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Don't Fear The Reaper? Maybe You Should.

Dan Fortier Posted:
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MMOWTF: Don't Fear The Reaper? Maybe You Should.

Weekly MMORPG.com columnist Dan Fortier tackles the question of whether or not we should really have something to lose from death in MMOs.

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

The small village laid in smoldering ruins as the epic battle came to a close and the lone survivor stood amid a scene of brutal carnage. All around him laid the bodies of fallen foes and comrades. His eyes narrowed as he searched the area for any remaining enemies, but finding none, he sheathed his sword and staggered forward looking for his friends.

The battle had been pitched and many times he had only survived by the awareness and skill of his friends. A large battle-axe, originally intended for his skull, was pinned to a tree by a perfectly placed arrow from the bow of Granor Swiftwood and were it not for the brutal counter charge led by the stalwart Dwarf, Balek Brightsword, they might have been overrun by the sheer numbers of their foes.

Carefully picking his way through the debris and bodies, he found the body of the Sorceress. Her small body had been crushed under the weight of a falling Troll and burnt by the Greek fire used to keep him down. He punched the monster's body in rage and began to pull her free so that she might have a proper burial away from this accursed town when he heard movement through the trees, coming his direction.

Drawing his blade and ducking low, the warrior prepared to launch a surprise attack on any would-be grave robbers. Hearing familiar voices he stood up to see his fallen party members alive and well casually looting their own dead bodies!

"How...how did you..." his voice trailed off in confusion.

"What are you talking about silly?" The Sorceress laughed and made a wry smile "Help us get the gear back so we can do another quest before bedtime!"

An often used quote in the real world is that life has no meaning unless there is death, but in games (MMOs particularly), the permanent death of a character is usually out of the question as a very bad business model. We play games to enjoy ourselves and last week I even touched on a few reasons why players would choose a simplistic, yet engaging, game over one that stressed the dogmatic minutia of reality. This week I wanted to briefly go over a few of the reasons that I think that a stricter death penalty is not necessarily the kiss of death for an online game.

The main reasoning behind the lack of any meaningful death penalty is simple: Players in most games invest insane amounts of time in: leveling a character, getting gear, earning rewards and titles, etc. to want to be able to lose it all if they lag out or get involved with a lame group. Even in offline games where you can save your progress at any time (like Neverwinter Nights 2), if a character dies, he simply floats back to life after the battle (in the original NwN, you were required to at least talk to an NPC to raise them). Many non-RPG MMOs still feature a simple Respawn system to minimize player loss and frustration. I certainly don't fault designers for not inflicting severe death penalties in that kind of environment.

Many players will no doubt wonder, "Who needs a death penalty anyway? Why are you trying to make the game harder on me just so you can feel like you've got something to lose?"

Having played a fairly decent cross-section of games with and without PvP, I've found that there is a noticeable difference in the level of enjoyment I get from fights when there is something to lose and fights where there is something to gain. While most casual gamers are still probably indifferent to a risk-reward system, those that do get hooked will tell you that they can't imagine playing another click and wait system where the only thing to be lost is some damage to your items or a respawn timer that lowers your stats.

Perhaps the best of both worlds would be a system that wasn't based on a monthly fee that could scrap the grind, yet still deliver a deep and rewarding advancement system. Instead of vertical character growth (More HP, Mana, etc.), a system of horizontal growth where advancement simply opens more options would be more suitable for a more powerful death system. You could even allow characters the ability to have a character tree so that all the characters could benefit from the success of another so that the loss of one wouldn't be crippling loss. As with everything though, you will never make anyone happy so the best idea is to allow the widest range of play styles while staying true to the concept for the game your building.

If you find that your MMO sessions have become an endless monotony of spell macros and pointless victories, you owe it to yourself to try a game that gives you the shakes when you get into a PvP fight, where there is actually something at stake and the choices you make determine whether you win big or lose big. Once you've experienced heart-pounding action like that in an MMO, you can't go back to the ordinary.

Cash in your tickets at the booth and sit tight till next week. As always, make yourselves heard in the forums...Onward and upwards!


Dan Fortier