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Community Spotlight: The Decline of the Death Penalty

Posted by MikeB Thursday October 22 2009 at 3:52PM
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This week’s Community Spotlight focuses on a thread started by user Yavln entitled “Death Penalty and its decline.” In the original post, Yavln dissects the effects of harsher MMOG death penalties on the gameplay experience, and examines why developers have chosen to back away from these harsher death penalties in games released in recent years.

Yavln begins by describing the death penalties found in the games of yore, “…back in the early days if you died you almost always lost something of value, exp, money in your pocket, items off your back, your mount or a combination of the above, the point was that death hurt, as a result any time anyone went into combat, they knew fine well what the cost was going to be if they lost, or won.”

Yavln also goes on to describe the emotional rollercoaster that the fear of such penalties would create in players as they played these games in pretty dramatic detail. I can’t say I’ve felt just those emotions, but I definitely feared for my life much more than I do in recent releases for sure! I recall all too well the 20 minute trek in my undies to retrieve my corpse early on in Star Wars Galaxies, and I can definitely say I was a lot more cautious about my life when death meant I could lose all my gear by being unable to retrieve my corpse. Now, compared to recent releases such as Champions Online, where death simply means a respawn and a minor bonus to experience and damage lost, there is no doubt in my mind I am way less cautious about dying. Heck, in beta, my friend and I zerged the Teleiois Tower instance, which is meant for a team of five, by ourselves. We just died, respawned, and tried again, over and over, until we finally succeeded. I recall commenting about how ridiculous it was then, and I still feel the same.

I know why the penalties have been lessened, and Yavln does as well, but he certainly doesn’t agree with the trend, explaining, “Bring the years forward to today, and the game scape has changed beyond all recognition, death penalty for most games is a think of the past, it's something developers have deemed as bad for business, but I think they have it all wrong, when they compare death to older games, and then hold up the player numbers with games like wow, what their failing to account for is the time period involved.

There are more people playing games today, than have ever played games in the past ten years combined, as a result of the massive influx of new gamers and new demographics developers are now scrambling to cut away things from games that they feel will deter all these new gamers.”

This is certainly true. The market has grown considerably and in order to make games more accessible death penalties as we’ve known them in years past, well, got the death penalty! MMOG’s have just become easier overall, and this is just part of a continuing trend for gaming in general. If you look on the consoles, there is quite a bit of hand holding going on. I cringed recently when watching a preview video of the new Super Mario Bros game for the Wii. The journalist explained that if a player dies enough times during a stage that the game will essentially play itself past the obstacle and the player can take over whenever he wishes. Why is this relevant to MMOGs? Well, there is bound to be some cross-over. The trends established in non-MMOG games shape the expectations for those potential new players that many developers are chasing to expand the genre.

Yavln also brings up EVE Online as an example of a contemporary MMOG that is still successful even while maintaining a pretty harsh death penalty, “EvE online is another amazing and mega sucessful game, with very heavy death penalty, or so it seems, anyone who has actually played the game for longer than 14 days will show you that not only do they still have sjips left but their making money, and at the same time not being shy with PvP, and it's a credit to CCP and their insurences and other systems that help reduce the blow of death.”

He then compares EVE to Jumpgate: Evolution, and speculates as to how the much diminished death penalty will affect gameplay, saying, “Now take games that or on the horizon, Jumpgate Evolution, can easily be looked at as a WoW version of EvE, but with its pruposed death penalty, and no cargo loss, haulers will be taking goods, or miners will be mining and then instead of fighting to protect their ore, thy will simply smile as an enemy comes into range and starts blasting them, what's a small repair bill when it saves you 5 minutes of flight time back to your station.”

Now if you’re one of those people reading this and shaking your head, saying, “To hell with death penalties! Corpse runs suck!” You’re going to love nate1980’s take on the issue, “I disagree about the whole death penalty thing. You're basically talking about death penalties from PvP, and things like that just encourage gank squads. I'd rather not be forced to group up with a bunch kids or jerks in a game. If you're going to claim losing gear is realistic or that it gives death a meaning, well then why don't you ask for death to be permanent. Now that's a death penalty I'd advocate for, because then people will start showing a little more respect and manners to people, and not hide behind anonymity so much. You see, full loot pvp doesn't phase those who've played a while, because they have reserves stored in their bank. It also doesn't phase those in a good guild, that can easily replace that gear.

If there isn't permanent death, then there might as well be no death penalty, because they just aren't fun any other way.”

You have to admit that nate1980 does make some good points. The harsher death penalties can be gotten around by resourceful players, heck even Yavln’s EVE example supports this point, and so it can be argued that the mechanic really only tends to penalize those who aren’t as resourceful. When you’re a developer chasing customers who have potentially never touched an MMOG before, that is indeed “bad for business” as Yavln put it.

What do you think of the death penalty issue? Let us know in the comments below!