Experienced Points: Skinner Boxing

By Shamus Posted Monday Feb 22, 2016

Filed under: Column 94 comments

As many of you guessed from the end of the last column, this week I’m writing about skinner boxes.

And yes, that means I never did get around to answering the original question, “Why do games have a luck stat?” (That is, where your character can invest in increasing their overall luck.) To answer that now: I’m not really sure. It’s always felt like a strange and alien abstraction to me. There are indeed lucky people in the world in the sense that they “rolled well” at some point in their lives, but there are not lucky people in the sense that they roll better than the rest of us on a regular basis. There are people who win the lottery, but there aren’t people who have a better chance of winning the lottery than the rest of us, or are just naturally predisposed to lottery-winning.

Then again, we’re talking about a system to simulate roleplaying stories, not real life. And some characters are indeed just naturally lucky. Forrest Gump seems to be the go-to example of this. So if you want to play through a story where your character is implausibly blessed by fortune, then I guess the luck stat does that.

The other important thing luck gives us is the SPECIAL system. Fallout just wouldn’t be the same if it was based on SPECIA.


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94 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Skinner Boxing

  1. MichaelGC says:

    Well, I guess it’s not vastly weirder than having a set numerical value for ‘charisma’… The Fighting Fantasy books used a luck stat in the early 80s; I wonder if there have been many – or any – earlier implementations?:


    1. Orillion says:

      Charisma at least makes sense; the tone and body language aspects are things on par with strength or dexterity in terms of how the player would role-play them. What I’ve never understood is games (especially tabletop role-playing games) assigning a number to the character’s intelligence. If the character is exceptionally smart there’s virtually no way the player can accurately pretend to be that smart, outside of things like rolling to get the DM to give them the answer to a puzzle or whatever. On the other side, having an exceptionally low intelligence will almost always result in a character who is nominally dumb but practically at or above average human intelligence, due to players not wanting to intentionally make poor decisions.

      1. Joshua says:

        Well, intelligence wouldn’t necessarily result in poor decisions, just poor analytical ability. If you don’t understand something very well, you could still try to make the best decision possible based upon your limited understanding of the matter, or try to defer the decision to someone who knows more about the subject in question.

        But as far as your example, I must admit I’m struggling in our current campaign to play a Bard with a 6 Wisdom. Easy to say I’m very unobservant or not good at reading people, but I find it difficult to deliberately play stupidly.

        1. I’ve had the same problem playing low int or wis characters, to the point I’m no longer allowed to try it in our regular game. We were going through a magical dungeon with a challenge for each character, and after my int 8 wis 8 sorcerer solved the magus and wizard bits for them, it became a house rule. (We did the challenges one at a time, and after the magus’ player took an hour and still couldn’t come up with anything, well, I got frustrated and solved it, and the wizard’s player had the same problem so asked me to solve it.)
          On the plus side, it’s made for some interesting characters, such as my fighter who was the knowledge junkie.

      2. Zekiel says:

        “…due to players not wanting to intentionally make poor decisions.”

        Depends how much you want to roleplay. Back in my schooldays I had a friend (who did much more PnP roleplaying than me) who joyfully reported how he’d been playing a low-Int barbarian in a party which defeated a dragon and each got a Wish as a reward. His barbarian wished for the dragon to come back to life so they could fight it again because he’d had so much fun!

        I always think of that as a GREAT example of good roleplaying.

        1. Arstan says:

          Did the party get another turn of wishes afterwards?))))

    2. Joe Informatico says:

      There’s not much call for Intelligence or Charisma in a tabletop roleplaying game; they’re basically a legacy of original Dungeons & Dragons at this point. You might want a stat to represent a character’s general Knowledge or Education (if you want a chance for characters to know things not otherwise represented by more specific skills or attributes), but reducing analysis or problem-solving to a die roll just turns a role-playing game into a board game. “Roll to see if you’re smart enough to answer this riddle” isn’t much different than “Roll to see if you’re skilled enough to pick this lock” or “Kill this monster in your way.”

      Charisma might make more sense in a video game, where there are limited dialogue options but you want the option of a player making a character build that can talk their way out of problems. But newer games that don’t want to deny the player access to all content on their first playthrough regardless of build aren’t really designed to make that worthwhile.

      1. Jenx says:

        I am going to sound like an obnoxious nerd, but this problem has a very easy solution in tabletop games – Just don’t play D&D! Seriously, D&D is so laughably antiquated and useless at this point, as far as RPG systems go I am still amazed people keep using it as their go-to game.

        1. Matt Downie says:

          The real problem is there are two different playstyle preferences that come into conflict.
          Player 1: I try to persuade the king to spare our lives.
          GM: How?
          Player 1: I dunno. It’s my character who’s got +23 Diplomacy modifier, not me.
          Player 2: I say, “Your highness, let not your ancestors go unavenged! If you will allow us ingress to the sacred vault of the ancients, we will lay the dead to rest, and split any profits with your kingdom!”
          Player 1: You’re a barbarian with charisma and intelligence of 7. Why are you so eloquent?
          Player 2: Do you just want to do everything as a dice roll?
          Player 1: It doesn’t make sense that your Barbarian is better at this than my Bard just because you do improv drama workshops in real life. I don’t get to be stronger than you in game just because I lift weights.
          Player 2: If you do it as a dice roll, it’s boring. Realistic, but boring.
          Player 1: If I punch the GM in the face, would he let me count that as a natural 20 on my attack roll?
          Player 2: In my experience, yes, but you don’t get invited back.

          1. Falterfire says:

            I’ve never quite managed to get a D&D group rolling, largely because every time I’ve tried it’s with roughly the same group of people, all of whom are inexperienced at roleplaying and have inconsistent schedules.

            The last one I tried fell apart largely because of somebody like your player 1. We’d be having a discussion about what to do next and the Orc Barbarian would suggest something he didn’t agree with, and he’s say “No, your character isn’t smart enough to think of that.” Or to mess with another player he’d say something like “I talk your character into doing and you believe me because I have a high charisma and diplomacy and your character doesn’t.”

            (Of course, the OTHER huge reason it fell apart was because I was trying to DM and I was too lazy and inexperienced to properly construct my campaigns and too conceited to accept using prebuilt ones)

          2. krellen says:

            You know, the better solution to this would be the GM saying “Okay Player 1, your character says what Player 2 just offered. Roll to see how well it goes over.” Roleplaying is troupe play, and there’s no reason why another player shouldn’t be able to suggest an action for someone else’s character.

            1. Tektotherriggen says:

              Even better, depending on the general tone of the story, this could turn into a running joke.

              Player 2: [Eloquent speech]
              DM: [Rolls dice for the barbarian’s diplomacy skill check] The king laughs at the stupidity of this hulking idiot.
              Player 1: [Says exactly the same thing]
              DM: [Rolls dice for the bard’s persuasiveness] The king is extremely impressed with your wise and diplomatic words, and accepts your offer.

              And if the improv guy can do his speech in Hulk voice, more fun all round!

          3. ehlijen says:

            Both styles seem somewhat short of the ideal.

            Yes, it’s hard playing someone smarter/suaver/more paying attention than you. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, especially if, as Krellen suggests, the party is allowed to help out of character (and it should, it’s a cooperative game). The GM should be helpful, too. After all, attacks aren’t acted out. It is more fun (in my opinion) to act out the talking, but the GM should pay more heed to what the character intends to do, than how well the player says it.

            But player 2 is quite obviously not playing their character here (something an improv actor should be able to realise). Not wanting to rule everything with just dice has nothing to do with it; what player 2 is doing is minmaxing combat prowess by dumping social stats and then trying to pretend the resulting weakness doesn’t exist by ignoring the rules the social stats would interact with.

            I personally like the Exalted idea for this (note: idea, not necessarily their social combat system as a rule): declaration of intent is all that’s needed to roll the action, but entertaining elaboration grants a small bonus on the roll (which can be acting it out, but also includes describing the action in detail).

          4. Abnaxis says:

            This is what “roleplay bonuses” are for.

            In any game I run–and any game I’ve played–players get a bonus to the roll if they manage to think of a solution that is both in character and interesting. Player 1 doesn’t get the bonus because they’re just rolling a die. Player 2 doesn’t get the bonus because they aren’t in character. Come up with whatever in-character justification you want–the orc was focusing so much of his limited intellect on being eloquent that he didn’t notice his fly was open, or something.

            Works good for me, at least. Gives players a carrot for proper roleplaying, without forcing the issue for every single roll.

          5. Atle says:

            You can have a charismatic person and an non-charismatic person suggest the same thing. The charismatic person would have a higher chance of being convincing. That’s where the character stat and the die roll comes in.

            But Player 1 only suggests pleading to “spare our lives”, which would have a more difficult die roll than a more relevant offer.

            Both the content of the suggestion (given by the player) and the charisma of the character
            should be taken into account.

            Player 1 (super high charisma): “I suggest the king go f*ck himself”
            DM (Rolls dice): After a moment of shocked silence, the king roars with laughter. “Okay, I got a job for someone with just that kind of fearlessness!”

            Player 2 (low charisma): “I suggest the king go f*ck himself”
            DM (does not bother rolling dice): “Throw the bastard in the jail, but cut his bloody hands off first!!!”

            It would be a very different game if success was dependent on the players personal abilities and not the characters.

            Player 3: “I try to force the door open.”
            DM: Okay, go over to the weights and do a snatch with 80 kg to determine if you’re strong enough …

      2. krellen says:

        Why is “roll to see if you are skilled enough to pick a lock” okay, but “roll to see if you can solve this riddle” is not?

        1. Matt Downie says:

          Lockpicking works as a skill check to the extent that there really isn’t a more interesting way of doing it via freeform role-playing. But “roll to find the trap and then roll to disarm the trap”, via the standard skill system, isn’t universally loved.

          In the old days we would try to figure out traps by waving around a ten foot pole with a mirror on it, and it was more intellectually engaging.

          1. Nidokoenig says:

            Note to self, equip traps with eleven foot poles to carry the payload.

        2. Falterfire says:

          Because mental skills are ones your players are expected to bring to the table. If they’re rolling to solve riddles, you may as well have them rolling to find the optimal route through combat as well.

          “What do you do?” “Well, my character is supposed to be good at combat, and I’m a nerdy college student, so I’ll roll to see how well my character does at it instead.”

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Yes,and?Whats the problem with that?

            Not everyone who roleplays is good at analytical thinking,social skills and spatial reasoning at the same time.Not to mention that even when you are good at one of those three(or any other skill),you are good at it ALL THE TIME.Especially on your down time.

            If you prefer to roll dice and rely on luck instead of talking your way through a puzzle or a conversation,you should be allowed to do so.

        3. evileeyore says:

          Logically it’s the same. But as Shamus explained via the Skinner Box explanation, solving the puzzle intellectually is more rewarding than solving it via dice rolls (for many people).

          I’ve always been in your camp however, I argue that if we can do one thing without dice rolls puzzle-solving), I the ex-athlete, ex-drama major should also get to skip on dice rolls when smooth talking or punching enemies in the face.

          1. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

            My old rule books say that dice rolls should be used to supplement roleplay, not replace. Sure, the player may not be terribly eloquent, but roll the dice -see that the character is eloquent -and then DM accordingly.

            Player 1: “Look, king, sir, your highness. Like, if you let us go, we’ll totally go hunt down the true assassins of your brother.”

            DM: rolls dice. natural 20. “You make a compelling argument. Alright.”

            Player 2: “Harken, oh King, if you would grant us thy royal favor with arms and armor, your own heraldry would be the last thing the true assassins will see!”

            DM: rolls dice. 4. “Don’t piss on my and tell me it’s raining, sonny. Be glad I’m letting you try to save your worthless lives by finding these claimed true assassins, and don’t push your luck.”

            1. Matt Downie says:

              That seems like the GM rolling reaction checks. In D&D 3+, the player would normally be the one rolling the dice and adding a bonus.

              One disadvantage of this style is that it becomes unsafe to let a PC with low Diplomacy skill talk at all. So on any social occasion, the player with the highest Diplomacy skill has to do all the talking, and the rest of the players just sit there. And this leads to 75% of the players wanting to minimise all peaceful interaction in favor of dungeon bashes in which everyone can participate.

              1. ehlijen says:

                That’s a problem with the group, mostly, I’d say.

                I’ve seen DnD players spend 10+ minutes on their combat turns (commonly “My-turn!”-druid-summoners), and combats where one character is knocked out early and the player then sits there not participating because the way most GMs I’ve met run things being on the ground but stabilised is much safer than upright on low HP, and healing that offers more is rarely cast because the cleric is busy kicking arse.

                Combat is only something everyone joyfully participates in if everyone actually wants that kind of game.

                There is no rule that says social interactions can’t be something other than ‘spokesman speaks for the whole party to one other NPC’. The party isn’t going to glue themselves into one blob and wander the king’s ball, ready to hide behind their social meatshield like it’s some fancy dress dungeon crawl (and if the game pushes that kind of approach, like DnD not encouraging any social skills in 1/2-3/4 of the characters, it’s not a game with a social system worth spending time on).

                Maybe while the bard butters up the king, the wizard can sneakily charm spell some courtiers into telling them about the court intrigues and the barbarian can get into a drunken singalong to make friends with the off duty guards and servants?

                1. Matt Downie says:

                  I like ‘social meatshield’. The common term is ‘party face’ – a concept suggesting the idea that you need to have one character with maxed out social skills and nobody else needs any.

                  My approach is that you don’t need to use social skills at all most of the time – they’re only for trying to persuade people to do something unreasonable that they wouldn’t normally do.

                  1. ehlijen says:

                    Yeah, I don’t like it when a game or a group decide that all social stuff should be for one character only. That’s just asking for trouble:
                    Either, most of the party will be bored when one character actually gets to use their social stats,
                    or said character mostly wasted those stats because the group glosses over that content.

                    I’d say either commit to not having social rules and have no one waste ‘points’ on it, or accept that every character should try to find their role in social scenes as well.

              2. Malimar says:

                The way my group usually plays it is everybody who talks in a given social encounter uses the Aid Another action on the party face. That way, everybody gets to contribute by way of +2 to the face’s roll.

        4. TMC_Sherpa says:

          Thank you!
          Your character isn’t you and even if it was you don’t plan for things like Freudian slips or getting sick before a debate.

          I love roleplaying but the chance of something doing wrong is what makes it a game. It also lets you try and recover which I think makes for better stories.

          1. krellen says:

            One of the formative experiences in my roleplaying experience for me was a friend of mine – who wasn’t as smart as the rest of us, and knew it – playing a character with a high intelligence in the game. He was presented with a puzzle and could not find any solution himself; he asked the GM if he could just roll to see if his character could figure it out, after a long period of frustration. The GM refused.

            The GM frequently messed with this player in other ways that largely capitalised on his (relative) lack of imagination and creativity. I always got the feeling he wasn’t having much fun in the game, and it wasn’t the most fun game for me either. I’ve tried to not emulate that GM in my own efforts ever since.

      3. Orillion says:

        This is correct, but a lot of systems do use them. I was actually creating my own tabletop system (and I intend to finish it once some of the stress going on in my life passes) where I used a six-attribute system like D&D, but made the mental stats willpower, intuition and charisma. Willpower works perfectly as it’s just mental constitution (and used in Empathy magic–sort of Psionics without the -kinesis). Charisma works fine because, again, as long as someone volunteers some words to be said, they can come out of the mouth of the highest charisma character and be made to sound good through subtle social things. Intuition (also representing the character’s creativity, which is important for Mist magic) is less the analytical ability and more the character’s perception of the facts presented. In other words, it shouldn’t help you with your problem solving too much, but you can roll it like the Sense Motive skill in D&D 3rd edition.

        So basically, there’s no attributes that ought to force a player into acting a certain way, nor are there attributes that the player can choose to focus on that they can’t possibly live up to in gameplay. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a damn sight better than using D&D’s attributes.

        Edit: Oh yes, and the other great thing about “intuition” is that it shortens to “Int,” so everyone immediately knows what it does in terms of combat.

    3. Matt Downie says:

      Tunnels & Trolls – a low budget rival to D&D – had the same attributes as D&D but with Luck in place of Wisdom. First published 1975.

      I’d say the purpose of a luck stat is that it allows you to gamify narrative aspects of the game that ought to be outside of the PC’s control. “If you can make a saving throw on Luck, you find a magic item.”

  2. Vaniver says:

    There does seem to be a real-world equivalent of the luck stat, at least according to Richard Wiseman.

    1. Nidokoenig says:

      Not really. Note that he says one of the hallmarks is maximising their opportunities, ie they roll often enough to get the good results fairly often, not that they have high luck that influences how good the average result is. It’s about the appearance of luck, not the sort of magic that the stat describes.

      1. Syal says:

        So the key to luck is to keep rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling?

        1. Atle says:

          The key to luck in real life is having an intuition for when to take a chance and when not to.

          That of course will not help you in a lottery, except in lotteries where you pick the numbers yourself.

          You will sometimes bump into people saying something like “I choose 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 because that’s just as likely as any other sequence.” Which is true. But on the lottery day that sequence comes in, you will share the first price with 10000 other who where just as clever as you.

  3. Daemian Lucifer says:

    And you dont even mention the literal skinner box “video games”?

    1. Mephane says:

      And there I thought cookie clicker was a parody on skinner boxes, but instead it is just one of many games within their own genre.

      1. Tektotherriggen says:

        Cookie Clicker is best treated as a pun delivery system.

    2. Hal says:

      Ooof. I had a stint with Clicker Heroes; the aesthetic appealed to me and it was the only real “game” I could play on the browser at work.

      I stopped playing it when I accepted it was an electronic treadmill and nothing I did with it would ever mean anything.

  4. krellen says:

    SPECIA might not work, but without Luck , we could be PSI ACE!

    And in a boring world with Charisma, we’d be SEPIA.

    1. MichaelG says:

      Unless you are an ASPIE. What are we talking about?

    2. Ivellius says:

      Could’ve just introduced a stat for “Lycanthropy” to keep the term.

    3. Syal says:

      The PIE SAC System.

    4. NoneCallMeTim says:

      Well, with no L for luck we would have “apices” (Plural of apex), and “spicae” (A type of bandage, or a name for a spike, sometimes used in botany).

      Maybe it could be transferred to the Dune universe, where it would allow “A Spice”.

      1. Syal says:

        I just realized it could be the EPIC AS system.

  5. jawlz says:

    IIRC, Fallout was originally based on GURPS, but Steve Jackson really didn’t like how violent some of the perk-illustrations were (though to me, they seem roughly on par with what you see in his own ‘Munchkin’ today, but that’s another discussion). He backed out, and close to the last minute the devs created the SPECIAL system and put it in the game in GURPS’s place.

    1. MadHiro says:

      That Steve Jackson Games ‘backed out’ of the Fallout licensing is one of those facts that gets repeated without much in the way of corroboration. To the best of my knowledge, the following more accurately resembles what actually happened.

      According to the SJG blog February 12th, Steve Jackson Games learns that Interplay (is planning to/has already) cut the GURPS system out of GURPS: Fallout when a reporter calls them asking for a comment. This is apparently the result of the remarks Steve Jackson Games made on the alpha copy of the game they’d been given for review.

      February 19th, Steve Jackson has a meeting with Someone At Interplay, possibly Brian Fargo. In Steve’s words,”Marathon six-hour negotiating session with the programmer who is now in charge of the FALLOUT project. Clearly all the original problems could be resolved; I made a lot of concessions because I want to save the project. The GURPS implementation they’ve created is *worth* saving.

      March 14th rolls around and SJG gets semi-official confirmation that Interplay is dropping the GURPS part of GURPS: Fallout.

      All in all, the narrative I’m familiar with sounds nothing like ‘He backed out’. If anything, Steve sounded like he was really interested in the game being made, and disappointed with the shenanigans which ensued. I’m not sure if there are any written records of the process from Interplay’s side, and if there are, I’d certainly be interested in reading them.

      1. Killbuzz says:

        I find it very hard to believe Interplay turned down Steve Jackson rather than the other way around. Hooking up with a tabletop system was a big deal in the 90’s, and meant a lot of positive publicity. Scrapping GURPS also happened very late in the development cycle and meant the designers had to scramble to design a new system: why would they intentionally do that?

        Besides, the designers of Fallout have publicly talked about how Steve Jackson backed out, and the reasons for it. Surely they wouldn’t make such statements if they were based on blatant lies?

        1. evileeyore says:

          “Surely they wouldn't make such statements if they were based on blatant lies?”

          Have you interacted with humans at all?

        2. MadHiro says:

          That there was a massive change to the game at the last minute is hardly indicative of any external forces. Example: Master of Orion 3 sacked its design team and scrapped virtually all of its core game systems seven months out from its release based on decisions entirely internal to the publisher-developer. For possible reasons for the Interplay/SJG split, I can toss out the one most obvious to me; the year Fallout released, Interplay’s financial situation was already dire (a year later and they’d be in bankruptcy court) and not having to honor whatever licensing fees or profit sharing they’d agreed to with SJG could have been an attractive soupà§on. Beyond that, its possible that Interplay was not interested in (complying with / listening to) SJG’s input on Fallout, though according to the February 19th, 1997 entry on the Illuminator Steve Jackson made what he considered to be ‘a lot of concessions’ to try to save the project.

          You seem to think its more likely that Steve Jackson Games is lying in their blog than that Interplay is lying. Can you show where these designers have said what you say they said? The one place I encountered someone (who claimed) they were from Interplay talking about it, they described the break as the result of radio silence from SJG. I’m not quite sure how that translates into the decision to break contracts and strip GURPS out of Fallout, but without some documentation of internal timelines and communication at Interplay it’s hard to be certain of anything. I would be extremely fascinated to know when programmers / designers started to work on stripping GURPS out internally, for instance.

          1. ehlijen says:

            Wait, what happened to MoO3? (Could you link it, please, if it’s too off topic?)

            1. MadHiro says:

              Most of the core systems originally designed for MOO3 were ripped out. Imperial Focus Points, the way events were to be handled, how construction was planned and executed… basically every ‘new’ idea designed for the game as detailed in The Elephant (what we called the design bible) were taken out after Alan and the rest of the design team (MOO3 was doing this kooky thing were they watched their forums and snapped up people who had good ideas and made them designers; cutting edge in 2000) were kicked to the curb and the art director was put in overall charge of the project.

              I was just a snot-nosed kid at this point, way on the periphery of the central brouhaha. I’m way too enmeshed in the not-Infogrames side of the equation to be able to say whether their complaints (game was too different, not fun enough) had merit. All I know is that what they wound up with was junk. Hell of a sensation, seeing something you took part in making on sale at a used book-store for like, three bucks.

              1. ehlijen says:

                That…worw. I’m surprised the process you described ended up with a functioning game at all.

                I always got the impression that MoO3 succeeded at exactly what it set out to do…but because an interstellar bureaucracy simulator wasn’t that exciting an idea to begin with, it maybe should have tried for something else.

  6. Christopher says:

    Maybe the luck stat is entirely for jokes. I remember it being called ‘Stache in the Mario & Luigi RPGs.

    Aside: I’d seriously love to see a study of people playing Dark Souls to see if some people get most of their dopamine from the moment-to-moment successful dodges and strikes, while others get the larger rewards from major milestones like completing boss fights, acquiring weapons, or reaching new content. I don’t have anything to back this up, other than the fact that it would retroactively make every Dark Souls flame war make a lot more sense. The divide between Dark Souls fans and Dark Souls haters is so intense, and people cross lines so rarely, that I suspect there might be some physiology involved.

    Interesting question. I couldn’t say anything about the larger fanbase. Speaking only for myself, I dislike the skinner box in its most obvious forms(colored, random loot stands out to me as a thing that I actively dislike). But new areas, new enemies, new bosses, that’s a good reward. I think performing well at the moment to moment gameplay is the most enjoyable part, though. No reward would be good enough if I wasn’t enjoying the process itself.

    For instance, while what loot chests contain in Dark Souls is predetermined, most enemies might drop one or two different items or upgrade materials. But actually going out and farming for those items is not a fun part of Dark Souls for me, it’s just a route you go down if you feel like upgrading a bunch of different armors/weapons or really want a specific rare weapon. I don’t feel like I won the lottery just because an enemy I’ve killed twenty times dropped a rare sword. But if it’s got a great moveset, it could be fun to actually use.

    1. Fizban says:

      I generally hate randomized loot. Moment to moment gameplay success is great, but I also want to build the character I want to play and play it for the whole game. There are tons of cool weapons in Borderlands, but you’re never gonna see them since the drop rate is no. Dark Souls 1 on the other hand has it’s drops basically as a bonus. You find almost every suit of armor in the game (barring the weakest rusty armor you probably don’t want) as a full set in a specific place, and while there are more drop-only weapons they’re only a tiny fraction better than the standard weapons you can buy or find in the same set locations. Standard loot and shops can supply more than enough upgrade materials for your main weapon with a side for some armor and shield, so you only have to grind if you want a wide selection on a particular character.

      Dark Souls 2 on the other hand went way backwards. Many (half? most?) armor sets in the game can only be found as random drops, you find almost no complete sets of armor in reliable places, and much of the vendor selection is locked behind doors you can’t bypass without actually finishing multiple bosses. This means that you’re stuck using early selections of gear, when DS1 lets a skilled player play Fashion Souls and use their weapon of choice almost immediately.

      My ideal system would be a combination: some random loot, but with the sort of “I’ve rolled so many times it has to come up soon” mechanic your brain wants to expect actually built in, so that when you start grinding you know going in that you will get the item you’re looking for guaranteed within x amount of time. If it’s a 1/100 drop, the game should count your kills until the 100, 150, 200, or some sort of mark and then drop the item regardless of the roll. Dark Souls makes you feel in control at first with drop rate mechanics the player can intentionally boost (you can even see it on your character sheet), but in DS2 they clearly slashed all the drop rates so that the boost gear only gets you up to 1/tons instead of making it faster.

      1. Mephane says:

        Random loot combined with armour sets is especially bad. If the pieces are just individual ones, indifferent to each other, it is not that bad. But if you are supposed to collect all 5 pieces of something to get the full bonus… not fun.

        See also Diablo 3 which at this point basically revolves around getting one or multiple of the various intentionally overpowered sets, each funneling you into a particular narrow playstyle. Good job Blizzard, you made me loathe armour sets in general.

      2. Syal says:

        My ideal system would be putting those random drops in stores at ridiculous prices, so you want them to randomly drop but if they don’t you have the option to grind money until you can afford to buy them.

        That’s in-game stores, not other-player stores.

      3. Falterfire says:

        I think that’s just a difference in how you approach games. I see this a lot when discussing Fallout type open world RPGs as well: Some people go into a game wanting to play a specific character and are disappointed if they can’t. Other people go into a game wanting to play whatever the game throws at them and are disappointed if it doesn’t provide some clear direction or if the options it prominently suggests are boring or not good enough to succeed.

        That said: Stuff like Diablo 3 where you NEED a complete set to do well and there’s no way (that is mentioned obviously in the game, I didn’t dig too deep into background materials) to actively search for parts of that piece are terrible. In Borderlands I can cobble together a playstyle out of whatever orange guns I find. In Diablo 3 I have to just roll random loot until I hit the jackpot multiple times in a row because non-set gear is not just worse but significantly worse.

    2. IFS says:

      Speaking personally Dark Souls hits on multiple levels, while I enjoy exploring the world the most that is often tied into many other aspects of the game. Beating a boss often means you get a new item or open a new path to explore, and you are often treated to some very pretty scenery after beating a boss (Anor Londo being a go to example, for me when you first arrive in Anor Londo is one of the most awe inspiring moments in gaming).

      Also on the subject of a luck stat the souls series has an interesting history with the concept. Demon’s Souls had one, it gave you ‘plague resistance’ (a nasty status effect similar to toxic in later games) and increased item drop rate. Plague was rare enough though that it was generally considered useless (though one of the best swords in the game improves with luck, so some builds make use of it). Dark Souls ditched the luck stat in favor of the more useless resistance stat which did not affect drop rates, however Dark Souls 1 had humanity and the more ‘soft’ humanity you were carrying the better your drop rates were (up to 11 humanity I believe), there was also a very good sword that improved with humanity, but soft humanity was dropped with souls on death, and had many other uses (kindling a bonfire, restoring humanity to your character, and donation to certain covenants). Dark Souls 2 ditched this use of humanity and instead had useable items that would temporarily boost drop rates (as well as some armor and rings that boosted it while worn). Bloodborne sort of combines the three approaches, it has an Arcane stat which boosts drop rates (though its far more useful than luck or resistance ever were), insight points (which I think boost drop rates, even if they don’t they cause other things to happen in the world) which are not dropped on death but have other drawbacks, and certain carryl runes (effectively BB’s version of rings) that boost drop rate.

      Which approach is best I suppose the player can decide for themselves, personally I like every implementation of it after Demon’s Souls.

      1. Robyrt says:

        Yep – I was just going to chime in that the Souls series is a good example of how to cut your game’s dump stat and slowly replace it with something better. In a game where the only dice rolls are loot drops, a “Luck” stat is almost completely worthless, so it was cut and tied to a secondary currency (Dark Souls 1), then to consumable items (Dark Souls 2), then to the Magic Power stat (Bloodborne).

        The lesson is this: Stats are hard. These are some of the best RPG developers in the industry, and it took them four games to get rid of all their dump stats.

  7. WWWebb says:

    I was never sure what a luck STAT was supposed to do. I could understand some luck perks (e.g. immune to critical failures), but I was never sure what scale the stat was adjusting enough to put any points in it.

    Does it add x points to every percentile roll?
    Increase the chance of a “critical success” (whatever that means)?
    Give a bonus on a random encounter or loot table?

    There are sooo many, different random elements behind the scenes, I just don’t know if I want to be lucky or not.

    1. guy says:

      Depends on the game; I think in Fallout 1 it gives you better odds on critical tables, improves your random encounter tables so you get more and better good ones and miss some of the worse ones, and contributes to every skill but not by as much as the primary stat.

    2. MrGuy says:

      I read a really interesting blog post about that topic once…

  8. Ninety-Three says:

    I can’t believe you missed the opportunity to say “Fallout just wouldn’t be SPECIAL without Luck.” There are so many jokes there!

  9. MrGuy says:

    To some degree, the notion of games as elaborate, well-crafted Skinner boxes is actually undermined by including a luck stat.

    The notion behind the game-as-Skinner-box idea is to always dangle the promise of the reward, but only actually provide it infrequently. If you paid off almost every time, you remove the incentive to keep playing. If you almost never pay off, the rewards are so skimpy that the player gets discouraged. There’s a sweet spot where the rewards are far enough apart to keep the player coming back, but frequent enough to provide that dopamine rush in at a satisfying cadence. It’s a careful balancing act.

    A luck stat, pretty much by definition, messes with the balance here by increasing the reward frequency. If the devs have hit the balance right, messing with the reward frequency by messing with the luck can throw it right back off again.

    Granted, not everyone has the same sweet spot, and so in theory a luck stat could be a way to allow players to set their own comfort level. However, this is undercut by many games with a luck state (Fallout is a great example) ALSO having a difficulty level selector – if I’ve set the difficulty right, why give me a second way to adjust it (which might upset the balance again)? Also, in most systems, luck is something you have to trade off against other stats, which feels off if the intent is to “fine tune” the difficulty – it would be weird to force you to give up some of your character build stats for the sole purpose of moving the difficulty slider.

    1. RCN says:

      This reminds me of how badly Diablo 3 handled the skinner box. When they showed more confidence (MUCH more confidence) on their real-money auction house than their skinner box gameplay they almost threw everything to the rats.

      I remember the moment I stopped playing Diablo 3. I had read an article about how the loot drops are so stacked against you the only possible way to even be barely decently equipped from Nightmare difficulty and up was through the auction house, and at some point with real money. And it concluded with the damning statement: Which piece of gear you have equipped on you mains right now have even dropped in one of your numerous (numerous, numerous) runs?

      Yep. Uninstalled the game and never looked back. I heard they fixed it later, but frankly, the sort of thing that Acti-Blizzard pulls makes me as mad as the sort of DRM shenanigans from Ubisoft makes Shamus. Activision hammstringed blizzard, broke their knee, stomped on their upper spine with spiked steel boots, covered it in money and then ordered it to win a marathon. And it makes me furious beyond belief. Heck, the DRM shenanigans from Ubi look TAME by comparison. At least they hurt only part of the consumer base for no reason instead of the consumer base as a whole.

      And EA has no defense. All I need to say is Dungeon Keeper Mobile and drop the mike.

      1. Mephane says:

        Yepp, they did fix Diabl 3, when they removed the auction house they also completely rebalanced loot distribution.But then some time after the expansion pack, they broke it again when they mostly abandoned trying to balance classes and individual abilities. Now they just have various class-specific sets that each make a particular playstyle absolutely overpowered, with really ridiculous numbers, like this: https://us.battle.net/d3/en/item/the-shadows-bane

        (2) Set:
        While equipped with a melee weapon, your damage is increased by 600%.
        (4) Set:
        Shadow Power gains the effect of every rune and lasts forever.
        (6) Set:
        Impale deals an additional 40000% weapon damage to the first enemy hit.

        1. RCN says:

          Wow, I had seem the build that made dozens of fetishes and allowed all of them to spit penetrating poison darts with it was ridiculous, but this gives you free steroids of SLOW AND MOVE SPEED, and a 400X damage puncture to the jugular? WTF?

          I am a great proponent of imbalance in games, even in multiplayer ones, leaving some spells or abilities way more powerful than others if used well… but this is deliberately building something to be OP by orders of magnitude and effectively no counterplay.

          I don’t know if this is a Blizzard’s dev cry for help or an Activision’s exec coke-fueled hogging of the specs of the dev team?

          EDIT: Just a random tidbit. In my country they translated Fetishes from Diablo 2 as… Sorcerers. Really. Just because the word sounds close to sorcerer in portuguese (“feiticeiro”), which is precisely the laziest form of translation in existence. But this is not related to Activision at all. Unfortunately.

    2. Syal says:

      The Skinner Box side of a progression system comes from the increases in the stats themselves, which typically slows down as the numbers go up. So you’re getting more hits from loot drops but fewer hits from level-ups.

  10. VaporWare says:

    A luck stat can be useful for a lot of things, depending on how it’s implemented. In general, it gives the player a way to skew the RNG in (or out) their favor, and can be used as a tool to let the player selectively adjust RNG dependent difficulties without necessarily altering the difficulty of the game in general.

    You can also use it to screw with them as Fallout did with the Pariah dog.

    It could be thought of as a means of engaging with the natural tendency of humans towards superstition by making fairly abstract curses and blessings (as opposed to deterministic buffs and debuffs) that prey on the Gambler’s Fallacy and our terrible, intuitive grasp of how dice work over the course of many rolls of the RNG.

  11. Hector says:

    Skinner boxes as such almost always bore me. A challenge cycle is nice, and if dropping random loot helps that, then so be it. That said, the repetition that Skinner box-games go through drives me slightly batty. Take Borderlands. I like going through an area once. I can enjoy taking down bosses a few times. But when the only reward is loot to get stronger to grind faster to loot more, it completely loses all flavor.

    The flipside is that for some of us, randomized loot feels vaguely plastic, somehow reducing a cool magical sword to a word jumble. Then again, I was the guy in Diablo who always tried to take the special rare items way past when they should have been switched out, because they were fun and interesting.

  12. Joshua says:

    Well, in Wastelands 2 Luck is quite actually handy…..as a dump stat to drop to 1 so you can raise your other stats. Heck, even Charisma in that game has a lot more use. The original Wastelands was a segue from the Bard’s Tale games, which also had luck. I don’t recall it being very special there either.

    Seems like any time it’s put into game, developers never get a good idea of how useful to make it to make the players care.

    Now that I think about it, D&D 5E actually has a useful Luck feat, along with a natural Halfling Lucky trait. (Our Halfling Rogue has both). It allows actual rerolls, so is pretty useful without being overpowering. But that’s tabletop.

  13. Dev Null says:

    To a very large extent, I think the answer to any question beginning “why do RPGs…” is “because that’s what RPGs do.” They follow in each others’ tracks because that’s what players are used to. A few games tease dexterity and agility apart, to varying degrees of usefulness, and some have luck or sanity and some don’t, but they’re otherwise pretty vanilla. Why is there one stat for, essentially, “the gods’ favour” in fantasy games, when there are clearly lots of gods who all hate each other? Why is your ability to resist poisons linked to your ability to run marathons? In the real world long distance runners are often quite fragile when it comes to disease and poisons, because they’re so lean they have no reserves… but nobody really cares about that (and to be clear, I certainly don’t) and everyone playing RPGs already knows how Endurance is supposed to work, so whatevs; it works like you’ve been trained to think it works, now lets play.

  14. RCN says:

    Shamus, slight correction, Slot Machines really are skinner boxes, but they are not FAIR skinner boxes. At least not since the age of computers.

    Thing is, Slot Machines are ridiculously profitable, but every once in a while they’re going to give a few too many big rewards. When that once in a while happens twice, or thrice in a row in as many months it simply breaks cassinos in half. The part that is wrong is that the slot is fair. It is not fair, at all. It is not a clean random number generator.

    Slot Machines, at least modern ones, are programmed to give a certain amount of payout, while always remaining profitable, while trying to be as random as possible. They choose the results the moment you place your bet and then nudge it a bit depending on it how much payout it has to give, but if it gives you that sweet, sweet ALMOST payout a slot player will almost always keep poring money.

    That payoff is secret, but you can guess that a machine with expensive credits and small rewards is going to have a larger amount of payoff and make people win more frequently, even if still in the house’s favor.


    Shamus, could you please provide somewhere in your website that people can easily find the bbcodes for your wordpress environment. I tried a few variations to leave the youtube video here and save people from hoping sites, but it just didn’t work for me and your tips before the comment box are cover only a couple of obvious cases. Scratch that, literally just found out after saving this that the wordpress will make the embed automatically. But my point that a quick and easy codec very visible on the main page would be a big help for us non-html enthusiasts still stands.

    1. Rack says:

      That video says the exact opposite about slot machines that you said, in that it claims slot machines have no memory. I don’t know which is true, but the creator of that video seems bizarrely under-educated about other well known aspects of slot machines and basic maths so I’m disinclined to believe it.

      1. RCN says:

        I don’t know what you found so wrong. He clearly states at the 3:30 that while the RGN of the machine has no memory and will always be completely random, the numbers it generates are fed to virtual reels that are set to either improve or decrease a players chance to win, depending on the payback of the machine. For instance, if the machine has already eaten 3000 bucks when you sit in, the moment you press the bet button the RNG will do its job and generate a completely random number, but then that number will be fed to the virtual reel like if it was a filter, and the virtual reel will favor your odds of getting the greatest rewards. It will not GUARANTEE it, but it will improve to make sure it IS, in fact, paying back so people are satisfied there’s a chance of winning. But if the machine has lost a lot of money after giving out lots of rewards, it will pass the number generated by the RNG to a virtual reel that significantly decreases the chance of winning. It is still possible, but you’ll likely be at 1/10 or 1/100 of the chance to win through “fair” slots. The only thing it can’t do is guarantee a lose or guarantee a win (by law), but the virtual slot can be as big as they need it to be and the RNG generates ridiculously large numbers to fit any percentages. They are forced by law to payback 85-98% of the money put in (in the States)

        Or, as someone else put more in the know than me who claims to be a slots software programmer for 20 years:

        I am still saying you CAN change the payout percentage (as in, the casino can configure it) but not arbitrarily (meaning not to any number they pull out of their arse at any time) – they can select from a pre-generated selection/set of figures such as 86.78% or 91.24% and so on (usually only a handful of options in a typical range from 85-98 %)

        These ‘sets’ are ‘reel sets’, which affect the distribution of symbols on the virtual reels (think of it like changing to a different set of reels which has a different combination of symbols) — these are generated and tested in advance (at the factory or otherwise) and the ‘configuration’ seen is only the selection of which sets to actually use.

        This is also why they are not ’round numbers’ but always .(point)-something-something. As their payout percentage is not ‘chosen’ it is ‘tested’ – meaning a set of reels is generated and then ‘mathematically tested’ to see what the payout would be statistically. Rinse and Repeat until target range is achieved (of course there are MANY other metrics just as important as ‘payout percentage’ in slot machine mathematics so this is an oversimplification but in the basic sense this is how it works).

        1. Rack says:

          I had a very different interpretation of that statement, and re-listening I’m still coming to the same interpretation. It sounds to me that he’s saying that if there are 22 reel positions they can make the odds of a 7 popping up far less likely than 1/22. There’s nothing in it about memory that I can see and indeed at 5:10 he states that every spin is independent.

          The way you say it works sounds perfectly reasonable and believable but it just doesn’t seem to mesh with how that video presents how slot machines work.

        2. Abnaxis says:

          I don’t know about your friend, but the man in the video is absolutely not saying that the probabilities are adjusted according to how many previous wins have been accrued on the slot machine. What his is saying, is that just because there are 22 stops on the reel, that doesn’t mean every stop has a 1/22=4.5% probability of occurring.

          This is because the RNG in the slots program is not generating a random number between 1 and 22, it is generating a number larger than 22, and the stops have an inconsistent quantity of RNG outcomes assigned to them. In the example given in the video at 3:30, you can see lines drawn from both 6 and 7 in the “virtual stops” to number 1 in the “actual stops.” That means (in the example) the probability of a result of stop 1 is 2/32=1/16=6.3%. Stop 2, OTOH, has no virtual stops assigned and will thus never come up, while stop 3 has 1 virtual stop for a probability of 3.1%

          The consequence of this is that, without knowing how many virtual stops there are, or how they are assigned to the actual stops, it is impossible for an outsider to know for sure what the actual odds of winning really are. The arrangements of those virtual stops are a closely guarded secret of their respective casinos.

          This has nothing to do with how much money has been spent on the machine since the last payout–in fact (in the state of Ohio, at least) if casinos DID change payout probabilities based on how much money they were making, they would lose their operators license. That is illegal under the state’s gambling laws.

          Casinos make money because they actually can calculate what the probability of winning is and adjust their payouts to give themselves a slight edge. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of plays the probability loses it’s randomness, thanks to the way statistics works. For example if you run a game that costs $1 each time a player plays, with a 9% chance at a $10 payout, the casino will (on average) make $100,000 over the course of a million plays, with 99.8% certainty to make at least $90,000 off our hypothetical betting game. That’s what he means by “depending on the payout”

          This example game poses virtually no risk to the casino–just printing money, really–but that is only with the caveat that a lot of people are playing. The same game played only 9 times actually has a 57% chance of being a net loss for the casino.

          Casinos depend on the Law of Large Numbers to guarantee they will make money, but only over the course of many, many, many repetitive plays–over a smaller sample of plays, the returns are much more chaotic. If you really care about making money at chance games, you should lay all your money down on a single bet, because that maximizes the chaos in your potential payout, and chaos helps you more than it does the house.

          Of course, playing only a single game would make for a boring evening, which brings up another good point about casinos: going to a casino to gamble should never be something you do for money, it should be something you do for a fun experience and/or free drinks.

        3. guy says:

          It is by and large illegal for a casino to present something as random chance and manipulate the odds like that. Though it should be noted there is a reason people found it necessary to make that illegal and if a casino is not inclined to follow the law then they absolutely will do that sort of thing. They’ll weight the RNG to make high payouts less likely, but they’re not allowed to actively weight it dynamically like that.

  15. ehlijen says:

    There is something in RPGs some players like and others care less for: criticals.
    If a player likes criticals, then, if a luck stat or similar exists, they can build their character to rely more on crits (getting them more often, critting harder etc). If a player would rather have more predictable gameplay, then a luck stat means they can take points from it to pump their regular combat stats and get a less swingy game.
    So a player can, to a limited degree, configure the kind of combat they like and that’s not a bad idea, I think?

    Of course, that requires that the game then doesn’t throw too many curve balls, such as long levels full of crit immune enemies or bosses whose excessive health bars are meant to make up for how easily they can be neutered with a good crit’s side effects.

  16. Mephane says:

    Like any other aspect of game design, Skinner boxes are neither good nor bad. It’s all about how the designer uses them within the overall game.

    I reject that statement. More precisely, I reject the beginning “Like any other aspect of game design”, because there are definitely forms of game design that can be called inherently bad.

    For example, anything that can effectively be reduced to the formula dollars=success, in other words, pay-to-win, because above all else, it completely voids the game of its very nature. Imagine Super Mario with P2W micro-transactions. At any moment, you can pause the game and buy extra lives, mushrooms, flowers, stars etc. for 1$ each. The game may be designed to still be beatable without any of that, but its very presence means that this is no longer about the challenge of the game, but the challenge of your wallet and willpower. Which is kind of a game, but not the one that is happening on the screen any more.

    Or think about the abomination that is the new Dungeon Keeper. Even without actual P2W, the actual game is not the one on the screen, but the one between one’s patience, wallet, and ultimately one’s dignity. That’s also a big part of the uproar, by the way. Sure, they took the name of a beloved classic and slapped it onto something that is bordering on an outright scam, but the real insult is that the makers expect us to actually put up with it and pay.

    And for a less extreme and more classic example, let’s take Solitaire. What seems like a benign game on the surface is insidious to the point of almost making cheating a legitimate approach, turning the game into a pure farce due to its unfairness:
    1. Games can begin in a state that is already unwinnable.
    2. Whether a game is unwinnable or not cannot be determined by the player. Even playing and losing is not proof that it is unwinnable, because
    3. A winnable game can enter an unwinnable state, but the player is given insufficient information to judge a move.

    What looks like a game of logic and tactics on the surface is in essence little more than a glorified dice roll. To quote:

    About 79% of the games are theoretically winnable (…) Note that these results depend on complete knowledge of the positions of all 52 cards, which a player does not possess. (…) The issue is that a wrong move cannot be known in advance whenever more than one move is possible. The number of games a player can probabilistically expect to win is at least 43%. In addition, some games are “unplayable” in which no cards can be moved to the foundations even at the start of the game; these occur in only 0.025% of hands dealt.

    1. RCN says:

      It is because of that farce that I prefer to play 3-deal solitaire when I’m stuck with a deck of cards and nothing to do. It actually adds some tactics and fairness to the game while making it much, much harder to win. How?

      Because it gives you knowledge of what you need to give you a chance of victory, and thus you make more informed decisions even though with incomplete data.

      If I put this 4 of clubs blocking a useless 6 of diamonds down, I can’t put that 4 of swords down with the 9 of swords I really want beneath it.

      Or “is it more important to vacant a column for a king or open another covered card? Well, the only king in my deal is in the second position, so I need to clear 2 cards to actually reach it and I have no more plays to make, my only chance is to flip that covered card and hope it changes the current state of the game.

      The unfairness still exists, but it is now much more secluded from sight since every play is a slightly informed jab at giving you the best possible chance against an unfavorable outcome. And all from a simple “draw one card at a time” to “draw three open cards at a time but you can only use the topmost”.

      Regular solitaire feels like cheating because if the state is not unwinnable the game is actually pretty straighforward and gives you no actual decisions. Draw three feels less like cheating because defeat is already the expected outcome and you have to give every tactical acumen to nudge your game away from that outcome, little by little, and it feels like an accomplishment even if the initial state was unwinnable.

      Then there’s vegas-style solitaire, for people who like to donate their money to casinos and con-men in a deal that is stacked all the way against them and they are even more uninformed than regular style because they can only go through the deal pile once, so they don’t even know what they’re dealing with.

  17. newfren says:

    Talking about the luck stat:

    It’s implemented in Fire emblem as a modifier to hit chance that’s half as effective as Skill and as a modifier to avoid that’s half as effective as speed. It also effects your likeliness to critically hit as well as your chance to avoid being critically hit.

    Finally depending on the game it helps characters who aren’t thieves to dig up items hidden in the desert.

    Its function in affecting crits seems to be a pretty common theme in its implementation too.

  18. Syal says:

    Call the Luck stat ‘Divine Favor’ and the abstraction clears up.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      Is believing in luck more superstitious than believing in gods or magic?

      1. Syal says:

        Luck is a far broader term. It can be used to refer to events beyond anyone’s control, while divine favor implies it’s in something’s control, though not yours directly. The idea of a Luck stat that can be increased works with the second assumption.

    2. MrGuy says:

      Riffing on this – this would be an awesome way to replace both the luck stat AND a morality meter.

      Say you have a world with a good and evil deity. Some acts earn the favor of one god or the other (or anger one god or the other). Each god bestows certain blessings based on your current favor with them. Say favor of the evil god grants combat bonuses (e.g. improved criticals, bonus to hit), where favor with the good god grants better dodging or occasional random heals. Now rather than unlocking gear, the “morality” grants gameplay advantages.

      Even more interesting would be taking a “favor” system to a world with more than two gods, each with their own goals and “things they like.” Rather than a binary good/evil, you could have a death god, a life god, a trickster god, a strength god, a defender god, etc. Now rather than having a min/max system like “light side points vs. dark side points,” you have a system where decisions aren’t binary good/bad, but more complex. And the “favor = certain kinds of luck” also lets you consider the gameplay advantages of favor seeking from one god or the other.

      1. Syal says:

        And you could still keep the Luck stat as an overview stat. (Okay, I’ve made these gods happy, and these ones hate me, so when they all finish helping and hindering me I’ve got a 10% better chance of success than I would if they were all indifferent.)

        …also I’m amused by the prospect of winning the favor of the death god by getting killed and having to reload over and over again.

  19. Merlin says:

    The discussion of Skinner boxes is good, but I think it’s a little incomplete without touching on the topic of cognitive dissonance, especially the famous Festinger/Carlsmith experiment. I’ll let Cobra Commander take the lead (link), but the short version is that it’s the mechanism that makes you think “Oh, I spent 100 hours in Fallout 3. I must like Fallout 3. Better buy Fallout 4.” It a major after-the-fact mechanism for Skinner boxes, and one that makes it hard to stay out even after you see that you’re getting played. (And one of many reasons I’m grumpy that AAA games all want to be 60 hour Ubisoft-a-thons these days.)

  20. Abnaxis says:

    I feel you missed one of the most important reasons for randomization: verisimilitude.

    Think about it–if you play darts, do you hit the same spot on the target every single time? Why is that? It’s not like your skill is changing radically between throws, and most of the time you aren’t throwing in high wind or moving to a different spot to throw from between each throw. Yet you might go from getting a bullseye in one shot to missing the target completely in a matter of seconds, especially if you are unskilled.

    It bugs me when I swing a sword in a game and it always does the same amount of damage, because it’s like playing darts and hitting the same area with every throw. It’s unnatural.

  21. Steve C says:

    The mention of slot machines having no skill makes me think of the slots in US vs the UK. The UK slots have the opportunity for players to make decisions so it is skill based. (Or did, been decades since I played one.)

    There would be sub-games within the roll. Where you could win progress along a track. Or win the ability to keep previous progress. Or win a 50:50 reaction press. Or an over-under bet to double your money. Or win holds (so one reel does not spin) or nudges (where you bump a reel 1 notch). For example. Another big difference is that UK slots have significantly smaller jackpots. A US slot machine might have $1000 or $10,000 as a jackpot payout. A UK machine might have £10 or £20 as a jackpot.

    I remember playing one at the Stansted airport where I won a ridiculous number of nudges. Something like 50 nudges, meaning I could move the reel one outcome at a time, 50 times in a row. I sat there for 10-20mins trying to figure out the correct order to move the reels to win the jackpot without accidentally triggering one of the lessor payouts. I won the jackpot which was way above average at £40. I’m still chuffed about that 28yrs later.

  22. Robyrt says:

    On the subject of measuring dopamine responses, have you seen the Destiny heart rate monitor video? The surprising result is that neither of the things you mentioned (the basic combat loop, or the major achievement payoff) cause your heart rate to spike. Instead, the music – combined with the toughest part of the boss fight, the part where you have to pick up and drop the sword – is what really gets his blood pumping. I know I get a similar Pavlovian response whenever I hear that song, even when the game isn’t playing.

  23. muelnet says:

    While I generally agree with Shamus’ points in this article there is one quote I can’t get behind.

    “The Borderlands loot lottery is a Skinner box, but it’s built atop a set of solid shooting mechanics designed to deliver a visceral sense of empowerment.”

    The idea that Borderlands had anything close to resembling a “set of solid shooting mechanics” is one step too far for me. They have barely adequate set of shooting mechanics at best. Sorry I’m being a bit harsh, but while I chuckle at some of the jokes in Borderlands, and they are kind of fun if you are playing it while joking around with friends, the shooting in those games are horrible. Way too many bullet sponges, and if you don’t end up with an overpowered gun then they are completely unsatisfying.

  24. Taellosse says:

    There are indeed lucky people in the world in the sense that they “rolled well” at some point in their lives, but there are not lucky people in the sense that they roll better than the rest of us on a regular basis.

    Well, yes and no. There actually are people that apparently “roll better than the rest of us on a regular basis” – it’s just that their past chance successes are not predictive of future outcomes, no matter how improbable the stacked good fortune is. But there absolutely are statistical outliers, who have an unlikely amount of “good luck” as well as people on the other end of the bell curve who have an improbable degree of “bad luck.”

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