Massively OP’s guide to MMORPG death penalties

In real life, when you die the penalty is… death. You just get that one go at things. But in MMOs, player characters are imbued with immortality, able to come back time and again from mortal peril. From a player perspective, this is great, since it allows a chance for persistent development and encourages the exploration of the world without dire fear.

But a little fear is perhaps appropriate, to keep the stakes high during adventuring and combat and increase fun by introducing some risk. After all, if you can just pop right back into being without any punishment, then death means absolutely nothing and a sense of accomplishment is lessened. Creating the right type of death penalty for an MMO is a tightrope that devs must walk. Make it too lenient or too harsh, and a game could suffer for it. If you ask the community, players are often split on whether or not MMOs should have strong death penalties.

Today we’re going to cover the major types of death penalties that MMOs have implemented over the years. As with many things MMO, there used to be a lot more experimentation in this regard, but it’s still a relevant topic considering the crop of up-and-coming games in this field.

Permadeath

Let’s start with the topic about which everyone loves to opine: permadeath. With this death penalty, if a character dies in the course of a game, that character is automatically retired or deleted from the server. One life, one death — that’s it. For obvious reasons (including the chance of dying because of server hiccups or bugs and not the player’s fault), permadeath has very rarely been wielded as an MMO death penalty, even though it gets lots of discussion.

One of the most famous examples of permadeath was in Star Wars Galaxies. Before the NGE, players who attained Jedi status could be killed forever (and turned into a playable blue glowie ghost) as a way to balance out their newfound power. It was a notion that was more interesting in theory than practice, as no player would want so many hours of hard work to go down the drain.

XP or skill loss

This is another classic old-school death penalty that sort of made a twisted sense. After all, you gained XP while you lived, so why not lose some when you died? Unfortunately, this was a pretty harsh penalty, especially in games that took just shy of forever to dole out new levels. And with the game able to deduct XP from a character, there was always the possibility of de-leveling: being knocked back to a previous level. It’s something that’s almost unthinkable as a consequence today.

EverQuest hewed to this design philosophy, although it softened the blow by allowing players to recoup some of that lost XP if the player was resurrected by another instead of releasing.

XP debt

This method was a slight improvement on XP loss as a penalty. Instead of taking away earned XP, games with this system would “fine” a player with a certain amount of XP debt that had to be worked off before XP flow continued as normal. This could be just a fraction of XP earned (think of it as the IRS garnishing a wage) or even freezing XP progress entirely until the debt is repayed.

Initially, City of Heroes used this as a death penalty. What was particularly horrible about it was when a player would die multiple times in a row — perhaps due to a faulty group — and would see the XP debt grow and grow. There was nothing quite as sickening as looking at an entire level’s worth of XP debt and knowing that your next few days or weeks were going to suuuuck.

Corpse runs and full-body looting

Oh yes, the infamous corpse run. This isn’t referring to more modern approaches, where a player has the choice to casually jog back to his or her body and resurrect on that spot. This points back to games where, if you didn’t race back to your corpse or have someone resurrect it in time, the items you were wearing were forfeit.

PvP-centric MMOs could add another twist to this penalty by allowing other players to take some or all of your gear and inventory if they stumbled upon (or caused) your corpse. Corpse looting is still widely implemented in PvP sandboxes, such as in Darkfall.

Vehicle, possession, or structure loss

In games such as EVE Online where players own and operate multiple vehicles, stations, and buildings, the threat of allowing any of those to be destroyed for good is a powerful incentive to be cautious and protect them. If these items can be attached to real-world dollars, then the loss could extend into one’s wallet, making it that much more painful.

Debuffs

Eating dirt, even as an immortal character, has to have some sort of psychological and physical impact, especially when done repeatedly. Some game designers have tried to mimic the feel of a character taking staggering steps back to full functionality by applying resurrection sickness or debuffs that would make that character less effective for a time. Guild Wars would stack a debuff on a death in a zone or mission until the player gave up on the quest or won.

Repair and run

“Repair and run” is my informal term for what we see in most recent PvE games. It’s a rather lenient death penalty that only incurs a small time loss (as a player has to run back or resurrect at a home point) and some fees for damaged armor. Usually dying during a boss fight in a dungeon might be treated as a little more severe, keeping the player out of the rest of the fight unless he or she is resurrected by a healer.

Item decay

I wanted to give this its own section because item decay can be a little different from merely bringing a damaged piece of gear up to 100%. Some MMOs will continually damage gear as a player fights, increasing that damage for a death, with the goal of forcing the player to eventually give up that item when it is fully broken.

Time out

Another variation on using time as a punishment is to put the player in a penalty box (for example, 40 more seconds until you can rejoin the game) or to send the player to a special area that he or she will have to navigate and/or fight through in order to return to the rest of the game world.

Creative punishments

Once in a while you see MMOs that have some fun with the notion of death penalties. Project Gorgon, for example, will place various amusing and long-lasting curses on players who fall in a battle against bosses and will keep those penalties in place until (or unless) the player can defeat that boss.

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60 Comments on "Massively OP’s guide to MMORPG death penalties"

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deekay_zero
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deekay_zero

lineage 2 used to have a mix of exp loss (with different rates depending on if in siege/clan war pvp or outside of those situations) and ways to recoup that lost as resurrection (exp rez scrolls, certain buffer/healer classes that could rez you nearly recovering teh loss fully), and low cahnce item drop (on to the ground where anyone could pick it up) in pve death and a lot higher chance in pvp only when you were red with over 5 pks on your counter, but with a method for burning exp into a useless pet to remove a small number of pk’s from your counter.

most folks tended to return the items that dropped unless you were an ass/they didn’t like you much. 

while we often used promises of exp rezzes to extract extra pain on people we had persoanl grudges against, which often made up motivations for pvp (outside of sieges adn some funsies clan wars).

my clan/alliance was big into sieges and we started getting into the habit of treating at least part of our routine exp/gold farming as simply to pad expected losses during sieges. tho by the time our run was over we were getting exceptionally good at dying very little during sieges.

4% exp loss seemed super low early on in the game, which influenced my startinggroups’ job change choices, but we soon learned how devasting just 4% lost could be. eventually everyone in my crew tended to have a mix of %rezzers on theri contact lists and suupply of %rez scrolls for any deaths that would typically occur.

deekay_zero
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deekay_zero

Casszune mabinogi i think had? has? a system where your character ages and eventually dies and you start over to some degree.

i always thought that was neat even tho i can barely remember my short trial of the game and always get it confused with maple story. XD

schmidtcapela
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schmidtcapela

Robert80 Line with more hugs Ket_Viliano Ironwu 
Nowadays, permadeath, FFA full loot, and open world FFA PvP, as well as gear decay and item destruction if they can be triggered by PvP, do tend to attract, besides the “nice” PvPers, also gankers. So, even if the devs never intended the game to be a gankbox, it tends to become one (or, at least, more of a gankbox than most players can tolerate).

A pity for those that aren’t gankers and do like games with those features.

ashfyn
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ashfyn

TheDonDude Agree, the repair penalty for death in some games is quite severe.  Back in the day, doing the Watcher in LOTRO, it was not uncommon for people to ask for money to foot the repair bill.  Tanks especially with heavy armor had massive repair bills.  On looting the boss chest, we’d usually pass on what we didn’t need so our tank could scoop up the remaining items to help defray his repair bill.

Robert80
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Robert80

Siphaed Samizdat  My question here is, how many games without permadeath in the MMO genre actually grow after their release period?
Given that, and the incredibly low number of MMOs with permadeath ever, we really don’t have much to go on.  It’s statistically such a low number of MMOs that the sample is small enough it could fit within the portion of all MMOs in that boat several times over.
It certainly isn’t popular with some people.  Others, however, consider an account based advancement system with permadeath intriguing.  The main point being, however, that we really don’t have enough history there to make a solid judgment on this.

Robert80
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Robert80

Line with more hugs Ket_Viliano Ironwu  Those features do not a gankbox make.  Those features with nothing new done to limit ganking make a gankbox.
If you can only think about gankboxes when seeing those features given all the upcoming games working specifically to avoid being gankboxes while having some of those features, that’s pretty sad too.

Robert80
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Robert80

Ironwu  That… ignores when games have those but change the formula.  As Line with more hugs noted, not having these features does not make every game into WoW.  Having one or more of them does not make a new game the same as an existing game with them.
The beautiful thing about innovation is that sometimes you do something that creates an amazing product out of something that otherwise was not popular.  The cool thing about many of the newer sandbox games is that they realize some of the flaws with how these systems have been done, and so are trying something different with them.
But by all means, keep making statements that are logically flawed.  Because the games doing something different must elicit the same response.
*Now, I agree with you if and only if these aspects of a game are the carbon copy of previous games using them.  That has, will, and undisputedly creates the result you mentioned.  However, when somebody changes the formula while having one or more of these, then that agreement no longer applies.*

Casszune
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Casszune

Perma death has always seemed interesting but I’ve never played an mmo that used it. The only one i can even think of, strangely, is Dofus. It has a “Heroic” server where death is permanent and there’s even a “cemetery” dedicated to the strongest people to have lived. Maybe I’ll try it someday.
http://www.dofus.com/en/mmorpg/heroic-server/cemetery-of-heroes

ManastuUtakata
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ManastuUtakata

TheDonDude 
So in the end it all balances out, making this debate down to personal preferences. Therefore, while some will gravitate to games with more sadomasochistic death penalty systems, in the hopes of maybe making that PuG.raids somehow more a pleasant experience. Others such as myself, will gravitate towards games with less harsh DP’s, because ..hey, we think PuG’s/raids are painful enough without the system’s cat of nine tails flogging us for our missteps in the end. :)

Samizdat
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Samizdat

Siphaed Samizdat “Also, MOP is a blog and not a ‘news site’.”

Believe me, I’m more than aware. It would be nice, however, if the articles could be more aware of their own editorializing sometimes. Ultimately, there’s an opportunity for any game feature to thrive in the right kind of game. Realm of the Mad God features permadeath in an MMORPG setting, and has a healthy and stable, if small, population for a game that’s now a few years old. It’s pretty fun, actually.

Catering every game to just the prevailing opinion (if that even is the case — you’re making a claim with no support here) ignores viable market niches for smaller and more focused games. You can swat away examples of these sorts of death penalties working in games if you’d like, but I’d rather have more variety in the genre than a tyrrany of the majority. I think it’s pretty close-minded to call any feature “horrible” when a game could come around that manages to pull it off and make it fun.