Massively Overthinking: Death and dying in MMORPGs

In March of last year, MOP's Justin wrote a detailed guide to the most common death penalties in MMORPGs. Last September, Gamasutra pulled seven game developers together to discuss the most effective gaming "fail states," several of which involve death. Both articles came rushing back to me this week when Crowfall revisited the subject of its own death penalty, which involves a brief ghost period and a fast-track trip to the temple for resurrection.

This week, I've asked the MOP writers to consider MMOs and non-MMOs and propose their own favorite death penalty. Is it an old one, a new one, or one no one's done at all? What's the best way to implement death in a modern MMORPG?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Since I've been back in both Asheron's Call 1&2, I'm dealing with two kinds of extremes. AC1 is pretty punishing; AC2 is... not so much. However, I was also playing some of LISA, the Painful RPG. Not so much painful because "OMG THAT'S HARD" (it's had some of those moments), but painful because OMG, I lost and the bad guys just killed a town full of NPC, or perma-killed one of my guys.

Personally, I'm liking what I'm hearing about Crowfall's death system. Project Gorgon has an interesting "fail" mechanic with its curses, and I'll probably have to try it out at some point (Sorry I'm so slow, Citan and Srand!), but that's not exactly death so I'm stopping at that. For death, however, I like there being a sort of "between" state, such as in Guild Wars 2, where you can come back or get rezzed. I think for our genre, we do need item loss, as it helps ensure we're reaching out for help (but we also need flatter games so helping someone doesn't feel like a handicap). And yes, some kind of permadeath helps us better analyze death and decide why we're risking our lives. Losing all stats isn't fun, nor all our items, but Crowfall's idea of switching bodies that can become more and more customizable is a really cool idea that could make it work.

...that, or give us more of an RPG where we get NPC families that can be born, live, die, and be replaced. Maybe even let them betray us if we push them too hard. Being literally stabbed in the back by our NPC "brother" could be a memorable experience, and getting friends to help us in an NPC family feud would be memorable for them too!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think the answer to this is going to depend a lot on the point of the game and the reason the person doing the answering is playing games to begin with. Speaking purely hypothetically, I'm not a fan of "penalties" in video games at all. By that I mean, I like to play MMORPGs as open-world toys, and I like games that push creativity and risk-taking and exploration, so I prefer carrots and honey to sticks and vinegar. I would usually rather see developers design with incentives in mind rather than punitive measures for playing wrong or playing badly (or for not buying enough on the cash shop, ahem). I think this is part of why I keep butting heads with roguelikes. I keep buying them because I keep falling in love with how they look and feel, but then I play them and realize that their game design is intentionally sadistic -- it's literally about screwing with the player, and if you're not a masochist, it's not going to resonate with you. Which is why all the truly penalizing roguelikes on the market are teeny-tiny indie ventures and people mod them to be playable when they can.

Death penalties fall under this same banner, and I bring this all up because it seems to me that every time we have a discussion about MMO death penalties, it devolves into commenters and writers steepling their fingers and cackling madly about the best way to stick it to the bads who have the badness to die in a video game -- we gotta really teach 'em a lesson, see, because back in my day, when we got ganked, we lost all our gear and had to spend 40 minutes trying to get back to our bodies, and so on and so on. That is so the wrong approach. Crap like that kept the MMORPG genre small and obscure, and it doesn't really contribute meaningfully to play. Penalize play too hard and you create easy points of exit for your players. Ain't nobody got time for wasting time. We see through those tricks now. Devs have to be so much more creative and subtle than that.

If I have to choose from what we have, and I do because I posed us the damn question, I would salute games that offset the immediacy of time-based death penalties. Lots of games use economic penalties (which are really just time penalties, just that you choose the time when you earn the money to pay off your gear debts), and the ones that do so in conjunction with other penalties (running back from the cloner/spirit/shrine/etc. -- World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies) seem most popular -- for good reason. Personally, though, I prefer the final incarnation of City of Heroes's vitae penalty, which essentially allowed players to use rested experience as a buffer against death. The penalty was present, but removing it just required playing more of what you were already playing, not something deeply intrusive or spiteful.

I'd also like to salute MMOs that are truly trying new things, like Chronicles of Elyria, which is taking a page from the old Ultima X: Odyssey by creating families and generations of characters as they age and pass on. I don't know whether it's going to catch on, but at least they're trying something new. And finally, a shoutout to Glitch, in which death meant a literal trip to hell until the next game day, which happened often, as I recall, if you were big into making cheese.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): Y'know, I'm going to be honest and say that my favorite death penalty that I've seen in actual play is still from City of Heroes. Debt was a really nice, light, transparent system that never really stopped you from progress, but it did slow you down a bit if you got in several deaths in short order. You were afraid to die, but you were never so afraid that you felt the need to minimize any and all risk, especially since wake-up calls were so readily available via the Inspiration system. (I sometimes wonder if the system would work as well without Inspirations, really).

How you implement death really depends a lot on how you want the game to play; if every death warps you back to a specific point, exploring becomes more and more dangerous, while resurrecting at that point tends to mean that it's more inconvenient than anything. I am fond of deaths that do kick you back to a certain point and offer you a small penalty without forcing you to lose too much, though; while that can leave you in a bad position, it doesn't make you feel as if you're likely to lose a great deal of time for it. I also think that Crowfall's death-and-return situation works well for a game when a death may mean that you want to use a different tactic, possibly sporting a new class the next time you venture out into the field. I also rather like how Final Fantasy XIV makes it reasonably easy for healers to pick people up who die mid-fight, but with the caveat that they're not going to hit as hard or be as durable for a while.

If there's one thing I want for the future, though, it's that I'd like to see more player control over death - not just in penalties, but when you know it's coming. If you have no doubt in your mind that you're going to die, why not give you the option to go out in a blaze of glory? There's a Shadow Priest talent in World of Warcraft that allows you to massively increase your damage until a gauge runs down, at which point you die immediately; that sort of thing could be really fun to play with for last-ditch scenarios in all sorts of content.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I don't think I've ever encountered a death penalty that made me sit up and go, "Wow! This is fantastic!" It's mostly just a question of which bugs me the least, which is most modern MMOs with short corpse runs and a token repair bill.

Actually, I will pull up one example, and that's RIFT. Every hour or so, you get a free "soul walk" upon dying. This lets you reposition yourself for about 10 seconds as a ghost before coming back to life in the same area. It saves you a corpse run and it's a nice way to try again really quickly without having the enemy camp your face. Sure, the game tries to sell you more soul walks past that hourly freebie, but I rarely need it.

Making lists and so forth.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Death is going to happen in MMOs, and I personally still want there to be penalties so that there is meaning to trying to solve and do things instead of just throwing your body at something over and over and over. Take for example being unable to continue with your group in dungeon boss fights in The Secret World; if you do something stupid or foolhardy and go down, your team is down a man for the remainder of the fight. This makes me think, strategize, and play more carefully to try and avoid this. That said, I feel different mechanics work better in different games. For instance, a building game would work to have a more lenient death mechanic like a time out or exhaustion where you can't do anything a while, whereas a survival game needs something with more bite to make surviving something you desperately want to do, such as skill, item, or XP loss. As for favorite death mechanics, I have two thoughts.

One, I love, love, LOVE the way The Secret World took the death mechanic and made it an actual part of gameplay! Death becomes not just more bearable but even enjoyable and rewarding as you get to explore a completely different dimension of the world that doesn't exist when you are alive. Additionally, sometimes you have to be dead in order to continue on your adventure. Even if you were disgruntled by dying, you had the chance to discover something pretty cool in the dead state, so there was a definite positive attached. I think having gameplay connected to being dead is awesome, especially a different world to explore and discover things in. Going further, having this whole other world but having a timer where you only have so long to explore and find things before you have to return to the world of the living would be awesome! Maybe you'd even find info that could help you in the living realm, such as clues or lore.

My second thought is about lineages. As I mentioned, I still want death to have a serious sting so it is something I carefully avoid but not enough of one where I'd just leave the game on first death. Permadeath -- where I'd lose everything I ever built, owned, accumulated -- is just too much for me. I am attached to may pixel things -- especially houses! But I could really get behind a permadeath where your property and even a percentage of your belongings can be bequeathed to an heir. You can then make a new character (or perhaps you had to premake a set of five heirs or something) who then has this property, and maybe some of the gear and materials you'd accumulated. Perhaps you can't use it all really until you get to a sufficient level, or you have to earn enough funds to pay off inheritance taxes to unlock it. This still gives death a significant sting, but then you don't have to lose everything.

Your turn!

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