In Part 1 of this series on the psychology of Diablo III loot I talked about how the anchoring effect can affect our estimates of value for auction house items. In Part 2, I described how the availability heuristic can trick us into thinking that epic item drops are more common than they are. In this part, let’s look at the interaction between the auction houses and loot drops, including a suggestion on how to reclaim some of the fun of the loot drop.
Instead of Tristram, let’s head to Sweden to begin. Wolfram Schultz was working there as a neuropsychologist studying Parkinson’s disease in lab monkeys when he almost accidentally started a line of research that ultimately suggests a way that Blizzard could encourage us to keep grinding for new loot. Schultz’s research involved dopamine and dopamine receptors in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that’s released when we encounter something pleasurable, like a piece of fruit or a Legendary Mighty Weapon for our Barbarian. The chemical is hugely important for learned behavior and motivation to persist in a task, since when it’s released certain brain cells go bananas and make us feel good. Maybe even euphoric.
What this means is that dopamine receptors are part of a system that’s about pattern recognition and figuring out how to get more good things out of life. Schultz and his colleagues discovered that presenting a lab monkey with a bit of fruit caused the creature’s dopamine neurons to light up. They also discovered that when they repeatedly preceded the treat with a light or a sound, the neurons would start to fire when the monkey saw the light or heard the sound, but then remain relatively inactive when the fruit showed up. The system they had discovered was, at its core, about anticipation and trying to predict rewards based on what was happening in the environment.
What’s more, it turns out that unpredicted gushes of dopamine really get us fired up. This is because unexpected dopamine rushes highlight failures in our predictive system, and it’s a system that’s designed to help us figure out why we didn’t see life’s good things coming and thus how to find them again in the future. This is why the random nature of loot drops in many games is so effective at getting us to keep playing: it capitalizes on our brain’s attempts to predict the unpredictable. (See here for more on dopamine and loot drops.)
Loot drops were indisputably core to the Diablo and Diablo II experience for all these reasons. Hearing the little “ting!” sound and seeing the beautiful, colored text indicating that a unique item had dropped produced a rush that every player looked forward to.
Only, not so much with Diablo III.
The reason is that the auction house is actually a FAR more effective but much more predictable way of finding better gear for your character than hoping for good loot drops from fallen enemies or treasure chests. In my experience it was super easy to buy equipment so good that the magical “ting!” sound soon lost its effect because the loot that dropped was no longer a reward. It was just gold in a slightly more inconvenient form, destined to be sold to a vendor or at best on the auction house for a little more. In effect, the auction house system excised the entire dopamine rush, loot drop appeal of the game.1
I suspect that the execs from Blizzard are too busy cackling and having money fights with the cuts that the company takes from real money auction house transactions to care, but this seems like a huge part of the game’s core appeal is now lost. I think there’s some middle ground, though, which is why I think the game should have a class of super items that are bind on equip.
In MMO parlance, “bind on pickup” or “BoP” items are treasures that bind to your character’s account once they’re equipped. This means they can’t be given away, sold, or otherwise transferred. You can just equip them, break them down for crafting materials, or just sit there and stare at them in your inventory. Finding a really good, color-coded item that’s BoP would restore some of that “ting!” feeling and dopamine rush, because it will be something that you won’t be able find on the auction house. Making the best items in the game BoP would go a long way towards creating those familiar dopamine rushes because they would signal a clear and strong reward, but even making them run the full range of quality would probably still work, since seeing one drop would signal the tantalizing possibility of something otherwise unobtainable. Suddenly, the loot drop would be back, baby.
So there you have it: three suggestions for tweaking Diablo III loot based on psychology. If you’re a game designer I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, especially if you’ve experimented with anything similar.
Done? You can go back to go back to Part 1 about anchoring in the auction house, or back to Part 2 about the availability heuristic. Finally, there’s a bonus part 4 about the effect of item history on auction house prices.
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