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The Importance of Risk in Basic Game Design

In this design article, Portnow looks at the fascinating concept of risk in video games, "one of the key factors in what makes a game too tedious to play or too easy to endure", from Ultima to Silent Hill.

Game Developer, Staff

September 12, 2006

14 Min Read

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[1] 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.

Origin System's Ultima III: Exodus, the third game in the Ultima series.

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.

So why is risk important? As game designers we are always looking for what makes a game enjoyable, one of those factors is risk. If a character can die a million times and we don’t care we lose the immersive experience of the game. If we feel as though we are “going through the motions”, that is if all we are doing is repeating some mindless action in order to get to the next plot point, then we resent that section of the game (anyone who’s played through a Final Fantasy or a Xenosaga or a .hack understands this feeling). We don’t find it “fun” or challenging, we find it tedious and time consuming. There is no epinephrine released during this time -- there is no excitement -- and when we complete such a section in a game we breathe a sigh of relief, inwardly saying “glad that’s done” rather than feeling the exaltation of victory. “Glad that’s done” is okay to say when you get off work, it’s not alright when talking about a game.

So what’s the problem? The reward for playing a game has to be the game itself. We often overlook this fact, making the reward the ending or leveling up or getting to explore new areas. This causes us (perhaps rightly) to want the player to have access to the reward.

The Safe Game

In a game where the game-play isn’t the telos (raison d’etré) of the game the idea of preventing the player from achieving the real goal of the game becomes illogical, almost absurd. Think of it this way: under what circumstances would you want to do something that is both tedious and difficult only to find out that you wasted your time and have to start all over again? Correct, never. Thus we create the safe game.

The safe game is any game where given X hours (with minor variance for skill) any player will beat the game and get the prize (as stated earlier this can be anything from hitting the level cap to getting to see the great CGI at the end). In the safe game, losing entails repeating some amount of the tedium in between starting the game up and getting that hungered for reward.

Monolith Soft's recently released PlayStation 2 role-playing game, Xenosaga Episode III.

The safe game fails in only one way…it isn’t a game. In many ways the safe game bears more resemblance to a movie or, at best, a theme park ride. It focuses on the non-interactive parts of the experience rather than on the interactive element that is the core of the ‘game’.

So why do we make safe games? I’ll just say it…because it’s easy. We use the safe game to cover up a flaw in our design. It is very difficult to make a good game, it is much simpler to make a pretty movie and stick it on the end of forty hours of tedious trigger twiddling. And you want to know what? Sometimes the experience is worth it. Sometimes the reward at the end of the long bland tunnel of repetitious game-play is fulfilling enough to justify the time. My hat comes off to all the CGI wizards, creative writers, inventive level designers who can make me come away satisfied regardless of the game-play -- but that’s not our business, we are game designers, our job is to make games.

Risk Versus Reward

Games are enjoyable for one of two reasons: either they challenge us in a way that we enjoy being challenged (say throwing a football for the player who likes physical challenges or making the right move in chess for the player who enjoys mental ones) or they fill us with the fear of loss and the hope of gain. The best games balance these two aspects, allowing us to modulate our risk by using our skill at the game without reducing our reward.[2]

Imagine playing roulette with an unlimited supply of play money or doing a crossword puzzle where the answers were given right after the questions. These games, while enjoyable under normal circumstances, cannot be enjoyed in this manner. The first case, roulette, was never a game of skill, thus when we remove its risk it becomes dull and boring. In the second case, once we remove the challenge from the crossword puzzle we lose interest as there is no risk to captivate us. This is analogous to modern video games.

If a game has a static reward but no element of risk then there is no incentive for the player to improve at the game. If the player does not care if they improve then the player cannot be challenged. Ergo we’ve removed both risk and challenge from the game and made it “unfun”.


Reward is the natural balance to risk but, if we confine reward to one invariable constant, we limit our ability to introduce risk. Instead of risk our game consists of a series of binary obstacles, passable or impassable. The standard game design solution to this is to make challenge A passable and challenges B through X impassable until A is complete. Once A has been completed something within the game changes to make B passable. This continues until the player completes X and gets the reward for finishing the game. Even games that are otherwise excellent can succumb to using this legerdemain (take for example Ico) but this is not an adequate solution.

Sony Computer Entertainment's popular PlayStation 2 adventure game, Ico.

It is easy to confuse an exceedingly linear game for a game with multiple rewards but it is important not to do so. Compare the game where you go through door A to get the key to door B to a simple crossword puzzle. The object of the crossword puzzle is to complete the crossword. Each word you fill out give you clues on how to solve the other words. You do not need any of these clues if you are good enough at crossword puzzles to simply fill in all the boxes but, for the most part, we use them to help us solve the words we are stuck on. Thus the reward for filling in a word correctly is assistance filling in the other words but the risk you run in incorrectly filling out a word is the confusion that ensues when you try and complete the words connected with it.

The distinction here is key. The skilled crossworder can blaze through the crossword ignoring the hints and reaching his goal in record time but, if the crossworder’s skill is not quite what he thinks it is, he may get himself muddled, costing him time or perhaps the whole endeavor. The player in the door game on the other hand has no choice but to go through door A, even if they have acquired all the skills necessary to conquer door S.

This becomes clearer if you examine the recent iterations of the Zelda series or any of the PS2 era Silent Hills. Both of these games have illusory rewards scattered throughout the game but in both cases these rewards serve more as milestones which must be crossed by every player who completes the game than as true rewards for a player’s skill and unique approach to the challenges presented them.

Before we move on it is important that I address the cries of one specific field of game developers…the RPG developer. You may decry that your game is like the crossword, offering the player equipment and levels instead of clues, but here the subtlety of our problem really shows through. Many RPGs use the acquisition of levels and equipment to avoid the problem of challenge and thus of risk. Most RPGs use the formula “if stats are ≥ X then monster Y is defeated” (with a lot of window dressing to make the player think that they are doing something) with stats largely depending on defeating monster (thus earning equipment and levels). One can see the circularity of this issue. I’ll refer you to Progress Quest for further study.

The Bifurcated Path

Let us assume at last that we are cognizant of risk, that we want to include it as an active element in our game: how do we do so without driving players away? Thus we come to the bifurcated path.

In order to have risk we have to setup a reward, but let’s make it a real reward. Instead of the reward being “get to the end” let’s make it “get to the end in X hours of game-play” (there, after all that we don’t even really mind the reward being the end of the game). Now X must actually be variable. Not minutely variable but truly variable. Let’s say, for the sake of having real numbers, the difference between eight hours of game-play and forty.

Now that we have our incentive let’s set up a risk. This risk can be any of the risks listed above but let’s use time. Now that your time’s a wager that whole system becomes a lot more fun.

We have our risk and our reward; now let’s talk about game-play. The gamer who likes risk, who believes in themselves and their abilities qua the game, can take the short path, trying for that elusive eight hour victory wrought with danger and excitement. Yes they miss out on some of the content of the game, which they have conveniently skipped, but they get the rush of a challenge which tests their finely honed skills to the limit. The true die-hard slow and steady gamer on the other hand will take the forty hour route. While it might not test them to their limits (which is probably something they don’t want from a ‘game’ anyway) they get the experience of enjoying the whole world, soaking up the content at a leisurely pace.

If we have designed the game well it will allow players to match the level of risk they want to the appropriate challenge and reward, thus giving each player the experience they desire. Optimally the player will play through game tweaking their risk/reward balance as they play and improve, thus allowing a player the full spectrum from 8 to 40 hours of game-play.[3]

A Few Concluding Words

Risk is by no means the only factor in games, but it is a factor in every game. It is important that we be aware of it and that we don’t dismiss it as an element that we can’t control for. Perhaps after careful examination we will conclude that some of our fundamental assumptions are mistaken (does more ‘game-play’ hours really make for a better game)? Perhaps we will find out we were right all along.

Either way awareness is really what is at issue here. It is our jobs to design the best games possible and that cannot be done without considering the risk the player faces for losing.

But, I will confess, my reasons for writing this article are to some extent selfish. I’ve given you my thoughts and ideas on the subject of risk as best as I am able, now I would like to hear yours.


[1] For the purposes of this article consider losing to be a binary condition. One is either in the state of having lost or not having lost. Certainly it is interesting to consider the myriad possibilities of a sliding scale losing system, but as such a thing is uncommon in modern games we will discount it for simplicity.

[2] Apples to Apples is enjoyable because it is silly and social but neither of these are aspects of the game-play as such. We are here talking about game qua game, thus we must limit ourselves to two factors listed above, risk and challenge.

[3] It has been said to me that it is equally valid to make content the wager and have the worse player complete the game in eight hours, getting the “bad ending”, while the good player gets through all 40 hours and gets the best ending. This is debatable.

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