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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.