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Who Fears Perma-Death?

Cassandra Khaw Posted:
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I have a confession to make.

I used to fear pod death. No, scratch that. I wasn't afraid of pod death. I was outright terrified of it. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, 'pod death' is what happens when a pilot in Eve Online 'dies'. According to game lore, a 'capsuleer' faced with imminent hull breach is pumped full of lethal neutrotoxins even as a 'transneural burning scanner' transmits a snapshot of their brain matter to their closest available clone. Mechanically speaking, this was nothing but a nifty way of explaining how the game works.

But ridiculous as it might sound, it was that bit of conceptual fluff right there that scared me. I just couldn't stomach the idea of playing a soulless replica of my character. I wasn't prepared to spend   precious hours on what would effectively be a delusional conglomeration of vat-grown virtual cells. If my waistline was going to get compromised because of a gaming habit, it was going to be for my own character, damn it.

Ahem. Soliloquy aside, let me ask you a question:

When was the last time a video game made you fear death?

When was the last time death was anything but an inconvenience to you, a problem easily corrected with the well-timed application of a save file? When was the last time you took possible extinction into serious consideration? A week? Two months? The last time you played Super Mario Brothers?

Death in video games is cheap and it's getting cheaper by the day. Over the last decade or so, games have evolved into something vastly more forgiving. As some purists would put it, they've grown 'soft'. Mind you, this isn't necessarily bad. For all the nostalgia it evokes, I'm not particularly keen about going back to the days where an ill-timed jump can spell the end of six hours of cautious platforming. I want to see a story. I want to enjoy my game. I don't want to fling my controller out of the window.

At the same time however death, when used correctly, can be effective. Roguelikes are probably the best examples of this. One mistake and that's it. You're through. Do not pass go. Go back to the beginning. Punishing as all that might sound, there's a strange allure to this. Caution becomes the operative word. Every victory wrestled from the jaws of defeat becomes sweeter, every useful item a privilege rather than a right. The death of a boss? A moment of pure triumph, a story to tell the children.

Do you remember the last time you felt this way in an MMO?

Now, here's my next question: what if we take a leaf from the roguelike book and change one important dynamic in MMOs? What if we made death hurt? Before you get started, I know the arguments against the idea. Heck, I agree with most of them. MMOs are different from single player games. You're not just playing a game. You're building a lifestyle. You become invested. Single player games are flings, MMOs are marriages. More importantly, however, MMOs are subject to the will of others. If you're rooted in a PVP-enabled realm, you already know what I'm talking about. Griefers happen. More often than not, they happen for no real reason whatsoever. Malicious players will eliminate your quest givers. They will camp your corpse. They will make it a bad, bad day. Imagine what would happen if death came with a heavy penalty. Imagine the chaos.

At the same time, however, would it make survival more profound? Would it make us appreciate our virtual existences more? Would it transform the experience into something other than a race to the end-game? Or would it result in the MMO expiring ignominiously a few months after release? If you asked me this question a year ago, I would have loudly proclaimed my belief in the latter. Even today, I don't know of too many people who would be willing to play a game where they could potentially lose a character they've spent years building. Now? Now, I'm not so sure.

Over the last few months, I've seen the word 'permadeath' surface time and time again. In September, CCP Games briefly hinted at the possibility of permadeath in their upcoming World of Darkness MMO. In February, Paradox Interactive announced Salem, a crafting MMORPG with permadeath elements. And on the Eastern front, we have Gamepot's Wizardry Online. Needless to say, that one's going to have permadeath as well. (Yes, that one has elves but I'm willing to overlook it for once. After all, death is as un-elvish as any one concept can get. Outside of ugliness and subterranean romps, of course.)

These are companies that have done their time. They've gone through the production cycle. They know their player base. And they're putting their money and reputation on a concept that may be tantamount to suicide. Are they simply that desperate to break into the market or do they know something that we do not? Have they somehow stumbled over some magical formula that will allow them to balance their upcoming titles, to keep griefers from completely consuming their respective games? Inquiring minds want to know.

Right now, details are at a premium but we're going to take a closer look at the aforementioned games over the next few weeks. We might even share a few exclusive screenshots. Until then, however, here's one last question:

Would you play on an MMO with permadeath?


Cassandra Khaw