Video games will kill your characters. It’s inevitable. I still faintly remember my younger brother’s first video game death, when he ran full-tilt into the first goomba you see in the original Super Mario Bros. That may have also been my first video game death; I can’t recall. But you will die, and in single-player games enough deaths mean that it’s game over (or, in more modern games, just reloading right from your save file).
MMOs generally avoid that option because it’s very difficult to convince someone to pay a monthly subscription for a game in which you are already and forever dead. As such, we’ve gotten a few different variants on penalties for death over the years. So let’s start in on a big book of death, looking at the most common ways MMOs punish you for letting your health bottom out.
1. Free loot!
This is the old-school Ultima Online approach, and honestly, it makes perfect sense and was a reasonable prospect. Dying means you’re turned into a ghost, and you have to recover your body; until then, anyone can walk up and take your stuff because you aren’t there to stop them. And if you died because someone killed you, possibly in order to take your stuff… well, then, your life is pretty miserable right now, isn’t it?
Of course, this approach does has an obvious downside, which is its fundamental cruelty. You die trying to save someone from an enemy that was too powerful, and then someone wanders by, takes all of your stuff and takes off without so much as a by-your-leave. That having been said, fans of full-loot PvP systems still like this one, specifically because it goes nicely with constant open PvP whether you want to be in that state or not.
2. Experience loss
EverQuest was definitely the most iconic game to use this particular system, and it stuck around for quite a while. The idea here is that death doesn’t remove your stuff, which is often hard to acquire; instead, it reduces your experience. This isn’t actually original to MMOs, either, as certain Dungeons & Dragons spells have variably reduced your experience level when they bring you back from the dead.
On the bright side, this both gives a use for experience no matter what (more experience is a buffer when you die) and avoids you losing the stuff you worked hard to acquire. On the down side, it’s not a great feeling to die and then watch yourself lose a level, and it’s the sort of thing that can make you highly risk-averse because it took you long enough to get level 38 and you’re not losing it.
3. Progress slowing
I’ve always been surprised more games didn’t pinch Debt from City of Heroes. The core conceit was already great; instead of taking experience away from you, you just earned less experience for a while. Since Debt had a hard limit (and was eventually cancelled out by patrol experience), it was a nice way of making sure that you felt the sting of death without losing anything from it.
Of course, it also had some wonky interactions at the top level, and it did sometimes create the odd state in which you actually were better served by logging off for a while than pushing through to level more. But it was a neat idea.
4. Durability loss
This was the main penalty from launch in World of Warcraft and has subsequently become common in a lot of games. Your gear has a certain durability score, and it wears down from use normally or wears down a lot when you die. Thus, death has a financial cost to it without impacting your overall progression.
This one has a different problem, though; you aren’t losing any progress, but depending on repair costs and the flow of money, it can also be pretty impactless in terms of money lost as well. Most games don’t use durability loss alone as a penalty for this reason, including WoW; it might be the main penalty, but it’s not the only one.
5. Running back
There are two forms of “running back” that are relevant. The first one, which came about back with UO and is still in use in WoW, is that death puts you into a ghost or spirit state. You have to get back to your corpse to keep playing. It’s a fairly minor chore most of the time and isn’t too much of a penalty; mostly it means that death can’t be immediately reversed
However, in Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI, running back is more relevant. Both games leave you knocked back to your home point, which could be several maps away from where you died. Depending on where you were when you died, getting back to your location could be exceedingly difficult, which means that you’re reluctant to die just to avoid having to trek back to your old location.
Of course, sometimes it’s also nearly impossible to get back to your corpse in WoW because you can’t fly while dead and the map designers were apparently drunk when they made this particular map, but that’s an accidental penalty.
6. Lowered stats
In many games you can get a form of raise sickness, but some games like Guild Wars and higher difficulties in Star Trek Online use lowered stats themselves as the penalty. Usually you can either earn off the penalty or use items to remove them, so it’s never crippling.
7. Lost rewards or items
Your ship isn’t exactly looted when it gets blown up in EVE Online. It’s been blown up. It’s gone. You’ve lost the whole ship, which can mean a pretty huge financial penalty and sometimes even represents an asset which cannot be recovered. This puts a spin on the idea of full-loot PvP because your killer won’t get much if anything from you. It’s damage to what you have.
Some games also use lost rewards as a secondary penalty for death; dying in WildStar dungeons, for example, would lower your rating and thus mean you got less for clearing the dungeon. Of course, that would require someone to actually do dungeons in WildStar in the first place, but that’s a different problem and not germane to this discussion.
8. Content failure
This one also tends to be a secondary penalty, but it can be enough in the right circumstances. Die in the middle of a mission? Then you fail that mission. Die on a higher floor of Heaven-on-High in FFXIV because your healer chooses to just stop healing you and then blames it on someone else? You’re done (and you are probably looking for a different healer). There are no second chances here.
This one is secondary just because, as mentioned in the into, it does have the potential to lock you out of the game. But then, it’s also a more specialized form of the next entry…
Yes, it does exist, although games that have it rarely seem to do all that well. Salem and Wizardry Online are the two immediate examples, and neither one of them really lit the world on fire for a variety of reasons. Death means, well, death. Your character is gone, make a new one, sorry for your loss.
Honestly, there’s a definite bright side here because it provides both an ending for your personal story in the game and a chance to do something new. But it also means… well, a bad spot of lag will end your career in the game. That’s a bit harsh. It’s telling that while I can definitely see the argument for it existing, I’d never play a game which made it a major focus.
10. Absolutely nothing whatsoever
Ah, the Star Trek Online death penalty at launch. The actual reason for it is essentially that a death penalty hadn’t been fully coded when the game launched due to the speed of its development, but I think there was always a certain charm to death not meaning much. You were expected to not just engage in suicide rushes based on the fact that it wasn’t very lore-friendly.
It worked out all right.