Maybe back in the early days of MMOs, death penalties were a good idea. Now, they’re just annoying and really don't add anything to the game itself.
I can hear you saying, "Actually, death penalties have some really great benefits like, encouraging teamwork and also making the game more challenging. That challenge will make you into a better player and give you a feeling of accomplishment when you narrowly escape death.” All of which are good points and while I can see where you could make an argument for a death penalty in MMOs. I can make a case against it just as easily.
Making the price for death too high will discourage the casual gamer or in my case, the gamer who just wants to solo a lot because even in a pretend world he still doesn’t like people. If I die tying to finish a quest and get hit with experience debt or negative experience until I level down, I’m just going to get frustrated to the point where I don’t even want to play anymore.
Let me lay a real world scenario on you: One night we were hanging out at a friend’s place having a Super-Nerd Party. Two computers set up playing City of Heroes and two TVs going: one TV with the O.G. Xbox playing the first Halo, and the other TV rockin’ a N64 with Mario Party 3. I should also mention that copious amounts of booze played a part in the evening’s festivities as well. My friend and I were monopolizing the CoH (we were the only ones with accounts and the game had just come out, you know how it is) and we decided it’s time for a little break. Rest our eyes, empty our bladders, and blacken our lungs. When we come back inside my friend has a solid three levels of experience debt that he has to work off. The following is exactly as I remember events:
This unprecedented turn of events makes my friend calmly ask “Excuse me good chaps, was someone using my computer for some recreational video game playing?”
To which another person responded, while adjusting his monocle, “Why, that was me. I wanted to feel the exuberant joy of being a super hero in a city, which is also populated by other super heroes. I was defeated many times by roaming bands of ruffians.”
My friend maintained his composure and retorted with “My good sir, you have done me a great injustice! Have at you!”
The rest of the evening is mostly a blur and I’m not sure if the dialogue is exactly right… But more or less that’s how I remember it happening. My friend tried to explain what happened in the morning to the GM and their response to his problem was more or less “Tough luck, newbie”. Needless to say my friend was done with CoH after that and I’m sure his story isn’t unique.
Now I’m not an idiot, not a total idiot anyway. I get why death penalties exist and I don’t have a problem throwing money at fixing my gear or even getting rid of experience debt. I’m not above running to get my corpse from some dangerous area I had no business exploring in the first place or even leveling down, because I decided it was a good idea to take on a few mobs that were way stronger than me. The thing that makes the needle on my suck-o-meter bury itself into the depths of Suckville is that every death takes away from my maximum enjoyment of the game. This happens either by doubling my time at a lower level via debt or worse leveling down, or by making me backtrack to my where I died, which odds are I was going to do anyway because that’s where my quest objective was, without having any fun along the way. After a while it just starts to feel like work and not like fun anymore. Can someone tell me why I can’t just go to the graveyard, dust myself off, and step right back into the fray? I’ll tell you why. It’s because game developers want you to spend as much time playing their game as possible. It’s good business to keep players playing for as long as you can because that’s how you make your money.
Guess what else will keep players playing your game forever and happily paying for it? Making a kick ass game! There is probably a reason that WoW is the most played and successful MMO right now. It’s fun to play because it’s accessible and not punishing. Anyone can pick it up (assuming they have at least some experience in video games) and have a great time. Also, as far as I know, the reason for people having fun while playing WoW isn’t because “Dude, the death penalty in that game is so harsh that it actually causes me physical pain!”
In a medium that one of the draws to is total immersion and providing a vacation from everyday boring life, punishing you for death may actually strengthen the link between the player and the world. But, come on. No one has thought of anything better? Off the top of my head, here is one which in my humble opinion is WAY better than any penalty. When you die how about a mini game? I don’t even care how good it is, it could be a little Pac-man style game where grim reapers chase you down till you can find a way to kill them and revive or they catch you and send you back to a town/graveyard. I would be ok with a penalty if it’s because I am God awful at Pac-man AND it would make me better at Pac-man. Not good enough for you? How about this; if you’re going to have a death penalty make it so I can choose how harsh it is. Everyone is happy then! The hardcore get to be masochistic and the casual gamers get to just have fun.
None of this really matters though because despite bitching, moaning, and typing so hard that my fingers hurt (ED: that’s the only way to properly convey anger whilst typing), punishing players for dying in MMOs will probably never fully go away. There will always be experience debt/loss, damage to your gear, or a corpse run to make your MMO experience more annoying and less fun. It may be something that MMO gamers will just have to accept. There is nothing we can do about it except to pray that our suffering will be ended by some great savior. So, let us bow our heads and say a few words. Hopefully it will all be better soon.