Implementing Risk/Reward Decisions In Games

My wife is a watercolor artist who sells her artwork at nearby art fairs several times a year, and I attend as her “roadie” to help set up and take down her booth.  She had signed up to participate in the Ventura “Champagne on Main” street fair last Saturday, but she was feeling tense about this one.  It wasn’t that she didn’t think it was a good venue for selling her art; it was the weather. According to the forecasts, the wind would be 23 miles per hour that day, and she was concerned that the wind would blow down her booth and destroy her framed art.  We eventually decided to take the risk, and while she was rewarded by selling some pieces in the morning, by the early afternoon the winds were so severe, we had to close down the booth early.  All in all, the risk did not pay off, but it did make for an exciting adventure.

So what does this have to do with games? Well, according to Civilization creator Sid Meier, a game is a set of interesting decisions. For a decision to be interesting, it must have the potential for both advantageous and disadvantage outcomes, depending upon which choice a player makes.

Of course, it is also essential that the choice does not have completely predictable consequence; otherwise, the choice would not be much of a choice. Either the risk or the reward (or both) must have some level of uncertainty, and finding the right balance between the two is an important task for the game designer.

There are several ways in which the game designer might introduce uncertainty to these outcomes:

  • Randomness: Adding an element of chance to either the advantageous or disadvantageous outcome is probably (pun intended) the most common way of creating risk and reward decisions.  The uncertainty of the result of a die roll or a shuffled deck is the basis of gambling and board games, but random number generation is also at the core of combat and encounter calculations in video games.
  • Imperfect Information: Not providing the player with enough information for making an informed decision is another way to introduce uncertainty. Imperfect information can be achieved in games through concealment, such as through card hands in a gambling game or a fog of war mechanism in a strategy game, or by misleading the player through purposeful red herrings.
  •  Other Players: It can be difficult to predict other player’s actions if their goals, strategies or tactics are hidden from us, or if the other players have incentives either way for cooperating with us or betraying us. One particularly tense scenario is a social dilemma here players have the avoidance of a shared penalty for cooperating, but an individual reward for betrayal.

There are many ways in which risk/rewards decisions can be implemented in games.  Typical implementations include risking the danger of an enemy or obstacle to reach a goal; risking limited resources to take an action that might not be successful in either achievement or effect; B risking an opportunity to make a choice that cannot be reversed.

Such trade-offs not only create a feeling of tension within a game, but also promote cognitive immersion as the player must calculate the odds of the advantageous and disadvantageous outcomes and do strategic planning to prepare for either result.

However, if the odds or success are too low or the penalties for failure too high, risk-reward decisions may wind up causing some players to abandon the game.  And so, creating risk-reward decisions becomes a metagame of risk-reward decisions for the game designer.



About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on April 10, 2017, in Game Design and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Jeffrey Kumley

    Hi David, I just wanted to let you know that I really liked your article. I was looking for a quick article to refresh my memory on risk/reward game theory and this was perfect! I especially liked your example and the mention of randomness, imperfect information, and multiplayer.

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