The Game Archaeologist: Ironman modes and elective permadeath

This took some work.

One facet of video games that’s been around almost since the very beginning is difficulty levels. This allowed the player to choose how hard or easy a game would be from the onset, influencing factors such as the number of enemies, hardiness of bad guys, fragility of the player character, and available loot (or lack of it). I used to love how some of those shareware titles from the 1990s would mock me for picking easy mode, sometimes portraying my character wearing a baby bonnet and sucking its thumb. Real gamers, the devs implied, go tough or go home.

With a few exceptions, MMOs operate on a fixed level of difficulty for all of their players. Instead of assigning blanket difficulty client-side, the game world portions difficulty into areas, usually according to level or activity. Some games have instances with adjustable difficulty levels, but past that what you get is also what I get.

This might be changing. A very fringe but dedicated group of players have championed such ideas as elective ironman and permadeath modes for their MMOs, and at least one studio is responding positively to that desire. Would you choose to make your MMO experience harder than everyone else in exchange for nothing more than a bigger challenge and a more “realistic” experience?

One strike and you’re out

Permadeath is a fun topic that we like to whip out at parties every once in a while. It gets people thinking and talking and debating, even though the general consensus is, “In my MMO? No thank you.” Wiping out the progress of dozens or even hundreds of /played hours due to an error, lag, or a situation out of the player’s control is almost agnonizing to consider. For the most part, MMOs play the long game and aren’t set up to encourage players to reroll constantly.

There have been a few exceptions over the years, of course. Star Wars Galaxies originally had a form of permadeath for player Jedi as a counterbalance to their power, although this was later dropped. EverQuest, too, briefly flirted with permadeath in a special ruleset on the Discord server back in 2003. Hellgate: London, Dofus, and the original design for Middle-earth Online all made use of permadeath as part of the game’s mechanics.

In most of these instances, the devs didn’t impose permadeath but included it as a side option. Forced-permadeath MMOs have proven to be quite unpopular (Wizardry Online, anyone?), but when it’s optional? Now we’re talking.

Elective permadeath

When I first heard about the rise of permadeath guilds in Dungeons and Dragons Online, I thought they were batty. I couldn’t imagine voluntarily wiping away all of my character’s progress just because I died once. But after some investigation into guilds such as Mortal Voyage, I began to understand the appeal and mentality.

The game wasn’t forcing them to play this way; it was done voluntarily on a group level that used the honor system. By accepting this self-imposed challenge, it completely changed how they saw the game, how they played the game, and how they felt about their progress. Threats felt real because they carried with them a potential consequence that went beyond a small armor repair fee. Players learned to appreciate the game over their characters and to adjust their playstyle to be more cautious while relying on the team to protect them instead of lone-wolfing it.

Since then I’ve witnessed a growing appreciation for self-imposed gameplay restrictions. These didn’t just start and end with permadeath (some, in fact, didn’t include that at all). There were people who refused to accept any form of outside assistance (even from other characters on the same account) or use any sorts of buffs and shortcuts.

I am ironman!

That’s one reason the word “ironman” has come into vogue in the gaming community. Not just limited to MMOs, ironman challenges see a player create his or her own high difficulty level and then stick to it, often writing or streaming about the experience along the way.

Ironman challenges can be a huge boon for older MMOs, since it offers a new twist on aging gameplay. In one of the industry’s elder games, RuneScape, the devs are actually built an ironman mode in response to the enthusiasm for such challenges in the community.

“If you’re a veteran player looking for the ultimate test of your RuneScape skill and knowledge, Ironman Mode is the only way to play,” the devs said. “With no trade, no multiplayer and no XP handouts, it’s about earning everything with blood, sweat and tears — through gathering and crafting, or prising it from the claws of Gielinor’s nastiest beasts. If that sounds like a breeze to you, consider Hardcore Ironman. That’s all the challenge of Ironman… with permanent death.”

Probably one of the best examples of an elective ironman mode is how the online browser RPG Kingdom of Loathing handles its ascension mechanic. Ascension is basically a “new game+” mode in which players start over but carry with them their old gear and money. However, during ascension players can choose to limit their next life in some pretty severe ways, such as denying themselves access to their old items or the use of food and drink. By doing this and succeeding at the next life, players will not only get bragging rights but a cool avatar icon, cross-class abilities, and special gear.

Carrying ironman and permadeath forward (and back)

I’m sure that such mechanics and difficulty levels will have an uphill battle to player acceptance, but perhaps we’re starting to see the first steps toward that acceptance already. My friends have raved about how XCOM’s ironman mode made those game’s characters seem intensely real, and several upcoming MMOs such as Star Citizen have publicly mused about a permadeath option.

And ironman and permadeath modes are even more likely when players are put in charge of private server rulesets. You’ll see these pop up especially in survival RPGs, where segments of the community enjoy the higher challenge of one-time death.

I think RuneScape is on the right track. Maybe permadeath isn’t everyone’s thing, but new challenges, new modes, and new difficulty levels (with appropriate rewards) can do a great service by injecting life into old games. Instead of fearing such mechanics, devs have the opportunity here to bring these MMOs back into the forefront and perhaps attract an entirely new crowd.

Would you play an ironman challenge in an older MMO? Have you already? Sound off in the comments!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.

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Link Elahrairah

I found the views expressed here for Wizardry Online to be inacurate, or just plain not factual.

Not a single person tried this game and went “oh man, this forced permadeath screwed me over”

The game wasnt popular due to soe just being the worst, bad/no advertisment.
Not to mention neglect to maintaining servers that could support the number of people that showed up for launch.

Jeromai _

Realm of the Mad God has permadeath. It works for that particular game because the game is designed around the mechanic. RotMG is basically a super accelerated MMO, dressed up in a bullet hell Flash game. Characters are created, leveled, hit an endgame of killing god monsters for better stats and “raiding” bosses with the entire map in the space of hours and days, not months and years.

Making a mistake and dying erases that one character, but not account progress. The inbuilt designed motivation is that of repeated playthroughs, because one wants to unlock new and different classes through cycling through various characters.

Permadeath can work, but you need games designed for and around it.

Same idea for hardcore leagues in Path of Exile. The intention is that a player cycles through characters, at least once per league anyway; the game is built to be played repeatedly and experienced differently per “remort,” to steal an old MUD term, or per character life.

I think one interesting thing that permadeath brings is the concept of an ending. Stories need beginnings, middles and ends. Cycling through characters with ends provide natural breakpoints before restarting a new cycle.

Too many MMOs, on the other hand, embrace the idea of an infinite continuing world with immortal characters, only to stretch into an endless interminable boring middle… till a player themselves tire and look up and find they have either drifted away without a satisfactory ending (or else declare their own ending in some fashion.) The world itself persists, and drifts on ever emptying, increasing abandoned, ending abruptly only when someone pulls the plug.

Jim Bergevin Jr

I think NeoWolf makes a great point. And really, where did this concept of permadeath and Ironmanism come from? I know a lot of people who harken back to to the good ole days of gaming when your character died, they … well died. Except for that handy dandy little feature called “reload from save game file” so permadeath didn’t really exist.

Now despite that, I have always played games with the goal of not letting my character die, ever. It still represented failing at a particular piece of content and have to reload dozens of times until I finally figured out how to get through a piece of content was really just frustrating and annoying at best. That trend followed as began playing MMOs, which of course lack that handy dandy save game feature. In fact the idea that dying doesn’t really matter was so strange to me at the time I was kind of puzzled that ArenaNet made a title that rewarded not dying until you reached max level (and then two higher levels of the title for reaching the equivalent of level 60 or so) in the original Guild Wars. I just thought not dying was just a normal way to play an RPG. But then they eventually changed how it could be acquired to simply not dying until you gathered a specific amount of experience. Didn’t matter how much you died before or after (though the original ignored deaths after as well), you just needed to stay alive pretty much long enough to farm a certain dungeon a few dozen times with an XP boosting scroll to get the title.

That kind of annoyed me enough to create a character specifically to play the game normally, and never be killed – ever. Even after obtaining the title. I wanted this character to be a true “Legendary Survivor.” So that’s what I did. Naturally I avoided things like the PvP arenas, where death would be inevitable, but the goal was to play through the storyline of each of the three campaigns (including side quests) and never die. I was successful in that venture, and obtained the top tier of the title while playing through the last mission of the original campaign with the character. Then, whilst I had the character run ahead a bit during the final boss battle to explore a part of the map for another title, the character was killed. Now of course, I already had the title so death no longer mattered. But it ended up bothering me enough to simply delete that character and start the process over again. This is probably the only time I ever deleted a character I created and played with for some time in any RPG, ever. But I wanted this character to be one that never died. It took about a year to get him to that point, but it didn’t matter. Off he went only to be reborn to start all over again. Another year later, and the new guy became Legendary, and remains so to this day as I continue to play the character through dailies and the expansion content on occasion.

Now does that mean I support the idea of Ironmanism and Permadeath? Not really. This was just one specific circumstance, and while I still play games with the goal of not dying (i.e. failing), Permadeath and overly difficult content for the sake of difficult content doesn’t really appeal me. I much prefer to have the option of being able to tailor the challenge of any particular piece of content to my own preference at any given time. Sometimes, I just want to faceroll content. Other times I want to have to think of a good strategy and execute it at least somewhat well to succeed. Things like artificial difficulty or mandatory level scaling or boosted XP gains don’t really do that. Being able to spend time overleveling or underleveling content does in a much better way. And I have come to the realization that dying sometimes is actually OK (well, in a game anyway), and doesn’t detract from the overall experience of the joy of playing the game. I would rather be much more relaxed and focus on the experience than worrying about all the time and effort that would be lost if my character met his fate in an overly difficult boss battle …. due to a lag spike.

Morgan Filbert

About a decade ago I came across a webcomic called, at the time, Pokemon: Hard Mode. It had a draconian ruleset that included one pokemon per route and permadeath on fainting. This eventually became the Nuzlocke webcomic and started my love-affair with Ironman and Permadeath.

I’ve run permadeath characters on WoW, SWTOR, and Star Trek Online as far as MMO’s are concerned. Each one has been one of my most memorable characters and includes my most fondly remembered MMO experiences. I honestly can’t tell you much about my one successful raid attempt in WoW, I remember I got purple pants and was very excited. There was a big monster. Much more vivid in my mind is the time my level 37 Paladin, fleeing a botched attempt to complete a quest in Stranglethorn Vale rounded a bend and encountered an elite mob. He almost manged to escape by leaping into water and swimming for safety but he died. I know it’s not for everyone, but for me at least, the thrill of having each encounter become elevated to a potentially game ending event really makes it more exciting.

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Emphasis on VERY fringe. As an older gamer this is one of those things we see pop up every generation of gamers.. “Permadeath sounds cool”, “Super Hard difficulty sounds cool”.. but the reality for most of us especially as I say older gamers like myself is it really ISN’T unless you fall into that very fringe group of people who really do enjoy it because we thought the same so we tried it and we for the most part learned different.. but every generation of gamers seems to have to go through the same learning curve and so this pops up every few years time and again its pretty amusing. The reality for most of us sadly is that Permadeath isn’t actually as fun as it sounds and games are supposed to be fun…hence we dont have permadeath.

And it is also for this reason that you do not see many ironman difficult or permadeath MMOs and games. Those things do not have wide appeal, they do nto draw crowds, they will not make masses and masses of money they are niche.

Occasionally you get some games that cater to them but they are almost always essentially a developer love letter to the genre rather than the next big thing or a money spinner for the company.. and thats fine. They come, they go..all part of the cycle I refer to above.

Now Difficulty in games is on the other hand somewhat “less” niche, but even so a VERY personal choice.

Difficulty for me has also been something I find enitrely fake advertising in so much as there really is no such thing as difficulty in games in the sense it is meant. Turning up difficulties does not make the AI make better decisions or more tactical choices, and provide challenge in the way difficulty SHOULD imply.
Instead difficulty in games is essentially cheats.. buffed health and damage, faster build times, units spawned out of thin air, things ignoring rules that we have to abide by like movement limitations ins peed and direction, ignoring fogs of wars and knowing where everything is without actually finding it like we have to etc..etc.. its fake difficulty.
Some may argue their is still challenge involved but is there really? Once you know how an ai will react in a given situation you then ALWAYS know how it will react in that situation so where is the difficulty its like playing poker while knowing what every card in everyones hand is, where is the challenge at that point its more difficult to lose than win?


Instead difficulty in games is essentially cheats.. buffed health and damage,

You had me laughing by this point due to how true it sounds. Last week I was marveling at how, in a game I was playing, when I tuned the difficulty to the max my character needed a dozen hits with her huge Nodachi do dispatch a single lowly tug, whereas said tug could defeat my character with just a couple stabs with a pocket knife if I didn’t dodge or parry the attacks.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

Sounds wonderful and familiar. It’s good to know that those of us who solo MMOs now have an accepted handle, Ironman, although I would probably go with Wonder Woman. I find this an enjoyable way to experience a game. MMOs become an entirely different adventure when you’ve got to figure out how to take down a quest boss intended for group play solo. Among other things, class selection, and therefore skill selection, becomes very important.

I don’t think I could bear to play a permadeath character and never have. Not keen on losing something I worked so hard on. One would have to be a very good player to find such a mode attractive. But I do see how permadeath is the ultimate game challenge and for some players, the only challenge left.

Robert Mann

Obviously this works very poorly in MMOs with a high vertical component and fights meant to kill people regularly… but I do think having death or defeat be a little more meaningful wouldn’t hurt. Well, if games gave us things that were fun or interesting to do with the time or situations involved. If it’s just the same old nonsense it’s pointless, except as a negative to put more pressure on staying alive (not like dying to lag isn’t frustrating enough already).

In short, I would never bother in a modern MMO as they are currently built. There are, however, ways that I might find it interesting, not the least of which would be if there were a lot of content that wasn’t ‘head out and fight X,Y, or Z’ -or- if there was a mixture of rewarding fun without a huge levelling issue ahead.


Last time I played a permadeath game was IoK (although, I guess you could say gsiii/iv, if you purposefully let deeds run out) so that gives an idea of how much I appreciate it. As for Ironman, again, no. I play to have fun. I don’t find that fun!