Some of the things I have learned over the six and a half years I have worked on an MMO is many lessons on “rewards”. What makes a good reward, and how do you decide how to hand out rewards? Should risk be the deciding factor on how good of a reward is handed out? What if risk can somehow be mitigated? Does that make the reward no longer applicable and should be changed?
Rewards in an MMO are a different beast than those of a Single Player game. MMO’s are persistent and massive. Earning the Cain heavy weapon in Mass Effect 2 is an accomplishment that nearly every Shepard will do in the course of a playthrough. If ME2 was an MMO, it would be crazy to have all your max level characters wielding the same overpowered item. A “game breaking” item in an SP game can, and often does, exist. Putting such an item into an MMO would be a huge mistake, no matter how hard you made it to attain.
You see, one thing I have taken away during my time is that risk in an MMO is nearly meaningless. This isn’t to say there is not “hard” encounters that should have better rewards, but you need to be very careful how you dole them out, and what those rewards are. MMOs have more moving parts than any other type of game on the market, plus the designers are up against the Collective. Who is the Collective? That’s the players. All of them. Including people who are smarter than the best designer. Way smarter. And how do you design a risk vs. reward mechanism for something that may have an “easy solution” that is an obscure combination of abilities that you never thought of?
You can’t. Or at the very least, you shouldn’t. Eventually the hardest content you create is broken down by the Collective into a pattern and routine that can easily be explained in a 10 minute YouTube video. Sure, you as the player might get a huge rush in defeating some bad-ass boss monster that first time, but eventually you and your buddies will be able to defeat that same insurmountable foe at will.
But there is one thing that MMOs do have going for them, and that is time. Yeah, that’s right, things in an MMO take time. It takes time to level, time to complete a mission, time to travel, time to craft, time throw stuff up on the Auction House, and time to mail stuff to alts, and time to use the bank. Time, time, time. You the player have probably heard the term “Time Sink” by now. While a good design doesn’t go out of it’s way to make time sinks for time sink-sake, it does factor in how long something is expected to take.
And once you have that expected time, you have have something more consistent to reward against than risk. Sure there may be time-cheats that shorten expected times, but many times MMOs put a lockout on the best rewards so even then the reward is tied to time. WoW’s top-end crafting is famous for its day-long cooldowns on creating vital materials. This is because without it, the Collective would devalue all that top-end crafted gear within days of it going into the game, and that’s not good for keeping people interested in your game.
So yes, your hard encounters can and probably should offer better rewards, but they should also take longer than any easier encounter. Also, make sure you are rewarding your players for their time investment. If you have a mission that has a character doing FedEx quest after FedEx quest in the mission chain, eating up time they could be out killing stuff for XP, make sure that they are rewarded accordingly.
Also, don’t be a fool to assume that the Collective won’t figure out a way to break the Time vs. Reward formula. Just make sure you have safeguards in place ahead of time.