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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