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Risk vs Reward

Epic ChestYou 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!

Risky Business

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.

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7 Responses to Risk vs Reward

  1. I would dispute the assertion that EQ1’s death penalty was “true loss” rather than merely time. The QUANTITY of time lost on a death in EQ1 was orders of magnitude higher than what we see today, but everything that you’ve listed (exp, gear, travel back from your bind point) is something that can be replaced with the expenditure of some amount of time. The illusion that the penalty is something other than time is caused by the fact that it’s harder to quantify the time to replace, say, a full set of rare raid drops than the time to earn the (often trivial) gold to pay a modern repair bill.

    (The other major difference is that the EQ1 penalty was assessed immediately, where exp debt and currency loss/item wear systems offer the option of paying off the penalties with grinding either before or after the raid in question.)

    Part of me wonders whether the genre would be in a different place today if the EQ1 devs had dispensed with the corpse run and simply said that “you die, you lose your stuff”. Yes, I get all that romanticized drama around that one time Uncle Ferrel’s guild dropped everything to dig his body out of a dungeon, which would never have happened without the corpse run, and now is a story to tell on the blog. The price of that tale is that there were effectively two penalties – one for screwing up and dying and a second for failure to recover your corpse.

    I think it was Elder Game that had a post a while back looking at the why behind in-game penalties. There is a perfectly reasonable argument to be made that losing all of your gear is a fair penalty for having screwed up and died, as it teaches a lesson (i.e. don’t die). The dark side of the corpse run is the time when your corpse is perfectly recoverable, except for the fact that responsibility dictates that you log off to go to bed, see the family, etc. I’ve heard this story pretty darned often from EQ1 players, who generally admit with varying degrees of sheepishness that they blew off the real world to stay up late, blow off their significant others, etc.

    Is that a lesson that it is appropriate for a game to be teaching? If not, then why is losing all your gear a fair penalty for failure to get your corpse back. More than anything, I think this aspect of the corpse run has colored the view of the harsh death penalty in MMORPG’s, and, as I said, I wonder if things would be different today if there had been no corpses to recover.

    • Ferrel says:

      I can certainly agree that these were all things that hid the loss of time. You could make the argument however that in EQ1 some things that would be lost gear wise might not be recoverable. Some gear was that rare or difficult to recover. Some corpses were impossible to get on your own. That can be a non-time component. It is other people’s time. In general though I agree, most of it is time but then everything can be expressed in that way. An extreme amount of time.

      My major point though is that without a significant loss you cannot enjoy a significant high. You’re suggesting that I’m romanticizing the whole memory. That doesn’t explain then how when I’m faced with a contemporary example I feel the same way. I lost two battleships in Eve less than a month ago. One to my own stupidity and one to PvP. The penalty is extreme. I lost a substantial amount of money which is again a representation of time. Eve is essentially your “What if” question. You DO lose all your gear. Everything is gone and must now be replaced.

      I do have some romantic and awesome corpse run stories though! My point is not so much that EQ did it right. I actually would say the penalty was too extreme. The loss of exp and then being forced to get your body was ridiculous and forced you into choices about real life. Dead on accurate there. I don’t pine for the corpse run. I pine for death and failure to matter. I don’t like the attitude of, “Ok lets just run in here like fools and if we die it is no biggy.” No risk changes how we play and that just isn’t my style.

      Edit: I had more thoughts!

  2. Dethdlr says:

    I think there is a hole or two in your article. It sounds like you’ve got two separate points that you’re mixing and matching:

    1. We’ve gotten away from Risk vs. Reward
    2. I can’t win unless someone else loses.

    “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 problem here is that this doesn’t represent the point you’re trying to make. It would be better to compare how the game was played in the early days with leather helmets, hardly any padding, more dangerous rules, etc. THAT was more risk vs. reward. You risked serious injury to play for way lower rewards (salary). That leads to the question back then, “Would America accept the NFL if we made it much safer to play and took out a lot of the risk while greatly increasing the reward?” Obviously, the answer was yes.

    “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!”

    This isn’t a risk vs. reward issue, it’s an “I can’t win unless someone else loses” issue.

    The games have shifted away from someone else having to lose. Either you win and the encounter loses, or the encounter wins and you lose.

    The problem is in the encounter design. Encounters are either too easy or bugged and unbeatable. There needs to be a logical progression that gets you so far, and then it comes down to skill. If the toughest encounters were doable but really, really hard to pull off with the best gear possible, you would only have a few guilds per server clearing them when the next expansion came out. This would give that same feeling of accomplishment if you worked over and over and over to try and figure out and encounter and finally took it down.

    In your example above, you tried the contested mob one time and if you failed, the number two guild engaged. If the number two guild killed it, what did you risk? Ego? The number two guild can now make fun of you? How about trying for weeks or months to take down a tough mob that you knew was beatable, wasn’t bugged, but your guild just didn’t quite have what it took yet. Wooshi comes to mind. Cheldrak is another. What do you risk there? Weeks or months down the drain if you never beat the encounter. If, however, after risking all that time being wasted, you finally take it down, that is drama! That is excitement! Ever seen that YouTube video of the guild taking down Drushk in VP? Did you hear the screams of excitement when they finally pulled it off? I’ve had the same type of experiences in instances and raids as well. Just because it isn’t contested, doesn’t mean it isn’t hard to do. And if it’s hard to do, and you finally do it after trying over and over, there is a sense of accomplishment. It’s the risk of wasted time vs. the reward of having pulled it off.

    Anyway, that’s my 2cp.

    BTW, I love the site (honest, not being a smart a$$ here). Always nice to pop on and see you’ve got a new article posted. Keep up the great work.

    • Ferrel says:

      I appreciate the comment! I’d like to address some of it to perhaps clarify what I meant or even disagree in pieces.

      I don’t disagree with your point about the NFL but I think it is making a spurious claim at best. Obviously people don’t mind if the game becomes safer. I don’t believe fans really put a value on safety. In all honesty they are barely aware of new advances in padding and medical care to make these players lives better. You’re really talking about player risk, not the consumer of the product and that doesn’t have any effect on the entertainment value. Now, turning to the issue of salary there is no correlation between a players safety and their salary. We don’t really pay them handsomely because they can be injured and lose their career (that is on their minds I’m sure). We watch them because they do things the average and above average can’t do. Owners pay them because they generate a lot of money. If the NFL was not insanely popular and sales were 1000 times smaller players would make less and still have the same level of risk.

      I truly feel that risk is indeed linked to winning and losing. You looked at my example of a contested mob and said you really don’t risk anything but your reputation, etc. That just isn’t the case. When you compete in a game with contested mobs you’re literally risking your ability to play the way you want to. You’re risking your chance to progress. You’re risking your right to get the best items. When you fail and that other guild succeeds you’ve lost more than morale and reputation. It isn’t that they get to make fun of you. You lost the finite resource of loot. There is no second chance. There is no do over. That is now gone forever. If you win, you not only get your return on time investment, you get loot and most importantly you get ahead of your competition. There is very much an element of risk vs reward here. It is just at a different level than what someone might normally consider.

      Now, I want to look at an instanced raid. You will find some of the same elements. If you do not defeat all of your content in the given period you do lose loot. That said, you are still guaranteed a shot at it the next week and the next. Eventually you will start winning and nothing anyone else does can stop you from moving to the next instance. You’re not risking your play style. You’re only risking your time.

      Do understand that I’m not making light of raider accomplishments these days. I very much know what it is like to hear a relieved and excited guild shout with joy when they’ve defeated a hard mob. I’ve lived that moment numerous times in numerous expansions and MMOs. It is a great moment. It does feel good and I am in no way trying to diminish that. I have to ask you this though. Have you ever heard Ventrilo when a guild defeats a mob just as hard as any of the ones you named in an open zone with a competitor breathing down their neck? Let me assure you, it is like winning the super bowl. You just have a lot more at steak. The stress is high and the euphoria you feel when that mob dies is unmatched. It is a situation where nobody can afford to play sloppy and I greatly miss that. It truly wasn’t about cramming something in someone’s face. We were actually pretty sportsman like but that added element of risk made victory all the sweeter. That brings me back to the NFL example. Who would engage in that form of entertainment if you played just to play? I used raiding as my example because I am most familiar with it. Risk vs reward factors into everything. I’m just not a fan of playing an MMO simply to play and fill time.

      At any rate I do see where you’re coming from and as I mentioned I don’t expect this sort of game ever again. It is bad business and I know it. I’m very aware. On Oasis during classic EQ we literally kept every contested mob dead. Some players on our server weren’t even aware that they existed because we’d kill them any day, any time with anyone we had. We denied everyone else the opportunity to raid. We closed a door and that isn’t exactly a great thing when it comes to making money. I would like to see a middle ground though. These days there just isn’t any real risk involved in any activity!

      • Dethdlr says:

        I have to admit, I added the salary part of the NFL thing as an afterthought. Unfortunately, that clouded the other part that was the main reason for the analogy. However, the argument still holds about what’s the risk? We watch the NFL to see one team beat another team. One team can’t win unless another team loses. That has very little to do with risk vs. reward.

        I disagree that risk is linked to winning and losing. Cliff divers have a level of risk in what they do. That risk is there whether they are doing it for fun or doing it in a competition. Same with most atheletes and most sports. In the cliff diving example, the risk doesn’t change just because you are competing with someone else.

        When it comes to contested mobs, you say:
        “When you compete in a game with contested mobs you’re literally risking your ability to play the way you want to. You’re risking your chance to progress. You’re risking your right to get the best items.”
        How is this a “risk”? Websters dictionary defines risk as “Possibility of loss or injury”. Whether it be a contested mob or instanced mob, the possibility of injury stays the same so that can’t be the thing that separates the two. Where is the possibility of loss? If you don’t try, you definately won’t get the loot. If you DO try, you MIGHT not get the loot. What’s the risk?

        In assessing risk, you compare what you will potentially lose by trying (risk) vs. what you will potentially gain by trying (reward). If the thing you will potentially lose by trying is exactly the same thing you will lose by NOT trying, then it’s not really a risk. It’s a fair thing to consider when deciding whether it’s worth doing, definately, but it’s not risk.

        I don’t disagree that the victory of taking down a contested mob is sweeter than than the victory of taking down an instanced one. I just disagree that this has anything to do with risk vs. reward. The reason it is sweeter is because someone else lost. Someone else wanted to take down that mob but can’t because you did it first. Someone else wanted to win the super bowl but can’t because you won instead. Valid arguments on things you miss from times gone by in MMOs. It’s just not risk vs. reward. The other thing that comes into play is that with contested mobs, you have an audience that sees you do it. A performance of any kind is more exciting if you’re doing it for an audience.

        And you’re right, I don’t see them going back to the old ways either. I just wish they would do more work and research on planning out a proper progression path. I also wish they would shorten the gap between instance gear and raid gear. I’m going to use numbers here but I don’t mean them to represent actual stat numbers, lets just call them level of uberness numbers. The gear should go: Instance Gear +1 = Raid Gear. Instead, it’s Instance Gear + 20 = Raid Gear. Why do I see this as a problem? Because once you start getting raid gear, the instances become mind numbingly boring. The challenge goes away. If the gap between the gear were shorter, there might still be a little skill involved in the instances. Sounds good on paper, but it’s probably really tough to actually pull off.

        • Ferrel says:

          I can see your point about why contested raiding doesn’t involve risk. The reason I believe it does is because I look at it from the perspective of already doing it. So yes, a guild that doesn’t raid contested mobs doesn’t lose anything by not killing one. Total agreement.

          Now if you’re already in an established raid guild you do lose by not raiding and by not raiding and losing. You stand to lose members to the guild that is winning or others. You become accused to he playstyle. It can be taken away from you and that isn’t an intangible loss just because you wouldn’t have it if you never raided. That is why I see it as such.

          A better notion would have been for me to just phrase this all as more challenging. I went for risk vs reward though!

          When it comes to progression the reason raid gear is substantially better is usually because of effort more than difficulty. It requires a lot more the get 24 people moving in the right direction. If it was barely better in the reward department fewer people would raid. Look at WoW. 10 man raiding is the rage because it is good enough and 25 is a hastle.