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Running in the Special Olympics

Discussion of the Evolving Nature of the MMO Industry from an Outsider's Perspective

Author: PhatWOP

Death Inevitable or "Weebles Wobble but they don't fall down" Pt. 1

Posted by PhatWOP Friday February 8 2008 at 10:46AM
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Hello again all,

Today I would like to discuss that inevitable conclusion that must eventually be written into the stories of all our lives; death. Of couse, being that we're talking about MMOs, death is much less frightening than the real thing. No glorious calls in battle, tearful farwells before war or setting oneself adrift on an ice-flow.

In the first part of this two part series, I would like to discuss death penalties and what each of them mean going forward. As any game moves through the development phase there is without a doubt an argument that arises on that games forums about the death penalty, what is should be and how severe. Opinions usually range from perma-death-insta-character-deletion and goons dispatched to your house to rough you up some for failure to you should instanta-res with zero penalty and free gold for your troubles.

Alright I may be exaggerating a tad.

But none the less, it is a hotly contested issue and there is a great amount of disagreement on where the market should move. Before I discuss the future though, we need to establish what penalties are possible.

XP Loss

Ahhh, the olden days. When games were more or less cribbed directly from D&D, the loss of experience upon death was the norm. Some games had arbitrary caps such as you could not level down (DAoC) while other games cheerfully announced your failure to everyone around you (FFXI). This has been dying recently and most gamers seem pretty happy about it, though a vocal minority vociferiously defends this as the only penalty that is truly "fair" or "correct". This system is undoubtedly the most harsh of all the penalties.

XP Debt

I place CoH as the bridge between 1st and 2nd generation MMO's. The features it offers has a foot in both worlds. XP Debt was the best example of this. They never took away the XP you earned, so you could never go "backwards" but you gained debt upon death and had to pay that off with 1/2 of your future XP earnings until it was erased. Creative, but as the second generation arose, this died away. Less harsh, but still a significant barrier in the way of advancement. Also, I don't know, did Superman have XP debt when he came back after his death? Seemed more like a debuff penalty to me.

Item Wear

Upon death, your gear loses some % of its durability (10%, 25%, etc). This penalty hits you where it hurts the most, the pocketbook. So you may still be able to advance in level with only a minor hiccup in time, but finnancially, you experience some harship and are slowed in that way. One of the milder penalites psychologically although perhaps also one of the harder ones to square with reality. "Oh crap I died, I guess my Nike tennis shoes are 10% less nice now!"

Res/Retreat Points

When you come back, you come back at a res or return point, so you are out time returning to your destination. The true penalty of this depends on how many of these points are scattered in the world and whether or not you are in a group. If there are few points and you are in a large group (that can not res you for some reason if that mechanic is in the game) you are now separated from your friends (by possibly mobs as well as space).


When you come back, you have a debuff, such as a flat negative to max HPs, damage done, attack power or some other statistic. The penalty here is that you can not jump right back into the fray without hesitation and it can interrupt whatever you are doing for a few minutes. This is likely the lightest of the penalties depending on the length of the debuff. This is also the penalty most likely to illicit the quotes from the Princess Bride such as "Give him a break, he's been mostly dead all day."

Corpse Hunt

In this system, you rise as a spirit or something of that nature and have to run to your body. This is a pure time penalty as opposed to the Res Point return as generally in this spirit form, you can not interact with the rest of the world (or be attacked, etc). Again, the true penalty of this depends on where your corpse is and how far you have to go to get there.

Note that of the five systems I list above, many games use more than one penalty, some even giving you options to choose whether you want the wear or to corpse hunt for example. I think it can be stated that the industry and the market as a whole wants to move away from the harsher death penalties. Vanguard had recently touted its "Extreme" death penalties during production only to have to soften their stance as the game developed. The game flopped by modern standards (though that probably had more to due with bugs and negative press than the death issue).

Notice also that all of these penalties really break down to the same thing, to the one ultimate currency that we can not make more of, no matter how hard we try;TIME. If I lose XP, I must work to regain that XP, costing me time, if I suffer item wear, I must spend money to repair it, which takes more time, and so on. Ultimately, the penalty for death in these games is some amount of time. Time is the one currency we as human beings hate to lose because each moment wasted is one moment closer to our own deaths, and sadly, I have not seen any res circles for us as of yet.

The question then becomes how much time is appropriate to "charge" and which penalty has the least psychological impact on the player. Obviously the company would be interested in minimizing the psychological impact because each time they mentally "injure" the player, there is more a chance he will stop playing.

I do not know what exactly the correct answer is, we need some penalty to stop zerging and make it feel worth it when you succeed, but not so much that people become timid and refuse to try anything heroic or epic because of the fear of death. Ultimately its something that will happen to every character, so we are not just deciding something arbitrary, but a part of the game everyone will experience as surely as they will hit level 10 on their way to 50 (assuming a level based game of course).

I am not going to give my answer this time, but instead allow some discussion to fester over the weekend, that is assuming anyone actually reads this massive bloated and most likely boring post.

Until next time, Don't you go dyin' on me!

Hexxeity writes:

It's a pretty thorough anlaysis of death systems, that's for sure!

I don't tend to mind the harsher penalties, as I am not the sort of player who is in a race to max level.  But I know they are a huge concern for others, and a game that is not fun for the masses is not fun for anyone.  (Because of the Tumbleweed Effect -- ghost towns and whatnot.)

So, what to do?  The WoW penalty is just annoying enough if you are soloing, but in a group with a healer it's nonexistent.

I actually think more could be done with XP Debt.  It's a start to say debt is lessened if you die inside a mission (as CoH does), but maybe there should be ways to remove it once it's accrued?  Maybe you could pay to have it reduced after the fact, or find an uncommon item drop that will remove some of it?  There could even be gear or spells or other things that keep you from earning as much debt -- at the expense of other stats, of course!

Anyway, very light penalties -- and the inevitable zerging that follows -- can be really annoying, whereas a thing like debt can really add some flavor and an interesting level of gameplay.  In my opinion, of course.

Fri Feb 08 2008 12:57PM Report
BadSpock writes:

The annoyance of failure has always been enough for me.

Having to run back to my previous location to try again (either as a spirit/ghost or in the flesh) has always been enough annoyance for me.

Multiple failures in a row have always been frustrating enough to persuade me to give up for a while.

Adding equipment/gear decay on death simply adds more frustration because now I have to have money to pay for my failure.

Adding XP loss / debt on death simply adds more frustration because now I have to re-do or spend even more time to get back to wear I was.

I've never lost the thill and sense of accomplishment for completing something challenging. Be it a difficult raid boss, or a PvP victory, that victory is sweet enough for me without having to put everything I virtually own on the line every single time.

The defeats still sting, the victories still excite, and the close calls still get my heart racing.

Anything on top of that is just added frustration, tedium, and poorly designed time sinks in my opinion.

Fri Feb 08 2008 1:23PM Report
Hexxeity writes:

Incoming nitpick!

Debt does not make you re-do anything or make you spend more time getting to where you were.  It only makes you take longer to get where you are going.

This assumes that getting to the next level is the most important part of the game to you.  Some would say that's not the greatest way to think about the game.

Fri Feb 08 2008 2:24PM Report
BadSpock writes:

Touche Hex, a fine point!

It's not about getting to the next/max level as quickly as possible.

It's about enjoying my play time and not feeling like I'm wasting it.

XP debt isn't bad. Are you talking about 50% XP you GAIN until you work off the debt or you have to work back towards the XP amount you had before death in order to get more?

I guess that kind of debt is the same as loss.

Fri Feb 08 2008 2:49PM Report
Dameonk writes:

I would like to see a system of character playability loss, but also a game where it is not common to die.

If you do die, in said game, you would lose access to your character for 1 week.  If you die 1 week after you regain your character, you then lose access to them for 2 weeks and so on up to a max of some sort (like 6 months).  But at the same time it would be very uncommon for someone to die & would be a great loss both impacting the player & their friends.

This is of course, very extreme for most people and will most likely never happen.

My point is that I feel the developers view on character death should change, and the penalty to reflect that.  A more "realistic" type of game where penalties for murder & death are both very harsh & survivability is very high for the player.

Fri Feb 08 2008 2:57PM Report
PhatWOP writes:

Touche Hexx. Yes, i am using the assumption that reaching the next level is something you would be attempting to do. I don't feel this is a wholly unfair assumption as certainly at least 90-95% of the players who are engaging in risk taking activities (quests, attacking mobs, raiding, whatever) are undertaking these events to gain a level (assuming they are not at some sort of cap, in which case the penalty becomes moot anyway).

Given that reality, I would submit that slower future XP gain does in fact "cost" you time, the same currency as the other penalties.

A clever point though to be sure.

Fri Feb 08 2008 4:34PM Report writes:
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