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Death Penalties: My Love-Hate Relationship

Isabelle Parsley Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives 0

As you no doubt know by now, I tend to put myself in the older generation of gamers – the BW (before WoW) generation that remembers, among other things, what death penalties were like when they really were a penalty. I remember corpse runs, xp loss, item loss, and hours spent recovering the corpses of all the people who came to help me recover my corpse in the first place.

They were teeth-gnashingly frustrating, those penalties, and yet somehow they were also fun and they contributed to making some of the longest-lasting memories I have of the first few MMOs I played. But it makes me wonder: is it the penalties I miss, or is it all the actions and interactions that went with them?

For one thing, MMOs were slower in those days. We had only the faintest clue what we were doing, we didn’t have access to dedicated websites for every single aspect of the game, and the built-in pace of the game tended to be rather slower than it is these days. In that context, death penalties as they were then could really bite, and there’s nothing like losing a level or a prized item to make you appreciate the effort you put in to getting them in the first place.

Back in my uphill-in-the-snow days (usually barefoot from my gear still being on my corpse, way over there, camped by a zillion mobs), death wasn’t just a speed bump; die enough times in a row and it would become a real obstacle. Asheron’s Call had a penalty system I rather liked: you didn’t lose levels like you could in EQ, but you would build up a greater and greater xp debt up to a pre-set maximum; beyond that, however, your stats also took an increasing hit as your debt racked up, so you got worse and worse at doing stuff until you could make up some of the debt. It stung, but it was rarely so bad that it couldn’t be overcome with a little effort and maybe a little help from your friends – which is exactly how penalties in games should be.

The other thing old-style death penalties provided was comradeship: common endeavors and common pain. There’s nothing in games that forges bonds quite as solidly as helping and being helped, and there’s no need quite so great as the need to get one’s corpse (and all one’s prized gear) back. I’ve lost track of the number of friends I made in game that way, a number of whom I still play with today.

(A quick tangent here: being willing to help yourself out of a pickle, and being smart enough to not get in them twenty times a day, goes a long way to making people more willing to help you. Everything has a flip side in the MMO experience, and I remember a number of people who seemed unable to lace their boots up without getting killed and then crying to me about it, demanding help no matter what else I happened to be doing at the time or what time of day it was. That doesn’t push my help button, that pushes my “Good god, grow some common sense!” button. Just sayin’.)

The thing is, you don’t necessarily need frustratingly harsh death penalties to achieve the same kind of effect; there’s more than one way to skin that cat in MMOs. We can think outside the box, or we can even combine several boxes – either way, we’re well beyond the need to have one size fits all concepts for some of our game mechanics.

I’m saying this mainly because any discussion on death penalties usually devolves into a shouting match between those who remember them fondly and those who would rather get a root canal with no anesthetic. Then you get the name calling, with the elitist hardcore luddites on the one hand and the instant gratification junkies on the other – but as usual, the issue isn’t quite as extreme and certainly doesn’t need to be quite as polarized.

We all like instant gratification to a greater or lesser extent, especially in games where the basic premise is (or should be) to have fun and not to slave at a second or third job; but hopefully the trend for it in MMOs has gone about as far as it’s going to for the time being. Personally I’m looking forward to seeing the pendulum swing back a little in the other direction – just not all the way, mind you. I don’t have the play time I had a decade ago and I’ve played too many games to want to go back to the utter basics. But so many games these days breeze you through to the end game that you sometimes have to wonder why they don’t just let you create max level chars to begin with and be done with it. (Some games, in fact, let you do exactly that.)

Older MMOs didn’t have such an over-riding focus on “the end game” – getting there was more like a wagon trek along the Oregon trail than like a Concorde ride over the Atlantic. There’s no reason, however, that it has to be all one or the other. Developers have a great many more tools and a great deal more experience to draw upon than they did 10 years ago; taking just one example, experience curves can be varied depending on where you are in the game and what you’re doing, and don’t have to be linear at all. We may not notice it as we play, but many aren’t anymore these days.

The same idea could very easily be applied to something like death penalties, to remind us of what we’re working for without making us bang our head on our keyboard in frustration. You could have no (or little) death penalty in the first few levels of a game, or even a sliding scale of penalties depending on your level; you could have no death penalty at all in situations where dying is a penalty in and of itself, like in difficult dungeons or PvP; hell, you could have varying penalties for PvE, PvP, or specific activities within both those realms. It may be more difficult to design and code, but it’s certainly not impossible.

As for comradeship and shared endeavors – they’re still there, and there’s plenty of ways to promote those without requiring punitive measures. There really was something unique and fun about midnight corpse runs, but many of us just don’t have the leisure for those anymore. So give us options, instead; there are already games out there that impose one penalty if you recover your corpse and another if you don’t. Like I said, there are lots of ways to skin the death penalty cat in MMOs.

I’m not advocating the sudden and exclusive return of extreme death penalties, though I do miss the basic concept rather more than I realized before I set out to write this column. What I don’t want is the kind of penalty that I can log off to avoid, like time-based xp debts (which I’ve seen before but I’m glad to say doesn’t seem to be all that common); making a player log off to avoid something seems to be an entirely counter-productive design idea, even to an altoholic like me. I also don’t want to see the kind of death penalty that just keeps racking up to the point at which I just don’t want to play anymore; also counter-productive, for obvious reasons.

But there’s a whole realm of options between the “die, get up” and the “die, lose all your levels” extremes. I would rather pay a small xp penalty, for instance, than just pay money to repair my gear – that’s not a penalty, that’s a minor annoyance. And I really think I could get back into having to do corpse runs… as long as it’s not midnight on a work night, anyway. Some of us aren’t as young as we used to be, and those 4-hour runs are killer the next day.


Isabelle Parsley