Wolfshead has started a discussion of risk in MMO’s, titled “The Emasculation of MMO’s: Part 1 – How Convenience Replaced Risk”.
That title alone irritated me. There is an interesting issue here, but by using the word “emasculate”, and by later on saying “…the ability to [take a] risk is what separates the men from the boys…” he gives a gender to the problem.
Yes, those are stock phrases, but the job of the writer, even a blogger, is to use words well, not to fall back on hoary, outdated cliches. That happen to be wrong, if in a subtle way.
Let’s get back to the main issue. Wolfshead thinks that one ought to be scared while playing an MMO. He decries game companies that are “eager to pander to new subscribers”. And they should get off his lawn, too.
Here’s the thing. I like risk in a game. I play EVE for goodness sake, and every time you undock your ship, its cargo, and your implants are at risk. That’s time and money at stake, and it really doesn’t feel good to get ganked, be it by NPC’s or PC’s. But that’s what gives it the thrill.
So that’s an idea I agree with Wolfshead about. A game structure that associates more risk with more reward is a good one. I think there’s another idea lurking here though. I personally like games where your success is not merely predicated on hours spent, but where the brain behind the keyboard matters. EVE, in pvp at least, often has the property, though it often isn’t tactical, but strategic.
However, I don’t think my experience is universal. Larisa responded to Wolfshead’s post by describing the fear she felt as a low level character in WoW, trying to kill the Defias.
Psychochild gets into the act, both in Larisa’s comment section and on his own blog, making the point that risk isn’t the same as difficulty. With all due respect, I think that’s a distinction without a difference.
Failure is the biggest risk for many. It isn’t about how much they lost but that they failed. Emotionally, it can be hard to take, to the point where some walk away from situations where there is a chance that they might fail. Which is a shame. I personally believe that the greatest learning, the greatest growth comes only when one is experience a significant amount of failure. Dying, no matter how you slice it, constitutes failure.
Here’s the thing. Fear abates with repetition. It’s called systematic desensitization. So a veteran player like myself will feel less fear from a situation with equal risk than a new player would. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that the “volume control” on fear varies widely from person to person out of the womb. And life experiences other than MMOs can result in some desensitization.
So there’s a big range of responses out there to the Defias bandits, going from “OMFG, these guys are going to rip me up! I’m never going to figure this game out!” to “Yawn!”. At heart, game companies are entertainment companies, and their job is to make money by entertaining people, not by scaring them so badly that they run off. Making things easier for customers, especially at the beginning is not “pandering”, it’s their job.
I don’t really think there’s one MMO out there that can satisfy everyone. And recall this, the MMO that was going to go “back to basics” with an increased death penalty, more meaningful (read time-consuming) travel, and more elaborate crafting was a crashing failure. This was not because Sony sabotaged it, if players had flocked to it, rest assured that they would have devoted more resources to it.
In the end, I think there are far more interesting evaluative scales than “how big is the death penalty”. I would suggest “How unpredictable is the game play?”- noting that games with a pvp element have a big advantage in the unpredictability department. But to some people, that’s not a good thing. Another, more interesting scale is “How much scope is there for creativity?” Or put another way, is there more than one way to do things? Can different people with different resources and different interests interact with the same content in differing ways? And also there’s “What’s the balance between gear, character level/skills, and player expertise?” Does the game have a risk-reward structure or a time-reward structure?