Massively Overthinking: Taking risks in MMORPGs
Last weekend, Brendan wrote a great column on how to stay safe from gankers in EVE Online, noting that the newbies are commonly given what he considers bad advice to just stay in high-sec; indeed, he smartly quoted Shedd: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
The article prompted a discussion in our work chat about risk-taking in MMORPGs. “After every one of Brendan’s (excellent!) tips, I keep mentally adding, ‘or alternatively, don’t play EVE,'” Eliot joked. And they’re both right. If you’re dead-set on being a “ship” in the risky gameworld of New Eden, staying in “harbor” defeats the purpose of playing EVE. But this is a real world where you don’t have to be a ship – you don’t have to play EVE. You don’t have to risk it all just for some pixel gratification.
For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked the writing staff to dish on risk-taking, in EVE or elsewhere. Are they into it? What kinds of risks are they willing to take, PvE or PvP? What do they think about risk-vs.-reward in MMOs?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I never could get into EVE. I don’t want to be a vehicle, I want to be a driver, a gunner, an engineer, troops to be deployed, etc. That being said, I’ve been willing to do hardcore risk vs. reward, from permadeath in single player games to, well, permadeath and the loss of guild homes in MMOs. It really depends on who I’m playing with and what my goal with the game is. If I’m looking for a gaming challenge, up to permadeath is clearly a priority, but it’s been a few years since I’ve done that (RIP big forgettable guy in Fire Emblem Awakening).
But I play MMOs for social purposes, and as much as I personally love PvP in persistent worlds, well, a lot of people don’t, and those who did when we were younger just don’t have the time or patience for it now. Games like Fortnite and Overwatch’s death matches are good enough for me: You get a single life per round, and your “punishment” for dying is not playing the rest of the round. I think it’s fair, and while it does turn some people off, it really brings out the best in me, and I say this as someone who tends to only tank and heal. Few gameplay moments feel as epic as knowing that you’re saving someone from a fairly tangible death. Granted, when it’s a lobby based game, that death doesn’t mean a lot in the long run, but punishing gameplay isn’t something for mainstream gamers (for the most part), let alone casuals.
In MMOs, I feel like we could use a bit more, at least in PvE. PvP people have tons of options these days (or it’s coming soon). Most of the “risk” I feel is time-based. Pokemon Go and other mobile titles may have monetary punishments for failure when you use premium items and, well, that sucks. I don’t expect people to put up with losing XP, raid loot, or whole characters these days.
Item loss on death for, say, sellable loot and crafting components that aren’t high-end raiding drops might be something that can be lost on death and recovered from a corpse run to bring back a bit of a sting in death without freaking people out. Mounts fainting” and being unusable could work too. Or, like Crowfall is doing, have long-ish battlegrounds/campaigns with set limits (beyond 5-20 minute matches) and permadeath. Wiped on the boss? Your run’s over and the group is weaker. Survived? Maybe get guaranteed prime drops for each participant to help cut down on “needing” to raid for months on end.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Obviously I’m in favour of EVE’s style of sandbox gameplay, otherwise I wouldn’t have played it for almost 14 years, but even I’ll admit that it’s probably a hold-over from the early industry. Early MMOs relied heavily on subscription fees, so the developers were incentivised to stretch out the game’s progression and things like XP loss and hellish grinds weren’t uncommon. Harder content having more risk of loss but giving better rewards just makes sense in that system, and yet most players in games like RuneScape chose to grind the hell out of easy content instead. People are just naturally loss-averse, so if there’s an option with no risk they’ll overwhelmingly choose that over even a minor risk with a much larger payout.
A large proportion of EVE Online players stay in highsec where the risk is at its lowest, and the truth is that even the most hardcore EVE players are actually incredibly risk-averse. Players figure out how to remove all the risk from new PvE content a matter of days after release, and even PvP fleets will typically only commit to a fight when they have overwhelming force. A big part of the PvP metagame at this level is in tricking the other side into thinking it has the advantage and committing to the fight, hence the saying, “If you find yourself in a fair fight in EVE Online, someone miscalculated.” Even the most bloodthirsty pirates will hedge their bets, keeping all of their escape options open and corpmates nearby to bail them out if the ship hits the fan.
Modern MMOs are built more around story and content is developed for as wide a range of people as possible, but I still think a risk-vs.-reward model is a perfect match for sandbox games. The key thing to be learned from EVE is that the player should always be aware of the risks they’re taking and should always consciously choose their level of risk. Being tricked into accidentally stealing loot so someone can gank you isn’t the same thing as choosing to enter a wormhole leading into an unknown star system, one is a risk you didn’t know you were taking and the other is one you chose to take. As long as a new game was very clear with players about what risks they’re choosing, I think there’s life left in the risk-vs.-reward model.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I understand why people who really want to be in a sci-fi MMORPG that looks pretty and gets constant updates play EVE Online, in spite of or even because of the risks. Let me just say that first. I get it. It’s the same as if you want to play a Star Wars MMO or a Tolkien MMO. Your choices are still somewhat limited by availability here.
I think what stands out to me is that we overprivilege risk in games. To the degree that developers need an automated way to weight and compensate activities in a game world, it makes sense: Risk-vs.-reward allows them to do that. It’s an easy yardstick for meting out loot (games aren’t trying to create or quantify experiences, after all). But players do it too. We place what I’ve come to think of as an unfounded amount of emphasis on risk as the pinnacle of MMO play, that idea that the experiences engendered by taking risks, of being in risky situations, are considered inherently superior to other experiences and situations, usually because of the attendant belief that the achievements and thrills are simply bigger and better. Consequently, we come up with derogatory words to put down risk-averse gamers. Carebears. Casuals.
I’m not buying it. I bought it a long time ago; I bought it when I was new to MMORPGs and Ultima Online’s ganking and EverQuest’s raiding were the only things around. Now, we’ve had two decades to sample other experiences, and I’m not as impressed with the stressors and risks of some types of play. Maybe I value my time more than I used to. Or maybe I no longer need that huge spike in serotonin to get my gaming buzz, if indeed I ever did. Or maybe it’s a personality thing, the way some people bliss out with a thick book and a mug of tea while other people aren’t having a good time unless they spontaneously decide to get married while skydiving.
Some people juggle geese.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): One of the bits of the conversation between Bree and me that didn’t make it into the intro is something that seems relevant. As I pointed out, I already face the pretty regular risk of getting someone randomly flying into my life and wrecking my stuff for no reason whatsoever, intentionally or otherwise. I don’t play video games to get more of that.
At first glance, this might seem like it’s at odds with the way I play almost everything else. In tabletop games, my characters are frequently risk-takers who bet on crazy dice or ignore the obvious odds. In single-player games, I tend to favor high-risk playstyles, usually prioritizing high damage and speed over any durability. Heck, I’ll even pursue some high-risk plays in games like Final Fantasy XIV, doing something that can conceivably work but is pretty risky just the same.
The difference, however, comes down to agency and consequence.
The former is that in all of the above cases, the risk is coming from me, not from outside. No one forced me to play a high-risk build in Mass Effect: Andromeda; it was entirely down to my own choice to say, “Yep, Charge and Nova all day every day.” The GM is not simply presenting me with unwinnable situations when I go diving into dungeons in a tabletop campaign. I decide to say, “Hey, let me see if I can solo this,” when the answer should be an emphatic, “No, you cannot.”
There was a great article ages ago by Mark Rosewater of Magic: the Gathering fame. He pointed out that when it comes to game design, you don’t just look at the best result for a particular mechanic; you look at the worst one. Risk is all well and good, but losing something valuable because of circumstances outside of your control inspires you to take fewer risks, not more. It makes games less interesting, not more.
For that matter, Eric Heimberg of Project Gorgon made a similar comparison when he discussed death penalties. EverQuest’s death penalty meant that you would have to struggle to reach your corpse to get your gear again without the gear that wasn’t sufficient to keep you safe the first time around. World of Warcraft, meanwhile, let you pick yourself back up and get back into the action, which meant that there was much less risk to exploring dangerous areas and trying risky things because while the risk is real, the penalty isn’t crippling.
Heck, you can even see it in Final Fantasy XIV compared to World of Warcraft. The former brings you back to your home point when you die; the latter just kicks you to a graveyard and lets you resurrect near where you died. Which one do you think has more people acting cautious and asking for raises when something goes wrong? It’s not the one where it’s easy to get back to where you die.
Risk is all well and good. But more risk does not make the same activity more fun. If you don’t like mining in EVE Online, adding more risk to mining doesn’t make it more fun; it makes it more frustrating.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): If you have conflict, you have to have risk in a game, there’s no way around it. We have to have something at stake, otherwise the whole experience becomes a TV show in which user interaction — and user choices — are taken away so that there is no possibility for missteps or failure. So the question, to me, is what degree of risk is acceptable in a game and when does it stop being fun and start being frustrating?
In most MMOs, the risk factor is usually time. If I mess up, I may be losing some time to repeat content. I might lose a little money too, but that’s usually it. You can up the stakes in PvE games by giving players only a single chance to do content (such as Dungeons and Dragons Online’s instances) or by increasing the death penalty (old school de-leveling by losing XP comes to mind). And you can definitely increase the risk in PvP games by allowing other players to set back your progress and steal your stuff.
Frankly, I don’t mind the risk as much in PvE games because there’s a soulless computer on the other end creating this challenge. When the risk involves another player, it feels more personal and less enjoyable when I fail. So it’s not that I’m risk adverse but that I’m jerk adverse. It feels as though the risk is far less for griefers and gankers who, at the end of the day, have as many lives as they want to spend on making others miserable, and thus don’t have the pushback of permadeath and imprisonment that real life would present for such actions.
Back to PvE, I am happy with the nail-biting moments when I’m deep into a difficult area or dungeon and know that if I die, it’s allllll the way back to the beginning. The farther I get, the higher the stakes get, and the greater the relief when I’m finally able to succeed. That’s a great feeling, but it’s not one that I chase every single day. As long as I have the option to participate in such activities or not (versus being required to progress), I’m happy with the occasional risk-laden challenge.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I can’t answer too much about EVE specifically because I don’t enjoy playing it. That isn’t related to the risk factor so much as because I just cannot get into being a ship. I want to be a member of a crew on a ship.
Other than that, I’ve mulled this question over quite a bit because for me, there isn’t any line drawn: It is situational. I do like risk — just not all the time. And how much I feel like risking depends. Some days I am all for the adrenaline rush of high risk vs high reward. These are days a can handle big losses knowing they can come, but I also anticipate that sweet high if I win. Other days, I am just not in the mood; a loss period just isn’t worth it. Depending on how I feel will alter which game I play as well as what activity I partake of in the game.
I can say that if I am losing real money, then no. Honestly, I can’t afford that. All those stories of people losing thousands pain me! And when it comes to losing housing, that is a deal breaker for me as well. Permadeath where you lose absolutely everything? I couldn’t manage that much either. I freely admit that I glean comfort from my pixel stuff! But games where you can recoup/bequeath some items or keep some advancement for your next character, sure, I can give that a go when in that frame of mind. Is it just time I am losing? I am more amenable to that, but even that has its limits. I played Lineage II for a very long time where you dropped items upon death. This got really punishing in the higher levels where your gear could have taken a year or more to make. At this point, the risk was too much and the fun dwindled. When I reached the point I would have to start paying loads of cash to keep up, I quit.
So basically I like when there are varying levels of risk vs reward for me to choose from. Some days I really do just want to play it safe in game worlds. Other days, I will throw caution to the wind!