An Examination of Risk in MMO Design

A couple of years ago something happened while I was designing the levels on a LEGO video game that I’ll never forget. After the programming team added the “lives” to the mechanics of the game, our lead programmer demonstrated a new found enthusiasm for the project. Suddenly, he experienced some challenge and actually enjoyed playing the game. He was so thrilled that he let all of us on the development team know.

What changed a kids sandbox video game — a software toy as it’s also known — into something that worthwhile playing? Quite simply, by adding a finite number of lives that the player could lose if they played poorly we introduced the risk of losing into the game.

So what is risk and why do we need to have it in our MMOs?

Risk Defined

One definition of risk according to Merriam-Webster dictionary is this:

1. possibility of loss or injury

Robert Cialdini in his breakthrough book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion makes the case that people are more motivated by fear of loss than the joy of gain. This explains why the adding the “lives” mechanic in that LEGO game made the lead programmer suddenly start to caring about how he played — he just didn’t want to lose his precious lives.

When I ponder risk in a gaming sense, I also think of it as something that I as a player am wagering in order to play the game and more importantly succeed in the game. Risk can also be seen as an entry fee for a contestant. This fee can be expressed as time, material goods, even reputation or in the case of gladiatorial games in ancient Rome one’s very life.

Risk is a part of life and we are all acquainted with its pervasive influence. Life itself could be characterized as a constant battle to ascertain the correct risk to reward ratio for one’s abilities, situation and current comfort level. We see risk given serious contemplation in the realm of financial investing as certain investments are higher risk with potential high yields and unsuitable for certain people. Conversely, investing in secure bonds that pay almost nothing are not for everyone but may be perfect for those who are risk adverse.

We as humans naturally want to mitigate risk as much as possible and maximize rewards. Those people that learn how to risk usually succeed; those that never risk rarely succeed. Those people who continued to live in the small northeast factory town where I grew up often come to mind as examples of the latter.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

As MMO players, we risk and face dangers because there is some kind of reward or payoff while we play and at the end of the play experience. If the reward is not adequate then we are less likely to participate and play. The quality of the reward is often the motivational carrot for why we risk.

So logically the following must be true: Risk without adequate reward is problematic; reward without adequate risk is likewise problematic.

For game designers there is at least something useful to be learned from games of chance: the higher the wager, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. The person who bets his life savings on a single toss of a dice is exposing himself to great risk as well as the possibility of great winnings.

In the MMO world, we often see examples of player dissatisfaction because of the failure to properly tune risk versus reward ratio. For example, a poorly tuned dungeon with mobs that are too hard and that drop loot that is considered weak results in players avoiding the dungeon and seeking greener pastures where there are better rewards and less risks.

Why Skill Matters

In the example I gave of the video game I was scripting, we had a very simplistic and almost childish game suddenly become more enjoyable and engaging all due to the addition of the lives mechanic. I recall my lead programmer talking about how he had to start playing better in order to avoid losing those precious lives. The result was that he stopped being sloppy, started caring about his performance and began to make an effort to play better.

All good games have one characteristic in common: they all motivate the player to become better.

What we can see here is that for risk to be leveraged effectively as an element of game design, there has to be some way for the player to mitigate that risk or risk becomes an arbitrary punishment. The way to do this is to ensure that your game requires skill on the part of your players. Without the requirement for skill all you have left is a game of chance where luck or a random number generator determines the outcome — not the abilities and choices of the player.

The art of game design is knowing how to calibrate the perfect balance between risk and reward to create adequate challenges that entice players to improve their skills.

Why Risk Is a Fundamental Building Block of MMOs

As a MMO player I often think back to those early thrilling days of EverQuest when your every step was potentially your last or would be followed by painful corpse retrieval and subsequent requests to get resurrections from clerics. We didn’t need the pyrotechnics and eye candy of current MMOs as any bit of small progress or accomplishment and surviving for another day seemed reward enough.

Almost every aspect of the EverQuest game world and mechanics was laden with excessive risk. There was lots of risk and very little reward back then. Even a crust of bread is like a banquet for a starving person.

Was EverQuest infused with excessive risk? Was the risk and danger a substitute for bona fide gameplay?

I’m torn on this question because on one hand it seems to me injecting your game with copious amounts of risk alone isn’t enough to rescue a poor game. Even a simple children’s game like Tic Tac Toe or a coin toss could be made very risky depending on what is wagered.

Yet on the other hand, MMOs are more advanced than mere games, they are in fact complex virtual worlds.  So the MMO designer has a far bigger responsibility than just creating good game mechanics, she must create a believable virtual world for the MMO player to experience and inhabit. In order to make a virtual world seem more alive, risk and the threat of loss (money, gear, death, reputation, experience) is used as a tool to elevate the sense of drama in order to compensate for the artificial nature of the world.

Risk in Single-Player Games?

As the MMO industry moves toward the glorified single-player MMO model it’s useful to look briefly at risk or lack of it in single-player games. Most single-player games are essentially a risk free medium thanks to the invention of the “save game” mechanic which is basically an insurance policy against the loss of the player’s time. Even still, there is a small element of risk as players can lose progress if they fail to use that feature. Also there’s the still the “lives” convention that many video games use and leverage to this very day as I noted in the beginning of this article.

But to any serious observer of both MMOs and single-player games, there is deep chasm of difference in the level of risk.

What is truly unique about MMOs is that they are played and experienced in real time with no option to save your progress and turn back the clock.

This sense of immediacy and unpredictability resulting from unafraid designers who infused their virtual worlds with risk and danger helped to make the MMO experience truly revolutionary compared to limitations of single-player video games.

Most Players Don’t Know What’s Best For Them

Sure, it’s a rather pompous and arrogant assertion but I believe it to be true: most players don’t really know what’s best for them — they only think they do. Players don’t really care about the long term health of the video game industry, nor should they. All they want is the DPS of their chosen class to be “awesome”. It’s the developers job to resist playing Santa Claus and instead show professional concern about the health of their MMO and long term health of the genre.

Raph Koster pointed out in A Theory of Fun for Game Design that due to the way the human brain is wired, players strive to make the games they play boring by learning patterns which lead to beating the game. The player in a sense is his own worst enemy as he is unknowingly sabotaging his future enjoyment of the game as he continues his quest to master it. The same could be said of the current convenience driven and risk averse mentality of player base as a whole. Players are not doing themselves any favors in the long run by clamoring for easier and safer MMOs.

The current generation of video game consumers are a demanding lot. Like our non-virtual counterparts  in modern society, we want to feel we are progressing and we want less pain and more comfort. We want to experience more in less time, we want to get things done faster and more efficiently. Risk ends up being a needless roadblock on our daily commute on the pathways to fun and adventure.

So we put pressure on gaming companies to make our virtual lives within our fantasy worlds easier and more convenient by reducing inefficiencies such as travel, corpse runs, mob health points and so on — after all we are busy! Somehow, we’ve let the frenetic cadence of our own lives impinge upon the pace of what goes on in our virtual worlds.

So it should come as no surprise that MMO designers are only happy to comply with this societal and generational imperative to make our MMOs less time consuming and more efficient. Combine these trends with an aging genre that has been completely demystified and deconstructed and you have the modern MMO — a mere shadow of its former robust and severe self.


It seems the definition of a MMO is being changed before our very eyes and the core of what an MMO is being besieged on all fronts. With each passing year MMOs seem to be adopting more of the characteristics of single player video games and shedding more of the features and communal aspects that made them unique. The watering down and minimization of risk has been one of those casualties. MMO designers are becoming as risk adverse as the MMOs they are designing. The designers have become a reflection of the player base which seems to be continually clamoring for more rewards with less risk, more convenience with less tedium, more excitement with less grind.

To make matters worse you have the specter of MMO companies falling by the wayside. Until the costs of MMO production can come down to reasonable levels like it has for recorded music production, it is no wonder that developers have opted for the safe, predictable and risk averse route.

We should never forget that the genius and uniqueness of the massively multi-player online role-playing game was that for the first time developers finally created a medium where players could experience all the thrills and dangers of adventuring in a virtual fantasy world in the comfort of their own homes. Every time risk is incrementally reduced by MMO developers that winning magic formula is being diluted. One day we will surely all wake up and wonder where all the magic went.


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