Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

20 February, 2006

The element of risk
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 4:52 AM

Loyal Psychochild’s Blog reader Cael posted a bit on his blog about fun in response to some of the discussion on this blog. It’s always nice to see someone try to tackle the issue from their own point of view.

Cael mentioned that he thought risk was an important element of fun. I thought this was worthy of a quick post.

I wrote a bit about the nature of fun and how it applies to games in a previous blog entry. That post was mostly in the same vein as Cael’s post, where I tried to define something we kinda take for granted. Some of our arguments are very similar.

But, Cael also wrote about the topic of risk, and how it is essential to fun.

Cael wrote:

This brings us to another component of fun. Fun always has a risk associated with it. Always. It may be a physical risk (driving, extreme sports), it may be a social risk (sports, dancing, dating, sex), it may be a personal and internal risk (chess, solitaire) or a financial risk (gambling).


Fun is a drug, and the name of drug is Risk.

I don’t agree that risk is a necessary component to fun. I have fun with my better half even after we’ve been together for over a decade. There’s very little real risk involved in our relationship, but I prefer her company over most other alternatives. Am I really having fun with the woman who I know better than anyone else in existence? I think so, even though there is virtually no risk involved.

However, I think risk can be a catalyst for more intense fun. Playing poker with friends can be fun, but putting a little money at risk usually makes it more fun. The question becomes, how much risk can you tolerate? I couldn’t tolerate the risk of playing high-stakes poker thing in Vegas, so that wouldn’t be much fun for me. But, other people do it on a routine basis.

And, that comes to the next point: one size doesn’t fit all. No high-stakes poker for me, but that’s great fun for quite a few other people. I enjoy harsh death penalties in online games because that makes success all the sweeter, but other people can’t tolerate that amount of risk. It makes sense to allow people to adjust the risk they take. However, this can force people who prefer lower risk activities to feel “forced” into higher risk activities in order to be most efficient. They want the bigger rewards, but they don’t want the higher risk.

And then there’s the last point: risk has to have an element of failure. If you claim there’s potential failure but it never happens, some people might notice and that eliminates the positive effects to fun that risk can add. Note that in non-repeatable cases this might be okay: for example, having a newbie/tutorial fight where the player can’t be killed might still be fun, and the apparent risk of dying might heighten it, but this can still have a positive effect even if someone later realizes you always regenerate hit points faster than you take damage. It’s also important to remember that failure can suck; few people think failure is really all that much fun, but it’s the risk of failure that enhances the fun. So, the trick is to allow people to fail at least a modest amount to keep the perception of risk alive. But, allowing people to fail too often can be a real fun-killer. But, if you take away that risk you risk taking away some of the fun.

Raph points out the paradox of risk and fun in his book as well. Individuals usually try to maximize rewards and minimize risk. This is logical survival behavior for the most part, although some people do enjoy a challenge. But Raph points out that this is expected of most people: it’s a sensible way to run a business, for example. However, as you minimize risk you also reduce the amount of fun, until the activity becomes rote and essentially boring; all the fun has been drained out of the activity through repetition, as Cael points out. Frustration can set in when people feel like they can’t reduce risk enough. Boredom sets in if there isn’t enough risk. Learning where to strike that balance is the job of a good game designer.

But, now we face the traditional problems of commerce vs. art. When you try to cater a game to as wide an audience as possible, it’s hard to find a level of risk that makes everyone happy. So, the general response is to reduce risk as much as possible. In the end, a low-risk game can still be fun, but the peaks of fun won’t be as high as if there had been an element of risk. Likewise, a game with higher levels of risk will also have significantly higher levels of failure, which can affect people in the opposite way and make them remember the intense frustration they had the times that they failed. If players go out of their way to avoid failure, they also go out of their way to avoid some of the most potentially intense fun experiences.

What do you think of risk?


  1. I think risk is always present, in one form or another.

    Whether we consciously recognize that risk or not is variable but even a totally safe activity such as playing with a beachball on a sunny day with a loved one on a stretch of golden sand involves a subconscious shift of perception because of the shift from everyday patterns of life. This in turn causes more efficient transmission and retention of sense data. Why? Because being in a different situation is regarded by the territorial animal (which we are) as a lowgrade risk.

    All breaks, therefore, have the potential to be fun because of the shift in surroundings and circumstances. In game terms, a worldy game has the potential to be fun because it pulls the player off their own territory.

    I agree completely with your points about acceptable degrees of risk – one of my personal bugbears in game design is the fact that any way-out game will always have a minority appeal simply because it becomes TOO unfamiliar.

    Comment by Cael — 20 February, 2006 @ 5:13 AM

  2. Being a long-time Meridian59 player, I feel obligated to chime in on this one…

    Obviously, I like the risk factor in games. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been playing Meridian since 1996. When you die in Meridian, you basically lose a level. That, and all your inventory (with few exceptions) hits the ground for anyone to loot at their leisure.

    That’s the MMO I was raised on. Death meant something, killing someone meant something. It’s definately because of Meridian that I can’t make myself play a MMO if there’s no PvP involved. I’m not going to spend a month of gametime building a character if I can’t use that character to make someone else’s day a little worse.

    But my views on the necessities of supermegaultra death penalties have changed over the years.

    WoW is the first MMO that I’ve been able to *really* get in to since M59; but the lack of risk leaves me wanting–at first. Coming from the old cut-throat game where a death almost makes you sick to your stomach, dying in WoW felt a little watered down. Big freaking deal, I died to a mob, it costs me 10 silver and the time to get back to my corpse and I’m right back into the fight. So then I get into WoW PvP… damn, it’s pretty fun, I like the feel of it… OH!! That bastard rogue ambushed me!!! Wait’ll I get back, Ima rez and rip his ass apart….


    So I get right back into the fight? Well there’s a bonus. The immediate bright-side to low penalty PvP is that the game encourages you to get back into the fight instead of hiding and licking your wounds as you do when you die in Meridian.

    The downside is that it isn’t as exciting. In Meridian, I get the ‘PvP jitters.’ And by jitters, I mean my hands are shaking so much I’m afraid I’ll hit the wrong key. My adrenaline actually gets pumping and I’m usually screaming too.

    In WoW, the PvP is as constant as you want it to be, In Meridian, it’s a lot of foreplay building up to a single fight with hours of WoW excitement crammed into three minutes. — a lot like sex.

    I suppose a quick summary in closing would be that risk changes the playtype, but I’m no longer sure about whether it modifies the total fun…you just have to decide whether you want the exciting bursts of high-risk gameplay or the porn-star, marathon style that the industry seems to be moving toward.

    Comment by Norin — 20 February, 2006 @ 10:52 AM

  3. Well, I don’t really think you can necessarily have more total fun in a long-term activity like an online game. Most designers consider an experience to be like a sine wave. You have the peaks of intense fun, the troughs of cooling down, and most of the time spent in between. A game like M59 increases the amplitude, so that the peaks are higher, but the troughs are also lower in order to compensate and give recuperation; trying to go all intense would burn people out. A game like WoW lowers the amplitude, so you don’t get the depth in the trough and you get what seems to be a much more consistent experience. This is one reason why WoW is generally seen as such a pleasant experience: the troughs between peaks aren’t that deep.

    It’s hard to really monkey with this setup too much. Making the troughs shallower only makes the game a bit too intense. And, even if you improved the overall “funness” of the game, if you have any sort of peak your troughs will probably still dip below the average quality of another game.

    If you want to consider a bit more advanced view of this, take a look at Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “flow”. (The typical representation may help you visualize it. Usually there’s a wave in the “flow” area representing the progress in the game.) Flow is a very similar concept to what I’m talking about here, but there’s a few more subtleties there. For example, you can see that taking out the troughs could push the person out of the flow state and into “anxiety”.

    Some more thoughts.

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 February, 2006 @ 1:19 PM

  4. Another way to think about risk…

    Games are about choices.

    Two (or more) choices with identical consequences aren’t really choices.

    If the player has two choices, and once choice is always known to be “better” to the player, then the player doesn’t really have any choices. They’ll always chose the better choice.

    Thus, if a negative consequence is a predictable outcome of a choice, then players won’t ever sleect the choice, and the choice is no longer really a choice. Risk makes the outcome unpredictable, causing it to be good sometimes and bad others, and also re-validating the choice.

    More thoughts:

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 20 February, 2006 @ 10:40 PM

  5. Opportunity cost – Yes. The only thing to watch out for is to make sure that players know (or at least have an inkling of) the tradeoffs. A choice between undistinguishable door A and an undistinguishable door B isn’t really a choice either.

    Another use of risk/probability is that it hides/obscures the underlying mechanisms of the game, so long as those underlying mechanisms are undocumented. If my fireball attack against monster A doesn’t do much damage, I’m not sure if it was just bad luck, or if monster A is immune to fireballs.

    By the way, you can also use eye candy to obscure the underlying mechanism… A slot machine is just a lot of eye candy obscuring the random number generator underneath.

    Comment by Mike Rozak — 21 February, 2006 @ 7:37 PM

  6. Not just eye-candy, Mike.

    Probably the best way to set in a mood in a game is with sound. And that’s the kind of clue we need to be giving, the kind that seeps in without conscious awareness.

    Comment by Cael — 22 February, 2006 @ 4:03 AM

  7. Someone had an interesting blog thread about whether mmo’s were addictive and whether that was a bad thing. It discussed “alea” (games of chance) and how gambling was addictive not just because of the variable reinforcement, but perhaps because of the “high” you could experience from it—the feeling that your fate is now up to chance, and you could win or lose but you don’t know what the actual outcome would be until it happens.

    I couldn’t find the thread I was thinking of…unless it was this one here. (I can’t remember).

    I have occasionally had a similar experience in MMORPG’s, usually when near the end of intense combat and me and the monster are both near death. Sometimes there’s this moment of uncertainty when the outcome is not yet decided but you no longer have any influence over the situation (or at least momentarily have no influence over the situation) and you simply hold your breath until the outcome is revealed.

    It’s similar to (but not the same as) the “flow” experience I sometimes get in FPSes. I clearly remember the first time I had that experience. I was playing Doom II and I jumped down into a pit and heard the hiss of an imp behind me. Startled, I whirled around and madly engaged multiple enemies, and I *completely forgot* for a moment that I was playing a game. Survival reflexes kicked in and I experienced total immersion for about 2 seconds. The keyboard became an extension of my body and I was not aware of anything other than the enemies in front of me and my urge to kill them. My brain and my reflexes went into overdrive, making the 2 seconds feel like 10 as my fingers twitched automatically to carry out the brain’s commands but I had no awareness of them. I even lost awareness of the rules and limitations of the game world. It was the first and clearest “flow” experience I ever had while gaming.

    Anyway, enough rambling from me. The point I was trying to make is that even though players are optimizing their play and min-maxing and so on, alea is a powerful force that shouldn’t be discounted. Hours invested in playing an MMORPG are hours down the drain; players don’t recoup anything out of game from that investment. So they will only play as long as its entertaining, compelling, Fun. Alea is part of what makes it Fun.

    Comment by moo — 23 February, 2006 @ 10:15 AM

  8. Peaks and Troughs

    [...] To put it in more basic game design terms, we’re looking at risk as an enhancement to fun. Risk means that there’s a chance for something good or something bad to happen. [...]

    Comment by Psychochild's Blog — 30 September, 2009 @ 5:39 PM

  9. Mastery of Might and Magic

    [...] brutal start helps make hitting the "mastery point" all the more apparent. As I've written before, risk enhances the fun you can have in a [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 29 January, 2011 @ 12:33 AM

  10. “it’s hard to find a level of risk that makes everyone happy”

    Impossible imo if you’re aiming for maximum total players. In that case i think the only way is to allow players to adjust the level. The base game could he hard and lower difficulty levels gave the player various buffs or the base game could be easy but allowed alternatives e.g. the base game told the player to kill some goblins in the zone without specifying exactly which. There might be some quite close to friendly guards that were easy to get but also others in clumps around the zone who were higher level or in more dangerous spots who would also count for the quest. In these cases risk *is* the reward though so the rewards should be the same. In special places that are meant to stand out in the game then risk should be proportional to reward but in the base game the point is to allow players to adjust their risk for the same reward.

    Comment by bloob — 30 October, 2011 @ 12:49 PM

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