Archive for August 2nd, 2010


exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance.


difficulty in a job or undertaking that is stimulating to one engaged in it.


something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.


a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.

(Though I think “punishment” could also be phrased as an inverse of “reward” thusly: “something taken or removed in return or recompense for failure or lack of service, merit, etc.“)

Risk and challenge are two different things.  They are used differently as tools in game design.  Challenge is concerned with what happens before a success/failure check, the difficulty of doing an activity, while risk is concerned with the chance of loss that comes with failure.  Rewards and punishments are also two different things, though they both sit on the “consequences” side of the event check, and players tend to try to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.  It’s also important to note that avoiding punishment doesn’t prompt the same behavior as seeking a reward; it tends to elicit more conservative actions, while chasing rewards alone can make for some radical or carefree (careless?) behavior.

In many ways, games are a medium of decisions, where player decisions dictate game feedback (or the actions of the other player).  Most of what we think of as “choice” in games tends to really be “problem solving”, however.  Choices and problems are two different things, as noted here, and in many cases, problems are very easily solved.  There tends to be one right answer that maximizes the potential reward (or minimizes the potential punishment) from the decision.  Players almost inevitably “min/max” their game choices, then, based on reward and punishment structures.  It’s a natural outgrowth of problem solving.

Challenge is usually controlled at least partially by the player.  There are a few ways to handle that, from difficulty settings and slider to leveling, from gear acquisition to character customization.  Sometimes this involves grind, letting time investment compensate for lack of skill or challenge tolerance, while other times, the player improves their own play skill.  Sometimes the two overlap.  There’s a wide range of possibilities here, and your game’s approach will be dictated largely by the game format and intended audience.

Whatever the approach, many games, though not all, tend to let the player mediate the level of challenge a bit through their own decisions.  I see this as healthy, since it allows players of disparate skill and challenge tolerance (also two different things) to play the same game, and even to change the difficulty during the course of the game at times.  Sometimes this change in difficulty is in discrete chunks, sometimes it’s far more of a gradient, but whatever the case, letting the player roam about freely on the challenge scale tends to be a useful thing.  It’s arguable that most players don’t want a high degree of challenge, but ultimately, the more control you give the player over the challenge setting, the happier they will tend to be, whatever their preference.  That’s the point; the challenge setting is in the hands of the player, at least partially, and you really do need to consider your players.

There’s a bit of purist thought out there that games should be challenging (and maybe eliminating challenge entirely just leads to interactive fiction), and I think that’s at least a good rule of thumb if not an absolute definition.  I certainly tend to prefer games that challenge me mentally (and tangentially, that underlines that there are different types of challenge).  That said, game designers who want a big cross section of players, say, MMO devs who need a critical mass of players, need to realize that challenge isn’t always the prime reason why people play games.  (Just as players need to realize that their opinion isn’t the One True Way, especially if they are sharing game space with other players.)

Beyond that, though, “challenge” is a variable that depends hugely on the player, so trying to make a game equally “challenging” to all players is a fool’s errand without flexibility in what constitutes the challenge.  To be sure, you can develop a game (or pieces of a game, like a particular dungeon in an MMO) for a certain audience with a particular invariable challenge setting, but it will naturally have a smaller potential audience as a result.  That’s neither good nor bad, just something that should be a conscious choice when designing.

It’s very similar to the argument about “play time”, and how value and entertainment use time as a variable in the evaluation.  Not everyone plays at the same pace or for the same reasons.

Risk, on the other hand, tends to be far less flexible.  It naturally hinges on the binary state of “success/failure”, but the magnitude of the rewards for success and the punishments for failure tend to be pretty narrowly defined and static.  Even “loot tables” from the rewards pinatas we have in many games tend to be fairly narrow, and just variable enough to feel interesting and keep that dopamine coming.  Similarly, death penalties tend to be pretty consistent, disconnected from what caused the death.  Maybe the “corpse run” is longer if you’re somewhere remote when you fall, but typically, a boss won’t “permakill” you when his mooks would just “normalkill” you or something similarly drastically variable.  (Yes, these terms are squishy and a bit nonsensical outside of gaming.  Occupational hazard, that.)

These rewards and punishments also tend to ignore the concept of challenge, since there’s no way to properly set challenge equally for all players.  Designers can do a simple pass/fail check for whether a feat has been performed, or a boss defeated, and base rewards and punishments on that, but such a check tells us nothing at all about the challenge (which is in the eye of the player) that led up to it.  That’s not a bad thing, either, just the nature of the beast.

It seems to me that we don’t have a lot of games that allow players to fiddle with that risk setting, though there are a few significant ones.  Puzzle Pirates allows players to make wagers on PvP minigames, thereby defining their own risk in clear, monetary terms.  PP and EVE let players set sail with hulls full of valuable goods and try to fly under the radar (or bring along hired muscle or guildmates).  Games that let players take loot from other players, say the old Ultima Online or Darkfall, also let players self-define risk by the contents of their packs.

Perhaps risk is more of a “hardcore” game mechanic, then.  Does loss aversion keeps high risk out of the mass market?  Is it possible to have high risk content in a game with low risk as a default setting, letting players self-select risk tolerance?  Yes, players will tend to min/max their gaming, but is risk in itself spicy and enticing enough to get players to play risky content when they could be slumming around on easy street?  Is exclusive loot (or other shiny rewards) the only way to get players into risky content?  Do strong rewards demand high risk… or just high challenge?  Maybe both?

Risk is about what you’re willing to lose for failure. Notably, a prime rule of thumb for EVE is “don’t fly anything you’re not prepared to lose“.  Players have control over that risk to a degree with cloning, insurance and such, completely independent of the challenge that comes with their self-directed activities that put their stuff at risk in the first place.  You can fly about in lowsec space trying to stay alive, finding perfectly adequate challenges, but introduce the risk factor of ferrying around expensive goods, and motivations and reactions change.  The challenging activity in itself hasn’t changed, but the player reaction does, because of the addition of potential loss; that’s risk.

Similarly, rock climbing in the real world can be a very challenging and risky behavior, but someone climbing El Capitan without belay ropes isn’t doing something more difficult (challenging) than someone with proper belay rigging… they are just cranking up their risk.  Someone freeclimbing the thing is cranking risk way up.  (Friends in rocket boots notwithstanding.)

Is it possible to make good game design elements that put risk control in the hands of the players?  Are wagering and open world piracy the only ways to experiment in that direction?

Is it possible to have challenge without risk?  I say yes, because challenge is about how the game is played, not about what you can lose.  That said, perhaps the coin of the realm is ultimately time anyway, and perhaps that is always at risk, so the two are indeed indelibly intertwined, at least on that level, where we’re risking time in hopes of being entertained.

Just as “choice” is different from “problem”, however, I believe it is important to note the difference between “challenge” and “risk”.  Some players actively seek one or the other (or both), while some seek to minimize them.  It seems to me that great games let players choose their own settings, and let them change their mind.  Perhaps the customer isn’t always right, but if they take their money elsewhere, does it really matter?


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