Mostly Dead

When you die in an MMO you are, of course, only mostly dead. Which means you can come back and have another go. With EverQuest Next discussing what death penalties it might offer, Meta Gamer takes a look at how death works in MMOs.

Death as the end

The ultimate in hardcore MMO options is permadeath, where once you die your character is gone. Permadeath in any computer game, however, is problematic. If you die a permanent death your only choice is to start the game over from the very beginning. In an old fashioned arcade game like Pacman, this was a way of prolonging the short content. In a modern MMO, however, permadeath is an extreme penalty. Imagine the following situations:

  • You die on a raid boss. The raid is over because you all have to go and level and gear again.
  • You die to a train of mobs pulled by one player who escapes and drops them on you (deliberately or not).
  • You have a /played of over 500 hours. Then you die.
  • A team of enemy players runs around and kills everyone, including you. You are outnumbered 50 to 1 due to faction imbalance.
  • An elite mob randomly spawns on you while you are mining.
  • You disconnect because your cat pulled your cable out while you were in a fight.
  • You play the game with a friend. You die and they don't. You can no longer play together.

Permadeath would work poorly if introduced to most modern MMOs. Firstly because, unlike in a single player offline game, your death is not entirely within your control. Would it really be fun to have to cower inside a city for fear of dying? Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because if there is any type of progression within the game then permadeath will affect social ties. To overcome these, the MMO that brings you permadeath will have this as its defining feature with the entire game built around it.

Death as a second chance

If permadeath is not a good death penalty for an MMO, what kinds of penalties are appropriate? You could of course ignore death entirely. This, however, raises the question of what death actually means within the game and why you even have it. So what do existing MMOs do to players who die.

World of Warcraft

The world of Azeroth is scattered with graveyards. When you die, you appear there and have to run back to your corpse. You also take damage to your gear when you die. Death can be made worse if you cannot get back to your corpse as resurrecting at the graveyard does even more damage to your gear (and so costs more in repairs) and leaves you with a 10 minute debuff that makes you very weak. It can be made easier with friends as those friends can resurrect you on the spot. In some areas you are resurrected without penalty at a graveyard once every X seconds. If you die often, you have to wait before you can resurrect.

Final Fantasy XIV

You suffer no penalty for death other than time spent getting back to where you died, but can only resurrect at your home location, or be resurrected by another player. If your home location happens to be on another continent, that’s where you end up! Death can be made less painful by planning in advance.

EVE Online

In EVE you can die far from home. But thats okay because you have clones! EVE death is a more significant penalty than in many games, because the odds are you lost your ship and whatever was on it along with your body. Death in EVE follows something of an inverse bell curve of penalty severity. It starts high as you will likely lose all your resources, gets less significant as you develop and lose only a part of what you have, and then gets more painful again as you invest in more expensive ships.

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 has waypoints scattered all over the world which you can teleport to instantly for a price. When you die you can be resurrected on the spot or you can pay to resurrect at one of these waypoints. You suffer no penalty for dying. All players can resurrect others, including in combat (though this is slow). Before you die, you enter a ‘downed’ state where you can use special abilities in an attempt to resurrect yourself. It is extremely common in Guild Wars 2 to be resurrected by any player who happens across your corpse. This is unique to the game and has a hugely positive impact on it.

Reimagining death

Most options fall into one of two categories: death is a minor inconvenience or death is major event. The minor inconveniences seem to work fairly well. The major events, however, are often poorly thought out and normally seem to involve ramping up those minor inconveniences. Longer corpse runs, losing significant amounts of gold, longer debuffs. All of these are essentially the same thing – a regression of your progress. Once the regression becomes too large, however, it becomes immersion breaking (in that it breaks the flow of the game) and problematic for social connections (in that your separates people who are playing together). This is possibly more true in theme park MMOs than sandbox MMOs, it should be noted.

This is not to say that the minor inconvenience road is the only one to be walked. Rather than the current ways of applying penalties should be rethought. At the heart of this is the idea that death is a failure and the solution is to punish it. You did bad. You must suffer.

What if death was more ... interesting? There are ways of implementing penalties that would be more gamified. Perhaps when you die you have to fight for your life - the more often you die the more challenging the fight. Or you could complete a puzzle, or collect items in the afterworld. Successful completion of the challenge could be required to live at all, or could be a way of reducing the cost of death. You could be rewarded for dying less often.

Perhaps such challenges would need to be something you did in advance. You could craft items to save yourself from death more efficiently or with less penalty. You could gather a whole set of gear to make your death challenges easier (or to make you look cool while dead). Challenges could be timed, or death realm events where players needed to band together.

At its extreme, death could become a whole new mode of gameplay. You could have players become death. You could have to seize a location/item to allow resurrection. You could have the chance to haunt living players. until they resurrect you. Death could be used to implement world PvP in a game without factions. In the first Guild Wars 2 Halloween event there was a PvP arena where, when you died, you became a member of the opposing team! All it takes is a little imagination and a break from the norm.