Sunday, September 6, 2009

Pattern Recognition in Humans (...with applications in MMOs)

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a while. I've been putting it off, since it's a pretty big topic, but it may help explain a lot of frustrations we have with the genre -- and how the problem lies more within ourselves than the software.

While reading a post over at nakedmaninthetree, I was struck by a sentence:

The one thing I do understand about people is we have the ability to recognize patterns in a way that no other being on this Earth can.

What stood out, regardless of the fact that he was just talking about people in general, was how much it applied to our own tastes in gaming. When you think about a typical night of MMO-ing, there are so many actions we perform that are rudimentary patterns. From the larger overall pattern of an encounter that we've all done before, to various stages of individual class play. From a tank's opening threat generation pattern, to a tank's 'blow all cooldowns to survive the burst enrage phase' pattern. From a rogue's opener to their sustained DPS rotation for the duration of a long fight. A warlock opens a boss fight in a very specific pattern, and all (good) casters shift their rotations near the end of a fight to try and nuke it out and finish the fight with no leftover --and thus, wasted-- mana. Healers also have mini patterns they go through for various stages of fights, from 'topping everyone off before the incoming AoE' to 'spamming flash of light during Patchwerk nonstop, whether they need it or not'.

Rarely at any point during an encounter are we just randomly pushing buttons. Even when presented with a new mob type, we immediately classify it, and begin to fall into a pattern. Does this mob cast heals? Save your interrupt for the heal, and just soak the shadowbolts to the face for the time being. Do they tend to turn and run at 17% HP? Throw up a hamstring or root them around 20% to make that go smoother. Is there a red, spinning circle or patch of fire forming on the ground beneath your feet? You know what to do...

Now take a step back, outside of MMOs, and think about humans in general. We're especially proficient at recognizing patterns, to the point where we've conquered the planet and covered it in all sorts of pattern-spewing devices. From microwaves that beep when they want a reaction from us, to cell phones that we can program with distinct ringtones which we can then associate with individual contacts. Think of how ingrained the response to someone sneezing is. We say 'bless you' or 'gesundheit' without even thinking about it, really. These are surface, or top level, 'reactionary' patterns. Bumping into someone elicits 'excuse me', etc.

Then there are more ingrained, lower level, patterns we respond to. Music. Different timings to a beat. From the simple "Kick, Snare, Kick-Snare-Hi-Hat" of A Tribe Called Quest to the sublime appreciation of a symphony working together to create a single harmony. Lyrics or Poetry. The simple satisfaction of two words rhyming creates a sense of well being, or a feeling that 'it's correct' deep within us. A starfish is visually pleasing to our eye, because we pick up on the radial symmetry we see on display before us. Ferns exhibit a symmetry as well, where the structure of a single frond is mirrored in the leaves on said fronds, and then again on a smaller scale of the fern's circulatory system within those leaves.

I remember when I first went to art school, and my father sat down to try and explain one of the most rudimentary concepts of illustration to me. That the first two lines drawn below --although all four lines are the exact same curve-- feel "correct", because they "fit". There's a beauty there, and it resonates within us. He didn't mention our desire to see the pattern, per se, but it's the same underlying concept.

Okay. Enough about wavy lines, poetry, and starfish. Seriously. I'm just making a point, though, and trying to make you understand that it's there, in almost everything we do. Okay, so maybe one more example, that can help bring it back to MMOs.

Baseball. Specifically, the double play.

Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows how a double play typically unfolds. A ground drive to the shortstop, who tosses it to second base, who tags second, then spins and gets it to first base before the runner can get there in time. It's such a simple act, when viewed in slow motion, and often our brains know exactly what's going to happen the instant you see that ball hit towards the shortstop. You know it's going to mean two outs, and part of your brain relishes watching it unfold exactly according to plan. *This* instant of satisfaction is the same thing we feel when Emalon pumps up an add in VOA, and we (hopefully) notice said mob's debuffs begin to pile up. You know everything is going according to plan, the DPS have all made the switch, and all will be well. We know how the fight plays out, it's being part of a team; executing the toss-to-second-throw-to-first before the mob reaches a ten stack and explodes, wiping the raid.

It's the same trepidation we feel when the DPS is slow, and we notice that the mob has eight stacks now, and we aren't going to kill it in time. The shortstop fumbled the ball, and got it to the second basemen a bit slow. The runner is going to make it to first, and we're all going to die in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1... oh wait, lol, I'm a warlock and lived, oh shit here he comes with no tank to taunt, hrm. Yeah.

And yet we complain. There isn't enough new content to consume, or hard modes are only the same fight with a tiny twist. Hardly enough of a new pattern to suss out and hone to perfection.

I think the point needs to be made that THIS is what the genre offers. Until we reach the stage when every pull is a brand new experience (which I heartily endorse), then we're just running through the same motions, once a week, until the raid ID resets. That doesn't bother me, though.

Baseball is the same game every time, in theory, as well. Three outs per side for nine innings. They don't even get (drastically) different arenas to run their motions out in, and yet it's hugely popular. It's finding the variety within the strict rule sets that makes each game worth watching. It's watching the outfielders slam into each other as they both race to catch a pop fly, and then seeing it land harmlessly on the ground that's the best part of the game. It's seeing the warlock zone out for a second, pull threat, and scramble to shatter as Emalon turns toward him that makes WoW worth playing. With respect apologies to Gevlon, Morons and Slackers make the game FUN. Well... they make it interesting, anyway. The ultimate pinnacle of awesome in a pitcher's lifetime is to achieve a perfectly pitched game where no one got a single hit. I can't imagine a more boring game to watch. A Naxx run where no one dies is certainly an achievement (literally), but is it as exciting as seeing everyone in the raid die and having that lone resto shaman zap Gruul dead with an earthshock while everyone holds their breath?

Within the strictly defined 'ways to play', you have the option to either test the very outside limit of what you can do and still live through it, or just play out your role and enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you played your role within a well oiled machine. Both have their places.

We strive to find the patterns within everything, and this genre we've chosen gives us ample opportunity to slide into well greased grooves every time we blink. If you aren't enjoying the game anymore, then perhaps you're a victim of your own making. Go PvP as a warrior with prot gear on for a change, or (here's a shocker) raid with YOUR VERY OWN TALENT SPEC. Don't fall into the rut of the 'defined' role you're meant to fill, and if you're guild doesn't understand, then don't think those are the only people you're capable of playing with. Suffer through a PUG, dammit. It'll put some hair on your chest.

Mix it up. It's good to break the mold once in a while.


Larísa said...

I agree! I think the entertainment that the M&S bring into the game is highly underrated.

However, there is a certain beauty in the perfect execution as well, provided that the encounter still is challenging enough and require everyone to be on their toes.

The top moment of my last raid was such a thing: we managed to nail the Faction Champions with every single raid member alive in the end! That encounter is certainly unpredictable, it doesn't have the patterns that normal raid bosses have. And we all had to stay alert, flexible, every single second. And when everyone does this and no one messes up, there, it gives a certain flavour of satisfaction.

those different approaches aren't necessarily excluding each other. There's a time for everything.

Cap'n John said...

Re: the baseball analogy (is it an analogy? I'm never really sure about that.) I think a hitless game would actually be pretty exciting to watch, once you became aware that the pitcher was on a roll.

If it's your man throwing the potentially perfect game you're on the edge of your seat with every pitch until the ball slaps into the catcher's glove, only to clench up again when the pitcher starts his wind-up, while if he's shutting down your team then you're praying for a hit just to deny him the perfect game.

I would liken that to watching a bowler bowl a 300 game. Every frame must be bowled perfectly, just as every pitch thrown must beat the batter. Mess up just once, miss the strike or allow a hit, and there goes your perfect game. Your team might still win the game, but you allowed a hit, you let a runner get to first base; for several innings you were throwing a perfect game and you were daring to dream that today was the day...then it slipped through your fingers with one, single hit.

After that it might get boring ;)

Geoffrey said...

Good luck at Irvine. What day is your interview?

Hatch said...

Nice food for thought.

Both of those states are the best moments in WoW. It's great when the last few people alive manage to squeak a win out of a wipe (or my favorite, when our MT disconnected during a particularly hard achievement and we still got it), and it's also exhilerating to be "in the zone", executing perfectly and attuned to the action, knowing that this time you're going to finally win the fight, all the while aware of just how fragile the potential of victory is. It's this bizzare mix of tranquility in the midst of battle while still being clearly aware of what could be about to heartbreakingly go wrong.

Seems to me like the "skin of our teeth" excitement is largely a function of difficulty compared to the practice and coordination of your group. The most memorable of them for me were with my guild taking on hard modes, while I've also seen incredible feats of M&S pug groups narrowly dropping Noth (or the infamous stories of 50-minute 4-man Heigan kills while the 6 dead raid members cheer over vent). You just have to play with M&S to find that type of excitement in the easy content. That's why I'm glad there is such a diverse range of difficulty levels to the content in the current wow endgame: everybody can experience those moments, regardless of how they build their group or how much they choose to invest in their performance.

Also, I agree that the repetition currently inherent in the genre is not necessarily a bad thing. There's definitely something pleasurable about it, especially in moderation. There's room for something repetitive, and something more content-oriented.

Rich said...

@geoffrey: I'm storming the front gate, who said anything about an interview?


Jack said...

We can get down?

Kensai said...

Naked Man rules.

I simply cannot imagine a world without pattern recognition. Nor a world of warcraft for that matter. Those very first world kills wouldn't be possible without identifying a pattern in the boss' behavior. As you said, unfortunately, there's not enough of that. Like you, i don't mind going into a raid and knowing what i'm up against, and knowing the tactics and all. But the real rush is being put against stuff you don't know much about.

Guess that's why at the moment i'm finding a web based card trading game more intense than WoW. Although i can force my opponent to play a certain card, most of the time it's that feeling of insecurity mixed with determination. And when I outplay my opponent the feeling i get is more intense than any boss kill in the last 6 months.

See, in WoW, everything became predictable. PvE ? Jump on youtube and search the HM Hodir kill video, watch it 2 times, and then you're ready to go. PvP ? It's beyond predictable, it's a bore. If i do this, he'll do that, then i'll counter with this and he'll counter with that - essentially, it's a gear check, no more, no less. Gone are the times of finesse, when someone would use a skill the way no one used it before (like the rogue that first used imp. gouge + restealth for example).

And again you are right, it's idiots that make WoW exciting. One may know what he's gonna do and what the boss is gonna do, but he won't be certain about that new guy in the raid.. especially now, when PUGs are the rule. But here comes another kick in the nuts.

Let me give you an example. I try to be original. My tanking spec wasn't copied from elitistjerks forum, it was something that i made myself. Sure, tanking as a warrior has a fixed pattern, as in, the base spec for any tank should be 5/0/51 or something like that. The other talent points i see as a matter of taste, what one does with them. Me, i choose to sink more talent points into prot and get some goodies like gag order and safeguard. You won't believe the shit i got from PUGs because i don't have the standard deep wounds spec that's on EJ.

So while i try to explain an idiot that i need safeguard to save his sorry ass because he's dps-ing the unmarked mob, he tells me i'm a noob and i should spec deep wounds cause i don't do enough threat.

So basically what i'm trying to say is, having originality and idiots in the same cup isn't easy, because they don't quite mix. Pattern recognition works here well, i can smell an idiot that thinks he's the shit from the first two sentences that he types, and usually i just leave the group. But the thing is, you can be original only when you're in a like-minded community - friends or guildies, because when you're around idiots they will make you spew hatred from every orifice and pore.

Good article, Iso.

Jong said...

very well-written post. it's poetic and artsy in a totally manly way.

I agree there's something special in both perfect pitch and colliding outfielders.

good luck storming the front gates.

Ulfblud said...

Have fun storming the castle!
I recently applied to a couple of general positions, for the umpteenth time. And I'm still down for that knife fight to the death for a position - though with your raid dungeon portflio I'm afraid you've got me beat before we start.

I live just a few miles from Blizzard's campus in Irvine, have driven by it's unassuming yet pearly gates many times with a lustful gleam in my eye.
If you need a place to crash, or a carpool partner, hit me up.
There is a guard shack at the entrance - dunno how that'll affect the whole storming thing. But lately I've had it in mind to do the storming thing as well. Rumor has it a young man dressed as a paladin and paraded around the foyer demanding a job, and was gifted with one for his trouble. Who knows, maybe creativity and that kind of heart will win over the evil HR demon that guards the personnel roster.
Let us know how it goes - or shoot me an email when you plan on heading down if you want some company.
Best of luck, in any case. Fight the good fight for nerds around the globe!

Tesh said...

Speaking of pattern recognition, I'd like to see a heuristic AI that learns player actions by picking out behavior patterns... and then takes advantage of human patterns.

I'm reminded of Punch-Out!, which is all about pattern recognition and timing. It's an OK game, but I'd have liked an alternate track in the game where boxers can be "trained" to see how you fight, then change their tactics accordingly. (A savvy human player could always take advantage of that, too. Train the AI to expect "left, right, jab" by repeating it a few times, then blast the crud out of it with a "left, right, hook" when it gets the pattern and starts reacting to it. It's almost an exercise in swapping patterns, then, and figuring out when to break the pattern is where the tactics and strategy come in.

I'm also reminded of Mike Darga's article on AI:

Hierarchy of Awareness

DeftyJames said...

It's really interesting that you bring up analogy of baseball. I DK if you are aware of it or not but there has been a great deal of research regarding pattern recognition among professional baseball players when they bat.

It seems that top hitters scan the field of view and look for patterns in a different way than poor hitters do. Poor hitters will scan one quadrant of the strike zone several times before they move on to the next quadrant. Top hitters scan the four quadrants in very rapid secession, almost as if scanning in a circle.

They theorize that this different approach allows top hitters a few extra milliseconds to detect the know pattern of the pitch and allows them to time their swing better.

Put another way, the answer to the question of what make a top hitter best is not that they have quicker physical reflexes but that their minds have more efficient pattern recognition process.

JediOfTheShire said...

Hey! Just wanted to let you know this was a fascinating read! I like the baseball metaphor and agree in general with most everything you said.

I have a problem in WoW with enjoying things with people I don't know over the internet. The unfamiliarity I feel when joining an instance group kills a lot of the enjoyment of teh game. I don't feel a sense of community with a majority of the players I group with- and I struggle with joining a guild that will raid for good gear and wanting to be free to not play whenever I want.

But those are separate issues. I agree that a little bit of randomness would keep things a little more engaging by shifting and mixing the patterns we use to defeat a boss, but where your post really resonated with me was with the slowing down- or I think you used lengthening, but I like slower also ;) of combat.

I don't like raid bosses with my mage (2-2-2 with interspersed 1's while keeping my scorch debuff and living bomb up is not that exciting) because of how 1-dimensional the class is, but I definitely miss the long fights in EQ- especially when I can't get a frostfire bolt off 'cause the mobs just die too darn quick -_-

For me it's not just the patterns of the mobs that are boring (I still fondly remember EQ and wish that an original EQ server would pop up so I could play the same game I did so many years ago.) but the way you fight. It's part of my problem with min/maxing- but I often feel that in WoW you have no options. If you are a warrior tanking then you MUST follow the right pattern or else you will fail and the group will wipe.

Tesh: "Speaking of pattern recognition, I'd like to see a heuristic AI that learns player actions by picking out behavior patterns... and then takes advantage of human patterns."

Sword of the Stars, my current love (it's a Turn-based/Real-time mix of space exploration (I think it's called a 5-X game)) has a fairly good AI system where it adapts to the types of technologies you equip your ships with. I, too, would enjoy seeing a responsive boss that counters your strategy after you find and exploit a weakness. The biggest problem would be making sure that the new weakness would not be predictable or making sure that the boss doesn't adapt so fast that the players can't keep up.