Wolfshead recently published a thoughtful and extensive essay about risk, skill, and related topics in game design. Here’s an excerpt:
For risk to be leveraged effectively as an element of game design, there has to be some way for the player to mitigate that risk or risk becomes an arbitrary punishment. The way to do this is to ensure that your game requires skill on the part of your players. Without the requirement for skill all you have left is a game of chance where luck or a random number generator determines the outcome — not the abilities and choices of the player.
The art of game design is knowing how to calibrate the perfect balance between risk and reward to create adequate challenges that entice players to improve their skills.
— Wolfshead @ Wolfshead Online
Brian Green adds this insightful comment:
I think [catLink slug=’bartle-richard’ text=”Richard Bartle”] said it best in that this issue is like the eternal struggle to get children to eat vegetables instead of candy. There are things that are good in the short term (candy, easy gameplay) and things that are good in the long term (vegetables, a sense of wonder). As adults, we understand that it’s important to eat vegetables to maintain our health, but kids would eat candy until it nearly killed them if they could.
The struggle is to convince players that they should seek out things that are good in the long term. However, this is about as easy as convincing kids that eating vegetables is the best option. The worst option, as Bartle quipped, is to try to serve candy-coated vegetables.
Consider children playing peek-a-boo: we want to be scared (but not too scared!), and then reassured that everything is okay.