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Columns: If You Strike Me Down

By Michael Bitton on February 02, 2011

If You Strike Me Down

…I shall become weaker than you could possibly imagine (and perhaps drop all my phat lewt, too!). No? I think I got that quote wrong somewhere.  If it’s not obvious by now, we’ll be talking about death in Star Wars: The Old Republic this week.


Why death this week? Well, Bioware has been a lot more vocal on the official Star Wars: The Old Republic forums as of late and this includes Lead Systems Designer Damion Schubert, who recently shared his extensive thoughts on SW:TOR’s death penalty.

We’ve talked about death penalties in general here at as part of the Community Spotlight blog I do every week, and it is clear that many of our readers lean more towards the harsher death penalties for a variety of reasons, but even playing devil’s advocate I find myself hard-pressed to argue with the points Damion made against a harsh death penalty.

Let’s break it down a bit. According to Damion, Bioware definitely wants players to feel the string of death, but they aren’t really interested in using the death penalty to punish players for a number of reasons. 

For one, they want players to be able to take chances, and having a severe death penalty would deter players from taking risks. If I’m playing devil’s advocate, I feel this is probably one of the weaker points for someone who prefers harsher penalties; you might argue that the reward of taking those risks would be that much greater if there is a significant threat of loss on failure, and there is a certain truth to that (Demon’s Souls anyone?!).

Damion also makes the point that a harsh death penalty will create grinding, as players essentially gravitate towards the path of least resistance. Many players would circumvent the threat of the death by taking on lesser challenges despite the lower rewards in order to avoid incurring the death penalty. I’ve personally seen this one in a number of MMOs, where players will grind many lower con enemies quicker and safer in order to level up and avoid the possibility of death.

Grouping may also be affected by a harsher death penalty, as Damion argues that players would probably be less open to trusting players they don’t know in group situations as a poor healer or tank would put them at risk, heck, people are anal about who they bring along already in games like World of Warcraft as the time setback of simply failing a run is annoying as it is. Again, I’ve seen this one too, and it makes sense. Why would I want to group with random people if they could end up getting me killed and setting me back significantly? At best, I might still end up grouping out of necessity or desperation to get something done, but there would likely be a lot more drama for failed attempts or mistakes as a result. Not really great for cultivating communities.

One of Damion’s points that rang most true to me was the point against drop penalties (meaning, if you die, you drop your stuff) aka full loot in PvP or having to make corpse runs for your items. I’ve had to make corpse runs in a few games, and they were certainly inconvenient, but most of my drop penalty experience comes from MUDding, where dying always meant your stuff would be on your corpse whether it was a PK (player kill) or not. I suppose then, I wasn’t shocked I had to do corpse runs when I started my first MMO Star Wars Galaxies. However, as I expanded my horizons and delved deeper into the MMO world I realized how much of an inconvenience it was to have to deal with that and it was way harsher than it needed to be. In SWG,  the harsh death penalty didn’t last long enough for me to worry about having to retrieve much in the way of useful stuff, but I definitely recall the days of storing my ‘good stuff’ in the bank in MUDs and even carrying only a certain amount of gold on hand in case I died. Not so fun after all, at least for me.

Harsher death penalties would also force designers to make the game easier. Damion explains that dungeons would become “inaccessible” as players wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford to be able to repeat fights and learn them upon failed attempts. As a result, designers would have to make encounters easier on the first go. Again, one might argue that creating that kind of tension might make the victory that much sweeter, but the fact of the matter is (Damion doesn’t really touch on this) that everything in game design is time vs. cost and spending a lot of time developing really great group content that only a fraction of the playerbase will have the stomach (and time) to trudge through isn’t really a wise way to spend your development budget.

We don’t actually learn what specifically the death penalty for Star Wars: The Old Republic is (I imagine it is still in flux and they are iterating it), but it’s clear that we can expect to feel a sting (perhaps repair costs?) but not be overly penalized by it. As Damion put it:

“Ultimately, we want players to play the freakin' game. We want them to group. We want them to deck out in their gear. We want them to experiment with builds. We want them to explore the nether regions of all the planets. We want to make really hard stuff for them. And we most assuredly want them to seek out challenges bigger than themselves.

Does that mean we want the game to be a cakewalk? No, we want there to be tough fights. We want there to be complex fights that might take multiple tries to get right. We want to put in challenges for groups of players that require good tactics, good teamwork and flawless execution to pull off. But I would seperate the idea of 'challenge' and 'punishment'. I would rather our challenges be gated by whether or not you have the skill, the gear, and the teamwork to succeed than whether or not you have the credits and/or time to wait out the forced downtime in between, you know, the fun part.”

As I noted earlier, I have a long history with MUDs where harsh death penalties are fairly commonplace, but I really think it was my experiences in Star Wars Galaxies, as much as I loved the game, that turned me off to the common timesinks and moneysinks that pervaded most MMOs for many years (especially those associated with death). More specifically, I think back to the corpse runs early on, but then also the clone costs, and then having to go find a dancer or musician to heal my mind wounds, sitting around for 5-10 minutes once I found one, and then getting rebuffed just to go back out and kill stuff. Ultimately, it was a real pain in the ass, and those are certain times I frankly just don’t miss, they certainly didn’t add to the game.

I find myself reassured by  Bioware’s approach to death in Star Wars: The Old Republic, how about you? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Michael Bitton / Michael began his career at the WarCry Network in 2005 as the site manager for several different WarCry fansite portals. In 2008, Michael worked for the startup magazine Massive Gamer as a columnist and online news editor. In June of 2009, Michael joined as the site's Community Manager.