and too evenly. Items quickly lost their value as a measure of character identity, and players stopped playing as much (not a drop in subscribers) because they had no where they could improve themselves, because everything was attainable in the same progressive manner. This contrasts drastically to the pre-BC game, where randomness helped to keep the player base engaged in the game. Just because players don’t like a certain aspect of a game doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to the actual game.

    I wasn’t a fan of having to wait for the low % drop rate yeti item to drop either, but it sure didn’t hurt me. A better way Blizzard could have resolved that issue was to intertwine other quests by the yeti area, but it didn’t work that way at that time. In WotLK (from the little I’ve played [Note: Do not end up in the hospital and miss two weeks of college, when you’re already on an overload schedule]) quests are much more intertwined in the same zone, and frankly the drop rates are probably too high and easy, although the game is now called Casualcraft for a reason. =s

  13. gattsuru says:

    I think it’s inaccurate to say that random isn’t fun. I think it’s more accurate to say that games that feel highly random are generally less fun than games where you feel like your skill has an impact on the game.

    Even if the game doesn’t ‘feel’ highly random, there can easily be a bunch of issues. Playing a Storm Summoner in City Of Heroes usually doesn’t feel that random, and does feel very dependent on skill. How you use Hurricane, Lightning Storm, and Tornado is a lot more important than how any individual die roll goes, often to a vast degree. Randomness isn’t fun, though; the difference from a merely average series of rolls and a great series doesn’t feel any better than average, while the difference from a horrible series and an average is very damaging if not quickly fatal.

    Game balance is all about statistics. The player hits enemies three times out of four for somewhere between x and 2x damage every N seconds, you can predict what the average time it’ll take to kill a baddy. That all falls apart the second you run into actual players, who care not about what happens on average but what they remember. Randomness means you will be randomly amazing and randomly screwed. You guess which is more memorable.

    The appearance of randomness in a game is essential. Even if you can make a highly skill-based MMOs, you’ll need a bit of the appearance of randomness in terms of damage (most MMOs), powers available (card games/Phantom Dust), accuracy (most MMOs/most online FPS), encounters, and/or rewards. Otherwise, players will get bored. S4 League is an example of largely non-random play — only spawn points and other players are remotely unpredictable — and the game suffers from it. The Gauss Rifle, in particular, is oft-exploited, and the game is entertaining primarily if not only because other players add randomness.

    Players have absolutely no idea what real randomness looks like, though. A true random number generator, the common seeded PRNGs, Psychochild’s Randomness without Replacement method, or even a few hundred preselected series of numbers, all can be made to ‘look’ random for even the best player’s memory and unpredictable on any relevant scale. You are, after all, dealing with the Magic Number Seven, plus-or-minus two.

    The goal, first and foremost, needs to be about what is fun. If killing 40 Yeti isn’t fun, why are you telling people to do it and calling it a game? If killing 40 Yeti is fun, why have half the players kill many more Yeti than that?

  14. John Hopson says:

    Of course, once in a blue moon the players are right. We are pattern-matching machines, and sometimes that machine does pick up on subtle, unintentional patterns in a game’s design. As codebreakers will tell you, true randomness is fairly hard to achieve. Small things can turn something intended to be random into something mostly random, and players notice mostly random.

  15. Eric says:

    John Hopson: It’s true — sometimes something like the “wi flag” really does exist. Players are sometimes right! It’s very frustrating trying to find that needle in the haystack. I think that a good step is to remove un-fun randomness, like a 5% drop rate. It cuts down on the noise.

    Psychochild: I think the “30% chance to avoid fear effects” randomness is a great example of un-fun randomness. You’re going to notice the times when it doesn’t work a whole lot more than the times when it protects you. At the very least, the game should add stronger notifiers (a special effect, say) when it’s working. At best, refactoring it into something more tangible makes sense to me.

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