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Justin Webb: Pacman Jesus and the Well of Souls

Column By Justin Webb on March 15, 2010

One of the highlights at this year’s GDC was R.A. Salvatore’s talk about world design. While he stressed that the talk was about his personal gaming opinions, and that we shouldn’t assume that anything he talked about would be in “Copernicus”, he did drop one nugget regarding 38 Studio’s upcoming MMO, a system feature called the Well of Souls, which I’ll get to later.

Much of Bob’s talk revolved around ensuring that players feel like they are heroes. And many of his opinions were filtered through an old-school love of Everquest, which is understandable. All of us MMO players have a soft spot for our first game. It’s a cross between imprinting and a rose-tinted nostalgia for your first love. You are willing to overlook all kinds of things that are wrong with your first sweetheart. And for Bob, his first MMO love was Everquest.

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His talk featured several amusing anecdotes detailing moments where he and his group overcame insurmountable odds. Moments when he felt like a hero. These “heroic moments” are phenomenally important in MMOs. I’ll talk about this tomorrow.

Back to the talk. One of the things that R.A. talked a lot about was death. Mostly in terms of how much “more heroic” things can seem in Everquest with the threat of a costly death hanging over your head. Bob stated a few times that he thinks that having a death penalty that “means something” is vitally important in an MMO, and that it should have consequences. I’m very sympathetic to Bob’s position – it’s definitely a meaty design challenge when you have to write up your game’s death penalty. However, I’m not sure if I “personally” totally agree with his reasoning, especially with respect to EQ.

Everquest’s death penalty is/was hardcore – I’m sure it’s changed slightly by now. If you died, you rezzed naked wherever you were bound, and had to run back to your corpse to get all your stuff back. Your corpse could be many zones away, as EQ’s world was nowhere near as navigate-able as, say, WoW’s world is. If/when you finally got back to your corpse, there’s a good chance that the monster that killed you initially would still be there. So, trying to get your gear back (which you used to have to do one item at a time through a clunky interface) could result in you having to fight the same monster again (and sometimes again and again) … naked. Remember, it’s already killed you once. On top of that, you lost XP after each death, and, after a certain amount of time, your corpse dissolved taking all your gear with it. Hardcore!

It’s as draconian as it is, not because EQ is trying to help create heroic moments for the player, but because it’s telling you to “BE IN A GROUP.”

But what if I don’t want to be? I’m a solo player. I much prefer to create my “heroic moments” on my own, not as part of a giant gang. So, as you can imagine, I bounced off EQ hard on each of the three occasions that I tried to play it (beta, launch, and a few months in). Each time I quit, it was directly because of the death penalty. I wasn’t prepared to switch my playstyle to accommodate having to deal with other players. So, I get it. I’m supposed to be in a group. But there are many better ways to achieve this than making me suffer when I die.

Since the release of WoW, death penalties have become much more forgiving. You could argue that because death is merely an inconvenience in WoW, it diminishes each player’s capacity to feel like a hero. I guess it depends on the player. I know I had a much more “enjoyable” time in WoW than I did in EQ. And I have way more personal recollections of feeling like a hero and doing awesome things there than in Norrath.

Regardless, the death penalty is a feature that all MMO players have an opinion on. Whether you are hardcore or carebear, we all have an idea of how it should work and how hard it should hurt. I personally think that EQ’s was too harsh and WoW’s is slightly too coddling, but that’s just me. Darkfall players will probably consider me a wuss, but I can live with that. However, up to this point, what most games have done is treat the concept of death as a massive conceit.

From Pacman onward (he has three lives but can earn more), video games have tried to immerse us in their worlds, but mumbled incoherently when asked to explain why our avatars rise from the grave.

How much sense does it make for Pacman to come back to life whenever he dies? (Or Ms Pacman for all you ladies out there.) When you think about it, not much. It’s just what happens, and nobody talks about it. NPCs are totally non-plussed by the fact that everyone in their world who picks up a sword resurrects whenever they mess up. The death conceit is so strong in video games that it no longer causes a mental disconnect. Systematically, we all understand that it’s the game’s way of telling you to try again. However, resurrection seems to be a fact of life in all MMOs (and video games in general).

Which leads me back around to the Well of Souls. At the end of Bob’s talk he mentioned that there was one Copernicus-related thing he could talk about, and that it had to do with death. Essentially, 38 Studios are integrating the death conceit directly into the Copernicus IP. Whenever you die, you resurrect back at a thing called the Well of Souls. It’s a piece of magical technology that can and does bring the dead back from the grave. However, everyone in the world knows this – it’s an accepted part of the cycle of life for everyone in the game world, not just the player characters.

R.A. hinted that each faction/realm has access to Well of Souls technology, but that perhaps not everyone knows how to recreate it, and that there may be people who know how to switch Wells on and off. He posited the real-world analogy of the Cold War conflict between the USA and the USSR in the 70s and 80s. Would the Cold War have continued if a third party threatened to switch off one side’s Well of Souls? Interesting food for thought.

While not directly addressing whether their death penalty is hardcore or not, this feature does highlight the amount of thought the 38 guys are spending on creating and developing their world, and how much effort they are devoting to making sure that everything makes sense within that world. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

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