Superstitions

I made a short, speculative post on MMO superstitions on the Terra Nova blog a while back when I first began to think about the idea. This article is a more elaborate exploration drawing on a survey asking players to describe superstitions they have seen in an MMO. But I want to begin with the most interesting comment made on the Terra Nova blog post which was posted by Heather Sinclair, a member of the Dungeon and Dragons Online development team:

From beta all the way through months into launch players were CONVINCED that if you used the diplomacy skill on a chest it would improve the loot you got. This was SO widespread that you literally could not get in a pick up group without them querying about the diplomacy skills of the party and someone forcing everyone to wait while the highest diplomacy skill player cringed before the chest sufficiently. No matter how many times we posted on the forums that this was a myth and it doesn't do anything, they kept doing it. It got so bad our community relations manager even put it in his sig. Finally we made chests an invalid target for the diplomacy skill, then players whined that all the points they put into diplomacy were worthless because we "nerfed" the skill!

We've had similar problems with some of our boss encounters, for example, on my first dragon raid, I was regaled with a long list of things I MUST NOT DO or else the raid would be wiped. Not one of them was valid, but they were incredibly detailed and equally silly. (Things like you can't switch weapons, press hotkeys, cast spells, attack anything but a single leg of the dragon, that sort of thing). It was pointless to argue about, they wouldn't accept the fact that their rules were really all superstitions.

B.F. Skinner is well-known for his theory of behavioral conditioning, but one of his quirkiest studies involved inducing superstition in pigeons (1948). 8 pigeons were placed in a reinforcement contraption (i.e., Skinner Box) and were given a food pellet every 15 seconds no matter what they did. After several days, each pigeon had fixated on a particular superstitious behavior. One pigeon danced counter-clockwise, another two developed a left-to-right head-swinging motion, another attacked an invisible object in the top right corner of the cage, and so forth. This phenomenon has also been replicated among high-school students (Bruner & Revuski, 1961). And given that MMOs are a kind of Skinner Box that offer some random rewards (e.g., rare drops), it's not surprising that superstitious behaviors emerge in MMOs as well.

I want to make clear that I am using the word "superstition" in the context of MMOs without reference to spirits or religion in the way "superstitious" sometimes implies when used in everyday language. Specifically, I'm using the word "superstition" to refer to repeated behaviors driven by strong beliefs that doing X (or not doing X) will cause Y even though there is no good evidence that this is the case, or despite countering evidence. Superstition falls along a spectrum of related phenomena, such as urban legends and speculation. What differentiates superstition from these other two terms is that urban legends are typically stories which have no repeated behavioral component and speculation usually forms the basis for somewhat systematic testing. Of course, the distinctions among all these terms are not clear cut.

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In this particular survey, about 380 MMO players described one or more superstitions they had seen in an MMO. As I read through the player-submitted superstitions, I was struck by several things, and I will list some of these here to help frame the phenomena we're looking at and the stories that follow:

1) Other people's superstitions always seem crazier. When reading through the superstitions, I felt more sympathetic towards ones in games I've played and more likely to laugh at superstitions in games I haven't played. But, of course, most of the superstitions are incredibly similar across games and I think reading superstitions from other games will help us think more seriously about the ones in the games we do play.

2) Some people argue that all MMO superstitions must be false because it's just easier for developers to use a random number generator throughout, but it's also true that it takes just several lines of code to increase the chances of all rare drops on Tuesdays. And while it is impossible to prove that gods or spirits exist in the real world, there actually is an omnipotent, omniscient god in MMOs (known as the game developer) who can and does mess with the rules. In other words, there is no logical reason why a four-leaf clover would bring you good luck in real life, but this is plausible and easy to implement in an MMO. So ironically, there is a better basis in believing in an MMO superstition than a real life superstition.

3) A corollary of #2 is that we may never know whether a particular superstition is actually true or false because: a) most of the scenarios occur with sufficiently low frequencies (i.e., rare mob drops) that they are hard to sample for testing, b) we will never have access to the actual code base in most cases, and c) even if we did, weird features do arise from complex code that developers never put in explicitly but nevertheless might exist (e.g., the case of the "wi flag" in Asheron's Call). However, while some of these superstitions may be true, it is likely that most of them are in fact false.

But enough of my thoughts. Let's turn to the superstitions that players have seen in the games they play.

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Instance Seeding

Most superstitions players described involved low-chance or high-risk events. For example, a low-chance event may be a rare loot drop. In World of Warcraft, there is a pervasive superstition that the loot table in high-level instances is determined by the first member of the group who steps foot inside the instance.

There is a widely held belief that instances are 'seeded' despite lack of evidence and even a direct denial from Blizzard. Seeded refers to the person who starts the group or raid, and it is believed that the class of that person directly impact what class specific loot will drop. I.E. if a warrior starts the MC raid invites, more druid and warlock gear will drop. If a priest starts the invites, more warrior and mage loot will drop, etc. [WoW, M, 33]

I can think of a popular superstition. When raiding under a specific Master Looter, certain types of loot will drop. When under a different Master Looter, different types of loot will drop. Blizzard consistently states that loot drops are completely random. Yet, a lot of people don't believe this because some items drop over and over when under one Master Looter and different items would drop over and over when under a different Master Looter. [WoW, M, 34]

While a superstition involving a common scenario may be easily disproved by testing, one reason why superstitions involving uncommon scenarios sustain themselves is because "it can't hurt" to try it. And if you only get to run a high-level instance once each week, then why not try something out that only takes 30 seconds?

Generally the experimentation is harmless enough that it is at least permitted by skeptics of the theory. [WoW, M, 24]

Some People Are Luckier

One interesting variation of the instance seeder superstition claims that certain characters are luckier or have better loot tables.

We have a particular guildmate that insists then when he enters the dungeon instance first, that better loot will tend to drop. Granted, when he has entered first, we've received some very nice, even legendary items in World of Warcraft, but to think he's somehow affecting the loot table by being the first to enter is a bit much. [WoW, M, 30]

The belief that certain classes seed certain loot in PvE instances within World of Warcraft and that certain players are 'lucky' seeders in terms of an increased high-level loot drop rate. Sometimes, raids have been held up until these lucky seeders or a member of a certain class arrives at the instance entrance. [WoW, F, 33]

Silliest is that a particular person provides some sort of luck to getting loot - that one person is responsible for the 'seed' being good or bad. [WoW, F, 49]

What fascinates me here is that certain characters come to be seen as being inherently lucky or unlucky (even divine or cursed), analogous to how certain people in life are sometimes perceived to have divine or miraculous powers.

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Lucky Charms

There is also a pervasive item-based superstition regarding drop rates across many MMOs and this is the belief that having certain objects in your inventory will improve the drop rate of rare items. The specific item changes from game to game, but takes the same general form.

In World of Warcraft there are 2 items that are said to bring luck to the owner. These are the 'Rabbit's foot' and the 'Lucky charm'. These items drop off common mobs around the world. There is a group of players that strongly believes that carrying around one or more of these items increase your luck in loot drops. People often use specific events and strokes of luck to prove that they 'work'. I myself don't believe it has any effect at all but still have a 'Rabbit's foot' in my inventory because you never know [WoW, M, 41]

That carrying or owning items who's names implied good luck (Fortune Egg, Millionaire's desk, 4 Leaf Mandragora Bud) would increase drop rates despite no evidence to prove this. I'll admit to doing it myself! [FFXI, F, 25]

In Anarchy Online, some people believed that wearing certain gear was the way to gain certain drops and would spend hours farming gear so that they could farm other gear. [AO, M, 33]

Carrying around in inventory bag a Talisman believing it will bring good luck. [EQ, F, 52]

And again, here we see the interesting behavior where players may not themselves "believe" in the superstition, but they do it anyways because the behavior requires little effort in comparison with the potential gains.

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Over-Enchanting

An interesting case study of a high-risk event is something known as over-enchanting, a crafting mechanic present in games such as Ragnarok Online, Ultima Online, and Lineage 2.

In Lineage II you are able to enchant items to get special effects and better stats. Enchanting to +3 is risk-free. However, at +4 and above the item has a chance of breaking, causing you to loose a lot of money. Many people have gone so far as to quit the game or reroll after blowing up their ultra-expensive gear. A very prevalent superstition is for people to take the item into a church when attempting to over-enchant it. Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant. [Lineage 2, F, 24]

They also believe that doing the risky act (overenchanting) in a church improves their odds. [Lineage 2, M, 52]

In addition to standing in specific places, players described a wide variety of other superstitions related to over-enchanting. Some of these involve eating before enchanting.

In UO it has been stated many times by the Devs that 'eating' does nothing to enhance the characters abilities. Many players still choose to eat before they try to do some specific crafting where the risk of destroying an item for example is high. [UO, F, 45]

Others have developed a more elaborate set of rituals.

Some go to only a particular NPC - some will not only upgrade at only a certain NPC, but also upgrade ONLY within a certain time period - some do it ONLY while standing on a 'lucky' spot yet others believe that the secret is to wait there patiently till someone comes in... then wait for him to fail... they believe that their attempt will be 100% successful if it follows on the heels of someone succeeding. I personally am guilty of a fairly weird ritual myself - I tend to strip off all equipment I am carrying and log off in between EVERY attempt to refine my gear. :) [Ragnarok Online, M, 29]

Many people I know have done many funny things to 'influence the Random Number Generator god', including but not limited to: 'Ritual dancing' (using a string of emotes prior to the act), crafting/upgrading during a predetermined magic-hour where a lot of successes occurred, or even saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life). [RF Online, M, 21]

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Crafting in FFXI

The most interesting superstitions related to crafting actually come from Final Fantasy XI, and it's because the developers have a history of messing with the players.

FFXI's crafting system was particularly ripe for superstitions, because the parts of the system that were verified were wacky enough that anything might have been true (for instance, day of the week definitely affected the rate of successes and high quality synths). [FFXI, F, 23]

Deliberately strange rules like this have spawned an entire legion of crafting superstitions in FFXI.

One of the most persistent superstitions (and for all I know, it might be true) was that facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. It was the perfect superstition, because it took so little effort to follow that even if it wasn't true, you didn't lose anything by acting as if it was true. [FFXI, F, 23]

Whenever trying to make an item with a particular kind of Crystal, there were rumors that if your character was standing and facing, for example, Southeast with a Wind Crystal, they would be less likely to fail the synthesis and lose the crystal and items. I even once saw an entire investigative guide that said the directions to face were linked to the time of day in-game, and that each crystal had its own favored 'direction' depending on the time of day. [FFXI, F, 22]

Due to FFXI being incredibly coded for hidden effects, moon phase and basically anything that is mutable, there are a lot of these beliefs going around. For instance, I have never seen any proof that the Elemental Staves (there are 8, fire, earth, air, water, light, dark, lightning, and ice) will affect your craft outcome, however I tend to craft with the corresponding staff/crystal im using. There is also substantial (yet without seeing the *actual* code for the game I don't consider it fact) evidence pointing to which direction your facing has an effect on what your crafting. Some players are extraordinarily picky about the time/direction/day/moonphase that they craft certain (expensive) items, some aren't. [FFXI, M, 30]

As a side note, I've never felt so relieved to not be playing an MMO where moonphases are involved. Just imagine the beliefs that might spring up in WoW if that were the case.

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Spawning

Spawning as a game mechanic used to be a much bigger deal, such as in the original EverQuest. This is because some mobs would have spawn times of an hour or six hours in addition to having place-holder spawns. This helps to partly explain why there were many superstitions regarding spawning in EQ in a way that there aren't in a game like WoW where spawning is faster and less painful. One prevalent superstition was the existence of an "anti-spawn" radius.

In EverQuest, many players were under the impression that the respawn mechanic for monsters/NPCs took into account players' positions. So when people were fighting things in dungeons, they'd often leave whatever room they were in for a bit because they felt that the room wouldn't respawn while they were there. [EQ, M, 24]

It was widely believed that the game designers had implemented an 'anti-camp radius' around major spawns, such that the mobs would not spawn if people were within the radius. Of course, no one knew exactly what the extent of this radius was, so more risk-averse people would camp further and further from the spawn point in order to avoid the radius. The developers at Verant found this so funny (there was no anti-camp radius) that they added as a comment during some loading screens 'Checking anti-camp radius' just to mess with these players. [Eve Online, M, 31]

Other superstitions involved cleaning up after yourself.

In Everquest it was a belief that you needed to loot all the corpses of everything in order for more mobs to spawn. This of course is untrue. The mobs spawn on a fairly precise timer and have nothing to do with crowding around the spawn area. [CoH, F, 37]

And of course, some people developed ritual dances for spawning. As you're reading these, please note the uncanny resemblance of this to Skinner's pigeons.

My favorite rituals would probably be the various 'spawn dances' in EQ. People were very superstitious about what caused mobs (NPCs) to respawn (moreso in the early days, but it did continue), and would concoct rituals--spawn dances--to encourage spawns. They varied wildly - some people had special gear sets they used, others had sets and sequences of movements and animations (via animated emotes, spellcasting, terrain), ways to move or not move (must stay sitting, still, as much as possible; or must move continually/every X seconds), etc. [WoW, M, 23]

Some players would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme. Seeing a full group of six characters dancing in this manner shortly before a mob was to spawn was very funny. I think that it sometimes was done as a joke, but I knew some players who swore by its success. [EQ, M, 28]

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Loaded Dice

Given the prevalence of random rolling systems in many MMOs, it makes sense that players might develop superstitions on what is ostensibly a random number generator. Of course, badly-implemented random number generators (or overly imaginative players) often give the impression of having patterns. One of the most popular superstitions is that you can get rid of your "bad rolls".

I've seen some people in games with loot systems that let you roll (mostly DAOC), they'd do a bunch of random rolls till they get a string of low rolls. This is of course in hopes they'll get a high roll on the important raid loot. [M, 21]

I've seen people roll their dice repeatedly when joining a raid, stopping just after a terrible roll because they were 'getting the bad rolls out'. They weren't kidding. [WoW, M, 31]

A variant of this is waiting till someone else makes a bad roll and then rolling yourself.

When /rolling random 0-100 numbers, if you waited until someone else rolled a low number before rolling your own, you would increase your chances of getting a higher number (variant of the gambler's fallacy). [WoW, M, 31]

Others prefer an order-based method of rolling.

There are a lot of people that have all kinds of theories on rolling random for group loot. Sometimes they want to be first to roll, sometimes second or last. It tends to get funny in groups when people try to roll at the same time since most of them won't say till afterwards that they are trying to roll in a particular order. [WoW, M, 22]

When an item drops, they roll first, or wait until last, or if they anticipate an upcoming item, they roll a few times randomly to 'get the bad rolls out'. (Which usually results in a high roll, which they worry they 'wasted'.) [WoW, M, 34]

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Risks, Costs, and Persistence of Superstitions

It bears pointing out the conditions that encourage superstitions to develop and the irrational and social mechanisms that sustain them. As we've seen, superstitions are more likely to involve low-chance and high-risk events. In practice, they are partly sustained because the cost of a 30 second superstitious behavior is extremely low in comparison with a raid wipe (and the consequent regrouping time).

'Sundering the Beast in UBRS causes him to AOE nonstop.' I mean, huh? Since when has Blizzard ever marked a single ability for this sort of arbitrary punishment? 'Hey kids, don't use curse of weakness on Gandling, because he starts teleporting people a ton faster...' But nobody wanted to try it out; I remember actually offering to pay people a gold each to let me try sundering (I was MT) and they refused; nobody wanted a wipe. When the alternative is a wipe, people are very pious when it comes to respecting these technological taboos. [WoW, M, 23]

Another mechanism is that we tend to remember confirming cases more than disconfirming cases. But typically, one confirming case is enough to create a new group of converts.

If it worked some of the time, it was enough for the group in question to continue to think that the process they were following was crucial to the success of whatever it was they were doing. [EQ2, M, 36]

Overall, I was most surprised by how widespread superstitions were across MMOs and how adamantly some players follow them. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, a few of these superstitions might in fact be true, but most are likely to be false. I'll close this exploration of superstitions with an anecdote that is a little more light-hearted.

In EQ1 people used to think that if you didn't stand on the top of Orc Hill, it would make the Orc Trainer spawn faster. This was a pretty silly thing, but it was a common thing to hear people say in game. The funniest part about it was when I went to the official SOE EQ Velious expansion party in Las Vegas, and there was a huge, slow moving line to get in, even for those of us who were pre-registered for the event. We were all standing in line in a hall of the hotel, and there was carpeting that was occasionally broken up by a small area of tile. At one point I said 'Hey, I heard if you don't step on the tiles, the line will move faster,' and a whole bunch of people in line busted up laughing. [EQ2, F, 42]

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Appendix

There were a bunch of interesting submitted superstitions that didn't neatly fit into the narrative flow of the article, but I wanted to make sure that they were shared as well. Here they are.

Bovine Assault

Many years ago, in Asheron's Call, outside the city of Rithwic I came upon a new player that was standing around as a cow was beating the living crap out of him. I moved closer to save him, as he was taking no action to thwart the rampaging dairy cow. I drew my weapon and he called out, 'Please don't kill the cow!!!' Perplexed I stopped and he explained that he was deliberately letting the cow eat him without reprisal because he had heard that if a monster attacks you, it would 'raise your defense, and that's very important later in the game!' I didn't have the heart to tell him that it would literally take years of continuous bovine assault before it made a substantial difference. [ATITD, M, 34]

A Special, Happy Place

In EverQuest there were several folks in my guild who believed if their characters got drunk enough they would actually be teleported to a special location. I think this rumor started because somebody got so drunk they couldn't tell where they were walking (since being drunk warps the way the game draws the graphics) and got stuck in a weird place under Freeport or Qeynos. So these guys kept getting smashed on long camps to try and go to this 'special' location, which really screwed us one time when the MOB we wanted appeared but half of the group was too wasted to attack it. No matter how much others tried to convince them that there was no special place they never stopped believing it was true. [WoW, M, 36]

Paint Brush of Souls

There is an area deep in a temple in FFXI where you have to go through a ritualistic sort of procedure to open a secret door. First you have to acquire an item (the Paintbrush of Souls). This item gets taken to a particular room. Once in the room you have to 'talk' to a few objects in a certain order, then face your character at a blank canvas. The game tells you that your character starts to paint on the canvas, then puts a mark at the end of the line to let you know that you have to hit Enter to continue.

The trick to opening the door is you have to wait approximately thirty seconds before hitting Enter. You must give your character time to finish their painting. (The game gives no hints on your progress, nor when you are done. You just have to be patient, and wait a minimum of thirty seconds.) In FFXI, you can chat in real time in a variety of different ways. If you hit enter to send a chat message during the painting, it would abort the waiting period. I can't tell you how many times I had been in that area, where a raid leader would swear up and down that the *only* way to open the door is for *everyone* to be absolutely silent for two full minutes; if anybody typed anything at all, the door wouldn't open and it would be YOUR FAULT! [EO, M, 27]