Perfect Ten: MMOs that flirted with permadeath

    
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This took some work.

This month, Dungeons and Dragons Online will be venturing where many MMORPGs have feared to tread: into the realm of officially supported permadeath. The 90-day “hardcore league” server will be an interesting experiment to see how popular this ruleset might be — and whether or not it has legs to justify a longer run in the future.

Permadeath has long been one of the most hotly debated topics among MMO players for both its brutal concept and its painful allure. It seems like anathema to institute a ruleset in MMORPGs to permanently get rid of a character upon his, her, or its first death — especially when you consider that this genre is all about serious time investment and long-term progression.

But DDO is hardly the first MMO to flirt with this idea. Several titles in the past have taken this discussion past the academic realm and implemented it into their games — for better or for worse. Let’s take a look at many cases of how permadeath have been tried in online games.

Star Wars Galaxies

Probably the most famous example of MMO permadeath comes not from an entire server ruleset, but rather a single class in an otherwise normal realm. To help keep Jedi appropriately rare in Star Wars Galaxies, the designers originally made it so that these characters would be forever killed. That permadeath decision was reversed only a few months after the Jedi started appearing the game, as players protested the elimination of a whole lot of hard work due to griefers and bounty hunters coming after them in droves.

The ARPs: Diablo II, Diablo III, Hellgate: London, and Path of Exile

While permadeath may be extremely fringe in the MMO world, in online action RPGs such as Path of Exile, it’s embraced as a frequent feature. Since these games encourage rerolling all the time anyway, it makes sense that permadeath wouldn’t be seen as such a huge issue. Besides, these games have figured out a clever way to enforce permadeath on one server while allowing you to transfer and continue your character elsewhere afterward.

RuneScape

If RuneScape players want to experience the game with all the safeties off, they can elect to activate the Hardcore Ironman mode. Jagex does allow players to buy two more “lives” during a character’s run, but that’s it: “Please note that Jagex will not reverse the death of a Hardcore Ironman character for any reason — even in the event of connection issues, or account hijacking.”

In case you were wondering, yes, Old School RuneScape got in on the permadeath fun as well.

Realm of the Mad God

While some MMOs have permadeath worked into it later, others include it into their foundational DNA. Realm of the Mad God is an insane action-shooter-fantasy romp where you’re expected to die. A lot. But even though those deaths are permanent, your actions live on through unlocks and other forms of progression, so it’s all good. It’s kind of the approach that other projects, such as John Smedley’s late Hero’s Song, contemplated.

Wizardry Online

While its western version died back in 2016, Wizardry Online left an interesting legacy of game design. Permadeath was included as a fact of life in the game, but the game designers made it to be somewhat rare. Players had varying opportunities to resurrect (less the more you died, however), giving a chance to rally back before one’s character was lost forever. This wasn’t an incredibly popular MMORPG, although the permadeath feature was probably not to blame for this.

EverQuest

With all of the different server rulesets that EQ has boasted over the years, it makes sense that permadeath would have made a (short-lived) appearance as a 2003 shard. According to one player who was there, “It didn’t last very long, but I enjoyed it for about a week. It was original EQ only, and only to level 50. Basically if you died at any point your character would get reset and wiped, and your bank emptied — and you’d end up back in your newbie zone at level 1 with nothing but newbie gear.”

Dofus

Yes indeed, adorable turn-based MMO Dofus actually brought out permadeath “heroic” and “epic” server options back in 2007. With the increased risk came some nice bonuses, such as much faster progression and gear acquisition. These servers have continued to run since their incarnation, which might make them some of the longest-lasting permadeath shards in the genre.

Underlight

Very few people are even aware of this small — and incredibly old — MMORPG that placed a huge emphasis on roleplaying. Interesting enough, the team decided in 2002 that permadeath would actually enhance roleplay and so incorporated it with the Dreamstrike mechanic.

Age of Conan

No, Age of Conan never had a proper permadeath server, but we’re talking about “flirting” with the feature, remember? And Funcom did just that when it added a semi-permadeath mode that would pay out in special rewards only while players were on their first life. Die, and a character could continue — but the exclusive goodies wouldn’t.

Survived By

Is it too meta to put a game on this list which has been permanently axed? Yet Survived By has to be mentioned here because its very game design was set up to see player characters “survived by” an endless wave of successors after their one-and-done run had wrapped up. It’s too bad that this one bought the farm back in April.

Legends of Aria

Newcomer indie fantasy MMO Legends of Aria always had permadeath servers as an option in its blueprint, although it seemed to drift away from promoting that over time. However, back in 2018 the team ran a special permadeath event. Characters could rez if killed in PvE, and were only forever gone in PvP if they ran out of “savior points.”

MUDs

Far before graphical MMORPGs came along, multi-user dungeons (MUDs) had experimented with permadeath on certain servers. 1991’s hardcore DartMUD was early on the scene with this, although other games like FiranMUX, Sindome, Armageddon, Clok, Harshlands, The Inquisition Legacy, Ateraan, Legends of the Jedi, and several more offer this if you’re looking for an experience that most MMOs eschew.

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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Hiraeth Gaming

Wizardry online currently has a private server in development

“Wizardry-online.com”

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Adam Russell

I think the problem with perma in games like eq is that the beginner zones are just so boring. Build a game where all levels are equally interesting and you will have something.

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losludvig

speaking of permadeath – steambirds alliance launches tomorrow. it’s a rotmg-like by some of the same people

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Bruno Brito

Take the world “Perma” out of the headline.

It takes a waaaay more somber tone for the news.

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psytic

I actually really liked Wizardry. The game had terrible graphics but I really enjoyed that you could run into “Reds/pvp enabled” players in the dungeons and they had their own city and there was dangerous environmental traps in the world. It really made people want to band together and group up which isn’t really the case with mmos these days. Apparently there is work being done on a private server https://www.wizardry-online.com/

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Zero_1_Zerum

Permadeath is the one feature that is always a deal breaker for me. I never want to put hours, even days, into a character and lose everything. Not worth my money or my time. I get attached to my characters.

That said, the games where you’re not just playing a character, you’re basically playing a dynasty, sound kinda interesting. As long as you don’t lose everything, because it’s passed on to the heirs, it MIGHT be cool. “Kirb Deadlock the 10th is here to avenge Kirb Deadlocks, the 4th through 9th!”

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Sorenthaz

Permadeath only really works in MMOs if there’s some form of inheritance/progression system in place to where the game becomes about how far can you get before you die, with each death giving you the opportunity to build up and steadily snowball your odds of survival/deeper progress than the last death.

Otherwise it’s always going to be a niche thing, like Hardcore Diablo 3 characters.

kjempff
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kjempff

Yep that would be the way to do perma death for mmos. Progression, challenge and competition are powerful extra drivers for an otherwise not-so-rewarding perma death.

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Alex Willis

EVE has the right balance for “perma”-death. Your clones can die, along with all of the gear inside them, and there are implications for skills as well. Nothing that is not recoverable, but the penalties are substantial.

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EmberStar

It’s the right way for some people. Obviously not for everyone. Between the death penalties and just the fact that it’s PVP, I would have to be paid to play EVE. And I would require very large sums of money. Up front. :(

I like science fiction. I like starships. I have never even contemplated downloading the installer for EVE. I know many, many people love it, and I’m glad it’s there for them. But sometimes I do wish I had a chance to play a “you can pilot/be a starship” game that wasn’t either PVP (EVE) or cartoonishly simplified (Star Trek Online) or where the learning curve is so steep that it essentially starts looping into itself (Elite: Dangerous. Winner of my personal award: “Worst tutorials. EVER.”)

laelgon
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laelgon

I don’t think there’s enough of a market for full permadeath. MMOs tend to be all about progression. Losing all that progress generally represents hours if not days feeling wasted, because players are often doing things they feel like they need to do rather than what they want to do. And when someone feels like they’ve been cheated, whether due to connection issues, or bugs, or just imbalanced mechanics, they’re going to be angry and likely to leave.

If you’re going to make a game with permadeath, it either has to maintain some form of meaningful progress between deaths, or has to be done in such a way that whatever you can gain or lose in a life is minimal and easily recovered from. Otherwise people will leave in frustration.

It’s the main issue I have with a lot of sandbox PvP MMOs, and one of the reasons I’d argue they fail. They tend to have very long grinds in an attempt to keep people busy, and all that work can be undone very quickly. Want be competetive in PvP? Well you need to have this rare/expensive gear that you’ll lose when you die. Want to build a city? Well you need to spend weeks to months gathering resources and building it, and it can all be wiped out in a night. Are you new to the game and don’t understand the systems? Enjoy everything you did in the first few hours of the game being undone when you die.

They often might as well have permadeath systems, since a single loss can leave you essentially back at square one. But again, make it so that no individual loss feels like hours/days/weeks wasted, and I think it works. It requires a different design philosophy.

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Sorenthaz

Yeah even games in general that feature ‘permadeath’ usually just have it mean “start over again but retain some form of character progression” and/or “increase the pool of stuff you can have access to for your next run”. Most roguelikes function this way and Realm of the Mad God/Survived By were basically in that category.

And yeah sandbox PvP MMOs have a regular tendency of the community/playerbase cannibalizing itself over time. Many of them fall out of relevance after a while, usually after enough ‘sheep’ realize that whatever PvE content is in the game is just a bait/lure to bring them in and give griefers content.

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EmberStar

It’s nice that some of the survival/builder type games have started including a singleplayer offline mode. I’ve seen very rare posts in the ARK and Conan Exiles forums from someone lamenting that the singleplayer mode exists, because they view it as a “get of of griefing” button for the sheep. But it makes financial sense because it lets you sell the game to sheep who just want to tame a tyranosaurus without getting shived in their sleep. :)

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Robert Mann

RotMD and Survived By are the only options here that make sense with our internet as it stands. Find some wonderful fix to lag deaths, from any reason, and the rest wouldn’t be as bad… but still not as good. Simply put, if you want a permadeath game it has to be simple enough to jump back in, or it has to be complex enough to give you something afterward to carry forth.

I’ve seen plenty of ideas around the carrying something onward that are interesting. I’ve never seen an MMO that said “Yeah, permadeath with rewards!” that was, and the simple reason is that lag deaths are frustrating enough as is!

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EmberStar

I’ve never tried any of these games. But my very limited understanding is that some of the more popular ones do as you say, and handle death in a similar fashion to “rogue-lite” type games such as Sword of the Stars: The Pit. You play a character, you unlock stuff, you die. You play another character, but you start with a little more advantage because you unlocked stuff. And sometimes one of the unlocks is that if you’re powerful enough you can just jump to the third or fourth floor (or whatever) so that you don’t have to grind past the level one mutant cyber-rats every single time.