In the second and final part of this discussion (for now at least) I would like to discuss an idea that has always been a black-sheep of the MMO industry, clamored for by a tiny few, rejected by a great many. Perma-Death.
But we can't just jump into the deep end of the pool like that, we need some background first. As I commented last time, death systems, like the rest of early MMOs (and indeed a great deal of the RPG VG Genre) grew from D&D. In that game, up until its most recent incarnation (3.5) you lost experience if you came back from the dead with all but the most powerful magics. In other words Death = penalty. Now in a long D&D campaign you're character may not die at all, certainly most people's games, unless they are particularly bloodthirsty, don't have characters dying more than one or two times. So perhaps that was acceptable enough for that system (although it should be noted there have always been great debates about that subject as well).
In an MMO however, the concept of having your character progress through the game without dying borders on lunacy. Character's die all the time, we have come to expect it and internalize it. In some cases its even part of the strategy (Alright - you go run over there and aggro the whole group and then run, we'll get the loot and if you die, we'll just met you back at town or res you). Can you imagine this coversation ever happening in the Real World (tm)? But of course, MMOs aren't really made to simulate reality, they are made to simulate fun.
In the newest edition of D&D (4E coming in June) they are changing some of the details of death. Now I don't have all the details yet, just what has been leaked, but what is relevant are the following two points.
1.) Death will be more rare. Effects that cuase you to Save or Die will not happen as often (at all?) and it will be harder to kill characters in general.
2.) Death in the heroic teir (levels 1-10) will be final. New character time. Death in the paragon tier (11-20) may be mitigated in some way with difficulty (read:Time as our last discussion focused on). Death at Epic level (21-30) will be a speed bump.
I think the designers of D&D may be on to something that the MMO industry could adopt as well. Let me explain. In most games the "healer" archetypes can not ressurect at first level (assuming a level based system). This is often a skill or ability delayed until some mid-point. Before that you are often forced into the more painful and time-consuming routes (haha, screw you newb, you can not complete this quest with your friends because you have to go back to the res circle, pwnd).
So we already have some level based progression of how res abilities work. In several games, the various res methods will also vary in the amount of "pain" of death they cause. i.e. different methods of coming back cause different suites of penalties.
Why don't we just take it the rest of the way.
Assuming a level based game of levels 1-60 I could see the following progression. 1-10 (or 20) death = death. At this low stage of hero-dom, you die means you die. No resurrection available. 11 (or 21) -40 - Death progresses in much the same way it currently does with different and sensible penalty suites (that are NOT losing XP, I think it is clear that XP loss is almost universally revilled). 41-60 - Death as a Speed Bump - Easily coming back with only the minimum penalties to allow proper game play (no zerging, etc.).
Now I can hear the screams through your computer screens already. ANy of you involved in the industry are laughing at my idea as yet another delusional call for perma death. However, you haven't heard the crux of my idea yet. The changes above, if implemented as written into a modern MMO would simply fail, miserably. They would cause players to get angry and leave. To make these ideas feasable, you have make one giant change in MMOs, you have to make death a far harder thing to occur. For something like the changes I am discussing, you would simply have to die a great deal less.
I remember playing early EQ and my little gnome necromancer had gotten in over his head. A skeleton knocked me down and my bar went from its normal health color to a purple color. The monster then struck me one or two more times and I died. When I asked a friend who had played for a while what this was he said, the monster knocked you out, then killed you. The purple bar was your "unconcious" health. The idea of falling unconscious at 0 was another idea cribbed from D&D that has not been utilized in the future generations of EQ clones.
A clever, easy (and most importantly, quick, no one wants to sit there and stare at the screen while your little digital self takes a nap for more than 10 seconds) system such as an evolved unconsciousness system could serve well to this effort. Allowing defeat (and skills that bring you back to fighting strength) without actually causing death. Mosters would fell you and then most of the time walk away, resetting their aggro and a few seconds later would arise again at a lower health or with some penalties (or whatever) and be able to rejoin the fight. The options for TRUE death could be rare in the game, perhaps even sectioned off to certain instances, bosses or legendary creatures. After all, the heroes of epic tales don't die fighting the chumps and yard trash of the world, they die fighting similarly legendary villains. LoTRO almost did something interesting with the idea you are defeated rather than killed in battle.However, with no other alternative such as really dying, they simply swapped mechanic wholly for another (that does fit better within the lore of the world, but creates no difference ultimately in the way the game is played).
Ultimately, I believe that the way death and defeat are handled in MMOs has a very rich and vast amout of design space that can still be explored and mined for interesting play options. Once again though , I will leave it to you to discuss and decide if what I have said has some insight or are the simple ramblings of a mad man.
Until next time, May death only be a speed bump.