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.

Isn’t That What You Do in Every MMO? Have Fun?

Happy Holidays... from not-so-spikey charr...

Back when I was a serious [insert game here] player, […] I played to be the best.  I can look back and say from experience that the mindset exists and people fall into it without even realizing what they’re doing.  One day you wake up and have this epiphany that what you’re doing isn’t fun.

Keen [editing in brackets, mine]

Some days you just want to laugh. And chuckle. And grin a lot.

Keen might be someone who gets immensely hyped for the next big thing and then just as promptly deflates in three months because it wasn’t the dream sandbox MMO he was looking for, who then proceeds to do it all over again without learning from the last time – but I guess even the young grow old some day.

He’s closing in on 30, he says. Me, I’m kinda past that mark quite a while ago.

The story and the epiphany is the same. It’s not the MMO per se. It’s the mindset.

Yes, some MMOs have a design that skews you towards this “win” “be the best” “be prestigious” mindset a lot more swiftly than others. True, in some games, it’s the one main road, the linear flow that channels everyone towards to it and it’s much harder to step back or away from such things.

Yes, your very first MMO (or online game), the one you walk into wide-eyed with a blank slate, ready to absorb the majority way of thinking about what’s the “right” (efficiency optimal) thing to do is the one where you’re most prone to tumbling down that pit of gradually-becoming-not-fun-but-endure-to-be-the-best.

The irony of it is that Keen holds up Everquest as the game where he had the most casual, sandbox fun. From his previous posts, it seemed he even indulged in a bit of roleplaying as halflings there.

Me, I avoided Everquest like the plague because it was looking to be a carbon copy clone of a MUD I had already burned out on, just in graphics form. A world at the beginning, which gradually narrowed again at the top to be all about gear and raids and being the prestigious first to drop a big mob and drop RNG loot.

I’m dead certain you can find players out there who did play EQ as their serious raid game and then subsequently burned out of raiding and gave WoW a miss.

It’s not -solely- the fault of the game.

It’s also about where we as players were at that point in our gaming lives.

I, too, used to think it was down to me to save everybody else’s souls. Lemme tell you, being the minority burned-out cynical voice in a sea of awestruck WoW newbies often meant being drowned out in the face of fanboy fanaticism.

Eventually, I learned the value of patience and letting folks arrive at their own wisdom in their own time.

For some, raiding was something they would never burn out of. It suited their personalities and their preferences to a T. Little wonder they would be perfectly fine with a game that holds up that minigame as the ideal to always strive toward.

For others, their epiphanies would hit them years down the road. But it was a road they had to travel to learn it. Just as we did.

I’m not much of a list maker, so I won’t be posting long numerical lists this holiday season.

But on this Christmas eve, I’d like to ask all of you to spare a thought for your inner child.

When you play a game, what exactly is it that you find fun?

Playing with others? Playing against others? Playing with your friends or family? Playing by yourself?

Learning something new by discovering it yourself? Learning something new by reading up about it? Learning something new by being taught by someone else? Or preferring the comfort of the old and familiar rather than the new and unknown?

Being the best? In what way? Richest, most powerful, most pretty, most well-known, most well-liked or hated, most eccentric, most OCD? Or “mosts” and “bests” don’t interest you at all?

There are games out there that match better to your preferences than others. Go find them, and have fun – your special brand of fun – rather than be stuck in a game where you’re unhappy because it’s the only one you know.