The difference between clever and cunning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Core Design Concepts: Risk VS Reward

We’ve been doing a lot of reviews lately, so lets start the New Year by branching out a bit. Lets talk about basic gameplay mechanics. Not just “move” or “shoot”, but the bone and tissue of what makes games absorbing, compelling, and (in the best case scenario) actually Fun. Indeed it’s sometimes healthy to remind yourself that fun is the ultimate goal of gaming. If you're spending your limited time on this earth playing a game and not enjoying it, then its time to stop for a moment and at least ask why

One concept that pops up over and over in gaming is that of Risk VS Reward. This goes hand in hand with its close cousin, randomization. If a player knows exactly what will result from every action they take, its not going to make for compelling gameplay. Even in the most mechanically predicable games, like chess and solitaire, much of the fun comes from not knowing what will happen next. The opposing player could choose from a host of viable moves and the random shuffling of the deck means you could draw any card. 

Take a risk...
If a player can’t exactly predict the outcome of the choices they’re making then you, as the designer, are asking for them to take a risk. That creates tension, which is engaging for the player. It’s the same principle that makes gambling so compelling, for better or worse. 

...get a reward! (Note: Do not actually get in strange vans.)
One of the easiest places to see this relationship at work is with “high skill” FPS weapons. Weapons that have the potential to do tremendous damage or instantly kill opponents, but require high accuracy and skill with a low margin of error to be effective. More or less every sniper rifle ever coded would be the iconic example. After all, a single sniper head-shot is far more satisfying and challenging to pull off than peppering an enemy to death with full clip of SMG bullets.

High risk/high reward weapons and powers are more interesting and satisfying to use. DOOM 2’s signature double-barreled shotgun delivered a tremendous offensive punch, but you had to be at close range for it to be effective and the weapon’s lengthy reload left you vulnerable. The reward of inflicting heavy damage on the enemy was balanced by the risk required to get close enough and the skill needed to shoot straight enough to be effective.

 The result was a beloved weapon that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who played the game. Contrast this to say, the chain-gun. Low damage per individual bullet with a high rate of fire. Low risk/low reward. Not a bad weapon and at times tactically useful, just not particularly interesting to use. Certainly not the gun most people think of first when it comes to the DOOM series.

For those of you still playing Minecraft its new enchanting system is another perfect example of what we’re discussing. Killing creatures garners XP and levels, which can then be spent to enchant items for random useful effects. Better enchants cost more levels, levels become progressively harder to earn the more you have, and you lose all your levels if you die.

Minecraft enchanting table: A magic, highly pixelated slot machine.
As you’ve likely already picked up the gambling principle works perfectly here. The higher the player’s level, the greater the potential reward when they decide to “cash out” and spend those levels. Of course the higher the player’s level the more they have the potential to lose when they die. Deciding when, what, and if to enchant is a constant ongoing tactical choice, and a choice that makes the game that much more engaging.  

It’s important to understand that taking a risk should still be a choice that the player is empowered to take or not. If the only options available to the player are unreliable and unpredictable then the game can quickly become frustrating. There’s nothing wrong with using the reliable, dependable Assault Rifle/ Hydralisk army/ balanced mid-weight character, etc… The fact that the choice exists at all is what makes it meaningful and interesting to the player. 

A good Zerg rush can be fun if not original. Kekeke and all that.
Balance is tricky. Players will shy away from options with too much risk for not enough reward. You'll find those same players swarming around the rout that carries a high reward for little risk. (Just listen for the mewling cries of "Overpowered!") Balancing the risk/reward ratio can be time consuming and aggravating, but any game will be left the stronger and more playable for it.

Invite your player to take risks, but don’t force them too. The potential rewards for taking those risks, be they XP, loot, points, damage, kills, or whatever, should be all the prodding the player needs. 

We’ll periodically break from reviews and interviews in the future to discuss more game design theory and elements. Please feel free to share your own thoughts as well.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.


  1. Hey James nice Blog, you really hit the nail on the head with the Deus Ex one and this one does not disappoint. I like the picture for "taking a risk," classic.

    You should do an analysis of MMO game play and design. Focus on what the developers think keeps people playing and what might be done differently.

    On a realated not, it should be interesting to see how the ne Planet Side turns out. A MMOFPS should be very interesting and a nice change of pace from the Everquest/WOW/(feel free to insert any EQ/WOW predecessors here) equation.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Kyle!

    There's certainly plenty of other game design concepts for us to discuss. I suspect I could spend an entire years worth of articles trying to dissect MMO's and still not exhaust the subject. We'll get to them in good time though.

    As fond as I still am of WoW I agree that the MMORPG feels a little played out at the moment. Adding MMO gameplay to other genres is a good place to start, though not without difficulties.