Ok, I just got back from two weeks in LA, and I am headed out to Atlanta in a couple of weeks immediately followed by another LA trip. Whee. E3 here I come. Anyway, while I was hanging out in Hollywood with some friends, we started chatting about my “Designing the perfect MMO” commentary and the conversation sort of took off on a tangent and then went on a long vacation as we discussed death in MMORPGs….
So, let’s see. I think that there must be death, and there must be some penalty. There are several reasons for this: First, death is needed as a mechanic to facilitate the suspension of disbelief and the overall immersion of the player into the game. I am sure some of you are remembering some experience where you died and it screwed up your clan raid, or knocked your character so hard back into last week that you just logged out in irritation. “I hate dying!” you say. “It really pisses me off that one death takes me a whole week of hardcore grinding just to get back to where I was!” you shout at me. Or, even worse, you have painful memories of that time (happens to all of us) where you died, and then when you were trying to get your body/gear you died AGAIN, and then some idiot cleric tries to rezz you in the middle of “the pit of death leeches on the zomg plains”, which of course gets you killed again. By now you are thinking you are going to be stuck with rezz sickness for at least a full cycle of the moon, and you could get a college degree in the time it would take you to regain all the lost experience.
It is starting to sound like I am making a strong excuse for eliminating death entirely from MMORPGs, isn’t it? I can imagine all of the casual MMO players out there nodding your heads vigorously. Ain’t gonna happen folks. Well, no, I take that back. I have seen some really really stupid design decisions in MMORPGs, it wouldn’t surprise me to see one that has no death (or death penalty). Speaking of which, I challenge you to find a mere half dozen brilliant (ok, I’ll settle for clever) MMORPG designers.
Anyway, back to my topic. Death is a necessity. The lack of it completely diminishes the value of accomplishment and advancement. We all know that MMORPGs today are pretty much all about the whole “level and loot” (I should TM this) thing, so obviously removing death would be “a real bad thing”. Have you ever played a FPS or an RTS in god mode? Yeah, it is super fun for about half an hour while you unleash your wrath on your enemy, who is helpless before you. And then it gets real boring. The fun of completing a game based on your own skill and merit is a great feeling (not so much if you just cheatcoded your way through it).
So what’s my point? Death forces players to use their heads, think about situations they face, and develop their skills in strategy, tactics, and reflexes. If there was no death, then what would be the point? Ok, so for the sake of trimming this post down to 50 pages or less, humor me and let’s just all agree that death MUST be a mechanic in any MMORPG.
The questions arise: How should it be implemented? What happens when a character is diminished to zero (or less) health? How painful should the sting (penalty) of death be? What about the process of restoring the character to life? Should they lose their items? Should they be respawned elsewhere, if at all? (city, bind point, nearest graveyard, etc.) What happens to the character? Are effects temporary (rezz sickness) or permanent (exp loss) or both?
I have heard arguements from both camps already…one thinks that death (and its effects) should be minimal and merely a momentary irritation. The other thinks that the sting of death should be severe and dramatic. Things get a little more realistic for them with heavy death penalties and they go out of their way to think a lot harder about situations where death is a strong possibility. I should note that the casual and hardcore gamers of the people I talked to were unexpectedly mixed for both opinions. I expected the casual gamers to be more in favor of the minimal penalties and the hardcore guys to prefer the stronger immersion experience of hefty death penalties.
Ok, this is where I want to get your opinions and feedback. What do you think? What was your worst experience with a character death? Have you ever had a good experience? Has a character death ever been an event worthy of role-playing a bit, or (as I might surmise) is the RPG in MMORPG a lost treasure that hasn’t been seen in many ages?
While you contemplate my questions and think about your response, I will give you my opinion. Lucky you!
First, I should say that the very thought of losing experience (including both a tangible loss: “you lose 50,000 exp” and the softer exp debt approach as in City of Heros) is a really bad idea. I like to design things to be within the context of a game’s world/mythos and borrow from the real world (real stuff helps with the whole immersion thing).
Experience was originally intended to be a mechanic that measured your character’s advancement through experiencing things…solving puzzles, persuading NPCs to do your bidding, being victorious in combat, saving the damsel in distress, and so forth. Why should you lose your experience (can be equated to memories?) from a death? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have your physical attibutes penalized instead? After all, wasn’t it your -body- that was recently mangled by the Ogre on the Goon Squad? I seem to remember a pencil and paper RPG that penalized your constitution or strength (don’t remember) for every death (or really bad ones where a skilled cleric didn’t get to you in time). That makes a lot more sense to me, but who the heck wants to lose a whole STAT point for a mere death? Not me.
Ok, so losing experience points is kind of lame, and no one wants to lose any stat points. What if we eliminate both as options, and simply stick the user with some rezz sickness instead? Does the required sting of death remain? Is that enough? What about the user’s items and body?
This brings me to Gemstone IV (if you have never played this game, I highly recommend you stop what you are doing, and go play. If you can’t get a character to level 25 in that game, you can’t call yourself a gamer, and I have no respect for you as a designer…yeah, big words I know, but the depth of design in that game is TIGHT). In GSIV when you die, your body falls to the ground, and your soul is kicked right on out. You can’t do a thing but float there, tied to your body by a thin link. Your only hope is to wait for a Cleric AND an Empath to show up and help you out. The Empath heals your body of injuries, and the Cleric calls upon the gods to restore you to life. Now, this is where things get interesting.
If a Cleric heals you while your body is still mucked up, you get rezzed with a bleeding body and promptly die AGAIN. Not a good thing obviously. To make things even more fun, a lot of the mobs in GSIV (especially those damned Ice Trolls) will drag your body around from room to room, or do other irritating things to you, just to piss you off. In the old days, you dropped everything in your hands when you died (including your Battleaxe +20!) which was quickly picked up by the nearest mob and used with vigor against the rescue party. Ah, such fun! Anyway…what happens if a Cleric doesn’t show up? Oh, the horrors! After five minutes, the link to your body goes bye bye, and you show up at the nearest temple. Your old body goes poof as well. Of course, because the GSIV designers are so bad ass, they have thought of everything. Any player can carry a flask with some lifekeep potion…they simply pour it in yer mouth and your soul will stick around for a while longer while your friends find a local Empath and Cleric to show up.
Yes, you lose experience and whatnot in Gemstone, but my point here was more on the actual mechanics and not so much on the penalty. So far, this is the best, and most fun death to be had in any MMORPG. Surely there are some variations or interesting new ideas to be played with (I have a few, but they are super secret…if ya want to know, feel free to deposit a few mil in my bank account so I can make the game hehe).
Back to penalties! I favor some form of temporary loss of power and ability. You should keep all of your experience, but maybe earning NEW experience is dramatically reduced for some period of time, or maybe all of your spells function at half strength (or, on the other hand, they require twice as much mana as before for the duration of the penalty). The same should go for physical skills…the warrior should be weakened and unable to endure the rigors of extended combat.
Ideas ideas ideas…what if the more you died, the more the risk of something really BAD happening to you? How about, if you die more than 20 times after reaching some level or another, your chance of being dragged to hades increases? One day you get the lucky roll and you find that the underworld isn’t very happy about having you snatched from their clutches day after day, and they are determined to keep you around this time. Oh, crap, you think! I gotta get out of here.
Boom! Side quest! More content! Rescue mission! Ah, the possibilities are endless. Sure, it may only happen to you once in a real world year of playing, or maybe the underworld REALLY wants you and it happens several times. In any case, it would shake up the usual Friday night grind a bit, wouldn’t it?
Is it possible to turn the dreaded death event into something a little more interesting that has some actual gameplay value to it, besides the usual “oh crap, I died and its gonna take me days to catch up” baloney?
What do you think? Did this really long blog post bore you to death? You know you have an opinion! Let’s hear it. Hurry up though, dem bones ain’t gonna dance all night long.
~ Nicodemus (maybe I should change my name to “The Long Blogger” haha)