Risk is one of the most important and most confusing factors in gaming today. It affects every game we play and every game we create. It helps us define the “casual” player and the “hardcore” player. It is one of the key factors in what makes a game too tedious to play or too easy to endure. It is an inescapable part of the concept of ‘game’, and yet, too often, it seems barely considered.
What is risk? Let us define risk as that which the player stands to lose if they lose at a game. This can be something as simple as losing your quarters at an arcade to something as devious as crippling your character’s right arm and making you find ways to get through the game using only actions which don’t require it. Perhaps a brief list of some of the most common forms of risk is in order.
1.Waste of Money: Consider this category to include only games which waste your money directly by taking micro payments. Any game that slyly parts you from your money by making you pay its makers X dollars a month and then forcing you to invest more time in the game every time you lose fits in the “waste of time” category as the monetary risk is rarely what the player is aware of. Arcade games are the clearest example of this type of risk and it seems likely that this risk type will see somewhat of a resurgence with the invention of the online arcade (think Xbox Live), but traditional arcade style games are by no means the only area in which the “waste of money” risk is applicable. Project Entropia is an admirable example of innovative use this risk type.
2.Character Damage: When you fail in games that use character damage as a risk something bad happens (or has a chance to happen) to your avatar as the result. Your in-game character becomes in some way crippled and the rest of the game becomes more challenging as a result. The old Ultima games and the Mordor series used this punishment type to great effect.
3.Impassible Impediment: This type of punishment is becoming less popular these days; the impassible impediment is the punishment which keeps you from continuing (and thus finishing) the game. When you run up against an impassible impediment you are forced either to set down the game and never pick it up again or to start afresh from the very beginning. Examples of this type of risk would be: games in which you fail to pick up an item and become stuck in a room, games where, through character damage, your character became to weak to overcome the challenges presented it or, simply, games where you have a set number of lives and when you lose the last one the game resets (i.e. Shadowgate, Mordor, NES era Mario Brothers games). Often early adventure games would fall prey to including this type of risk without intending to by letting impassible impediments enter the game as a byproduct of the design rather than a considered feature. Some might say that this contributed to the decline of the genre.
4.Waste of Time: Any game which sets you back a certain amount for failure makes you risk your time. While, in games with this type of risk, nothing becomes more challenging because you failed and everything you did to get to the point you where you lost should work to return you there, you still have to reinvest the time. This is substantively different from the impassible impediment as, in the case of the impassable impediment, if you choose the same course of action to return to the impediment the impediment will remain insurmountable. Almost all modern games fall into this category; from Medal of Honor to World of Warcraft to Ace Combat we find this risk type scattered across the modern gaming landscape.