If you’ve ever spent a decent amount of time playing a MMORPG chances are you’ve come up against the terror that is the Random Number Generator (RNG). No matter how many times you run a dungeon to get that one item to complete your set or kill that particular mob to get that item you need to complete that quest it just never seems to happen. However, sometimes, everything seems to go your way and all your Christmases seem to come at once and the game has you in its grasp again. Whilst RNGesus might be a cruel god to many he’s the reason that many of us keep coming back and now there’s solid science to prove it.
It’s long been known that random rewards are seen as more rewarding than those that are given consistently. Many online games, notably those on social networks, have tapped into that mechanic in order to keep users engaged far longer than they would have otherwise. Interestingly though this seems to run contrary to what many players will tell you, often saying that they’d prefer a guaranteed reward after a certain amount effort or time committed. As someone who’s played through a rather large number of games that utilize both mechanics I can tell you that both types of systems will keep me returning however nothing beats the rush of finding a really good item from the hands of RNGesus.
Indeed my experience seems to line up with the recent study published by the University of Chicago which shows that people are more motivated by random rewards than they are by consistent ones. It sounds quite counter-intuitive when you think about it, I mean who would take a random reward over a guaranteed one, but the effect remains consistent across the multiple experiments that they conducted. Whilst the mechanism of what triggers this isn’t exactly known it’s speculated that randomness leads to excitement, much like the the infinitesimally small odds of winning the lottery are irrelevant to the enjoyment some people derive from playing it.
However the will of RNGesus needs to be given a guiding hand sometimes to ensure that he’s not an entirely cruel god. Destiny’s original loot system was a pretty good example of this as you could be bless with a great drop only to have the reveal turn it into something much less than what you’d expect it to be. Things like this can easily turn people off games (and indeed I think this is partly responsible for the middling reviews it received at launch) so there needs to be a balance struck so players don’t feel hard done by.
I’d be very interested to see the effect of random rewards that eventually become guaranteed (I.E. pseudo-random rewards). World of Warcraft implemented a system like this for quest drops a couple years ago and it was received quite well. This went hand in hand with their guaranteed reward systems (tokens/valor/etc.) which have also been met with praise. Indeed I believe the mix of these two systems, random rewards with guaranteed systems on the side, seems to be the best mix in order to keep players coming back. I definitely know I feel more motivated to play when I’m closer to a guaranteed reward which can, in turn, lead to more random ones.
It’s always interesting to investigate these non-intuitive behaviours as it can give us insight into why we humans act in seemingly irrational ways when it comes to certain things. We all know we’re not strict rational actors, nor are we perfect logic machines, but counter-intuitive behaviour is still quite a perplexing field of study. At least we’ve got definitive proof now that random rewards are both more rewarding and more motivating than their consistent brethren although how that knowledge will help the world is an exercise I’ll leave up to the reader.
It might surprise you to know that I have a pretty keen interest in the realms of psychology. I’m not exactly sure where the interest comes from but I think it has something to do with me viewing the human mind as an incredibly complex machine, one that we’re only just beginning to decipher the inner workings of. Primarily I’m interested in what motivates people to do certain things so I can understand where they’re coming from. Thinking back to my university years I can see that this interest probably stemmed from my obsession with trying to understand the everyman, figuring that I was so far removed from normalcy that I had to undertake such tasks. That interest has of course lead me to try and figure out why people keep coming back here to read my writing and I recently uncovered some interesting facts that might shed some light on that.
I’ve known for quite a while that I’m not particularly good at judging what articles of mine will be popular and ones that won’t. I’ve tried to crack that secret formula of writing something that will be an instant success but realistically the most popular articles I’ve written have always been slow burners, coming into fame a long time after I wrote them. Still I noticed an interesting trend after each of those hits took off on their own accord: more people would start visiting. Not just from random searches but also returning visitors and each new hit would build on the last one. I put it down to simple network effects (I.E. one new reader usually entails more readers as they share the posts around) for the most part, but something I read yesterday changed my view on this.
B.F Skinner was an American behaviourist who’s research into cognitive processes spans a good 5 decades from 1938 to 1989. He was also somewhat of an inventor, building several contraptions to test his various theories. One such device was the Operant Conditioning Chamber (or Skinner Box) a simple device designed to test the link between behaviours and their link to rewards both positive (reinforcement) and negative (disincentive). They’re usually quite simple devices consisting of some kind of operandum (say a lever or button) that the subject has to activate in order to receive a reward. Despite being so simple they can be used to study a wide range of behavioural mechanisms and one of them is particularly intriguing.
Given a direct relationship between the operandum and the reward (press button, receive bacon) subjects in the box will make the association and would operate it when they wanted said reward. However should the relationship be indirect, say the reward only comes randomly, then the subjects began to develop behaviours that they believed were consistent with the reward. Examples of this were birds performing such unusual behaviours as bowing or dancing before pressing a button as they associated that behaviour with the completely random reward. With that in mind I started thinking about where I’d seen this behaviour elsewhere and pennies started dropping.
Games, especially casual and MMORPGs, are heavily based around this concept of random rewards. MMORPGs are probably the best example of this when they follow the usual formula of “kill baddies, they drop loot” but the best rewards don’t drop often. Indeed back in the beginning days of World of Warcraft one of the end raid bosses, Onyxia, had an ability called Deep Breath that, from a scientific point of view, was triggered completely at random. However guilds attempting this boss would employ crazy strategy after crazy strategy to stop her from using said ability, with some swearing by its effectiveness. It got to the point where it became a meme for each new patch that players would observe “Onyxia deep breathes more often” or someone would discover yet another mechanic that apparently affected the frequency.
For bloggers the effect is somewhat similar, although it usually takes a slightly different form. I know for myself that if I find a blog post that I really like I’ll usually end up subscribing to the author’s RSS feed, hoping to get more of the same. Of course not everything they put out will be gold but day after day I’ll find myself coming back hoping to see the writing that captured me in the first place. Every so often they’ll hit on it again and I’ll be hooked again for however long, but usually long enough that they’ll strike gold again.
And that, my readers, is probably why you keep coming back. I don’t know what post brought you here or what may have made you subscribe to me but undoubtedly the reason you keep coming back is that you’re hoping to see something along those lines again. I hope I can deliver on that often enough to be worth your while and indeed, since so many of you do come back I get the feeling I do that often enough to keep reinforcing that behaviour. Not that I’m actively trying to condition you though, although now that I think of it the prospect of doing so is rather tempting… 😉