Risk in Games

Imagine that you are playing a game where you must defend your town against barbarians. They launch an attack from over the hill. You launch a counterattack up the hill. Your hundred man army is cut to pieces by a hail of arrows. So you build a new one. And do it again. And again. After a few rounds of this you eventually send a small group around the hill to finally force the invaders back.

This is basically the situation I stumbled into while testing my game. Right away at the start of a battle, things turned south. I bumbled into an enemy position and lost a valuable unit, but carried on. At least I knew where they were now. After a couple careful river crossings, I had positioned a group of soldiers behind the enemy force—or so I thought. It turned out to be more like the middle. So despite a few desperate attempts to salvage the situation, I ended up cutting my losses and fleeing.

It'll work this time guys.

When I exited the battle though, I found a bug. The save was corrupted. OK, I’ll straighten out the bug and replay the battle. This time I knew where the enemy was. And I executed a perfect attack. The enemy was encircled and I was able to completely destroy the enemy force. But it was a hollow victory. Despite a resounding win, I didn’t exactly feel like General Washington crossing the Delaware.

In order for a strategy game to be interesting, there must be consequences for your decisions. It must be possible to make a mistake that brings about your downfall. It might not be one mistake, but your actions must matter beyond the moment. This is the fundamental quality of strategy games. It is what differentiates them from action games. While strategy games encourage deep (or sometimes panicked) thought, action games rely on quick reflexes. A shooter where you never die is still pretty fun.

I got this.

After the failed attack, there was no consequence. Instead, I gained valuable information on the location of the enemy. So when I attacked the second time, I had the original force, as well as the critical intelligence needed to put that force to use. I won, but only with an unfair advantage.

Strategy games require investment. With investment, comes risk. Only when the player has dedicated time or energy on something is it interesting to lose it. If you spent the last hour building a perfect village, it hurts to see barbarians destroy it. So when you risk everything on a daring assault, the victory is that much sweeter. A game can perfectly simulate a terrifying thousand foot monster, but if the player isn’t afraid, the illusion is paper thin. If the player can simply revert to a save point ten seconds ago, what danger does the monster offer? I’m not saying games should be all-or-nothing, but they must involve both highs and lows to build emotional investment. That emotional investment creates its own goals as the player naturally defends what is his.

Good strategy games must also have a degree of freedom. Freedom means every play through of a game is different. Enemies that spawn in different places make it possible to replay a level without being totally bored, but the ability to approach a room from a different direction will fundamentally alter the dynamics of the fight. The ability to choose whether or not to fight at all adds a deeper dimension.

In our original example, the town will never be built the same way twice. One time it might be surrounded by stone walls, the next time nestled by a river protected by a natural moat. Each town is unique. Unique things are valuable. Especially if you made it yourself. Of course you want to defend it. And with value comes risk. With risk comes emotion. With emotion comes enjoyment.

The other side of the coin is that the game must still be forgiving enough to let you know that you made a mistake so you can learn from it. In other words, there must be risk, but it doesn’t have to be right away. And it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. If the player’s town is overrun and destroyed by a massive enemy horde five minutes into the game, they will be rightfully frustrated. The player needs to be able to test the waters. New players should be guided towards a useful strategy that they can use later in the game. This means small fights should usually precede big ones. If the small fight doesn’t go particularly well, the player has a chance to reconsider their strategy. The risk doesn’t go away, but now there is a chance of success for the novice.

The real problem with a barbarian horde destroying the town (as fast as a pre-programmed AI will allow) is that it robs the player of the ability to gather information. In order to advance to a more interesting level of play, the player must fully understand the rules of the game. Do units become tired after rushing across the map? Do wounded units fight as well as healthy ones? Can warriors climb over walls? Hopefully this information is communicated in more ways than trial and error, but most learning is done this way regardless. Strategy doesn’t mean much without this information.

So how do you teach the player how to play the game without taking the risk out of it? As I said before, one way is to have small fights precede big ones. In other words, fight the minions before the boss. Of course, tons of games use this system. It works. The player practices and gains experience before the most challenging parts.

This can be a little repetitive though. Maybe there are other ways to do it. After all, the more you try to guide the player, the more restrictive the game becomes. If, on the other hand, you allow the player to make meaningful choices, you can still punish the bad ones. An ill-advised attack can be allowed, while still leaving the player with a badly depleted force. There is a consequence, as long as the player isn’t given the opportunity to just replace the army right away. Now the player has paid a fair price for the information gained. If they attack again, they will still have to triumph with a smaller force than they had the first time. It would still be a victory worthy of celebration.

Good strategy games use clear rules together with a healthy amount of risk. Complicated rules turn into a drab game of spreadsheets, and games without risk turn into action games. Full of explosions but devoid of content. Finding the right balance is the key to an engaging gaming experience.

This will still always be fun.

Matt Ferri 22July2020