Every time an MMO comes out the question is always asked, how punishing should a death penalty be?
I can think of four punishments that MMOs release:
- Perma Death (Start over from level 1)
- Lose Money
- Negative Debuff
- Have to Start from a Checkpoint
The idea is that a person in an MMO should feel that they will avoid death at all chances to give the game a feeling of intensity and realism. When a person jumps off of a cliff their heart jumps not because of the effect of falling but the sudden realization they you will die.
This is a classic condition similar to the gambling effect found in MMOs. If you are punished for dying every time you die you will want to avoid death. In real life there is no real need to punish death because we naturally avoid death and try to survive. It is a basic evolutionary principle that simply does not apply to digital games.
Over time people will do whatever they can to avoid death knowing full well there is a huge punishment for it. This is also why in most battlegrounds people do not mind and rarely try to avoid death because they know there is no real penalty for it.
The death penalty is not an indication of skill as so many players seem to think it is. You can die in a game for a large number of reasons. I’ve died from game glitches where I fall through the Earth. I’ve gone AFK and come back dead. I’ve been camped by people 20 levels higher than me. I’ve done 5v1 in battlegrounds and died.
Death in MMORPGs is NOT a sign of skill it is merely a mechanic in the game used to emphasize staying alive.
From here I will look at what I feel at the four types of death penalties.
1. Perma Death
So in this form of death if you die, you’re dead.
Diablo 2 is the first game I can think of that had permanent death in a multiplayer scenario. If you entered hardcore mode if you died you were dead. So people would spend their time gearing up in non-hardcore mode and try and challenge people in hardcore mode. It worked well for Diablo 2.
Lost Souls 2 also has hardcore mode allowing for permanent death, it did not work out nearly as well.
Terraria also has a nightmare mode that allows permanent death.
The thing is this is not the whole game, it is merely an option. It is an option that basically nobody ever chooses. Nobody ever wants permanent death. Everyone always wants lives or outs.
The games that have had permanent death in them during the Nintendo age were some of the most unpopular ones.
Perma death makes for a terrible concept largely because it would give the best no one to play with. When you are really good you enjoy killing people who are less than you because it makes you feel bigger. But NOBODY likes camping introductionary zones an making people quit the game. It just doesn’t make for a fun experience for anyone.
2. Lose Money
The lose money category comes in with losing gear and having damaged gear.
This is another bad choice for death penalty but it is the most common one.
The reason why this is a bad death penalty is because people will instead of thinking “how can I avoid this” they will instead think “can I afford this.”
How many times in raids do you hear people complain about their repair bills complaining about how a night of progression raiding costs them X amount of gold.
They don’t actually fear death they just see it as an inevitability and are constantly making these cost analyses.
It’s a really really bad model and it is one that NO ONE is moving away from. This is because without this death penalty the economy of the game goes out of control.
3. Negative Debuff
The negative debuff often comes with losing money. The idea is you are going to take a 5-10% cut in stats for every time you die. The buff doesn’t last too long but it will stack.
So in Age of Conan you would get this 5-minute buff that would stack up to 10 times. It would decrease your stats by 4% every time you died. So if you kept dying continuously you would presumably lose 40% of your stats.
So what is the problem here? Well, the problem is this system doesn’t actually encourage life. Once you die once you become more susceptible to death. It doesn’t mean you have to play better it means someone else will have to carry you.
A death that promotes you dying more is a horrible concept.
I remember the first free to play MMO I ever played. If you didn’t buy the power ups dying was very easy. Every time you died you would get a stacking one hour debuff. The only way to get rid of the debuff without waiting an hour was to buy an item in the shop for it.
Negative debuffs are on the way out, but there are still so many developers who feel death ought to be a punishment to mark players for being bad.
So this is what I consider to be the better death penalty. The concept is simple. Every single time you die you move back to a set point. The penalty here is your time.
People consider their time to be valuable. The worse the checkpoint is for you the better the penalty is.
The reason why this is so particularly punishing is because you have to… start over. You have to kill all of those mobs again. You have to go through all of the steps again… and you learn your lesson. You will avoid death at whatever chance you will because you fear starting over.
It is powerful enough to make people not want to die but not too powerful to push people away.
This system presumes (rightly) that people will want to consistently progress through content which I think is true of any gamer.