Teach a MMO to fish …

Fishing at night in LotROI find fishing in LotRO to be so incredibly boring that it warps around the continuum to become interesting.

Tuebit’s Summary of Fishing in LotRO:

  • Cast: Press Alt+2 (for me).
  • Wait for signal (rod wiggles).
  • Reel: Press Alt+2.
  • See worthless reward.
  • See fishing skill increment (maybe).

It is the naked expression of the MMO mechanic. It is beautiful in its simplicity.

It requires no skill:

No more skill than a slot-machine, at least.

One casts … one watches … one reels. That’s it. I’ve tried being quick. I’ve tried being slow. I’ve tried jiggling side to side. It doesn’t matter. If you can focus for 5 to 10 seconds, you can fish with the best.

It isn’t social:

Just like a slot-machine, it only takes one person to pull the arm.

Twice I’ve fished beside someone. A stranger. In silence. I’m very much reminded of NoSo, the un-social network where people gather anonymously to ignore each other.

There is no risk:

It’s like a slot machine that requires no quarter. You just wander up and pull the lever and see what falls out.

Your first fishing pole is given freely. Pole upgrades make skill increases somewhat faster but don’t appear to have a measurable impact on reward. Bait can be purchased, but in tests, the value is uncertain … at most, it appears to slightly increase the speed with which fish are caught.

Rewards are Minimal:

Our slot machine is not only free-to-play, but pay-out is in belly button lint.

Well, ok, there are the fish. The vast majority of fish are worth a few copper (the smallest unit of currency). Rare catches (like drift-wood) are worth 1 silver 70 copper. In one hour of fishing, I would guess that one might earn 5 silver. In one hour of green and blue mobs, I wouldn’t be surprised to rake in 100 times as much.

Some of the fish can be made into wall trophies for your house. But the ease with which the trophies are obtained makes them worthless as rewards, except to real collector types. I *mostly* throw mine away … I’ve kept my 30lb Salmon … which I’ll swap for the 40lb or 50lb if I catch one.

Some of the fish can be used in cooking recipes … but no market has developed. I’ve tried selling without luck. With the possible exception of the flounder recipes (as an alternative to Lembas?) the food made isn’t terribly useful.

For all intents and purposes, the Reward / Risk ratio is 0:0. No real reward. No real risk.

This is what is most beautiful about Fishing … despite 0 reward, players are fishing. I think many years of operant conditioning are being exploited to achieve this effect.

Our MMO’s have trained us that our actions lead to increases in ability (a reward in and of itself). We’re trained to enjoy seeing that bar increase. With fishing, we’re rewarded with only the reminder that we have been rewarded in the past. We get to see our skill bar take the epic journey from left to right … it seems like a reward … but it’s hallow.

Fishing is the naked MMO mechanic, upon which all other mechanics are built.

The naked MMO mechanic:

  • Player presses buttons.
  • Player sees bling. Player hears cow-bell.
  • Players are rewarded for success with primary reinforcer (skill bonuses, loot) in conjunction with conditioned reinforcer (that bar that slowly creeps across the screen).

All other mechanics spring from this seed.

Want to add skill?

Button clicks and world data interact according to some algorithm to produce a score. A minimum score must be achieved to receive the reward.

Want to add social?

The algorithm is such that the button clicks of a single individual are unlikely to achieve the required minimum score to receive the reward. Players are given a method to collaborate at clicking buttons.

Want to improve the response rate of conditioning?

Or in other words, hook your players a little more firmly? Alter the reward / risk ratio. Admittedly, I’m no expert in conditioning (although, I did manage to train my dogs).

#1 For each attempt at the mechanic, the player is required to ante-up with some item of value. Very much a traditional slot-machine mechanic. Examples might include required consumables or ‘use-based item decay’.

#2 If the player fails to achieve the required minimum score to complete the mechanic, the player is punished, often by removing something of value. Examples might include re-spawning at a distant location, ‘death-based item decay’, loot or cash drops.

Wouldn’t this be interesting to see in a RL casino? Play the slots for free, but if you lose, security takes your wallet and dumps you in an alley 20 minutes away.

Both of these approaches depend on being able to identify something of value to players, which, given varying tastes and goals, is difficult. 100 silver for a low level player is a killer. 100 silver to an L50, is nothing. Time often becomes the universal currency. Thus, we see distant re-spawn locations. Alternately, XP penalities (which equate to time) are often applied.

Increasing rewards to improve conditioning response eventually runs into the problem of satiation. A player only needs so much equipment, so much XP and so much gold. After that, the reward loses its luster.

Designers could leave the risk / reward ratio low and instead fiddle with the reward schedule. The all knowing Wikipedia says:

# Ratio schedules produce higher rates of responding than interval schedules, when the rates of reinforcement are otherwise similar.
# Variable schedules produce higher rates and greater resistance to extinction than most fixed schedules.

Ever wonder why XP is given out EVERY success and in an entirely predictable manner? Maybe XP needs to be given out on a variable ratio schedule. You kill 4 mobs, learn nothing and get no XP. On the 5th, something interesting happens and you get XP. In theory at least, this would do more to support the value of XP as a reward.

You also need not keep the variable ratio constant (as in, randomly, 1 of every 10 successes). You can thin the reward out once you have your players hooked. I’ve often wondered if Casino’s in Vegas might do this … I always seem to win biggest early, hooking me. I need to learn to get up and walk out.

It’s also interesting to note that, from operant conditioning’s perspective, you can condition using only positive reinforcement. Sure, punishment works, but it isn’t required. Your players will keep slavishly clicking those buttons if all you do is reward them. A key thing to note, I think, if you’re designing Joy-Joy Ponies Online.

In some senses, Fishing in LotRO is the very pinnacle of achievement in MMO designs. It is a worthless activity, and yet through the magic of operant conditioning, players throughout Middle-Earth are doing it.

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