Random Loot is better than Expected Loot

Imagine these two similar game mechanics.

1. You’re playing a game where each time you kill an enemy you gain 25 XP. Every 100 XP, your weapon is upgraded to deal 50% more damage. It’s a noticeable improvement.

2. You are playing a game and come across a bush. You slash the bush and there’s a chest. You kill a monster that comes out of the chest and peek inside. You find the “Eternal Ice Sword” which deals 10% more damage than your previous weapon.

Which is more compelling?

As I understand videogame psychologist Jamie Madigan’s article on looting, the second situation will make your game far more compelling than the first.

The human brain is incredible at recognizing and encoding the patterns of behavior and environmental response that lead to reward and punishment. Or, put simply, we are really good at learning, and it feels good.

This gif is probably unnecessary and will turn readers off from this style of article

In our first situation, our brain expects positive developments… drip… drip… drip…. This pattern is fairly trivial for our brain to pick up on and keep tabs on in the background. We’re expecting incremental benefits to come, so when it happens, our brains are all, “big deal, called it”.

In our second situation, our brain counts each new unexpected discovery as a potentially crucial signal. It’s a decidedly good find, our brain didn’t expect it, and if our brain could just figure out the underlying pattern to these drops, “imagine the potential upside”!

“One can see this phenomenon in action by looking at the response of dopamine neurons, which get much more ‘excited’ when exposed to an unexpected reward than when exposed to a reward they can predict in advance.” - Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide (via Madigan)

To incentivize a search for the underlying pattern of a novel occurrence, our brain sends around dopamine, its motivational currency. To our conscious mind, dopaminergic propagation “feels good”. It says “keep doing what you’re doing, because it’s working”. “This game is fun”. “Must… keep… playing…”.

When we can’t find the specific reason something positive-feeling happened while playing the game, we fail back to “because I’m playing the game”. “When I keep playing the game, I keep getting positive feedback”.

Random drops are a bit of a human brain hack. There’s no externally useful pattern the player is being incentivized to recognize, but it still feels good. The positive feedback is entirely dependent on the in-game context, but the player’s conclusion extends beyond the bounds of the game – that playing the game more is the common factor between dopamine spikes… playing the game makes them happy.

Is it irrational to feel good about a game because of its random positive drops? Are games with random bonuses unfairly artificially boosting their fun-ness? Is enhancing a game with this somehow unethical?

A Hack? Random Dopamine without Frustration

Normally, throwing cognitive load at trying to pick up on a non-existent pattern and getting nowhere leads to frustration. Know the feeling of failing to pick up on a Magic Eye?

Or how about the first 10 hours of playing QWOP. (I consider it one of the most satisfying and challenging casual games of all time, a certain professor of mine called it “terrible”).

For some reason, occasional drops don’t feel frustrating. Maybe it’s because drops aren’t the core game mechanic and they’re positive, not negative feedback. Pok√©mon and Final Fantasy’s random enemies can be extremely frustrating if you’re not intending to find a fight.

So… about my Galaga clone…

As for the game you’re hacking on… how can you make use of this information?

If you get the opportunity to have others play-test your game, watch and listen for when your players get bored. Isolate these drop-off moments and think… when have they last had any positive feedback? Negative feedback? Have they found the underlying pattern – has this made the game predictable, like tic-tac-toe? Boring?

Creatively space out the positive-feeling moments of your game. Throw your player off once in a while, surprise them and throw them off their feet.

About the Author

Brian is a game and web developer in San Francisco working at Code.org, a non-profit focused on growing access to Computer Science education. Brian also curates Coding for Interviews, a weekly programming interview practice newsletter. Formerly @ PopCap, intern @ TripAdvisor, One Laptop per Child, Tufts CS. Follow Brian on Twitter @bcjordan.

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