The Sha of Random

More and more complaints are raised in World of Warcraft over its random nature. Blizzard can argue against it all it wants, but a fundamental truth has finally arisen; that the game doesn’t reward skill or time, it rewards based on mathematical random rolls. And that comes with problems.

 

World of Warcraft was always a little random at the best of times.

I mean, back in the Vanilla release some people would run Stratholme every day for the Baron’s Reins, the undead horse all could use. Some struggled to come to terms with getting the items and equipment that they needed to continue on, and most of all some of us waited for weeks as hunters for the leaf in Molten Core. When we got it, the game changed from a waiting game to a test of skill and nerve, running around the world and slaying a number of demons in terribly crowded and difficult places. We were rewarded for our labours a bow that at the time could also turn into a staff. You know, if you wanted the staff over a really nice bow…

So too did some of us wait for specific drops in Black Temple, and again for the legendary bow in Sunwell Plateau. We ran these places over and over and over again. Every week, constantly and desperately hoping that the one thing we were after would finally appear and that the Random Number Generator Gods (who, by the way, are related to the vengeful Tetris God!) would bless us with a high roll. We’ve been doing this for years, it is nothing new or surprising or even daring. All MMOs, to a certain extent, have some random element to them. Be it the unpredictable battlefields of PvP or the unforgiving Raid Boss who you’ve been killing every week for years hoping they will drop their shiny mount for you, random comes in many forms. Because that is the nature of random. You can’t really predict it.

Of course, there are complaints about it now. Not because it’s bad – but because Blizzard made it far, far too obvious.

The thing is, as much as I didn’t mind the random nature of the MMO sphere, truth is most of us don’t really LIKE such randomness, not least when the odds are firmly stacked against us. And certainly not when some miserable little Fail-Druid who came stone cold bottom of the DPS tables underneath a healer of all people walks off with a terribly sweet epic they probably will only use to reaffirm to themselves they perhaps don’t fail quite as hard as they really do. When presented with others, others who have the items, most people feel a mixture of rage and bitter jealousy. That’s how people are and when you have millions of people playing your game then you have to accept not everyone will give you a dignified ‘Congratulations, good sir.’ Most will be quite the opposite, choosing some select cuts of foul language as they rage-quit in a huff that you got what they didn’t. People don’t inherently by nature like random. They don’t like it when someone gets rewarded for their efforts, and they hate it more when someone undeserving walks off with a prize as well. Everyone wants to believe they deserve that moment of fortune, that glint of luck. It’s largely what sustains so many MMO players like me – we pin our hopes on the end result, and we convince ourselves there will be a “Next Time”. Another chance. Another shot.

Which is a problem in any MMO as the inherent time-restricted content ensures that all people only have a limited time and number of chances to get equipment that is relevant to their raid performance, and if you are after items for a legendary or a mount, the time restrictions are tighter still. You only have so long that the content is current and worth doing, and when a new tier of raid content comes you find yourself with instances filled with equipment that is designed to get new characters and alts geared up for the new raids without doing the old ones, wholly bypassing the previous tier of content and effectively ensuring you won’t get the people again to run it with you for some considerable time. At this point, no-one likes to be told the odds are stacked against them; that when you only have eight to twelve weeks of a current tier of content that can only be cleared once a week and has to be learned by individuals who may not be quite as quick to pick things up. You, and clearly the designers of these games too, can easily become disillusioned and expect everyone to be much like the top raiding guilds in the world, clearing content and spending twelve hours a day breaking it down and getting used to it. When the vast majority of your players won’t even have that time in a week to raid properly, there’s a real danger that those who could most use the items for the current tier of content are, in fact, unlikely to see them. And there’s a real danger that you can overtune content, effectively making it harder for people than it really should be to remain somewhat enjoyable.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is a great example of how exposed the conceit has now become, because there are so many random elements that it can be quite hard to get your head around it, but a list of some of the current ‘random roll’ situations are;

  • Dungeon Loot (Heroics can only be cleared once a day with boss fights having a selection of gear they only drop one or two of a time).
  • Looking for Raid (The game makes a roll for you to see if you will get loot. If you can’t, you can use up special coins for one more random roll.)
  • Sha of Anger (Same deal as looking for raid).
  • Crafting (Jewelcrafters and Inscriptors have a one-a-day research to hopefully learn any one of a number of patterns).
  • The Black Market Auction House (Which has a few items a week for obscene prices and are rarely worth the expense).
  • Raid Loot (Much like Heroic Dungeons except once a week from even larger loot pools).
  • Dailies (Which often come with random rewards at times too, just to further drive the wedge in.)
  • Other crafts (Like Tailoring and Leatherworking having to repeatedly make the same items hoping they will get a blue version that has more use).

I could go on and on, but the truth is this; World of Warcraft is no longer rewarding skill. It’s wholly based on chance. And when you have players desperately trying to improve be it through repeating rotations or pinning their hopes on that next piece of equipment, not rewarding people for the time and effort they put in is becoming dangerous. Moreso when World of Warcraft is one of very few MMOs still yet to put in place a Loyalty Scheme, one which rewards and excites players who have been subscribing for some time with pets and random novelties that they can show off to their friends and guild-fellows. Blizzard don’t often respond to user criticisms of the randomness but when they do, they insist that so much of this is “optional”, that player skill should be the baseline. Which is again lovely, but not everyone is in a top-tier raiding guild that gets invited to your annual PvP arena competitions and raid challenges. Player skill varies considerably, and the idea is to ensure that everyone who is paying you $12 a month has an even chance of getting the things they desire. Otherwise you create an old fashioned Class System between the haves and the have-nots. My tank managed to get two epic swords from the Headless Horseman event. I know of a friend who didn’t even get the epic ring drop they wanted in that time, and that was running it as often as they could. Neither of us got the mount, which another friend obtained and loves to brag about.

It’s a socio-political powder keg waiting to happen.

Not all of this is wholly down to the Random Number Generator, of course. But that such emphasis is still placed upon it, when in the past extra loot was provided to those who could fulfil certain challenges and meet certain requirements, when people could turn in tokens for the equipment they wanted and patch up the rest with gear which was somewhat on-par with it, when people could be taught and trained and it wasn’t always a case of dumping the dead weight for someone else, because you could help them by seeing how they did on tools like Recount.

The problem comes when random is all there is. In the past there was a choice, and people had that choice. Some may have abused it, but more were grateful that they could use it to keep up often with their fellows who might simply be able to perform better with less. Blizzard think players still have choice – but it is walled behind weeks worth of daily quests, restrictive random loot rules and even one world boss who only spawns randomly twice a week! And once it is dead, it is dead. Often not killed by those who need the equipment or experience, but by those who don’t.

It’s the sign of a game in a desperate muddle, World of Warcraft. It’s not bad – but it’s struggling to keep everyone happy. It tries to keep one side happy for three months then it will try to keep another batch of users happy and it feels like they hope we will overall just forgive the flaws and come to understand they can’t really win. I understand that. I even respect it. For keeping ten million users happy every week would be a challenge for any game, let alone one which some can spend hours a day in. It shows that Blizzard are struggling with the design when they have to constantly keep adjusting the goalposts of raiding, when they can add heroic raids and heroic modes in heroic raids and still largely miss the point. Such a design ethos can only segregate a community that has for some time been fraying at the seams.

The challenge facing Blizzard is one of rewards. Giving people just enough without giving too much. But not giving so little that it becomes a little bit offensive. Maybe Blizzard will find and create a system that manages to solve all these issues and more, replacing the tired random rolls with something more solid, with more foundation and tied to getting people the things they want, need or crave based on the time they put in, and the effort they exert. Or maybe it will be Cryptic, or Trion, or SOE… no, who am I kidding on that one…

No system is completely foolproof. A wholly randomised end-game is great for those who have the time and the luck for it. But for those not as fortunate, or with less time, it becomes too much of a barrier to entry. The elite may not like to accept this in these games, but those paying their subscription fee are just as entitled to expect fun and loot as anyone else. Not only that but in so many cases you will effectively chase off the very people whom you need to keep paying those subscription fees so you can keep on getting all that shiny brand new raid content you crave so much. What, you didn’t think it grew on trees, did you?

Not that I worry too much. I always keep changing and keep on flitting between games. And all of them require a daily commitment to get anywhere, and if not in daily quests – then the daily compulsion to do a dungeon and get equipment to remain competitive against others, who are incredibly judgemental when they are put in a random situation with random people and have few if any consequences of their true identity being revealed. You then create the social need to remain at the top. And anyone who isn’t is somehow a lesser person for it, even if they’re just incredibly unfortunate with the die.

It is, as I said, a social headache. Social pressure. Peer pressure. Server pressure. Anonymous pressure. Guild pressure. Personal pressure.

And all exacerbated by the random nature of the beast, knowing you can never quite be perfect. Because the system won’t allow it.

It’s quite scary when you think about it, is’t it?

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