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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

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Thu 20
Sep
2012

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.

Comments

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Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 678 days ago

Before anyone asks, no, I haven't finished my rewrite yet. But I am CLOSE.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 678 days ago

Also, Diablo III is a fun game.

Chris (#6002)

Location: Canada
Posted: 678 days ago

Maybe you can talk Blizzard into re-writing the code so that every time you click the mouse a random word drops onto the page... And once in a while it'll be the correct word for the sentence and context of the situation... And an auction house where you can sell off the words that you're not using to other authors for their own work!

Though, to be fair, people would probably start ranting on the Internet that good words weren't appearing nearly often enough. ;D

Allina Dither (#5996)

Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Quote: ""Mostly, this an attack on me from previous statements I've made.""
Posted: 678 days ago

This gets me to thinking about the issues brought up in "For the Win," which I'm reading. Ah, I'm alive to read the works of both Max Berry and Cory Doctorow. Lucky-ass me ...

Karan (#1376)

Location: Sydney, Australia
Quote: "Quid Quid Latine Dictum Sit, Altum Viditur - Anything said in Latin sounds important"
Posted: 678 days ago

Oh god, thanks for pointing out the similarities between D3 players and the rats. I now feel somewhat... hollow. For that matter, I suppose it should have been obvious when Korea banned the RMAH because of the gambling element.

(for the record, I didn't moan about drop rates, just the fact that this game has a dumb requirement for a constant network connection without significant benefit, and I've died due to lag than all other causes combined.)

Ben Sugden (#3922)

Location: Huddersfield, UK
Posted: 678 days ago

I guess the rat-lever for me now is the ever so rare email from Blizzard telling me that one of my items has sold for £2.50 in the RMAH.

In August I sold enough digitally-existent rare items that I had enough PayPal funds to buy a whole roleplaying game supplement. A clear case of my gaming activity financially supporting itself :) (Although I've still only made back 35% of the outlay involved in purchasing D3 in the first place).

stanley becker (#5283)

Location: black hole
Quote: "DON"T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER!!"
Posted: 678 days ago

Skinner thought that behaviour was the "holy grail" - [another big gaming theme] - the reason why those on the left who espoused human freedom and more essentially the freedom of choice and rejected the right reactionary "control mania" is that in a crisis situation where we are about to go down the tube and forfeit our lives our life senses will press any lever over and over again in an attempt to stay afloat Skinner was thought by many intellectuals to be a Nazi - he did not promote human freedom but showed how given the right circumstances all of us could become rats - although the players of Diablo are not in extremis they are bored addicts looking for a fix - the game designer takes this as "given" and designs a game for these "addicts" - the game is successful - so what does it prove? - that there are bored people looking for diversion in a robotic and predictable format - all the best Yours S.

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 678 days ago

Guildwars 2 does the work-life-balance thing really well. You level up on the fly; no grinding for xp or items (it would feel utterly pointless); the focus is more on exploring the (super-rich) world then to hit the level cap as soon as possible. Since the scaling works really well (higher level characters are scaled down to match the surroundings they're in by level), it hardly matters what level you are anyway.

It's super easy-going, without playing ever feeling arbitrary or futile.

At first it felt TOO DAMN EASY to me, but than I settled into it and my focus just shifted to other things.

The future of MMOs, there, for a generation that doesn't have the attention span or patience for grinding like we used to; and the older generation of original MMO players have day jobs and families. It's all good.

Machine Man subscriber Max

Location: Melbourne, Australia
Quote: "I'm my number one fan!"
Posted: 678 days ago

@Karan: I'm with you on the always-online thing and the lag for Australian players. I could write another whole thing about how much that sucks. What are we supposed to do when PvP comes along, Blizzard??

Anyway, that aside, and avoiding the Auction House, and not mentioning what happens to the story in the second half, I've had a lot of fun with the game. Blizzard has worked incredibly hard post-launch to refine & fix problems. And all the important stuff is super slick.

@Marleen: I've heard interesting things about Guild Wars 2. The TOO DAMN EASY thing is a concern for me, though. I can't quite get used to the way computer games hold your hand nowadays. I feel like I'm being patronized.

Machine Man subscriber Randy (#2374)

Location: Ravena, NY
Quote: "I could write a book about being lazy. I just don't feel like it."
Posted: 678 days ago

I did stop pushing the lever some time ago and went back to story driven single player gems like Half-life...not to mention the perpetual backlog that is the result of Steam sales (I think Valve's on staff psychologist helps them set price points where you can't resist). Now that Torchlight 2 is out I may have to go back to click....click....click...

Machine Man subscriber Marleen (#2741)

Location: Berlin, Germany
Quote: "I want more expensive shoes in one place than I've ever seen in my whole life."
Posted: 677 days ago

@Max, but I was wrong. It is not "too easy" to level up because you simply... cease to care about levelling up. It is no longer the thing that matters. You get it for free, so you can focus on other things that are more fun, such as the personal story, crafting, finding new awesome areas on the maps, experiencing the rich world and spending time with your friends. I don't even look at my xp anymore... It took me a day or so to get used to, but now I think it's awesome.

Machine Man subscriber Ben (#3924)

Location: Alberta, Canada
Quote: "I don't wanna ride the elevator."
Posted: 676 days ago

D3 took about two weeks till I simply quit. The constant DCs were not an acceptable problem. Since then I have moved on to GW2 and Planetside 2. It should be mentioned though that D3 pissed me off so much I quit gaming altogether until GW2 dropped.

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 676 days ago

Maybe its because I haven't played too many, but I don't understand the appeal of loot-fests. Yea, the prospect of new gear and all that is intriguing, just like in any other RPG/action game. But basing an entire game, hell an entire genre around obtaining countless items that are essentially all the same, barring a few cosmetic and stat changes, just boggles my mind.

TotesEichhorn (#4757)

Location: Vienna - Austria
Quote: "marketing IS modern propaganda"
Posted: 675 days ago

"So what level are your skills in RL?"

As a friend of mine is quite an addict to this type of games, I wondered why it is that his skills in RL are lacking.... well the answer is simple, isn't it?

Don't get me wrong here, I do like playing games ( from pen n paper, cards, board, tabletop, to pc and console..) it is one thing that keeps the mind occupied, and shows intelligence (the longing to be confronted with different problems and finding a solution). - But you should ALWAYS keep in mind your REAL LIFE. Yes you can harvest a lot in different games, but the satisfaction of bringing in your own REAL harvest ( chillis in my case ;) ), or crafting something real, is simply a lot bigger.

Stay real, and play FOR FUN! :)

Neurosurf (#3339)

Location: Frankfurt, Germany
Quote: "Thank you for writing. Keep on."
Posted: 664 days ago

I wonder if you ever came across the civ games. And what you think about it? It is not too far away from nation states.

Your's

Thomas

Jim Morvay (#6164)

Location: USA
Quote: "ab umbra tenebrarum emergit veritas"
Posted: 604 days ago

After I saw this post and read about Skinner's experiment, it immediately reminded me of Lost, more specifically, the cage that Sawyer was held in where he had to push a button and pull a lever in a particular way to get a treat or be shocked).

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