Sunday 9 December 2012

Your balancing act: How to find the balance between risk and reward

In one of the Nintendo Land attractions for the Wii U, Animal Crossing: Sweet Day, you play a game similar to the age-old children's game cops and robbers. One player, the cop, has to find and catch the other players, These other players, the robbers, have to pick up pieces of candy and drop them off in certain places. The cop wins if he/she catches the thieves a certain amount of times. The thieves win if they are able to drop off a certain amount of candy. One of the fun mechanics of the game is that thieves are able to carry up to three pieces of candy, but with every new piece they pick up, they move much slower. Therefore, the thieves need to balance risk and reward, as picking up one extra piece of candy can be the difference between escaping and winning or getting caught by the cop and losing.

Nintendo Land - Animal Crossing: Sweet Day 

Depending on the amount of expertise of the player, and the quality of the tutorial, this balancing act may be frustrating; losing because you didn't understand the rules is never nice. However, games would not be the same without this balance between risk and reward. It can make players feel empowered because their choices change the state of the game (What should I do now, if I take the wrong action I could lose); it can incite curiosity in players, because their choices may lead to unexpected results (I really thought I would get away with that); and it can create a sense of accomplishment in the player if they are successful (That was a close call, but I'm happy I made it). This balance also helps the player to constrain their set of actions; if the player is doing well in the game, they might want to choose actions that are more risky, if they aren't doing well, they will probably choose the actions with the lowest amount of risk

Cave Story +: Forgoing a strong weapon in the beginning of the game allows you to pick up a very strong weapon at the end of the game. The player can choose whether they want less risk now and more risk later, or vice versa. 

There are numerous ways how this balance between risk and reward can be integrated into video games, usually depending on the genre of the game. 

For instance, many strategy games revolve around gathering resources and using those resources to construct units. The player has to make a set of strategic and tactical decisions how to optimize their amount of resources and units. The player could spend resources to build an outpost, which will help him get more resources later on. But usually such outposts are far away from your main base, and can be easily destroyed by a small enemy force, making the entire process an utter waste of resources. Of course, you could spend additional resources to defend such an outpost, but if it doesn't get attacked, then it might still cost you more than you gain. 

Starcraft 2: Sometimes choosing a risky strategy doesn't pay off; other times it will lead to your victory. Understanding when to take a risk, and when not, is a large part of competitive games.

In role-playing games, the balance between risk and reward can be integrated through interactions with characters. In many of those games there is the option to persuade, threaten or bluff your way through any situation. One could lie to a quest-giver about the actual contents of a hidden treasure. If it works, you might end up with a friend and a hefty reward, if it fails, you might end up with an enemy and a stab in the back. Besides social manipulation, role-playing games also use different kinds of resources as a balancing mechanism. There is the typical paragon reaction, which usually means you forego all monetary payment in favour for an increase in reputation. You also have the typical bad-guy reaction, which means that you demand extra money, but lose some reputation. Less money means that you could die more often, while a lower reputation might lead to people attacking you. Both options have their own risk, and reward. 

Mass Effect 3: The conversation wheel allows you to choose different ways to interact with characters. Sometimes an option that seems to have the best rewards, leads to one of your characters dying later on in the game.

For action games, differences in abilities and skills can offer the player a choice between risk and reward. Do you use your strongest attack, which can only be used once a day, on a strong enemy, or do you wait because you might encounter a stronger enemy later on. Using such skills without restraint could mean you lose the game later on. On the other hand, one might keep forgoing such skills, out of fear that when the time comes, they would need it. 

League of Legends: Choosing the right moment to unleash your ultimate skill is vital to winning to game 

Finding the right balance between risk and reward is very important for every video game. Players need to be aware of their choice, and they should learn to understand the effect of their choices on the state of the game. But don't forget that it's not always about efficiency; sometimes the best option is not the most fun option. Players should be encouraged to experiment. A game in which the player never diverges from a single path, out of fear of doing something wrong, does not sound like a fun game to me!

Do you have any experiences with, or nice examples of, this fine balance between risk and reward? Or, do you have some other ideas that you think are important? Don't hesitate to let us know below!


  1. Nice post. I think it is true that this risk/reward dynamic is very important for creating strong emotional responses in the player, more so in the absence of a story such as in League of Legends, or more extremely in Poker.

    I think in Mass Effect, because it is so story-driven, it is not so important, because the options are there more to make you feel like you are role-playing a certain character who is nice or is evil. Recent games try to reward both paths in a similar manner, so the player does not feel like one is riskier than other I think. It's more a matter of allowing different styles of play.

    In your opinion what games have tried to focus on the risk/reward dynamic, but have done so in an unsuccessful way? This is, too much risk for too little reward or the other way around.

  2. Thanks for your post Samuel! You're absolutely right that this dynamic can create some strong emotions in the user (HULK SMASH).

    What games have been unsuccessful with regards to this dynamic... That's actually a difficult question. Because there are many different ways how it can go wrong, and they depend heavily on the user. In League of Legends for example, the risk/reward dynamic only works when you are playing against opponents of your own skill level. If they are much more skilled, there is more risk, and little reward.

    A few ways of ensuring that it does work, is to stimulate the user even if they do fail. This can be done by gaining levels (in rpgs), or passing checkpoints (in action games). However, games that don't do this, such as hardcore games like Dark Souls, or Super Meat Boy, aren't bad games, they are just for a different kind of audience.

    Now, there are some games that do have some silly related features... Fable 3, a game in which there is little reason to try different attacks/spells, as just pressing the basic attack button is all you need (and you will gain the maximum rewards). FTL (a recent sim-esque game) features certain events that can gain you big rewards, or cost you a lot. But the risk is so high, that it sometimes can cripple your entire runthrough (which may take up to 30-40 minutes) and the rewards are usually quite meh. Rogue-games should be hard of course, but the rewards should match the risk.

    I hope this answers your question!