Ryan Shwayder of Nerfbat has an interesting note up on his blog that I've been meaning to comment on for the last few days about Risk vs Reward in MMO's. Basically, he says that in order for the reward to feel rewarding, it has to come with a significant risk of failure.
I want to point out that there are different types of 'fun', i.e. reward, that someone can have in a game. For now, let's talk about just the two examples implied as the reward in Ryan's post. I will define these as:
"Nintendo" fun - the player continually tries and tries to beat something and then feels a rush when they finally manage to do it
"Shiny" fun - the less gameplay-linked aspect of "achievement" fun. i.e., getting new shiny items/levels/powers. I like to also call this "loot whore" fun, mainly to annoy people that I consider to be "loot whores".
Now, some people prefer the 'loot whore' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too hard, because they are less likely to get their loot. Others prefer the 'Nintendo' form of fun. These people will be annoyed if an obstacle is too easy, because they like challenges. In reality, everybody falls in to both categories to varying degrees, and so will generally be pissed off in some way at some thing or another.
I think the standard MMO design tactic to circumvent this seeming paradox is to create the illusion of challenge. It's challenging to flip tails five times in a row on a coin toss, however there's precious little you can do to affect the outcome of the coin toss. Similarly it's challenging to beat a mob a few levels above you in WoW, but your actual actions in the game don't really matter much. I like to refer to this as 'faux gameplay'.
So, everyone feels challenged (but they actually aren't), and everyone gets loot. But, everyone is left feeling kind of a bit hollow (or maybe it's just me...)
Maybe a better way would be to actually divorce the 'Nintendo' aspect from the 'loot whore' aspect. Give players loot regardless of whether they succeed. Give the feedback for the 'Nintendo' typed players in the traditional form of high scores, ranking charts, harder difficulty levels, optional more challenging areas, etc.
Now, the reduced number of players QQ-ing on the forums may be offset slightly by the increased number QQ-ing about how all the 'n00bz' are getting the epic lewtz and how their e-peen is feeling dangerously under-nourished as a result. However, this is a small price to pay in my book, as this way we could have MMO's with actual gameplay that retain their addictive 'loot whore' nature.
In other words, we could have our cake and eat it too.