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Column #3: Permanent Death

Nathan Knaack Posted:
Editorials 0

Nathan looks at the concept of permanent death this week

The trouble with the idea of permanent death, or “permadeath” as it is often referred to, is that it absolutely will not work in any existing MMORPG. Most of the online community has taken a giant leap of illogic to assume that permadeath will never work anywhere, but that’s not how we roll here at Outside the Box. The first three articles, the past, present, and future, basically sum up where the MMORPG industry came from, where it’s currently stuck, and what many people believe it should be trying to achieve. From now on, Outside the Box is a column dedicated to digging up those popular but seemingly impossible, or unpopular but entirely essential, ideas that have been tossed aside by most current developers and putting our heads together to find ways to make them feasible. Anyone can set the forums on fire with post after post about what doesn’t work; it takes an intelligent and creative community to actually work together to pick up the pieces and assemble a working system. That being said, I am deeply appreciative of the feedback this column has received so far in each of its previous three installments, and I look forward to engaging readers in discussion of each of the next topics I address. Keep in mind, Outside the Box is a forum for making taboo ideas appealing, not spamming back and forth with “my game is better than your game” arguments.

As a bit of background information, I was the Lead Creative Writer, Game Designer, and Community Manager for Rapid Reality, the development studio behind the MMO Center service and more immediately The Chronicle. I was tasked with writing the initial concepts, storylines, area descriptions, quests, NPC templates, and game mechanics for The Chronicle, Machines, and several other MMO projects Rapid Reality has in the works, but due to my NDA agreement with them, I cannot discuss any detailed specifics beyond the information the company has released to the public. My point here is that I’ve been on the other side of the equation; I’ve worked with artists, programmers, sound engineers, producers, webmasters, and investors on MMORPG projects. Often in discussions like those I hope to have here in Outside the Box, the community will debate back and forth about a certain idea until someone ends the conversation with a statement about how nobody really knows how much time, money, equipment, or personnel it takes to get things done. I might not have any exact numbers to offer, but I’ve generally got a good idea about how much cash and sweat goes into the development process, so along with all of the creative feedback I hope to stir up with these articles, maybe we’ll get that much closer to solidifying exactly how these ideas are going to work and what it’s going to take to get them off the ground.

Before we get into why permadeath doesn’t work in existing MMORPGs, let’s first discuss a couple of the games that claim to have permanent death in some form. Face of Mankind and Eve Online have both included the threat of permanently dying as a game feature, but both of them incorporate a cloning system by which players can back-up their characters for some nominal amount of money. In both games, clones are cheap, easy to obtain, and 100% infallible. You’ll rarely find yourself without enough money for one, too far from where they’re sold, or ever be in danger of someone tampering with your clone. Basically, the only way you’d ever really get caught without a perfect back-up character is if you didn’t know they existed as a game feature or you were purposely playing the game without one for some reason. Case and point is how clones work in Face of Mankind, where they’re sold at a terminal in the very same safe zone where you appear after dying. Additionally, clones are ridiculously cheap (when I played FoM, new characters began the game with enough money to buy over 1,000 basic clones), so the only way you’d ever be without one is if you died and forgot to step over to the medical terminal before heading back out into the world. Permadeath should be the silent threat looming over all characters that makes players honestly consider their actions, retreat from losing battles, take the proper precautions, travel in groups, take dramatic risks, make legendary sacrifices, and otherwise think on their feet; it shouldn’t be a neutered game mechanic that really only affects someone who has a momentary lapse of common sense and forgets to buy a new clone one day.

As previously stated, a true permadeath system will not work in any existing MMORPG, a fact which is mostly responsible for the poor reception the idea has had over the years. When someone says “permadeath,” people immediately imagine their favorite EverQuest, World of Warcraft, or Lineage characters getting ambushed and slaughtered by some griefer twice their level. This sums up perfectly some of the issues that prevent permadeath from existing in current MMORPGs. It won’t work with a level system because it takes so long to reach a competitive status that even the thought of losing all that grinding is very unappealing. Also, level systems cripple a game’s player vs. player mechanics because, as everyone knows, whoever is higher level almost always wins. Sure, everyone’s got a story about how their level 27 managed to take down a level 31, but for every tale like that someone can bring up, I can personally relate 10 accounts of how a level 95 character rolled over my level 5 character like a speed bump, backed up, and then did it again. Level is king in player vs. player, and it’s the biggest reason why permadeath will never work in a level-based game. There are three options besides levels for MMORPGs: skill-based (Ultima Online, Eve Online, etc), player-based (Planetside, Face of Mankind, etc), and non-advancement (Second Life, There, etc), but that is a topic for another day. Watch for Outside the Box #5…

Now that we’ve addressed the problem, let’s see if we can unearth some solutions. While designing The Chronicle (actually, years before that I voiced the following as a suggestion on the Pirates of the Burning Sea forums; kudos to anyone who can locate that thread and link it here), I suggested a difference between character types, a sliding scale of sorts up and down the risk/reward curve. At one end, you have people who never want to lose anything and at the other end, you’ve got people who are willing to stick their necks out for the chance at greater and/or faster rewards. To achieve that, we implemented main and regular characters; while regular characters can do just about everything someone can do in a typical MMORPG, main characters have the opportunity to advance to higher degrees of skill, obtain better items, tackle special quests, lead enormous factions, and gain abilities faster than regulars. The trade off? Permadeath. There were other rules in place, but I won’t get into that right now, suffice to say that the system has supplemental conditions to handle most everything people brought up for feedback, things like roving squads of regular characters out to permanently kill any main they meet, lag/disconnections, player vs. player concerns, and looting.

What I’d like to suggest as sort of a modification or amendment to the Main/Regular idea is a whole modular system of character creation by which players could choose individual bonuses and penalties for each character. They would be given a screen during character creation that would list the benefits and drawbacks on each side along with their costs (in some arbitrary points relative to how drastic they were). Let’s say a player wanted to have a hidden name that is only displayed when they choose it to be. Well, for that benefit, they would have to use a realistic carrying capacity, only being able to haul so much around on their person and slowing down noticeably when heavily loaded. If the skill maximum is 100, maybe you could advance to 110 if you gave up the ability to use bind points for respawning. Note that these aren’t in-character traits like ambidexterity or long-distance vision, they’re out-of-character traits, the kinds of things you decide once during creation and cannot modify later on.

Something else I really wanted to add, which Planetside is about to implement as well, is the concept of the “extra.” (Planetside calls it their “Fodder Program”) Obviously, the whole “main character” concept is in reference to literature and film, where the action and storyline revolves around the main characters, with all of the regulars coming and going with maybe one specific task or purpose. Furthermore, there are always goons, nameless soldiers, faces in the crowd, audience members, and other extras that fill out the cast. What I really wanted to do was divide the player base into three categories: Main characters pretty much running the show, regular characters going about their own business as the bulk of the population, and everything else filled out by extras. The catch is that extras do not pay a subscription fee; they can log in at any time and play for free. They don’t even have to make an account, as every time they play, they’re given a different character, one with relatively low stats, some standardized equipment, and little else. They do not advance in skills, they cannot permanently kill a main character, and they can’t loot anyone. Aside from being a nice way for potential customers to get to know the game before they committed to subscribing, I thought we could use extras for all kinds of fun situations. For example, a main character with the proper leadership skills and rank in a prominent NPC faction could designate a spot on the map (like a castle, tower, or town) as a hot spot. For some duration (based on his skills and rank) of time, a portion of the extras that log in or respawn will appear as soldiers for his faction at that point. Why let extras log in and just wander around when you can put them to work? Existing characters get some cannon fodder and extras get to experience the game for free; it’s win-win.

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Nathan Knaack