Monday, October 27, 2008

Legolasagorn of the Random Number Generator

A quick aside on the Sinister Squashling.

For the two weeks before Halloween, Blizzard has traditionally run a Hallow's End event where the major cities are decorated with pumpkins, players can trick or treat at inns, and a number of holiday-themed quests are temporarily available. They keep adding to the holiday every year. Last year, they added a Headless Horseman boss that could be summoned from the Scarlet Monastery graveyard. He was, if I remember correctly, the first holiday boss to drop epic loot (an assortment of heroic badge ring knockoffs and some plate helmets). He had a tiny, TINY chance of dropping a vanity pet called a "Sinister Squashling", a small jack-o-lantern with vines for legs. This was all actually quite a good time last year. We'd get together in groups, take turns summoning and defeating him, and get some cool stuff.

This year, that all changes. Thanks to the achievement system, what used to be a fun, goofy event has become life-or-death SERIOUS BUSINESS (or, as I prefer to call it, SRS BZNZ).

Every holiday event now has a series of achievements attached to it. If you complete every achievement for a given holiday, you get a title ("The Hallowed" for halloween, "Brewmaster" for Brewfest, etc.). If you get all of the holiday titles, you get a 310% speed epic flying mount (normal epic flying mounts are 280% speed) that uses the new Northrend proto drake model, which looks pretty sweet. It is one of 3 currently known ways to get some kind of proto drake mount, and with the other two being hardcore raiding achievement sets, one can only presume this is meant to be a bone thrown to casual players. As you can imagine, the titles and the possibility of a mount, coupled with the transitory nature of the holiday events, can make some achievers pretty stressed out about the whole thing.

The funniest part is that if you look at the achievements, Blizzard clearly intends for almost no one to ever get the mount. The Brewfest achievements cannot possibly be completed in less than a year because they require every single "brew of the month club" beverage. One Children's Week achievement requires all three questable pets, which means a minimum of three years (unless, like me, you got two pets already over the past 2 years).

As if that weren't enough, Blizz also plans to enforce rarity on the titles and mount in another way. You may think this would involve some heroic effort, some sort of grindy time investment (like a rep grind) for a guaranteed reward if you just try high enough, something like that, right?

Instead, Blizzard has decided that Vegas would be more fun.

One of the achievements to get "the Hallowed" title requires the player to get a Sinister Squashling pet. Last year, the pet had a 2% drop rate off of a boss that the average person could only fight 5 times a day in a 5-man group, because each player only has 1 summon a day and no group would willingly take someone who couldn't contribute a summon. Yes, some people could get more attempts using alts, and such, but that wouldn't be the norm. So the average person who was trying their hardest to get the achievement had a very low chance of completing it: in 2 weeks they would get 70 attempts, meaning the Squashling would likely drop once, maybe twice, and when it did drop you would have to compete with everyone in your group for it. The chances were quite tiny, even if you busted your ass to try to get it. Blizz did up the drop rate this year, making it slightly more likely, but they were very publicly stating on the forums that it was their intent to limit the number of people who could get the achievement, and they were OK with doing so via randomization. They were OK with the fact that some people would work their butts off for the achievement for 2 weeks straight, and could very likely come away from it with NOTHING.

I have a Squashling, getting lucky on, literally, my 59th attempt (I'm one of those people who worked with guildies and our alts to get extra summons every day). It's the only one I've ever seen drop. I only got it because my guildies in the group passed to me. The high achiever in my guild (every guild has one), the guy who already had 50 mounts and 50 vanity pets and the Diplomat title (for completing the most notoriously annoying rep grinds in the game), that guy hasn't seen one despite spending all of his free time on it for the past week. It's entirely possible he'll never get it.

After player outcry and reports of rampant deception and trickery being employed across all servers to cheat for extra attempts, Blizzard finally caved and made the Squashling a rare drop from Trick or Treating (which each character can do once an hour). The drop rate seems to be roughly 4%, which also appears to be the drop rate off the horseman overall. This really helps people who put in the time and effort have a better chance at the drop, but it still relies on the Random Number Generator (RNG) to decide whether or not you deserve a reward for your hard work.

This is not fun for people. This makes the entire holiday NOT FUN for people who care about getting the title or the pet.

Blizzard, when are you going to grasp the power you have to control player behavior via rewards? They seem to have opened a pandora's box with achievements that they were unprepared for. They really need to think through every single achievement, especially those that offer rewards, carefully, because the carrots guide player behavior. Remember how they did the same thing with Battlegrounds? By offering easy epics there, they guided many who hated PvP to sit through unfun, grindy hours of BGs just to remain competitive in raids. What about all those people who just like to collect cute pets, but can't get a squashling because everyone else wants it for the achievement (and wouldn't bother with it otherwise)? Last year, non-collectors were passing the pet to their collector friends. Not likely this year.

And can you imagine what it will be like for that one guy who gets all of the holiday titles except one, but then goes year after year being unlucky on the drops of a RNG-based achievement? How is that a good idea?

Previous holidays have been pretty fun, but this year I spent the first 5 days stressing over trying to get the pet, and then once I had it I was so soured by the experience that I had no interest in the holiday anymore. These things are supposed to be fun and playful, but poorly thought-out achievements can turn them into unfun jobs. I don't mind making the mount or titles rare, but that should be done via measuring actual commitment and effort, rather than luck with the RNG. I like the achievement system and think it's a great addition to the game, but this isn't the way to use it.


Originally, I was excited about "the Hallowed" achievement because it sounded like a cool title. I'm not going after the mount, and usually I half-ignore holidays and just grab the few things I want, not worrying much about rare drops. I decided I wanted the title just for the title's sake. But now, I'm not sure I would even wear it. It doesn't symbolize that I "achieved" anything. It doesn't show that I cared more about getting the title than the next guy did, or that I put in any special effort. All it says is that I got lucky on a roll. That I was favored by the RNG.

When I see someone else wearing the title, I won't see, for instance, "Legolasagorn the Hallowed". I'll see "Legolasagorn, the Guy Who Got Lucky on the Random Number Generator".

[editor's note: "Legolasagorn" is stolen wholesale from my girlfriend, who reserved the name as soon as she heard Blood Elves would be in the game. On day 1 of TBC, she logged in as Legolasagorn, BE Hunter, and very loudly ran around the newbie zone pretending to be an egotistical bafoon: a parody of what you would expect from someone named Legolasagorn. I personally witnessed her shaming a few people into logging off of their characters named "Drzzt" and such.]

No comments: