Saturday, September 14, 2019

Out Of The Box? : WoW Classic

Kaylriene has a post up called "What Makes a Reward" in which he looks at the way loot has been re-positioned in World of Warcraft, from just one of the reward mechanics to almost the only one left. He references a comment made by Grimtooth on Shintar's post about inconvenience, which I bounced off yesterday. Today I'm going to get my trampoline out once again.

Grimtooth brings up a reference that used to be so prevalent in discussions of MMORPGs that it became something of a cliche. Also a bugbear, a shiboleth and a night terror.

I'm talking about the infamous Skinner Box, the popular name for the operant condtioning chamber, a physical box used to constrain experimental animals in laboratories. It was created by B. F. Skinner, an American behavioral psychologist, to further his research into free will, which he considered to be an illusion.

The gist of how a Skinner Box works is simple: it provides positive or negative reinforcement to the action taken by a lab animal by delivering either a reward or a punishment. Over time the animal will learn to pursue the actions that reward and shun those that punish.

In the early and middle years of the development of MMORPGs it was widely believed that the genre relied heavily on operant conditioning and that the games were virtual Skinner Boxes. This explained their supposed addictive nature, since a fully-conditioned rat can be brought to a state where it will press a reward lever indefinitely, even when no reward is forthcoming, until it dies of starvation.

Through the Gates of Ruin.
I have no idea if that supposed "fact" is empirically true. It hardly matters. It was popularly believed at the time and may well still be, for all I know. Things don't need to be true to have power.

The endless discussions of the time also focused heavily on dopamine, "often seen as the main chemical of pleasure" as Wikipedia puts it. The popular theory was that every time you get a reward you also get a "dopamine hit", a small burst of pleasure or satisfaction. This is supposedly the biochemical mechanism by which you become conditioned.

Unsurprisingly, as these concepts gained currency within the genre, players and commentators became increasingly antsy about them. No-one likes to think they're being manipulated. Most people like to believe they have free will.

Kaylriene's post touches on how these dopamine hits were delivered. He talks about Talents and Spells and Skill Increases, all of which appeared at frequent - but not too frequent - intervals. Most MMORPGs in what I'm increasingly minded to call The Classic Era used all of these and many, many more.

Gameplay in EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot or Vanilla WoW involved a never-ending conveyor belt of small, predictable rewards. You knew for certain that if you dinged you would get something. You'd also get a loud, triumphant noise and maybe even some visual flare, just to make sure you didn't miss it.

I got all the rewards I need right here in this tankard, thanks.
The predictability of this process was vital. The games also used random rewards, widely, to provide sudden, unexpected jolts of pleasure, but if you want to condition a rat to press a lever you have to make the lever obvious and be certain the rat can find it.

As I said, all this became more than a little controversial. Here's Tobold, posting about it in 2007.  Here's a  Kotaku article from three years later. In fact, a google search shows that articles and science papers on the subject are still popping up pretty regularly even now, although it's some time since I've seen anyone talking about it in this part of the blogosphere.

The Kotaku piece includes a paragraph that points to one way I suspect game design has, probably unintentionally, popped out of the Skinner Box: 
"Then there is the "Variable Ratio Rewards" system. A rat in a box will eventually figure out that if he presses the lever, the food is always going to be there. The trick is to have the food come at random times when pressing the lever. Think random item drops in any massively-multiplayer online game you've ever played."
In order to achieve the full conditioning effect you need both the placement of reliable levers and the variation of unpredictable timing. Your levels and talents and alternative advancement give you the first and loot gives you the second.

New recipes excite me more than  almost anything.
 As Kaylriene observes, Retail WoW has largely given up on the former. There are other reasons why people don't much care about levelling any more but the removal of predictable and satisfying rewards throughout the levelling path is a big one.

On the other hand, by loading up the loot hopper to the point where many players quite literally find sorting through it for anything worth keeping a chore, the sudden surge of dopamine that comes from an unexpected drop all but vanishes.

These days, most MMORPGs are like that. Guild Wars 2 is a particularly egregious example. One of the top complaints in the game is that loot is a bloody pain in the neck. There's far, far too much of it and almost nothing is worth having. I would estimate I get a genuinely exciting drop less than two or three times a year.

When loot becomes not just unexciting but tedious, it clearly loses any capacity it once had to condition the player through positive re-enforcement. If anything, you'd guess it might eventually have the opposite effect, acting as a punishment, conditioning players to avoid doing whatever it is that's annoying them so much.

Perhaps that's why game-hopping, barely even a thing in the Classic Era, has become the norm. If this MMORPG isn't giving you the hit you want, maybe that one will. The games themselves are becoming the levers and few of them come with the rewards to make pressing them worth the effort.

What players in WoW Classic are (re)discovering is that when you find yourself anticipating rewards that come just frequently enough to keep you playing but not so often you begin to take them for granted, your determination to keep pressing those levers increases.

I find myself anticipating the end of each level with unusual enthusiasm because I know I'm going to get a new ability, another talent point, access to different quests... And when a green item drops I have a brief moment of excitement. It might be an upgrade or I could sell it and make some much-needed money or send it to an alt or disenchant it and make something good - and increase my Enchanting skill for another dopamine buzz. The one time so far I got a blue drop I literally exclaimed out loud.

You never forget your first.
Classic WoW is drenched in these moments. All the Classic Era games were. Playing them meant a perpetual undertow of expectation. The next kill could give you a good drop or a skill increase. The next level might let you turn invisible or levitate or breathe underwater, gamechanging abilities.

The question is, do we really want to put ourselves back in that box? Were we happier as lab rats with no free will or are we happier now, rolling in loot like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin but with precious little to spend our wealth on that seems to matter a damn?

Don't look at me. I don't know. And anyway, I'm busy over here, pressing this lever.

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