You don’t hear “risk vs reward” around MMORPGs very often these days. I imagine that most players are unfamiliar with that term. It is almost a relic of an age gone by. It has shifted from being the basis for the entire genre to nothing more than a footnote. What is risk vs reward though? What does it really mean and how does it factor into an MMORPG? Do we need the concept or can we get by with what we have now? It is time to step back a few years and look at what once was and what we can learn from it today!
Risk vs reward can be considered a fairly simple concept. The greater the risk to yourself the greater the reward you will receive. In real life the best example I can think of is starting your own business. Quitting your day job and striking out on your own carries a large risk. You can wind up failing and run up a huge amount of debt with nothing to show for it. At the same time your quality of life will be far superior should you succeed. You’ll make far more money than you did before and you’ll answer to no one. That is risk vs reward.
MMORPGs used to be based heavily on that concept. In Ultima Online if you left the safety of the city you could experience more of the game, crawl dungeons, and do all sorts of activities. By doing so you exposed yourself to potential death and the loss of all your carried possessions. In EverQuest you were in a similar situation. If you traveled to a remote dungeon you had to ensure you were careful. A death meant losing experience and ending up far away without your gear. Should you not recover your possessions quickly you faced the loss of them. These games offered true risk because they offered true loss and with greater amounts of risk developers could offer greater rewards. That just isn’t the case anymore.
I’ll have the epics, hold the risk
The majority of the MMORPGs we play now do not involve true risk. Through failure you simply cannot lose anything but your time. That loss has been trivialized to the point where I even wonder why we bother with it. There is no longer risk vs reward. We now have success vs did not succeed yet. If you succeed you get your epic. If you do not, you don’t. The “loss” is not getting what you wanted. That too is mitigated! Developers often give us partial rewards in the form of tokens from the bosses we can kill. That way, should we never succeed, we can buy what we wanted anyway after spending enough time. In short, we’re in a cycle of constant incremental rewards based on nothing more than time.
It is because of this that I have not felt elated about winning an item in an MMORPG for years. I was raised in a very traditional household where I had to work for everything I wanted. Simply being given it just because I tried feels awkward. I can’t enjoy success without the chance to fail. Winning items in EQ2, as much as I love the game, feels like an inevitability. Sooner or later we will defeat the mob in question and it will drop my next upgrade. Where is the thrill? Where is the drama? There isn’t any.
Raiders don’t even have risk
Raiding was an institution built on risk vs reward! When you wanted to raid you assumed a huge amount of risk. In EverQuest if you went unprepared into a raid zone you truly risked losing your body and your items forever. Think of the original Plane of Fear or Hate runs. I’m not talking post Kunark. They represented huge risk with huge reward. That mellowed in time but you still had other risk. Raid mobs were contested. If you didn’t kill them someone else would and you’d lose your income for that week. That is a pretty huge deal.
These days I can’t even look at “hardcore” raiders without chuckling a little bit. What risks do they have? Being first or not being first, that is about it. The only risk they assume is to their reputation. There is no real competition here. In my day if we failed on a dragon it meant that the number two guild engaged immediately afterward. If they won you lost reputation, morale, and badly needed items. That is risk vs reward! That is drama! That is excitement! Truly skilled players only appear when there is a prize on the line. Instances and the lack of risk make us sloppy players and give no incentive to be better.
I like risk
Would America accept the NFL if they didn’t keep score? Would we continue to watch if there was no Super Bowl? How interesting would the league be if they just played ten games each year and then called it a day? The answers are pretty much no, no, and not interesting at all. I have to ask then why gaming has gone so far from risk vs reward? We have a whole generation of gamers trained to just take the pellets and be happy. They don’t know the adrenaline rush of barely winning a fight. They don’t understand the feeling of loss for failure. You simply can’t have highs without lows. I feel like we’re all on Prozium so that we stay “even.”
I realize that we’re probably not going to get anywhere near the EQ1 days again. I would just like to see a little less of this “everyone wins” mentality. This is why I play Eve Online as my second MMORPG. You can lose in that game. You can lose big and I delight in that. Every time I lose a ship it stings quite a bit but when I barely pull off a victory I feel all the better about it. I simply cannot accept that “these a just games” and that we should “always just have fun.” I think the best way to sum this up is simply to say that even in Candy Land someone has to lose.