Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

6 November, 2013

Superstition ain’t the way
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:36 PM

Superstition is an interesting thing. As a kid, I remember playing Dragon Warrior on my NES and being impatient, I’d often tap the button to get through combat messages as quickly as possible. I made a little game of it, trying to time my taps in rhythm so that I’d get through the combat as fast as possible. Of course, sometimes it seemed that I’d get critical hits more often when I did that, so eventually I started tapping the button rhythmically to get more critical hits. (In reality, it was probably survivorship bias, where I noticed the critical hits more when I was doing the tapping than when I wasn’t. Also interesting to note that the later Super Mario RPG games would require you to tap the button during combat for extra damage/defense/etc.) But, in my mind a superstition was born.

Of course, MMO players have superstitions as well. And plenty of them.

This isn’t a new topic, as superstitions have been observed for a while.

Why do players form superstitions?

MMOs have a lot of moving parts and often rely heavily on randomness, so it makes sense that you’d have parts that players just really don’t understand. When something happens, instead of accepting randomness or it being the result of so many moving parts, players will try to boil down the result as the effect of something they did. I wrote in a comment to the Terra Nova blog post I linked above that I think a big part of the reason why we get superstitions in MMOs is because players want to feel that they have some control over forces they really have very little influence over. Sending a hunter in first because they might have better loot tables might work. At the worst, it probably can’t hurt, right?

Of course, sometimes the superstitions can do cause harm.

Superstitions in DDO

Just like the last few years, DDO recently had a Halloween event where the plane of Mabar, the Endless Night, encroaches on the world. You can kill undead and get motes to get some nifty equipment that is only available during this time. You also need to do a special event raid instance and defeat a spectral dragon to upgrade some items. Unfortunately, the spectral dragon instance often suffers from lag, and this year it was particularly bad. So bad that when the dragon showed up, sometimes you’d freeze in place and then get dumped out of the instance after some minutes dead and failing the instance.

Of course, all sorts of superstitions have arisen about what causes lag, and it became worse this year as the lag was particularly crippling. A lot of the superstitions revolve around abilities that players can use, especially ones that could actually help more even with the lag hits. For example, people often warn against casting area-of-effect crowd-control spells that are really useful for stopping enemies when lag does hit. Lingering AoE spells and some DoT spells are also blamed for causing lag, as are pets. What’s interesting is that many of these things are great because they can have effects even if the character is frozen with lag; one time we froze with lag late in the instance, but I’m pretty sure it was the AoE spells that let us succeed anyway. Also, it’s particularly interesting that most of these effects are caused by casters, which shows some bias.

I had a little bit of fun. After hearing the litany repeated so often, I started throwing in gems like “And, don’t move or attack, as those cause lag, too.” I also tried to spread the rumor that Halflings cause lag on several servers. :)

Controlling the uncontrollable.

The reality of the situation is that none of these things seem to consistently cause lag. I’ve been in instances with a lot of players letting lose all sorts of these effects with no lag, and I’ve been in instances with few people casting hardly any of these effects and still being bogged down with lag. One time I ran the instance and someone convinced everyone to wait for a few minutes to let other instances finish first to see if multiple instances going at once caused lag. Turns out the answer was “no”, as our instance lagged hard and we failed even thought we spent a quarter of an hour mostly just standing around.

Ultimately, it seems that this is about people wanting to control the uncontrollable. There was simply no rhyme or reason to what caused lag, but by doing little superstitions it gave people a little sense of control. The strange thing was that people seemed to be intentionally sabotaging their chances by using abilities that would continue to have an effect during periods of lag. It’s also interesting to note that there’s very little accountability: someone could use all the proscribed abilities and cause lag, but there is little anyone could do since the instances are filled automatically during the dragon event. The worst that could happen is someone might remember your name and cause problems later if you got into a pick-up-group.

Anyway, I’m interested to hear about your superstitions, or superstitions you’ve heard about. What so you do that makes no sense in the context of an MMO (or other game)? What have you seen other people do or ask for? Why do you think players follow these behaviors without any hard data to back them up?


  1. I remember the superstition years ago in World of Warcraft where players believed that not only was Onyxia doing more Deep Breaths, but that it could somehow be triggered based on what players were doing in the raid.

    I can’t say I’ve ever had a superstition in a game. If something comes to me though, I’ll share it.

    Comment by Doone (@trredskies) — 6 November, 2013 @ 4:47 PM

  2. Heh, I used to call this “Techno Shamanism” after I reviewed our tech support team’s database of solutions to common problems and found several that were based on powers beyond reason. Things like rebooting three times, zapping PRAM, doing a hard shut down, and then booting up again to solve a problem that I was pretty sure would go away with just a reboot. My comment asking, “When do you say the magic incantation?” was not appreciated.

    Up until they put a placeholder mob in for every named quest mob in EverQuest II, there used to be some really great shamanistic beliefs about how to make a mob you needed spawn. People would claim you had to kill a certain set of mobs, or a certain set in a special order, or in a certain time frame, or that they all had to be dead before the first one you killed respawned, and so on.

    I remember a random group in the Thundering Steppes hunting for Bloodtalon and one guy in the group insisted he wouldn’t spawn if any centaurs were visible from a given point of ground. So we killed a lot of centaurs. And Thundering Steppes was full of centaurs. But we were not doing anything else and I was pretty sure Bloodtalon was on a timer at that point in any case.

    But at some point somebody was doing something and the mob they needed spawned, so they decided that whatever they did must be what spawned the mob. And then they would tell people, and it wouldn’t work, so they would assume they were just missing some bit and a new plan would evolve.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 6 November, 2013 @ 5:15 PM

  3. Spawning the Ancient Cyclopes in EQ1, now THAT is the MMO superstition highway.

    Comment by Defiant — 7 November, 2013 @ 1:22 PM

  4. During Burning Crusade I was convinced that I could feel when I was going to get a lightning overload* on my shaman. It wasn’t an early enough premonition that I could in any way take advantage of it, just that I could tell that right after I’d pressed the button, but before it had cast, I knew if was going to be doubled or not.

    * It’s been a while and I can’t remember the name of the elemental spell that was something like a 10% chance to fire a second bolt. It was a handy spell when OOM because I could downrank and still get some DPS.

    Comment by Klepsacovic — 7 November, 2013 @ 9:03 PM

  5. “Monks get all the aggro” was not so much a superstition but a misguided belief in Guild Wars 1. If they are healing and expose themselves by overhealing, yes, the tend to get the aggro. GW1 had no real aggro control system, so people liked to assume that monks simply attract aggro because they are monks.

    Onyxia beliefs were already mentioned… :) … while it is not exactly a superstition, many people like to belief in certain premades and don’t dare to deviate from the ideal party setup or way to do things. Often for good reasons, zero communication PUGs work best this way.

    Comment by Longasc — 10 November, 2013 @ 1:27 PM

  6. I remember that there was some gnoll in Highpass (the Karana side) that was named and dropped some really nice tomahawk or axe thingy. There were a lot of complicated theories about what made him spawn, including killing things in EK.

    Comment by Toldain — 19 November, 2013 @ 12:29 PM

  7. Many people in FFXI believe the day of the week on which you craft items affects the outcome of the craft.

    While the “craft Fire recipes on Firesday” is certainly plausible, some even took it a step further and insisted that the cardinal direction your character was facing as the craft began influenced the outcome. E.g. “Craft Fire crystal recipes on Firesday while facing East for the best results”

    Comment by motstandet — 27 November, 2013 @ 12:15 PM

  8. I recommend having a look at the Daedalus project issue which deals with superstition in MMOs:

    It provides an excellent source of examples!

    Comment by A concerned Minmatar — 4 December, 2013 @ 3:46 AM

  9. One fun thing I was thinking about is that when you were playing Dragon Warrior, hammering the buttons actually might really have changed the critical hit chance. The NES might have been immune to the issue (I’m not sure about that one specifically), but there were older systems where the PRNG could actually be influenced by the up/down states on the controller inputs. Which I still find incredibly wild.

    Comment by Ed Ropple — 22 December, 2013 @ 2:43 AM

  10. As a programmer, I see this *all* the time, from bother players and other developers.

    I am reminded of a particular iPad promo video, where an apple exec called the iPad “magical”. People don’t understand something, and so they attribute it’s behavior to anything they can — their own influence, magic, etc. This is even made a more acceptable view by real glitches that are explainable but not widely understood (for instance, original Pokemon Red and Blue’s MissingNo glitch, or item dupe glitch).

    It’s the biggest pain to me personally when I want to actually debug an issue and fix it. In an MMO, there are always multiple sources of lag from the server’s end, and in my experience I rarely find it to be AoEs (although players seem to think that’s the most likely case). Trying to find the source of lag when you can’t reproduce it internally is a nightmare. Players will tell you that it happens when event X is triggered, or when class Y casts spell Z. You spend hours running down the rabbit hole pointed out to you by the players, only to find it’s a perfectly functional rabbit hole.

    Often, designers will show their ignorance (not saying this as an insult, but they are literally ignorant of how the code works) by claiming similar theories are true. I think the most refreshing thing a designer has ever said to me was “I don’t know how this works, but it seems like…”. That phrase immediately means they’re not too prideful to admit that they may have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, and almost always, the solution can be found much faster, because they’re willing to challenge their own ‘understanding’ in order to help find out what the problem is.

    Comment by Timothy — 30 December, 2013 @ 12:39 PM

  11. In an online TCG that I worked on, some players claimed that they could control the shuffle of the deck and their opening hand by ordering the cards in their deck in a certain order – that certain “hot spots” were more likely to get shuffled to the top of the deck. Also in the game there was a map with multiple locations (you and opponent would each start in a random location, and part of your goal was to find the opponent’s location quickly) and some players would claim that they had a better chance of guessing where the opponent was based on their own starting location (i.e. that certain location pairs were more likely than others).

    Comment by Ian Schreiber — 16 February, 2014 @ 5:04 PM

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