If you are an MMO player and bother to follow MMOs enough, then you likely have heard the term “Risk versus Reward” thrown around. For those of you who thought you were going to the home page of an investment firm or Hasbro, Risk versus Reward is a term MMO developers use to describe the concept that as you deal with more dangerous situations in the game (usually that means fighting more and bigger monsters), you should be rewarded with better stuff — more money and cooler more powerful items.
So, if I kill a lone level 1 goblin, I might find he carries 3 gold and a piece of lightly used chewing gum. If however, I manage to down a level 900 Swack Iron Dragon, I might be the new owner of a brand new piece of +10 Holy Avenger Chewing Gum of Slaying and seven gazillion gold pieces. It sounds straightforward and every game has some aspect of Risk v. Reward inherent in its design.
Yet somehow, it seems that the vast majority of MMOs get it wrong.
The inspiration for this post was a blurb in my last post in which I fawned over Darkfall’s PvE. I found myself asking why my high level WoW warlock and my max level CoX characters sat idle and why I can’t even be bothered to put in the night or two it would take to max out my Champions Online character. Certainly, all of these characters are on the top end of that risk/reward curve and in theory, should be very exciting to play — offering top tier payoffs for my exploits. So why are all of these characters trumped by my three-week old Darkfall noob who can barely take on two trolls at once and for whom a PvP encounter means almost certain ganking?
Some of it is novelty, of course. A new game is new and shiny and the old ones… not so much. I get that and admit that some of my excitement about Darkfall comes from its newness. However, by that respect, Champions Online is a relatively new game as well. It has a lot of shiny parts that I have not yet experienced and still, the excitement is not there — even with the promise of epic, superpowered battles and high-end gear.
Where do these games, and in fact, most other themepark games, go wrong?
One of the big problems is that most themepark games are linear in their progression. You start with a level 1 character in Noob Village, do the obligatory starter/tutorial quests which will take you to level 6 by doing such scintillating tasks such as “Open Your Backpack”, “Bring a Pie to the Weapon Vendor”, and finally “Kill 10 Randy Badgers”. Killing the badgers is the big risk, which isn’t really a risk because by design, the badgers are easy to kill at your level.
Once you hit level 6, you get a quest that takes you to a new area, where you are asked to kill 10 Feral Wolves. Now the wolves are tougher… more risk right? Well, not really. See, like the badgers you fought in Noob Village, these wolves are designed for you to kill easily at your new level. The wolves have powered up, but so have you and so while the wolves are objectively tougher, relative to your new power level, they are the same as the badgers. Risk is relative.
This trend continues as you progress to max level. Each new area you enter brings you new “challenges”, but each challenge is specifically designed for characters of your power level. What this means is that while you do fight different creatures as you progress, their level of difficulty stays the same. You are essentially funneled by the game designers into encounters with low-risk.
The situation gets even worse when you realize that as you progress through the game, the rewards you obtain are carefully measured to be appropriate for a character of your level. Sure you are getting more experience per kill, but the experience you need to level has increased as well. You are getting more gold, but the costs to upkeep your gear, buys skills and crafting materials has gone up as well. You are getting cooler gear, but it is the same gear that all the other level 10 characters have — having it is no big deal, but not having it puts you behind your peers. Rewards are relative.
Ok, but what if you decide to game the system and instead of doing quests designed for your level, you do quests that are a few levels above yours? If you are a level 10 character and manage to complete a level 15 quest, it is very likely that your character exposed himself to a fair bit of risk and would expect a high reward. You might certainly get such a reward in the form of a level 15 item. This is exciting until you realize the item has a hard level requirement and so you can’t use it.
Of course, you can wait for your level 15 item, but then you are wasting time and inventory slots that you should be using to acquire items you could actually use. And by the time you reach level 15 and are able to use your spiffy item, it isn’t that great anymore relative to the other items you have access to and you are powerful enough to have gotten it easily. You’ve wasted time and inventory slots on an item that is, by the time you can use it, the same as everyone else’s — the return on your extra risk investment is negative.
Now this isn’t the whole story. Many themepark games have implemented mechanics that deal with some of the problems listed above. I would argue that instances such as WoW’s dungeons help counter the linearity of the quest lines as they offer an optional “high-risk” way to get some of the best rewards in the game. You don’t have to do them, but if you do, you will get cool stuff. The Champions Online developers understood that people were routinely doing quests above their level and so they removed the level requirements on quest rewards to encourage the practice. City of Heroes has difficulty sliders on its instanced missions with better experience and influence for taking on the higher levels.
These are all good ideas and they help the situation a little bit. Still, the whole concept of Risk versus Reward is predicated on the idea that the player is risking something in the hopes of gaining something more in return. Ultimately, this is the biggest flaw in today’s themepark MMOs: Nothing is ever risked!
When you die in WoW, you take a hit to the durability of your gear, but even if a piece of gear breaks it is easily repaired with some gold. CoX gives you experience debt when you die, but the amount of that debt has been reduced over time to the point where you can often be out of debt by just letting your teammates finish off the spawn that killed you. The only penalty for dying in Champions is having to fly back to the battle. So… all this talk about risk and reward and we end up realizing the sad fact that The Risk Is A Lie. (And don’t even ask me about the cake.)
But if the risk is a lie, then the reward is a lie as well, isn’t it? If we are playing a linear game with no penalty for failure and no setbacks, aren’t we just playing a slightly more interactive version of ProgressQuest? Yeah, I know… 1300 words later and you ended up with a curmudgeon post… “blah, blah, blah, kids nowadays and their dumbed-down MMOs. When I played, pre-Trammel Asheron’s Call before the NGE…”
That’s not exactly where I am going with this. See, I like many of the MMOs in question. I enjoy WoW. I played CoX for years and Champs Online, while sporting some ugly flaws, is still a fun game. But I do think we need to consider the fact that something is lost when game designers completely remove risk from the equation.
Consider the game of poker. Theoretically, playing a friendly game with your kids “just for chips”, penny poker with your family, dollar poker with your buddies and no-limit poker at a casino are all the same. The value of the hands are the same, the mechanics of the game are the same… and yet, the games are vastly different. Bluffing in penny poker is often silly, because the cost to call you is trivial. I’ll glady pay 50 cents to watch you lay down a king-high against my pair of threes. Now, let’s make the same call when the bet is $1000, or $10000. *gulp*
Now I have something to lose and whether I call or not is going to depend on the game situation, how much I stand to win (if I win), what I know about you, the strength of my hand, what I know about the possible strength of your hand, and how you’ve bet previously. Turns out, poker has just a tiny bit to do with mechanics and a whole heck of a lot to do with betting and if you aren’t playing with risk, then you are essentially playing a different game, and in fact, an inferior game. (Or at least a much less complex game.)
Do MMOs have a lot to do with betting? I think Darkfall does. Every time I leave my bank, I am making a bet as to the success or failure of my mission. If I bring a lot of magical reagents, or high rank equipment with me, I can now take on bigger challenges and thus, make my trip more lucrative. However, I am taking the risk that if I die, I will lose the costly materials. WoW, CoX and CO don’t have this element of risk and reward.
Imagine a game mechanically identical to World of Warcraft in every way except that the death penalty included the real risk of item loss. Suddenly, the game dynamics change. Who you party with matters… especially if they can loot your corpse. How you get to a quest location is now important because you won’t want to chance running through high-level spawns, or to places where you could be ganked by the enemy. Choosing what equipment to wear into a dungeon would invole trying to be as effective as possible while still mitigating the risk of death. Dungeon tactics would have to be more meticulous and better executed as a party wipe could truly be disastrous. Rare items would indeed be rare because they would only be attained by people who were willing to make a that high-stakes bet.
Would that be a better game? Well, I am pretty sure I am on the wrong side of history here, but I am going to say that yes, World of DeathpenaltyCraft would be a better game. But my guess is that it would be a less popular game. Humans are risk-averse and a lot more people play penny poker than high-stakes poker (myself included). Appealing to a mass-market (a good thing) means taking the risk out of the game (a bad thing).
To me, the next interesting question is this: Is there a way to add elements of risk into themepark games without ruining their mass appeal? Free-for-all PvP with full loot is probably not the way to go, but are there other things we can do to add that exciting element of risk back into our designs? I’ll tackle that in a post or two. For now, happy hunting!