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Recant's Blog

MMORPGs have plenty to offer. There's no shortage of great experiences available right now. Sure, there's room for improvement but it's nothing like the doom and gloom some would have you believe.

Author: Recant

Perma-death without the problems

Posted by Recant Saturday August 1 2009 at 9:31AM
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Death is perhaps the most powerful concept in literature and philosophy, provoking emotions and defining our very existence. Most of the great tales of our age involve death, and most of the great movies and TV shows rely heavily on its emotional impact.

But death in games has been trivialized to the point where it doesn't mean anything. You die, you respawn, you try again. Game developers have been trying to make death interesting for decades but I can't think of any examples where a game has been praised for its death system. Instead death is merely used as a small counterweight to a long steady stream of rewards.

So why perma-death? What's fun about losing everything you've worked for for the past few months? What game design benefits from punishing the player so hard that he has to start all over again? Do the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Can perma-death ever be fun?

I don't have all the answers but I do have a few ideas.   Perma-death is a neat idea, but it can't be squeezed into the design of current games.  Instead the game must be built around the idea that players will eventually die, and that there are no respawn points or resurrections.

The often cited flaw with perma-death is that a bug or a connection drop will end your life, or that people would purposely turn off their computer to avoid death. This doesn't have to be the case. There are all kinds of ways to implement perma-death without a player being as fragile as their computer or Internet conneciton:

First of all, remove the 'twitch' element from death. A few possibilies then come to mind:

1) No death from combat, instead you die from old age or disease.

2) Death by poor decision. Perma-death should not be caused by your healer getting disconnected, instead it should be caused by you making a bad choice.

A bad example of this might be a bomb-defusing quest, where you have to cut the blue or red wire. perma-death shouldn't be a dice roll, or at least it there should be a considerable element of player-involvement in the failure.

A better example might be; being given the option to defend a castle or to flee. The player should know beforehand that he would die in the event of the castle being captured, but should he succeed, the attackers die and he is rewarded for his bravery.

In any scenario, the death of a player should be the result of an important and interesting choice, not a twitch or luck based element.

3) Death by sacrifce. Perhaps an interesting way of dealing with the issue of complete loss and simulatenously making alt characters more appealing, is by endowing them with increased power from a sacrificed character.

4) Losing is fun. 

This is the mantra of a well known game called Dwarf Fortress. A graphically ancient but incredibly complex single player game that offers some interesting insights into perma-death.

The game has this great philosophy, that if you're going to die, it might as well be in the most spectacular, epic, amusing or heroic way possible.

And just because something has died, doesn't mean it is gone from the world. A Dwarf's possessions can be redistributed, his bones made into jewellery, and his memory permanently etched on the decorations of walls, floors or furniture.

If a fortress a player has lovingly built is overrun by goblins, that fortress isn't gone, it just becomes a dungeon for the next game.

Perhaps if modern MMORPGs adopted the "losing is fun" mantra, it might help mitigate problems such as MUDflation, the "end-game", or players being forced to play the game as if it was a job.

Perma-death should be fair, but most importantly, like with any game design concept it should be fun.