Risk and Reward

posted May 29, 2007

Tomorrow as I am flying across the country, I shall (at least for a bit) be playing Etrian Odyssey.

I find playing an old-school dungeon crawler at 34,000 feet amusingly ironic.

If you filed off the serial numbers and re-worked the graphics and (minimal) story a bit, you could call this the Bard's Tale IV. It's hard, it's tricky, and it Wants You To Die. It doesn't actually cheat, or at least I haven't seen it cheat so far. But be careful opening doors if you're not ready for what's on the other side.

What's almost as intriguing as the game is the reaction it has received online.

You can't have reward without risk. It's almost a law of economics, and it is incorporated into our psychology at a deep level. Witness gambling or extreme sports, and those are just two of the behaviors you might think of where almost the entire joy is in the taking of the risk itself.

(Warning, this rambles.)

Games of all kinds, not just video games, must also have a risk element. Multiplayer games naturally have a risk element in the form of "You might be beaten by your opponent". Single-player games are much more challenging to create because of the difficulty of incorporating this risk element; it's challenging to create a game where there is merely a risk of failure, and not a total certainty of failure or success. In both cases, a game can also contain smaller-grained risks than total winning or losing. For example, the most exciting ten seconds of Pac-Man are the ten seconds before you beat the high-score.

I enjoy the "story-telling+combat simulator" genre of games (which is more accurate than the traditional "RPG" designation); this is where Etrian Odyssey fits in. However, this genre has slowly but steadily gotten easier and easier, drawing ever more strongly on movie-like story telling at the expense of everything else. "Save points", places where you can save your progress and thus "bank" your progress up to that point, once rare, are now abundant. "Healing" is typically totally unrealistic in these games (across all genres), in that a person on the verge of death may be magically brought to full health in the smallest local timeslice (one round, 5 seconds, whatever); this has gone from rare to abundant. Many people have grown up playing nothing but games of this "difficulty".

(Storytelling+combat games have developed some very stereotypical game-theory patterns, and the way "Healing" is treated is one of the strangest, and yet most persistent across almost all entries in the genre. It's usually the one advantage you have over the computer opponents, who will outclass you in every other way but only rarely have the "healing" abilities that are the only thing keeping you alive. Many high-level battles thus devolve into a question of whether you brought enough healing along, and whether you can find enough time between healing your characters to actually hit the opponent. This is incredibly silly in all but the most abstract way. The silliest examples come from strategy games, where supposedly a unit with health 10 is 100% manned, where a unit with health 1 is 10% manned, yet, somehow, if you "heal" this unit, it will suddenly be 40% manned for no apparent reason. That's pretty incredible. The only exception for this I can think of is Wasteland, which IIRC had no healing except the passage of time, and first-aid for gravely wounded characters that patched up their grave wounds but did very little to make them combat-ready again.)

A few of these people who have played nothing but modern games have accidentally purchased Etrian Odyssey, and their reactions have been telling. There are a couple of events at the beginning of the game that are intended to demonstrate to the player that the game is serious and It Wants To Kill You (better you find out early), and the reactions have been split. Some players react with "Finally, risk! Awesome!" and some react with "What, risk? This sucks!" It's a love it or hate it thing.

My post last week about the pill that granted you the benefits of exercise without the work was intended as a bit of a poll to see if anybody would say no. I'm pretty sure that despite explicitly writing downsides out of the question entirely that there are many people would would still say no, perhaps believing that the effort is a critical part of the value of exercise, even if all other physical reasons were removed. Assuming that there are such people who might say no, my hypothesis is that people on each side of the question would have a hard time even imagining the opposition's viewpoint, let alone changing their mind. As one who would say yes, I'm only hypothesizing about why you'd say no, because even as I'm confident such people exist, I can't even imagine the frame of mind that would lead you to that conclusion.

Tying this all together, similarly, I can't even imagine the frame of mind that would want to play a game with no significant risk. There's a balance to be had, certainly, but no real risk? What fun is that?

As risk-takers go, I'm fairly sedate and conservative. But nevertheless, I would describe myself as a "risk taker"; I understand that there can be no reward without risk and I act on it. It doesn't mean I have to take the stupid risks, but always taking the short-term safest course of action often leads to a guaranteed-bad long-term outcome. (Depends on the domain, and exploring that would probably be a very long essay.) I hypothesize that the two reactions to risk in gaming, as embodied by the example in this post, is also something where it's almost impossible to even imagine yourself on the other side of the gulf.

Spiraling out just a bit further, in the back of my head I've found myself thinking about whether there are any general patterns in the unimaginable gulfs in opinions. A thorough exploration of such gulfs would probably go a long way towards explaining not politics in general, but why we get the meta-coalitions that we actually do. Why does pro-choice get lined up with union labor? Why does small-government end up with the pro-Iraq-war side? (Bearing in mind those are not absolutes or even strongly correlated on an individual level; this thought is about the coalitions more than individuals.)

It'd be an interesting project to try to work such things out but would require a ferocious amount of new research. Ah well. We can probably just skip to the chase and assume that people on the opposite side of the various gulfs are just stupid or something. Much easier.

Happy Memorial Day. Thanks to our troops. Have a nice week.


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