Massively Overthinking: Taking risks in MMORPGs

    
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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.

Train, train away.

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.”

“Even if it’s something that I can afford to lose, that doesn’t mean I want to lose it, and that doesn’t mean the game experience is significantly improved by the fact that I could lose it at any moment for no reason whatsoever.”
And the latter? If I die in a single-player game, I reload from a checkpoint – that’s all. If I take a big risk in a tabletop game, the GM is telling the story and ensures that even failure creates an interesting story development. What I lose isn’t a ship that might be difficult to replace, and even if it’s something that I can afford to lose, that doesn’t mean I want to lose it, and that doesn’t mean the game experience is significantly improved by the fact that I could lose it at any moment for no reason whatsoever.

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!

Your turn!

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Jeffery Witman

The truth is that most players are risk averse because this hobby is mostly about escaping the real world where losses are far too common and devastating. Why would we want to have to deal with one of the most difficult parts of life in our escapist fantasies, too?

We’re supposed to be legendary heroes, super powered beings, or immortal warriors with a destiny to fulfill. That takes a huge hit in immersion when some random player comes along and kills you for your stuff. Or you pull too much aggro in a random cave and lose your hard won gear and maybe skills to a group of albino cave serpents, or something similar.

Competition and risk don’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. In fact, I think they’re best when they only directly impact the failed action.

For example, you screwed up a raid run? All the loot you got in that run is gone, left with your corpse. Your lock out timer is on and you need to wait until the next time to try again. You didn’t lose anything you had before the run, except for the time you spent on the run. Same with solo dungeons, or even PvP battles. Losing feels bad enough when you put in time and work just to get nothing in return. Any further penalty just feels greedy, spiteful, and pushes players away.

Players also need to be in control of the risk they’re taking. Let us know that there’s an elite rare spawn in the middle of those level 2 rats. Set well marked PvP zones that ask for confirmation if you want to enter. Give reasonable levels, health, attack power, etc, to mobs and bosses. Maybe give players a way to figure out the boss strategy before heading into an encounter rather than having to run it multiple times to figure out how to survive. Give us the ability to choose our risks and we’ll be more likely to take them because we know we don’t have to worry about the random, out of our control risks as well.

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hurbster

Maybe if they turned mining into an AWESOME mini-game with lots of effeczt so you are distracted while beeing ganked will make some players go ‘welp. I’m deded for the 30th time this hour but that mini-game shure was fun – pretty lights’

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Robert Mann

It all depends on the game and the goals being sought. I really care about three things here:

1. Is it fun? If the game is about ambushing people who don’t really want a fight to begin with… then that’s a no to me. I’m happy to PvP, but if somebody wants to just randomly attack people for no real reason, well, where the $#%@ is the law of these worlds, and why isn’t that style of play risky for their, er, reward? That’s about as fun for everyone not doing that as getting an amputation without anesthesia.

2. How does it matter? If the game is all risk vs. reward with min/max as the only way to go, I will be bored out of my mind and quitting. If it, however, makes risks fun in some other way (for example, offering a variety of challenges that aren’t all about the min/max builds, and netting some interesting titles or cosmetics) then I am fine. My biggest problems with how it matters are that usually it requires the min/max setup (not fun to me, usually) and then rewards it with… more combat power. Meh.

3. People. Simply put, I want to spend time with people that I don’t want to take and shove a power cord through their eye. If the risk/reward requires me to spend more than a passing by with those people, instead of moving on to work with those who I get along with, then that is a no-go.

Eve’s problems are that point 1 is too commonly on the side of the random attack if playing without being a high-sec mining bot, that point 2 is generally wrong for me, and point 3 seemed troublesome without knowing a group already established that I’d like (average person in chat wasn’t exactly what I want to hang out with in chat in game or out.)

On the other hand, I’ll gladly go try things just for giggles that might be challenging. I gladly work with groups that are nice but need practice or help with the game. I’m more than willing to take a risk, but all too often the ‘risk’ being referenced is dealing with asshats. The only risk I want there is getting a lecture about not punching people for being asshats (aka, me being physically close enough to tell them they WILL behave near me or suffer the consequences.)

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Chestnut Bowl

I agree with Justin about being jerk adverse. I don’t mind the risks of raid bosses and such, but I do mind griefers and gankers. Getting dragged into open PvP is about as fun as being mugged.

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Schmidt.Capela

The most important aspect in whether I will accept a risk is whether I can end worse than I started.

I’m perfectly fine taking a risk if failure merely means no progression. If the fight is enjoyable I can spend a whole afternoon trying to beat a level or a boss and feel fulfilled even if I never managed to progress. On the other hand, I will rarely, if ever, take a risk where I can lose something I already have; if a game asks me to do that in order to access its more challenging content, or if the game makes such risk-taking unavoidable, then I will simply not play.

This is the determining factor in which kinds of death penalties I will accept. Losing XP and potentially levels? There is no chance I will ever play. Losing items or gear that are hard to replace? That will drive me away. Losing easy to replace gear, or a little gold? I will hate it if the penalty is large enough to impact my in-game finances, otherwise I can live with that. Corpse runs, having to restart dungeons or quests, XP debt with a cap? I’m perfectly fine with that, as everything I already have is completely safe.

This is also why I’m rarely, if ever, bothered with risk or difficulty in offline games. I can always just load a previous save, and if the game tries to prevent me I just have to figure how to bypass whichever measure the devs took to prevent rollbacks. There’s a reason I hack every single console I own even though I purchase legitimate games.

Edit: one caveat is that, if death is not punishing, I will typically play in the most reckless way possible. Naked runs, pulling as many enemies as possible to see if I can handle them, trying to beat a boss I’m not supposed to fight for a long time yet, those and more are things I regularly do.

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Alex Willis

@rafael12104 Said it below, and I’ll repeat it here:

RISK =/= PVP

In terms of video games, I like to think about risk in two ways: developmental and behavioural.

1) Developmental Risk is about balancing TIME and REWARD. Or, put another way, risk is understanding how you can use time to your advantage to get to a desired result. Risk involves getting from A to C without going to B. Most risk-averse people can still get to the same destination as the risk-takers, but it will take so very much more time.

Developmental Risk is not inherently about exploiting people, or killing them in PvP scenarios. That’s a conflation of approach and genre. Some of those approaches are prominent features of games that reward risk. But they’re not at all inherent. A good example of non-PvP risk is gambling/lockboxes. (And by and large, gambling is a less ethical means of risk-taking because its rewards go primarily outside the game itself.)

2) Behavioural Risk is purely personality-based. Some people enjoy taking risks as an activity. We all know people like this. The payoff here is rarely about material advancement, although sometimes that can be a result. Oftentimes, there is no obvious reward. Suicide ganking in EVE is one of those areas: yeah, sometimes you land a whale of a freighter. Other times, you’ve spent hours scouting a mining barge to gank and when you do, all you’re able to recover is the cost of your suicide ship. The math is not linear here.

Most of the time, when people talk about an association between PvP and Risk, they’re talking about this second category: the people who do things that are outside of “normal” behaviour. But the activity of risk-taking itself is the reward for these people. And one of the reasons why EVE has become associated so closely with this latter category is that EVE allows you to behave in ways that most games don’t. Rarely do the murderous assassins come out on top of the richest or most powerful lists. Rather, the plotters, the schemers, the planners do. And as Brendan suggests, these people are some of the most risk-averse in game — because they need to consider all the angles.

Veldan
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Veldan

I’m not a big fan of risks. Personally, I always minimize them. In real life too, tbh. Some might call me boring, but I value a sense of security and stability. I’m totally the “big mug of tea and a thick book” person Bree mentioned. (That reminds me… I got an email that part 3 of the Stormlight Archive is out and I haven’t nearly finished part 2 yet… I wish there were more hours in a day :/ )

I approach long term games like MMOs the same way. I’ll take slow, steady progress over big risks any time.

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BalsBigBrother

You are playing video games the only risk is losing some time or not having fun. With that in mind I am willing to give anything a try as long as I think I might find it to be fun or the process of getting back on my feet after a setback to be fun.

I don’t generally pvp in mmos because that isn’t what I want out of them for the most part. It has nothing to do with being afraid of risk its just the process of pvp in an mmo environment isn’t all that much fun for me.

I have better options should I want to do that sort of content such as Overwatch for small scale battles or something like Mount and Blade Napoleonic Wars if I want something on a grander scale.

Zeph
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Zeph

Are you as ready for Bannerlord as I am?

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Robert Mann

So many people… and there’s a lot of waiting left I fear.

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rafael12104

Hmm. Taking risks in MMORPGs, yeah sure, I’m on board IF I CAN CHOOSE WHEN I TAKE THE RISK!

Yeah, save your open world sandbox scenarios, it can be done and has been done.

BTW, risk doesn’t have to be PvP.

I’ll take my happy pill now and be on my way.

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Castagere Shaikura

I get so sick and tired of this subject. The truth is that the majority of mmo players are in it for the PVE. But PVP players always seem to have the biggest mouths on the internet. It makes it seem that everyone loves getting ganked and love the risk. Its all BS. Eve is the most popular PVP mmo yet even with the lame f2p model they added they have got hardly any new players. Just a bunch of old players making alts. Look at all the up and coming kickstarted mmo’s. Does anyone really believe any of them will be popular to the masses. Eve and all the games like them are niche and always will be. Big game companies don’t make mmo’s anymore because its to costly to keep up with the content because as soon as they put out new content someone finishes it in a few days then goes on the internet and say it sucks or it wasn’t enough. So now all we get is PVP focused kickstarted mmo’s because its easier to just let players kill each other then add content even if the player base is small.

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Zeph

Eh, I stopped caring about how popular my MMOs are a long time ago. The games I like are niche. I’m very much happy if the future of the genre is smaller, niche-focused games.

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Veldan

Eh, you’re focusing on the wrong thing here. It’s about risk, not PvP. Risk can be put into PvE equally much.