Perfect Ten: The big book of MMO death mechanic rationales

    
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This was not the worst, but we will buy the bus.

In the ancient Before Times (so, you know, two years ago), I wrote a column all about the different mechanics that hit you when you die. Today, though, I want to take a different tactic and ask a more philosophical question: Why do you get hit with penalties when your character’s lifeless body slumps to the ground or your spaceship detonates into a cold, uncaring vacuum?

Obviously, we don’t really think about this much because in some ways it’s almost a tautology. Why do you get hit with a penalty when you die? Because you died. Dying is supposed to not be super great and should be something that you avoid. But there’s a value in examining these things in more detail beyond the obvious elements, and while it’s obvious something should happen when your health hits zero, the exact penalties reflect a philosophy of design. So let’s take a look not at the what but the why of these penalties.

To rather uneventfully go.

1. To create risk

While I’ve said before that part of me liked Star Trek Online’s complete lack of a death penalty at launch, well… it did sort of remove any sense of peril from any mission, you know? You died or lived, but it didn’t really matter. Adding in a penalty from dying means that you are actually at risk, that things will get harder or worse if you die. That is pretty important when you’re playing a game.

2. To bleed out resources

Gear durability is a popular death mechanic for several games. You die, your gear takes extra damage and you have to repair it. Why? Because that helps take currency out of your pocket. You don’t really need to have a big durability hit in Final Fantasy XIV, but that’s also one of the ways that the game bleeds gil out of you slowly over the long term, and since most games have a steady and unlimited source of income without also having a steady and unlimited form of required payments, it’s necessary to actually take some resources out of circulation somehow.

That having been said, most of these bits of resource bleed don’t actually work very well; when was the last time you were actually worried about repair costs? I’m guessing it has been a while.

Slow, slow, slow.

3. To slow down the game

Dying in Final Fantasy XI meant one of two things. Either you went back to your home point and spent the time needed getting back to where you died, which could often take quite a while, or you got someone to raise you… at which point you spent ten minutes weakened and unable to do much of anything. If you had bound close enough, sometimes it was much faster to just run back than bother with waiting through resurrection sickness.

This served a natural function of slowing the game down, forcing you to take more time. And, as mentioned before, slowing the game down isn’t the same as having more content… but it does lengthen the content that’s already there.

4. To punish bad play

Keep standing in the bad? Now you’re dead and you’re not doing anything at all. Next time, get out of the bad. It’s a pretty simple reward loop, but in games with few combat raising options it can mean spending an entire fight doing nothing. Heck, in some fights in FFXIV the player who keeps dropping to every mechanic is just left dead instead of getting MP wasted on raising them. It’s saving everyone time.

Corpse party.

5. To discourage behaviors

Did you just run straight into a pack of enemies in World of Warcraft in a dungeon without the tank? Well, don’t do that. Now you’re dead. Death serves as a moment to reflect and realize that perhaps you shouldn’t have done something because you know what happens and it’s not pleasant.

6. To mandate other behaviors

If you notice that you’re quite likely going to die every time you try to solo something of reasonable level in EverQuest, you’re going to need to form a party. It encourages you to find other people and form a group to take on this challenge. Heck, the odds are that if you’re dying repeatedly in a quest in WoW, you should be doing something other than just “going to fight the target guy.” What exactly you should be doing is variable, but the point is that the killing you encourages you to do something else.

Accomplish.

7. To add danger

This one is a bit more vague because it’s primarily about giving you a sense that you do need to be paying attention to the game and failing to do so might result in a penalty. It makes you cognizant of the texture of your decisions in a wider sense. Rather than the immediate sense of risk of losing something, this is the larger sense that a zone can be made more dangerous or less by how harsh your penalties will be when you die and how readily death awaits you.

8. To enhance verisimilitude

Again, I hate to pick on STO, but the fact of the matter is that “blowing up the ship” is a major element in every single story when it happens. It’s kind of weird that you can really brute-force some tasks by just flying forward and dying repeatedly but whittling down the enemies you’re facing each time. The appearance and imitation of being real! It matters, at least insofar as no one really feels great about winning by repeated doom runs.

Can't get there from here.

9. To create blocks

A high-level area that you can’t get through alive is going to create a block. It’s going to force you to either find away around that area or force you to wait until you’re higher level in order to pass through it. In this way, death (or the fear of death) creates a steady hand guiding you in a direction and forcing you to do certain things to avoid death.

It doesn’t even have to be high-level enemies, either. Imagine, for a moment, that you need to get to an objective in WoW Classic. But the objective in question is far below you. Jumping down will kill you. Thus, even if you have the option to jump down, you need to hold back and consider the situation and find an actual path, forcing you to actually fight things… or if you can slow your falling speed, you’ll still have to find a path back up in order to succeed.

10. To explore ludonarrative

You notice how a lot of these examples create either explicit or implicit stories in them? That’s for good reason. If you have to do things to avoid death, that means you’re developing a ludonarrative during your play. If you do die and it sets you into an unusual situation, that’s another ludonarrative to explore, sometimes creating a whole new adventure as you work to compensate for what you lost just a few moments ago.

Of course, that ludonarrative may not actually be worth the cost to the play experience. The amount of weird lengths I went to in FFXI to avoid death were interesting at the time, but I’d much prefer to play games wherein I can just play instead of having to shape a lot of unpleasant time anxiously avoiding doom. But hey, the point was reasons, not agreement.

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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Life_Isnt_Just_Dank_Memes

And yet game devs still make games for people who want to kill others’ characters without consent and we pretend that it isn’t pandering to the proclivities of school yard bullies. Time sinks in games in the form of death penalties seem superfluous in comparison.

It’s literally making sandboxes for people to have fun at other’s expense. Why is this still an okay practice?

On topic: It’s a holdover from the time of monthly subs. Time sinks, y’all.

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Castagere Shaikura

The only penalty should be to repair your gear. All the other stuff was just unneeded downtime. It sucked time away from playing. Man, I remember how bad it was in Anarchy Online. You would have to sit and wait at the rez spot for you to even walk and non of your gear would even work until the rez sickness was done.

oruh
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oruh

I think the fact that some feel the need to punish death, points to much deeper issues in our society. But that’s a much larger topic, probably involving Dante.

That being said, remember when you had to pay repair costs in GW2? I played an elementalist and never managed to break 10 silver because of it. Boy, once they removed the repair cost, suddenly I was actually able to build up a cash reserve.

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Schmidt.Capela

Adding in a penalty from dying means that you are actually at risk, that things will get harder or worse if you die. That is pretty important when you’re playing a game.

If you like playing in a safe — and, thus, boring — way.

I, on the other hand, enjoy pushing my limits. Trying to tackle increasing challenges until I get killed, then working at getting better until I can beat whatever killed me and look for even more challenging feats. If I’m not getting killed in the game at least a few times per hour, I tend to consider the game boring enough to not be worth playing.

As a result, any death punishment that impairs my ability to tackle content (or that requires boring busywork to get back to fighting order) isn’t acceptable for me.

That having been said, most of these bits of resource bleed don’t actually work very well; when was the last time you were actually worried about repair costs? I’m guessing it has been a while.

I can see two reasons for this.

First, because worrying about repair costs seems to be the polar opposite of fun for most players. They want to play heroes, not accountants.

Second, the devs are aware that piling punishment (repair costs) atop punishment (dying) tends to be wildly unpopular, so when extra repair costs on death do exist they are often made low enough to not really matter (and are there just to pay lip service to the concept and calm down certain parts of the audience that demands punishment for death).

And, as mentioned before, slowing the game down isn’t the same as having more content… but it does lengthen the content that’s already there.

Problem is, artificially slowing content down has a good chance of making said content boring, sometimes to the point of being worthless. And, thus, making the game not enjoyable enough to be worth a player’s time.

To mandate other behaviors

In other words, to force the player to stop playing the way they want and go play the way the devs want. I tend to see this as laziness on the dev’s part, particularly so if there is only one intended “appropriate” behavior capable of clearing the content.

To enhance verisimilitude

Verisimilitude is overrated, and in a game it should never get in the way of having fun. Any time there is a conflict between verisimilitude and fun, verisimilitude should lose.

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EmberStar

I am immediately suspicious of any attempt at “verisimilitude” or “realism” when someone is attempting to justify bad/boring game design. “Making you suffer from Cloning Sickness and be unable to do anything for half an hour is more realistic” does not seem credible in a setting where my character normally has super powers, or the ability to go from hitting a tree with a rock to fabricating functional mecha and beam weapons.

BodeanG
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BodeanG

For me the list is just an example of needless tedium. I am competitive. The simple act of dying in a game means I lost, I failed, I didn’t get it done. That’s all the “risk” I want or need.

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Utakata

11. I don’t think anything can beat ludonarrative though. >.<

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Ironwu

Great list! :)

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EmberStar

For point six: Dying often does encourage me to do something else. Usually that something else is “uninstall and play a game that doesn’t punish people who prefer to play solo.” Oh, look, I have over a thousand games on Steam (because ten years of Steam sales and because I have the impulse control and budgeting skills of a hamster.) The only exceptions are, as I have mentioned elsewhere, when there is no other alternative for what I really want from the game. (Setting, character customization, art style.)

If at some point Warframe really hacks me off and I decide to quit, I can’t go play “some other game like Warframe.” I’m not there because “shooter.” I’m there because of the art style, and weapons, and the Warframes themselves. I don’t know of another game with those features. So I don’t have much choice but to simply pretend the modes that I can’t solo don’t really exist. And that whatever the rewards from those modes are happen to be something I can live without (PVP mods) or buy. (Protea, Grendel. Because the modes needed to get their components are horrible.)

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Ken from Chicago

EmberStar … how many times have you tried to buy a game and Steam had to tell you that you *already* purchased it?

(He asked not revealing how he knew to ask that question.)

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Schmidt.Capela

It’s why I use a Chrome extension (Augmented Steam) that makes quite evident that I already have a game by painting it green on any lists showing it.

(And that puts a big red warning if the game has Denuvo; I refuse to purchase those. In fact, this warning was what drew me to the extension in the first place.)

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EmberStar

Errr… almost never? I actually have a pretty good idea of what games I’ve bought, enough that I can look at something like the big Humble Charity bundle and pick out most of the ones I own already without double checking. My memory is weird. I also remember pretty much every song I’ve chosen to listen to more than a couple times, every book I’ve ever read, every movie and TV show (even the names of minor characters in them.)

It’s a big part of why I refuse to watch stuff like Adam Sandler movies – I do NOT need him in my head forever. On the other hand, I forget the names of real people more or less the instant they finish introducing themselves, and it’s *really* difficult for me to navigate using street names. I have to use landmarks. “Go past the campground, over the railroad crossing, and you’ll go around a corner and up a hill with a guardrail. Turn right just as the guardrail ends” works perfectly, but “drive six miles out of town and turn right on Hunter Road” means I’ll cruise straight past it and not be sure I missed it until I hit the border to the next country over. “No, I don’t have any fruits or vegetables to declare, I’m just trying to turn around.”

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Loyal Patron
Schlag Sweetleaf

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big brain time.jpg
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Sleepy

Of if you’re playing the Secret World, death is just part of solving some quests. Bowled me over the first time I realised I needed to die to progress a quest in TSW.

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EmberStar

For me it was pretty much the point where I stopped caring because it felt (to me) like the most absurd evolution of point-and-click moon logic. How to investigate in Secret World: Gather Evidence. Follow clues. Draw conclusions. Then kill yourself and talk to some random ass ghost. Nope.

oruh
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oruh

Admittedly, I thought they kind of jumped the shark on that one too. And I was a big Secret World fan.