Game Psychology: The Superiority Bias in Diablo 3

I originally posted this on the Bnet forums here.

95% of the faculty of the University of Nebraska considered themselves above average in teaching ability and 68% placed their teaching abilities in the top 25%. (Cross 1977)

88% of American college students… considered themselves to be above the 50th percentile on driving safety.

Of the approximately one million students who took [the 1976 SAT], 70% placed themselves above the median in leadership ability, 60% above the median in athletic ability and 85% rated themselves above the median in their ability to get along well with others. Amazingly, 25% of the students rated themselves in the top 1% on this latter characteristic.

These are from a paper published in the American Psychological Association (APA).

The gist is that people commonly think they are more skilled than they actually are.

This is especially relevant for those less skilled, who tend to overestimate their skill. It applies less for those who are highly skilled, having sometimes the opposite effect: Those of extremely high skill tend to underestimate their skill.

The Effect in Diablo 3

The superiority bias (also known as the above-average effect, or the Dunning-Kruger effect in this case) says that people who are not very skilled at the game will overestimate their skill.

Now, the word “skill” is a delicate one in discussing Diablo 3 so I’ll tread carefully.

One must first define “skill” in Diablo 3. It would be ignorant to say that Diablo 3 is 100% skill based, but at the same time, it would be equally ignorant to say that Diablo 3 is 100% gear based. Things are not so black and white.

In general, a less skilled player needs to severely overgear the given content to beat it, a skilled casual can beat the same content with level-appropriate gear, while a top skilled player can beat the same content while severely undergeared.

The concept of superiority bias and the phenomena discussed in this post do not affect only Diablo 3. They affect all gear-based games. This is why whenever Blizzard attempts to tune something to be hard or difficult (e.g., early Cataclysm, early Diablo 3), many players feel that it is too hard, because it is a shock from what they are familiar with just before that, a much easier tuning (e.g., late Wrath of the Lich King, late Lord of Destruction).

To beat Inferno in Diablo 3, one must have a combination of skill and gear level.

Gear required to clear given content by the most highly skilled hardcore gamers
White items [——-|———————] Most Epic Rares

Gear required to clear same content by a skilled casual player
White items [—————|————-] Most Epic Rares

Gear required to clear same content by the average player
White items [————————-|—] Most Epic Rares

Gear required to clear same content by a below-average player
White items [—————————–|] Most Epic Rares

Simply having skill alone is not enough, because you need some baseline level of gear. Having gear alone is also not enough until the very highest levels of gear.

The system as is can be quite unforgiving for average or below-average players. (You cannot possibly argue that there is no such thing as a below-average player–50% of players are below the average player.) These players need the highest levels of gear to defeat the higher level content, yet are the same ones which do not have any access to it.

The problem is that, due to the superiority bias, many of these below-average players believe they are actually skilled players, and thus when they cannot beat some level of difficulty, they assume that no one else can beat it either outside of what they consider to be “cheating,” whether by exploiting, botting, or using the RMAH.

In reality, many players have beaten Inferno without exploiting, botting, or using the RMAH. However, players who are affected with superiority bias cannot easily accept this reality.

Some more interesting results:

In a similar survey, 87% of MBA students at Stanford University rated their academic performance as above the median.

Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

So now let’s move to the next question.

What About 1.0.4?

Patch 1.0.4 will make Inferno much easier. The broad notes are here.

The reason I say “much” easier is that they are simultaneously nerfing the content, buffing players, and buffing items, which creates a trinity of difficulty nerfs. Even if each part of the trinity is only affected by 10% (as an underestimation), we’re talking about at least a 33% combined effect (due to multiplicative stacking).

This will skew the skill-gear levels to the lower end. In general, it will be possible to beat the game with lower-level items.

Gear required to clear given content by the most highly skilled hardcore gamers
White items [——-|———————] Most Epic Rares (1.0.3)
White items [—–|———————–] Most Epic Rares (1.0.4)

Gear required to clear same content by a skilled casual player
White items [—————|————-] Most Epic Rares (1.0.3)
White items [————|—————-] Most Epic Rares (1.0.4)

Gear required to clear same content by the average player
White items [————————-|—] Most Epic Rares (1.0.3)
White items [———————-|——] Most Epic Rares (1.0.4)

Gear required to clear same content by a below-average player
White items [—————————–|] Most Epic Rares (1.0.3)
White items [—————————|–] Most Epic Rares (1.0.4)

Fundamentally, we still have the same relative stratification. However, this will alleviate many problems of the average and below-average players, as they will be able to immediately progress. The more skilled players, who have already beaten Inferno, will find this change lackluster as they have already beaten the content, and the nerf provides only an efficiency boost to farming, not a boost to progression, due to the lack of end-game progression.

Conclusions

First, people should be aware of this effect of superiority bias, from both angles. Nobody should reasonably argue that the game is 100% skill or 100% gear.

Second, the nerfing in 1.0.4 will have a short-term psychological effect of making those of lower skill, who are still progressing, feel more skilled at the game, due to the immediate progression when the nerf hits. However, once they reach the next difficulty wall, they will be stuck in the exact same situation, only slightly further up the road. He who could not get past Belial will now be stuck at Ghom. A long-term solution would be to gradually nerf Inferno over time, but I know many people would be against this, and I myself am against it, simply because I believe Inferno should provide some baseline level of difficulty. This is Diablo, not WoW. I believe that Blizzard should come up with something more creative than periodic nerfs.

A smarter long-term solution is to add more features to the endgame, especially more progression paths than just items. There needs to be some other form of progression when you hit level 60, to become gradually more powerful. Things like “champion levels” as suggested by Kripparrian would help solve this issue psychologically.

Patch 1.0.4 will provide a welcome short term band-aid for a large percentage of players. But it does not solve the psychological problem in the long term, since the only form of progression is in items. A secondary character progression system needs to be implemented in some way.

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