Perfect Ten: The big book of MMORPG death mechanics

    
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We're not counting your game dying as death here.

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.

There are lots of different defintions of penalty.

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.

Sorry, guys, raid is over, my gear is broken.

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.

The joke here is that the dungeons for this game were miserable slogs.

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…

I don't know what's going on in this picture and I honestly don't wish to.

9. Permadeath

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.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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Bango on Laurelin

Dread in the old Lotro was my favourite.

JonBuck
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JonBuck

Ah, EverQuest. The un-Ding was the worst. Corpse runs were also the worst. The WORST.

quark1020
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quark1020

I think my very first game death was in Pacman, when a ghost came and bad-touched me :(

As for penalties, I think I’ve experienced all of the above though not all of them in MMOs; and that may be for the best. I already swear up a storm when a Skaven NPC comes and loots one of my guys or girls in Mordheim. I couldn’t deal with that if another player does it.

And that’s probably the only one I would keep away from on principal alone. I’ve always said permadeath can make a game that much more meaningful…the issue is the game has to be balanced around it. One can’t just make a WoW clone, slap on permadeath, and expect it to work. Things like gear power, rarity, and endgame goal has to be designed around the fact that a player’s game can abruptly end at any time.

In the end, the only place I’ve seen permadeath work well in any capacity has been in text-based browser rpg’s of the late 90’s.

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Utakata

One thing is rarely considered in death punishments is that often it’s not the fault of the player that their character died. If your character was in a RPG vacuum, sure make death more meaningful. But when one plays in a MMO, the character is rarely in such vacuum. So why do I have to pay the repair bil or re-roll my character when it’ was someone else’s fault, for example?

Plus I’ve also personally taken the view of having to do it again as enough incentive to make death meaningful to me without the mechanics going all a**hole about it. Just saying.

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Brown Jenkin

Whats interesting to me is just how fundamentally these penalties are also tied to the other systems. For instance full loot on death sounds horrifying to many contemporary MMO players, because since WoW progress is all about gear and vertical progression. In most of the PvP focused games that use this approach however gear is still important, just not necessarily the defining feature of your character. This seems like a minor thing, but it is kind of a fundamental difference in how to approach the genre.

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IronSalamander8 .

I’ve experienced most of these. Not the permadeath or the free loot ones thankfully but the rest yes. the EQ1 penalty of losing XP and also trying to get back to your corpse to get your stuff back was a huge part of my early MMO experience and was lucky my main, an SK, could summon corpses. I made a lot of new friends that had their bodies stuck in walls and would have me summon their corpses for them!

My main alt there was a cleric who had her click stick, so she was busy minimizing people’s xp loss!

I liked CoH’s system the most; it did penalize for failure but not so onerous that you lost a ton of time either. My main was an Invuln/SS Tanker so debt was rare for her unless fighting Malta (Sappers! You bastards!) or psionic enemies. I had friends who would ask to group up to help clear their debt though. Before they added a permission toggle I had a friend that was in a PuG that kept rezzing him so he capped his debt since back then you couldn’t say no to a rezz, and he asked me to help him get rid of it once I had logged on since I was good at not getting my group mates killed and eliminating debt!

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Raph Koster

Most of these were developed on MUDs, where there were a lot of factors that made them feel quite differently. See https://www.raphkoster.com/2008/11/17/why-are-corpse-runs-bad/ for a maybe relevant old article of mine.

It’s also worth thinking about the fact that in a gear-driven game, loss of gear is not very different from loss of XP or levels. Basically, if what defines your character’s power is what you lose, it’s more or less the same. How you get it back (playing to earn cash or playing to earn points) is a minor difference — it’s still a loss of power for the sin of having died, an advancement rewind.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Back in TorilMUD the punishment for getting caught dual-boxing (or a few other transgressions) was to either lose half your levels or all of your gear. When this was a topic of discussion during groups I think we all declared we would take the level loss as that was much easier to get back than gear you ran zones for months and months to get.

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Stormwaltz

Asheron’s Call 1 had a combination of 1, 3, and 6.

If you died, a random selection of your most monetarily-valuable, non-wielded items were left on your corpse (leading to the habit of carrying around low-mass, high-value, and undesirable “death items” as insurance). Those could be recovered by you if you returned to the corpse. They could also be looted by passers-by, though I think that later changed to a loot permission system?

You also rezzed with a “Vitae penalty” that lowered your stats by X%, and was bought off by a portion of your accrued XP. The penalty increased with subsequent death, capping at – IIRC – 40%. Death spirals were unfortunately common.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Loved the Vitae system in AC1. It was that looming “bonk on the head” that constantly whispered “play smarter”.

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Ironwu

Surprised you did not mention the EQ ‘Run Back’ death penalty. You die, your body drops, your gear (ALL your gear, money, etc) is on your dead body. You had to run back from your last home point, try to find your body, then loot it. The only stuff you could equip to do this is the stuff in your bank. There was also a timer on that body and it would decay away (taking all your stuff with it) after a set time, I think it was a real world week. Game did not care where you died either, getting back to your body was your problem. Friends COULD drag your body up out of a dungeon and it was quite common to see stacks of bodies outside the entrance (Mistmoor was infamous for this).

Good times. :)

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Yrys

EQ had (or also had?) a three hours online timer before your corpse would rot. It was common in more dangerous places to “consent” someone to drag your corpse, and then log out until the corpse was in a safer spot so your corpse timer didn’t go down.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Resident EVE purist response:

First, when your ship gets blown up in EVE Online, the hull is gone but there is an RNG for modules and cargo. Some of it will be gone, but rarely all of it. We call this “the loot fairy,” and the loot fairy is capricious, seeming to take great joy in destroying the good stuff and leaving behind crap.

Second, the one thing that most people don’t get about EVE Online is that ships are more like ammunition to be expended than your epic raid gear that you spend forever working to get. Very, very few items in EVE Online are irreplaceable, to the point of being probably an unmeasurably tiny fraction of what is undocked and in space. When you lose your ship you go to Jita and replace it. Everything is there, available for ISK. You just buy it, fit it, and undock again, as well equipped as before. And if you don’t have the ISK because the insurance payment for your loss wasn’t enough and you hadn’t been saving any reserves, then you go and make some more ISK.

That is a very hard concept to get your head around though coming from MMOs where gear is sacred and losing it makes you want to quit. It took me years to get used to the fact that losing ships is just normal, that it is what keeps the game going and the economy strong.

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Tobasco da Gama

From Bree’s descriptions of Star Wars Galaxies, it sounds like the player-gear relationship was pretty similar to EVE’s. I think that goes a long way to explaining why those two MMOs that keep coming up in regards to both crafting and player economies.

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Raph Koster

UO (which inspired both SWG and Eve) was very much a game where gear was disposable, replaceable, and often lost — even the awesome stuff.

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Schmidt.Capela

One of the reasons I only dabbled briefly with SWG before leaving for good is that there was both unavoidable gear decay (you could only repair it to a certain extent, after which the piece of gear would need to be replaced) and you weren’t guaranteed to find exact, identical replacements (as it would require more of the same finite resources to make identical copies, and said resources would eventually run out).

I can play a game with gear destruction, be it through decay or as a result of a death penalty. I can play a game where gear is unique, and finding identical pieces of gear isn’t guaranteed. But I’ll never be able to enjoy any game that combines both (unless I use mods or cheats to nullify one of those mechanics, as I did, for example, with Breath of the Wild).

Incidentally, I never could bring myself to keep playing any game where another player might be able to steal my gear, be it by looting my corpse or through literal theft; in the past, whenever I tried a game that allowed it, the first time it happened I immediately and permanently left the game, as I couldn’t bear to ever play it again. Which is why I never bothered playing UO; the moment I learned it would be possible to steal another player’s belongings all my interest in the game died, to such an extent that I even missed Trammel being added.

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Raph Koster

That’s too bad.

I don’t really understand why you feel that way though. What is so special about a particular +1 sword that not being able to get its exact duplicate is so important?

(Gear stealing I understands-lots of people feel this way. But I’ve never heard exactly what you described before).

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Schmidt.Capela

Well, in truth it isn’t that I need to be able to get an identical duplicate, but rather that I need to be able to get something that is at least as good as what I’m replacing in every single aspect in order to be able to enjoy the process. Or, in other words, something that at the very least will allow me to keep doing everything I previously could, without hindering me in any way compared with the older gear. But if I’m always able to get something that is better in every single aspect it means the game has a nasty power creep issue, so I prefer to frame my requirement as identical replacements instead.

It’s not that I don’t change my build or my approach to the content, mind; I change all the time, to the point I often find it difficulty to fully enjoy MMOs that don’t provide me with unlimited, preferably free respecs. But I can only enjoy such changes if they were by my own choice; having those changes imposed on me — and in particular lasting changes, such as my previously favorite piece of gear breaking down and no identical replacement being available anymore — makes the whole thing frustrating instead.

I’m not sure if this is widespread or not, but, well, this is how my brain works. If I feel like I’ve been forced to take a certain approach or make a certain change I will resent it, even if when offered the choice I would have done it anyway.

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Raph Koster

Interesting. I tend to see shifting gear as very much like new zones, new monsters, or new tactics to learn — just another way to mix things up and vary the landscape. But I also know that I am myself reluctant to change tactics when playing (as are most people, I think) so I think I do understand where you’re coming from. Experientially, it’s very different to modify the “verbs” a player has available than it is to just modify the targets — swapping out someone’s hammer is more impactful than swapping out the sorts of nails getting pounded.

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Schmidt.Capela

At an intellectual level I can see that forcing players to change their gear is a tactic used by devs for mixing things up, preventing the gameplay from falling into routine or even a rut; it’s just that it can never work for me, given how much forced change frustrates me. Heck, I’m about as much of a fan of Zelda as one can be, having played and beaten every single game in the series (except for the CDi ones everyone wants to forget), and still being forced to swap broken gear in Breath of the Wild almost made me abandon the game.

If a dev wants to make me experiment and vary my playstyle (more than I already do by myself) the approach that works best is introducing tactical advantages for different pieces of gear and playstyles. Ironically, I see Breath of the Wild, with the cheat/mod that disables gear decay applied, as a prime example of how to do it well; every piece of gear is best used against certain kinds of enemies, so players have a natural incentive to switch the gear and associated playstyle, while the fact every piece of gear is still viable even against enemies they don’t have an advantage against means players don’t feel forced to change their gear if they don’t want to.

Or, going by your hammer analogy, instead of the devs trying to take the player’s hammer away, they provide players the rest of the toolbox, plus a bunch of challenges that aren’t nails. Some players will still try to hammer in screws, of course, but a lot of them are likely to switch to a screwdriver instead.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

I’m not sure that is an accurate characterization of SWG. Having been a crafter in a PA full of crafters if you lost an item for whatever reason you were able to find a replacement fairly easily. While it was easier if you were in a PA, you didn’t need to be and in fact only needed to write down the name and location of a vendor from which you bought a player made item you liked.

The first 30 minutes to an hour of my log in day was happily answering in game emails from satisfied customers that needed more of my product. I even made personal deliveries to folks out in the field that couldn’t make it to me or one of my vendors. 99% of the crafters in our PA would do the same.

The stealing thing, which I experienced in Ultima Online, is something I can do without, though. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is annoying and, lol, it’s a real why even to this day in a MMORPG I will not stand right next to another player. In fact it annoys me greatly when another player runs up and stops right on top of my avatar. Personal space, folks.

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Schmidt.Capela

AFAIK you could get similar gear fairly easily, but identical gear was only possible if the crafter making it still had access to the exact same materials with the exact same properties, due to materials having different semi-random properties that influenced the final result. Since materials would in time get rotated out, previously used materials eventually run out.

Or, in other words, what you are saying is true if the player accepts similar but not identical gear, but that isn’t enough for me; if the new gear I’m getting has any single stat worse than those of what I previously had, even if by only a little, it already frustrates me.

Vaeris
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Vaeris

Yes, it would be similar most likely if there was a significant period of time in between purchases dependent on materials, sub components, blueprints, etc. Knowing the system, though, I found most folks, if they really liked a given weapon or armor, bought 2 or 3 sets/copies of it at purchase.

I see why you might be frustrated if the stat was different by a point or 2, I just don’t think that difference made such a huge change in overall combat performance. On a spreadsheet, maybe. Not in actual play.