Thu 20

Revenge of the Rats

What Max Reckons In 1957, a psychologist named B. F. Skinner decided to see what happened when you put a rat in a cage with a lever that made food come out. He discovered that if the food came out whenever the lever was pushed, the rat would settle into a healthy work-life balance of pushing levers and running hamster wheels. But if the lever only delivered food sometimes—if it randomly might or might not—the rat would work that lever like there was no tomorrow.

This research underpinned much development of poker machines and gaming. Now Diablo III reveals what happens when the rats have internet access: they bitch about drop rates.

The Diablo series of games are simple: you run through dungeons, hit monsters, and collect the items that fall out. Usually the items are crappy, but sometimes, randomly, they’re awesome, and allow you to fight even more powerful monsters, which can randomly drop even more awesome items. The game ends when you starve to death in your apartment surrounded by empty soda cans.

Actually, that’s not true: there is an end-game. Your character can’t progress beyond level 60 and there’s a hard maximum to the potential quality of items. So there is a diminishing returns thing: early in the game, you find better items often, but as your equipment approaches the theoretical maximum, your odds of finding something better become decreasingly smaller.

Diablo III had a few problems when it launched, and there was much bitching on internet forums. A great deal of the bitching was about drop rates; that is, how likely food was to arrive when you pressed the lever. Players thought drop rates were too low, if you were wondering. They wanted food to come out more regularly. A very popular proposal, one mentioned in almost every discussion, no matter how relevant, was that more situations should deliver “a guaranteed rare,” a “rare” being a high-quality item. That is, instead of food only coming out sometimes when you pushed the lever, it would come out every time.

This feedback around drop rates was offered to the developers in the form of an unholy maelstrom of teenage-grade internet fury that raged for many weeks. Players railed against the bitterness of a life of inadequate drop rates, expressing their incomprehension that such stupidity should exist and turning viciously against their former idol, game designer Jay Wilson, who was now revealed not as a benevolent provider of sometimes-food but rather the very face of evil, Diablo himself, as it were, He Who Made The Lever Not Work Often Enough.

Some of the angst was understandable. Diablo III introduced an in-game Auction House, which meant that instead of throwing your old items away as you found new ones, you could sell them to other players for gold. The marketplace being virtual and therefore operating with a degree of efficiency rarely seen in the real world, it was soon a lot easier to find good items on the Auction House than to go around hitting monsters hoping that one would randomly fall out. This in turn allowed players to obtain items approaching the hard maximum quite quickly after starting the game, and rendering their chances of thereafter seeing anything better randomly drop from a monster close to zero.

After sufficient buffeting, the developers decided to increase drop rates. They also created more “guaranteed rare” situations. This was very warmly received by the community. It wasn’t enough, though, and since then drop rates have been raised again, and “legendary” items radically overhauled to make them much better, i.e. more like food. At the same time, a new reward system was introduced called “Paragon Levels,” which periodically deliver such an enormous explosion of congratulation to the player that it almost feels sarcastic. This has quieted community angst, although at this point it’s hard to tell how many of them are left. I suspect a lot have stopped pushing the lever.

The interesting part about the rats who like to gamble is that they don’t do it for food. They don’t press the lever only as many times as required to deliver the same amount of food as when food delivery is guaranteed: they press it more often and more rapidly. They like to see if they can win. Although “like” could be the wrong word; it may be more accurate to say that the uncertainty creates stress, which they feel the need to resolve. I would imagine there are some pretty pissed-off rats, when they press the lever a bunch of times and still nothing happens. They would rage on the internet if they could. And they’d be justified, since it wasn’t their choice to get in the cage. Somebody put them there, who knew what would happen.

Fri 24

This Sentence is Already Too Long

What Max Reckons Blogs are dying. Not this blog. I mean in general. This blog’s just fine. Okay, yes, it has been a little while since the last post, but that’s just because I was busy writing. Well. Rewriting. It’s like writing, only with less visible progress. With writing, you can feel reasonably assured that what you put on the page is better than what was there before. Not always! But mostly. Rewriting, though, you can spend a good six hours on a scene, sit back, and think, “Yep… that’s worse.”

Anyway. Blogs are OUT. They’re too long. That’s the problem. No-one has the time for them. The middle is hollowing out. Everything is polarizing. We want things to be very. It doesn’t matter what. Whatever it is, only very. There’s no place for mid-length writing any more. There never was, of course. But blogs used to be short. Then Twitter. Now blogs are like One Day Cricket.*

But here we are! And it’s already been more than 140 characters. So let’s continue. This blog will summarize what I’ve been thinking about over the last few months, while I was busy making my new book not worse.

  • Sneaker riots. The first one or two were kind of shocking to me, like a thought come to life. The next few were disappointing, like repeated plot points. But now we’re at, what, the seventh Nike sneaker riot? When does it become less likely that they’re continually being surprised by this kind of thing happening and more likely that they’re deliberately engineering it? That’s just a question. I’m just wondering.

  • Syrup movie. Now in post-production. I have been shown a teaser-trailer thing and it is heartbreakingly beautiful. I’ve watched it three hundred times. I’m not joking. The only thing that sucks about the Syrup movie is I’m not allowed to tell you anything. But soon. Soon…

  • Privacy. This interests me because privacy is obviously very important for reasons nobody understands. Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies and governments to want to know things about you than for you to keep your data private. That leads to an interesting place.

  • Persuasion. This is the most valuable skill in the world, right? People who are good at persuading others become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this. Very few people actually go out and learn how to be better at persuasion, or more aware of its forms. Why is that?

    Also, the US as a culture is very advanced at soft persuasion (i.e. the forms of persuasion that don’t involve threats of bodily harm). It is great at selling stuff. We have the Internet and free access to vast stores of information but we’re still buying products with the cleverest ads, and electing politicians with the most reassuring voices. I wonder what happens if a culture becomes so good at persuasion that there is no longer an incentive to produce products that are just objectively good, as opposed to well-sold.

  • Privacy + Persuasion. It’s easier to persuade people if you know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can get more information from them. That’s an interesting dynamic, too.

  • Piracy. But this is too depressing for now so I’ll blog about it later.

That’s a lot of Ps, for some reason.

(* This analogy works because even if you don’t know cricket, you know it is stupid and anachronistic.)