Massively Overthinking: Penalties for failure in MMORPGs (beyond death)


MMOs generally have one big obvious penalty for failure, right? You die. Oh, usually not forever, not unless it’s some niche hardcore realm, and usually it comes with some minor inconvenience, like gear repair or a walk of shame back to your body. But death is generally the key punishment.

But not always. Some MMOs have come up with ingenious ways to inflict pain on players well beyond their mere deaths. Some allow for gear looting, for example. I’m playing Project Gorgon right now, where death itself is relatively painless, but if you fail to defeat a boss, you’re afflicted with a nasty curse until you do. Still others punish you by clawing back experience in some form or another.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about penalties for failure in MMOs that go beyond the shame of death itself. Tell me about punishment in an MMO you play or played – the more unusual or obscure, the better. How does or did it work mechanically? Does it annoy you or cause you to alter your play at all? Does it suit the game, or are the devs just being sadistic weirdos?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): In Asheron’s Call 1 (maybe 2 as well), the game would announce your death at the scene of the crime and at your rez point, so if you were AFK and killed by a low-level mob, or if you lost to a random PvPer, everyone knew. AC1 had item loss while both games also lowered your stats until you gained enough XP to burn it off. Horizons/Istaria also had temporary stat loss as a death penalty.

While not an MMO, Pokemon Legends: Arceus is a solo game with online features, one of which was losing items on death, but only other players could recover your items for you. It was kind of wild, but also a bummer, since there’s no chat system and none of my RL friends played. Despite there being good rewards for finding a players’ lost items, it turned out that a lot of people on my friend’s list simply didn’t care, and I’d go days without items the few times I died, which was why I learned to save often and reset if I died.

Death penalties really have to match the game. The Asheron’s Call ones worked in my opinion, though I weirdly feel like AC1 didn’t need item drops outside of PvP, while AC2 could have used them. As illustrated with Arceus, it’s kind of odd to have a solo-game add multiplayer specifically for item recovery, and AC1 was a very solo-friendly game. While certain classes were good at soloing in AC2, it felt like much more of a group game where items lost on death would have made more sense, especially if it used that instead of the stat loss. The announcement of how a player died, while potentially embarrassing, always stood out as a good system to me, since it can warn of nearby griefers, guild wars, or even rare spawns.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): The only one that comes to mind is EVE Online, which gets around “death” with lore that somehow transfers your consciousness to clone bodies according. But even losing one of many clone husks can feel punishing depending on where your backup “body” is stored. Imagine spending 20 minutes traveling through various star gates trying to reach a trade hub only to be ambushed in the last system and be sent all the way back to your home station. There’s no “fast travel” in EVE. You’ve got to take the entire journey again and risk even more gate camps!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): The Project Gorgon penalty is super annoying, I have to say. The one I had earlier this week dumps buckets of water on my head (a personal rainstorm) in addition to stat debuffs that could utterly wreck a character like a fire mage, which has a particularly hard time with that encounter to begin with. Thankfully, I’m not a fire mage but a monk, and it was funny at first, but after a couple of minutes, it was merely annoying (and I think it bugged too as the effect stopped even before I did down the boss?). The curse I had before that one randomly summoned an undead girl to try to kill me every few minutes, which wasn’t really difficult to deal with but again, super annoying to me and those around me, and I couldn’t go AFK even for a bio break.

It’s so strange that a game with a relatively minor death penalty (which encourages exploration) has such an “evil DM” type of penalty for risk-taking when it comes to bosses (which are usually far above the levels of the dungeons they’re in – as if to lure newbies specifically). The incentives and goals just seem weirdly contradictory.

Still, they’re not enough to scare me off, and I’d far rather deal with these annoying curses than go back to losing experience or levels a la EverQuest or City of Heroes. Dear god what an idiotic idea. (But even as I say that, I remember a few months of smug satisfaction in Ultima Online when stat loss for PKs who died at the hands of their victims was in the game. Always seemed a fair punishment to me.)

Bonus points for the ol’ browser MMO Glitch, where dead wasn’t really dead but instead a direct path to hell, where you had to stomp grapes to get out. Top that, MMO genre.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): This is a story of dying in Final Fantasy XI and the ignominy of the spell Tractor.

As with many other MMORPGs of the time, dying in FFXI meant you incurred some XP debt but otherwise could get a Revive spell cast on you, which in turn restores some of that lost XP (versus electing to respawn, in which case all of the XP debt applies). So by and large the smarter move was to hope that someone would be able to resurrect you on the spot, or a kindly Black Mage could use Tractor to drag your corpse out of danger and into safety for a later Revive.

…which is what happened to me when I was going for a piece of artifact gear at the time: I was killed because I got too foolish, had to lie there and do nothing while some guildmates came to my rescue, then watch as my dead character’s face was dragged across the sand to an open field for a Revive.

On the one hand, it was an illustration of the general kindness and overall camaraderie of the FFXI community at the time. But on the other hand, it was highly embarrassing.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Generally the loss of time is annoying enough to be a sufficient death penalty, especially when I respawn a long way from where I last was. Fallout 76 makes you drop your crafting mats (but no other items) so you can decide to do a corpse loot run or not. And most MMOs will inflict damage to your gear, incurring a minor monetary penalty and stopping you from endlessly throwing your corpse at the problem.

I’ll never forget when Age of Conan tossed about the idea of throwing dead players into a hell instance that they’d have to fight their way out of. I don’t think that got past the testing phases, as I’m sure it would get really aggravating to have to do this a ton of times. But I appreciated the thought!

Hardcore servers have the biggest penalty of them all, of course, but I like both the shame and 15 seconds of fame that your name flashing across everyone’s screen gets you.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t know that any of the games I’m currently playing have a real penalty, although I recall how painful a death penalty is in some games.

Long long ago, back before I joined MOP, I bought myself and my SO early access to Crowfall. I think I got her to play only one time, and she exited precisely because of the death penalty. We played for an hour or so learning a few different mechanics before we encountered our first enemy player, who destroyed us and looted our corpses – something I understood but she absolutely did not. She was kind of speechless, annoyed that all the gold and mats we’d earned were gone. “That sucks. I’m not doing that again. Let me know when they get rid of that.” Thus, Crowfall became a solo experience for me.

HP Magic Awakened plays kind of like a solo game. If you die, you can retry – or not. There’s a limit to how many retries you get, but no other penalty. For the Forbidden Forest events, you can even save your progress and return later – something I appreciate. The main penalty in that game is players who don’t buy gems regularly are simply not going to have enough gold to keep up with the Joneses. And as I’ve noted, gold in HPMA is used for leveling up. A small amount is available each day, but it will be restrictive after a little while. It doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the content, but it does limit you from completing the highest tier of content.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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