Monkeys will do anything for bananas – until the bananas go bad.

Over the last few weeks or so there has been a lot of debate, most of it hostile and disrespectful, over, of all things, dailies. I really hate it when people use terms like “Skinner box” to short-cut the discussion, in the seeming belief that using labels to obscure meaning somehow gives them an advantage.

In a way, it does, in that it discourages participation from people that are not steeped in the science of psychology – or the shorthand pop psych that passes for it in gaming circles.  Of course, this opens them up to an attack of bona fides, in which the adversary gets to pick which version of “Operant conditioning chamber” that will be used in the conversation. At which point it all breaks down into a bitter fight over selection of sources, a third-hand knife fight over which source is the most correct ((Or, more likely, which one is least correct!)), and at the end nothing is resolved or even discussed, which makes the owners (if that term can really be used)  of the debate quite happy, since all they probably have anyway are bitter complaints, and if we resolve those then nobody’s happy!

So as not to be one of the guilty, here’s my summary: a “Skinner box” is basically an apparatus in which a creature is placed. It presents them with stimuli, and things to do, and a reward system.  One example would be a box in which a rat is placed, with a pellet dispenser, a lever, a light, and a bell. When the light flashes, and the rat hits the lever, it gets a pellet. When the bell sounds, and it hits the lever, it gets no pellet. The rat is eventually trained to press the lever whenever the lights goes off, period.  If you want to make it festive, apply a punishment when the bell sounds, but it’s not actually a requirement to use negative reinforcement in such a system.

My favorite story about Skinner devices is this, and it illustrates the concept admirably.

Six monkeys were placed in a with a bunch of bananas. Whenever one of the monkeys touched the bananas, though, the rest of the monkeys would get sprayed with a fire hose.

Eventually, the monkeys learned to keep each other away from the bananas. 

One monkey was replaced with a new one. It naturally tried to get a banana, and it naturally got the hell beat out of it by the other monkeys.

One by one, the monkeys were replaced, until none of the original monkeys remained.

At that point, the fire hose was removed.  It wasn’t needed. The monkeys would beat the hell out of any monkey that tried to get a banana.

At that point, the monkeys were replaced, one by one, again, until the second generation was completely replaced.

The monkey senses bullsh!tThe six monkeys that remained would not let any monkey have a banana.  There was no fire hose. There was no punishment. None of them had ever been hosed, not even once.

I imagine if you could talk to the monkeys, and ask them “why won’t you let anyone have a banana?”, they’d probably look around and go “Well, that’s how we’ve always done things around here.”

The contentious debate is all about whether we’re monkeys, really.  I’m voting monkey.


A couple of days ago, I was pleased to let this sit where it was. All *I* had, after all, was complaints about the people making all the noise! And it’s really silly to complain about something that makes one feel oh so better about themselves, so silence seemed best.

Then GhostCrawler had to go and tweet this:

Not thinking efficiency here I would not have predicted that players would become so focused on efficiency. Not fun or improving themselves. Efficiency.

I caught myself laughing, because that’s exactly what Grimm’s been doing. Gear planning is simply that – planning one’s way through a series of events in the most efficient manner possible.  A caveat is that he’s full aware of the irony of plotting one’s most direct route through a game, which is meant to be fun.  But, it is ironic nevertheless.

Ghostcrawler’s tweet really brings it together, though.  Remember as the expansion was coming together that a lot of noise was made about “fun”. We’re bringing you “fun dailies”.  We are giving you “fun things to do”. That sort of talk.

But the design team failed to understand the stats they had from past expansions point towards the raiding monkeys making a beeline for two things: gear and tokens for more gear.

You had one job. One. Job. Ask around, see if you can find someone that did the Firelands dailies out of a sense of enjoyment.  It should be easy. Those people will have lots of unused tokens. Because the rest of us monkeys stopped as soon as we had just enough to get that last bit of gear.  This has been true for every dailies hub since the Shattered Sun Offensive. Ghostcrawler’s comment in this context makes no sense

The problem with dailies in MoP is that they may have been designed for “fun” by a subset of the population, but they’re being drowned out by the raiding monkeys that feel obligated to run the dailies like a rat in a box, hitting the lever every time the light goes on.  The whole game is filled with this sort of thing. Crafting cooldowns, the gardening minigame, and so forth.  A lot of monkeys have good reason to see this as some sort of elaborate “skinner box” in which we’re just waiting for the right stimulus to get our daily pellet.

Many have tried to paint this in a sinister light. Making the monkeys play a game for a reward!  Why, it would be scandalous, if true!

Now, I love a good conspiracy theory ((Not really. Think they’re awful and stupid.)). But I subscribe to the notion of “never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity and laziness.”  And I think that applies here.  Not necessarily the stupidity part ((Well, upper management … hi.)), but the “laziness” part has, indirectly, some bearing.

Genius I realize that’s a loaded word, “laziness.”  It implies that Blizz aren’t busting their humps to keep us monkeys happy.  And we should know by now that that’s just not true. They work very hard, and very long, and very much.

But there is such a thing as “lazy game design” and that’s where I see dailies coming in.

Dailies serve no purpose but to fill a void, that void being the one in between content patches. The monkeys that rush to the top run out of things to do, log in to the forums, and grunt about how bored they are.  After that happens a few dozen hundred hojillion times, Blizz gets the idea that the monkeys are bored, and figure that just about anything will shut them up.

The novel aspect of this in BC caught the loudest of monkeys by surprise, but by Shattered Sun Offensive time, they had wised up and were complaining that Blizz was throwing dailies at them to substitute for real content.

For once, the monkeys are probably right.

Take the Firelands hub as an example.

If you consider three weeks per faction, the Dailies route can buy you a couple of months, maybe a whole quarter, in which the monkeys are clicking away on the same old content.  Maybe you throw in an RNG to make it a little more varied, but otherwise that’s about it.  Basically it amounts to designing enough quests so that your players get around a dozen a day out of a pool of, say, twenty-five.  If you multiply that by a month, you get twenty-five quests taking the place of close to 500 “new” quests, which is what it would take to see the same number of new quests per day for a month.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but even in this simplified scenario, the math of dailies – from the developer’s resource perspective – are clear.  All the time and personnel resources that would be needed for 500 new quests can be put into something else, and the project lead goes to bed thinking he’s pulled something off.

Just for Alas As any player will tell you, doing the same thing for thirty days is not, however, anywhere close to as enjoyable as actual new content.  But the Dailies Lie is one that Blizz has learned to tell itself, and believe, officially, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much you think otherwise, they’re going to keep on saying things like “fun” and “dailies” in the same breath, and equating that to new content.

MoP was supposed to be different. There would be, literally, “hundreds” of dailies to do – all you had to do was choose WHICH ones to do!  What they did not say was that it was actually:

  • 12 Tillers dailies
  • 12 Anglers dailies
  • 12 August Celestials dailies
  • 12 Klaxxi dailies
  • 12 Shadow-pan dailies
  • 12 Golden Lotus dailies
  • 12 Cloud Serpent dailies
  • 12 Lorewalker dailies
  • 12 5.1 dailies
  • etc

When I look at it this way, this hardly seems to be different from Cataclysm, only with different names for the factions, but the same deal nonetheless.

To be fair, there are a few differences.

  • Tabards don’t earn you faction points any more.
  • Upon hitting revered, you can buy a token to accelerate reputation for yourself and all your alts, for that faction.
  • Some JP and VP gear is tied to faction rep now. ((Which is largely viewed as a negative by nine out of ten sentients.))
  • Tokens are earned that get you a bonus roll in raids.

I think the Firelands quests finally revealed that the monkeys were wising up and daring someone to break out a firehose. We went as far as we needed to get what we wanted, and then we stopped playing, in droves, until the next patch.  Blizz may claim that this is expected behavior, but they are bound to feel pressure from nervous CEOs and questions from The Board. 

So they changed up the game a little, to try to reel us in and level out the valleys in the population charts.

The big hook here is the bonus roll, once you’ve spent all your VP and JP on gear and upgrades.  The bonus roll come from Lesser Charms of Good Fortune, which you can only get from running dailies, often.  If you’re not a raider, though, they’re less compelling. And I maintain that the raiding population is but a small segment of the population.  I think that once the non-raiders ((I refuse to call them “casuals” any more since that offends some people, and it’s not my intent to do so. It’s not that I mind offending people, but I want it to be intended when that happens.)) top off their tanks, so to speak, we’ll see a drop-off again.

It's peanut butter jelly time! The classic “Skinner” scenario is very effective, but you have to choose the rewards wisely, or the monkey will just stop going for the banana. I don’t think dailies will really keep driving logins once the rewards peter out.  They have a limited shelf life. Once we out-gear those rewards, we won’t even care about bonus rolls.

The real question is whether or not they can stretch things out long enough for the next patch, and the next, and so forth, to keep us occupied until a new reward can be brought out. 

At which point, break out your firehoses – I’m going in.


Posted on January 7, 2013, in Game mechanics. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. All of your posts are brilliant, sir. But THIS post is even more brilliant than usual and actually prompted me to leave a comment. Kudos to you and your voice of reason.


    • Too kind! But I’ll take it! 🙂

      I’m really looking forward to what the numbers look like in the coming months, whether Blizz’s gamble pays off, or if the monkeys do what monkeys do best. When it comes down to it, this whole theory is a house of cards until then 🙂


  2. I was promised bananas and instead I got a good post….

    I still want a banana.


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