MMOs and the Einstellung Effect

While idly browsing through a magazine rack, I came across an article in a psychology magazine whose name I’ve now forgotten. It talked about the Einstellung effect, which describes the propensity of humans to stick to familiar solutions to problems, while unconsciously overlooking new and better solutions.

It’s amazing how this effect can be seen at work in almost every avenue of our MMO games.

Take the recent example of GW2’s Battle for Lion’s Arch assault knights, where zerging down the assault knights in blue, green, red sequence was the first established solution. For a few days and even up to a week later, there were still people in map chat trying to push this solution, despite a patch that hard-limited the number of people that could attack the knights.

On a more general scale, we can see this in players who are used to traditional MMO leveling and questing making the switch over to GW2 and becoming lost and directionless, asking “Am I doing this wrong?” and “What are my goals? What am I striving towards?

(Hint: It’s very hard to play GW2 wrong. Doing practically anything in the game is somewhat rewarding. Seeking optimal efficiency is one valid style of play, but is not the -only- thing to strive towards, especially when one is still leveling. That stage, especially, is a good time for exploration and discovery.

As for goals, you gotta set them yourself. Scary thought, yes, but if you play or want to play more sandbox-style MMOs, this is something that one should get used to. Analysis paralysis and the paradox of choice are just things that come along with the overwhelm of options that one could be doing at any moment.)

Then there are the players that simply can’t get used to a game that doesn’t utilize defined holy trinity roles, and insist on trying to shoehorn their builds into less than optimal do-one-thing-only functions. “I heal gud!” said the wannabe GW1 monk pretending to be a GW2 guardian and the CoH healbot masquerading as an empathy defender. “Why is there no taunt?” cried the traditional tanks, at a loss with GW2’s active combat, “I can’t tell who has aggro anymore!”

But existing GW2 players are not immune to the effect as well. DPS META UBER ALLES! They cry. MELEE MELEE MELEE. It is mathematically proven to be better!

I wonder how many of them have actually checked, or have simply listened to some person posting what they claim to be the best build for a particular very-specialized purpose online?

Every so often, in a particular encounter, we see the devs trying to design in the need for more control (pushing mobs away from laser emplacements at Tequatl, for example), or places where reflects can come in handy (it’s always worth asking oneself if that ranged attack is a projectile and whether it can be reflected, I find), or places where sustained ranged damage is made more equivalent to what melee players can output (usually by making sure it’s very fatal to be in melee range and forcing periodic interruptions of an attack chain to retreat.)

Sometimes it still doesn’t work so well, mostly because the sheer power of stacked buffs, blasting combo fields, dodge invincibility frames,  and joint rezzing / mass warbanners can paper over the obstacles and allow the existing melee cleave damage meta builds to unleash their power, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time.

Warden Number 3 of the marionette fight, fer instance, was quite notorious for being much safer to keep mobile and range than melee, with its constant spinning attacks and bombs.

Hell, I’m not immune to the effect.

My warrior has had healing signet slotted for… oh, I don’t know, ages, since I leveled him up and decided that the passive heal was really powerful and worked really well in Aetherblade Retreat, where one tended to absorb lots of small hits from stray cannon blasts that needed to be healed up over time.

While this keeps me alive in assault knight fights and the holograms, by virtue of needing to retreat out of melee every now and then and ranging while the steady heal pulses my health back up… today, while pondering the Einstellung effect, I found myself asking if this heal was really the best I could be using.

I didn’t want to use Mending, the condition eating heal, because it didn’t heal for very much. Conditions would layer on too fast during the reflect phase if there was someone undisciplined firing them anyway, and the hologram fight didn’t have much conditions to deal with. (Though with a 20 second recharge, I should actually try it out at one point before dismissing it.)

I tried out Healing Surge, since I’m almost always at full adrenaline when meleeing, and it seemed to be worse than healing signet. I wasn’t healing up the smaller hits from the assault knight, and so had to back away to heal up only 1/3 of my health, and then get stuck trying to decide if I should go in at half health and risk dying, or stay out.

But wait.. what is this new heal that was introduced recently?

Defiant Stance. Heal a small amount. For 3 seconds, all incoming attacks heal you for the full amount that would otherwise be dealt.

WUT. WAIT. These are fights which pulse high damage at relatively predictable intervals…

While I’m still pretty crappy at knowing when the assault knight is going to lash out with high hammer damage, I did feel that I was able to stay in melee range longer by first utilizing my high health to absorb some attacks, balanced stance for stability to counter the knockdowns, and defiant stance to heal up the health reservoir when I felt the knight was going to start its AoE hammer attack chain.

But more importantly, I found out that defiant stance countered the major problem I was having meleeing the prime hologram in the first phase. Which is my inability to retreat out of prime blast range in time.

Usually, by the time I see the orange circle and the hologram float up, I do a 180 degree turn, double dodge and try to hammer swiftness to get out of range… and end up about one foot away from safety…

The prime blast sends me flying. If I’m lucky, I end up with 3000hp left with torment on (aka toot warhorn to remove it.) If I’m not, bang, I’m downed and have to wait for someone to pick me up.

I have to say, it’s ridiculously fun to now see Scarlet float up, pop defiant stance, and suddenly heal back up to full from that five digit used-to-be-damage, now-heal.

I only have to beat feet now when Scarlet is mean and decides to do it again while the heal is on cooldown.

So how does one beat the Einstellung effect?

Unfortunately, the literature doesn’t really say. Some research suggests that experts may be more blind to the possibilities than novices, and some research suggests the exact opposite of that – pretty much like all research.

But being aware of it is probably a good start.

And periodically questioning and testing if the “accepted” or “obvious” solution is really the only solution that can and should be used.

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3 thoughts on “MMOs and the Einstellung Effect

  1. bhagpuss says:

    That’s a really interesting analysis. It seems to me, though, that the big stumbling block in applying The Einstellung Effect to MMOs is that there’s a major conflict of interest taking place between players and developers that would never happen either in the kind of formal experimental settings that are used to develop these theories or in “real life”.

    The Three Knights fight is an excellent case in point. Leaving aside the issue of bugs, on the Tuesday The Three Knight Problem dropped into the game and very quickly the players devised a solution to it. That solution worked very well – for the players. There was no need, from their point of view, for any better solution.

    ANet, however, had a pre-existing idea of the solution they wanted to see and, because they are in a Godlike position regarding GW2, were able to warp reality as often as required to render the Players’ solution non-viable and force them to adopt the designated Solution instead.

    At this point you may well have seen some degree of Einstellung Effect from those players who hadn’t understood the change but you also saw (or I certainly did) a good deal of angry understanding that power had been exerted by the powerful over the powerless and a consequent degree of bloody-minded, willful opposition.

    Frequently in MMOs I think this is what we are seeing rather than the Einstellung Effect. People don’t stick to familiar solutions because they don’t understand the alternatives. They stick to them because they understand the alternatives all too well and object strongly to being shunted towards them by the people who are supposed to be entertaining them not irritating them.

    The example of dungeons and tanks and healers is another excellent illustration. Most people know perfectly well that GW2 does not support full healing builds or tank builds but there is a demographic (I’m part of it) that wishes that it did. If you are in this demographic and you have decided, for whatever reason, that you are going to continue playing GW2, you have a fairly clear choice: you can play it the way ANet want you to play it and miss out 100% on something you want or you can attempt to bend the game to your wlll insofar as it is amenable to being bent and recover some percentage of the fun you would otherwise be missing.

    I would say that when it comes to MMOs the failure of players to adopt alternative solutions to problems and rather stick with familiar ones represents an active desire to resist unwanted and often unwarranted manipulation of the gamespace by developers.

    It’s primarily a political phenomenon, not a psychological one.

  2. […] I game looks at the Einstellung effect in mmos, or in other words, how people stick with what is know in the face of better solutions or […]

  3. kiantremayne says:

    The other problem, which is kind of a mirror of what Bhagpuss is talking about, is that MMO players are now conditioned to believe that there’s one and only one solution to a problem, that there’s a vid on YouTube that shows how to do it, and looking for any other solution is a waste of time because that’s the solution the devs expect you to use and if you DO find another way of doing it they will label it an ‘exploit’ and ‘fix’ it in the next patch.

    At some point, boss encounter design went from being a conversation where devs said “here’s a fight with really cool mechanics! How do you think you can beat it?” and became a case of the devs holding up a hoop for players to jump through, with a reward of shinies if you do the jump well enough. I can’t really blame players if everything looks like a hoop now.

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