Monday, July 12, 2010

Some thoughts on RNG

RNG, random number generation... it seems to haunt me whereever I go. Especially now, when playing Pokémon, I realize how extremely annoying it can be. And yet it seems to be a standard feature of alot of games. Why is that so?

One easy answer would be that RNG is the easiest way to simulate what we usually call "chance" or "accident", depending on whether it's good or bad or actually rather whether it is truly random or based on fixed numbers. I'll get to that. In swedish we call it "slump", it's a good word. But for all you non-swedish speakers out there I will call it "hap".

So it is probably supposed to simulate hap, but there are two major differences between hap and rng. Rng isn't affected by anything around it, while hap is affected by everything around it. Let's see if I can explain it somewhat.

If someone is struck by lightning we say "wow, that's unlucky. Pure chance!". But actually it's not chance at all. All the events that lead up to that person being struck by that lightning are in theory measurable, they're just so damn many we wouldn't be able to collect them all. Ever heard of the "Butterfly Effect"? No not the movie silly, but the idea that everything that happens everywhere sooner or later will have an effect on everything that exists. One says that the fluttering of a butterflies wings on one side of the earth might turn into a tornado on the other side of the earth. Although that is a simplified metaphor, it is a take on trying to make chaos theory a little more understandable. And after people have been struck by lightning a couple of times we can say that "the chance to be struck by lightning is 0.001%" (or whatever it is), although it's really about being at the wrong place at the wrong time. In essence, you can affect hap.

Chance on the other hand, isn't affectable in the same way. We say that people are "lucky", but there is really no way to make yourself more likely to win at a lottery. Lotteries aren't about -pure- chance, since there is a limited amount of tickets. If you buy them all you have a 100% chance to win something of course. This isn't true with real chance, that occurrs in games. In games you can have say 80% chance to acquire an item when killing a certain mob. Since data isn't limited in the way physical objects are, the game could just keep on producing mobs for you to kill. There is no end to them and therefore in theory it is possible for you to never ever get that certain item, and there is really nothing you can do about it. In essence, you can't affect real chance.

If you think about it, it makes sense. People call odd happenings in "the real world" destiny, or someone is having psychic powers or what have you. But you'd hardly call getting that hard to get pet drop "destiny" in a game, unless joking of course. That is because we have a grasp about "destiny", haps in the real world, being affectable in some mysterious way, like I have explained above, but chance isn't. What some dude does in Dalaran will have no affect whatsoever on whether you get that drop or not (game developers have been trying to implement this kind of "Butterfly Effect" system since forever, but they're still far off). You can grind your ass off, but when that drop finally comes it was just luck. Some people do an instance 50 times for an item, some get it at their first try. That isn't destiny or hap, it's really just pure luck.

So where does that leave us? Well, chance can work to our advantage or disadvantage of course. Problem is, although we get happy when we're lucky, we usually get more unhappy when we're unlucky. If we do get that special drop at our first try, we won't be as happy as we're going to be angry about not getting another drop until our tenth try. If something had 50/50 chance of being good or bad, we'd be angrier about it turning out bad, than happy about it turning out good. Chance tends to make people more cranky than happy.

So why is it there? Many introductory books on psychology will offer a good explanation as to why chance is something better than fixed numbers.

An experiment performed on mice was testing in what way chance and fixed results affects our behavior. They had a button supply the mice with treats at different intervalls. If the treat was given to the mice at every button press, the mice only pressed once in a while. Whenever they felt the need for a treat. If the treat was supplied with fixed intervalls, like every tenth press or every 40th press, the mice would press slowly at first and then more intensively whenever they knew they were getting closer to the treat.

But when the treat was given randomly, on chance, intervalls when pressing the button, the mice just kept pressing it over and over. Since they didn't know when they would get the treat, they barely did anything but press that button. For all they new they might have to stand there all day to get a treat, but that didn't discourage them at all. Quite the opposite. Because they new it might take all day, they pressed more frantically than with any other intervall (well I don't think the mice actually -thought- anything about it, but that is how they behaved anyway). Most importantly, the mice pressed for more treats when there only was a chance to get them, than when it was definite. The treats had become more interesting.

This very type of behavior is what Blizzard is using "against" us in WoW too. And most other games around use this chance method to keep us interested in collecting, gathering and grinding. Think about it, if you knew you'd get a gear piece on your first kill, you'd only do that kill when you needed that gear, and then be done with it. That would make the game end way too fast. And even if they made it so that you had to kill the boss ten times before getting your gear (and they do it that way sometimes, by having you collect certain items), it would make it too easy to have the game work like that overall. Nothing will keep people interested long enough like chance. Nothing will make people do tedious grinding for hours like chance. Although they know there is a chance they'll be there for 5 hours without result, they still do it.

Chance has no end and no way to be affected (by us players). It's an eternal system of providing satisfacton.

I wonder if luck makes us happier about getting something than hard work? If we knew we could get someting after 10 hours of hard work, or an unknown amount of time trying to be lucky... which would we prefer? It's really about 10 hours fixed vs 10 hours -average- grind. That means you could get it sooner, but also way later. Considering how popular WoW is, luck seems to be a very motivating factor. It seems like we are very motivated to engage in risk behavior.

And although we get cranky when we're unlucky, maybe it's still worth it in the end. For the joy we feel over being lucky enough to have gotten our hands on that special thing.

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