Why MMO Death Blows & 4 Ways To Make It Interesting

The Problem

At the moment, the most common form of death punishment in MMOs is the World of Warcraft model. Players die, are reincarnated as a ghost, and must find their way back to a specific point in order to continue. This system usually has two ways to resurrect. The first is simply running to your old position and clicking the revive button that appears. The second is by utilizing a service where you are instantly revived or teleported to your revive location, but at a cost to your character’s wealth.

This system is, in many ways, totally antithetical to fun. Rather than using death as a way to teach the player about progressing and learning about the game world, it’s a slap on the wrist for being too underleveled. On top of that, the slap on the wrist is in no way productive or fun to the player. Running back to your body or old location is just time spent in transit, thinking about nothing except reaching where you were. Instead of providing an alternative solution where the player works to get back to their old position, they simply run autonomously, avoiding as much conflict as they can.

Then there’s the punishment of losing XP and potentially even levels, like in Everquest. Whenever your character dies, they lose a percentage of the XP required to reach the next level. If that percentage would take the character below their current level’s XP total, they are reduced to the previous level. Sometimes your equipment is lost as well, usually free to be looted by whoever passes by.

This system is painfully regressive, so it’s great that it’s no longer around in any serious capacity. While requiring users to run back to their corpse is one thing, actively stripping them of progress is another. By removing a character’s progress you make the player feel like nothing good has come from the death. While death should never be pleasant, it should also serve as a teaching moment rather than a punishment. The games that we laud for having tough-but-fair death mechanics (Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls) work because dying serves as a teaching moment to the player, rather than as a setback.

That’s the core of death in videogames. It acts as punishment for stupidity or bad play, of course, but at the same time it allows the player to learn and improve. And in a lot of areas of the MMO landscape, like dungeon-running, it does precisely that. The player dies, learns the boss pattern in the process, and continues. But when you remove the lesson from death, all you are left with is a big bag of frustration and annoyance. Very few MMOs are skill-based enough to warrant severe penalties for death (Vindictus is the only one that comes to mind), which means that players are punished because of the time they have spent in your game, rather than actual player skill.

Finally, there is permanent death. This is the harshest of penalties that can be meted out to a player, and does not usually come lightly. The most hardcore of games have permanent death in some form, from the permanent spaceship losses of EVE Online to the outright death and removal of characters in Realm of the Mad God. Permanent death is becoming more and more popular with game developers lately, and it can certainly be used to good effect. But it has to be used properly, instead of simply as a setback.

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4 Comments on Why MMO Death Blows & 4 Ways To Make It Interesting

folklore

On February 25, 2013 at 11:12 am

Nice article. Realm of the mad god i think has a pretty good system for handling death right now i think. Out of curiosity is gamefront going to continue the article series exploring mmos that are not very well know?

James Murff

On February 25, 2013 at 11:14 am

@folklore

Yup! I don’t have one planned for this week, but I do have a few more planned. If you’d like to share some personal favorites of the obscure MMOs, feel free to leave some comments on the other post with titles and I’ll look into them.

folklore

On February 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Sweet. I’m generally not big on the mmo crowd. But something about certain mmo’s keep drawing me back.

Mikun

On February 27, 2013 at 5:55 am

I know everyone hates that game, but in Star Wars the Old Republic, if you die, you have 3 ways to revive, the first is return to the last and closest safe area you visited, the second is waiting some time and revive on the spot and the last one is be revived by a group member, but this use a skill and it has a cooldown, so if your team dies a lot, you will end in the inavility to use this for a little time (like 10 mins).
I played some mmo´s but i really like this way of penalty for got yourself killed and it can be used to learn how to beat a powerfull enemy or how to make your way in a fight with a boss.