Why MMO Death Blows & 4 Ways To Make It Interesting
All problems with death in videogames can be boiled down to one solution: Make death punishing and rewarding at the same time. Since all of these problems condense to this simple solution, this article is going to be about applying that solution to the three forms that MMO death mechanics take.
1.) Choose a death penalty and stick with it
I never would have considered this solution until I played Wizardry Online, but that sort of growth is the kind of delightful musing I love to get when playing a videogame. If you’ve read my impressions for Wizardry Online, you’ll likely notice that one of my main complaints is that the “permadeath” touted by the development team is anything but. It is the World of Warcraft death penalty with an even deeper penalty for failing to resurrect. That seems awfully silly to me.
So stick with a death mechanic. If permadeath is the goal, make characters die permanently. Erase them from the server when they are killed. Get rid of them wholly. Otherwise players will catch on to the lack of commitment, and that’s not something that developers can afford. Consistency is the key, as players are far more likely to put up with a bad system that is consistent in tone and application than a bad system which is all over the place.
2.) Remove corpse runs entirely
I’m not a big fan of corpse runs. It’s a time sink that serves no real purpose to the game other than as a smack on the wrist. I can’t interact with anything except resurrection nodes or my body, and the time it takes to run around in ghost form is time I could spend fighting things. Let me fight things! I would really love to do so.
For those who haven’t played Guild Wars 2, it has a system that actually works quite well, except for one minor hitch. When a player dies, they fall to the ground and can be raised by any other nearby player regardless of class or level. All it requires is a little time. Alternatively, the player can revive at a nearby waypoint and trudge back to their spot. In both cases the player’s death results in greater interaction within the game. In the first case, another player pulls the character up, dusts them off, and sets them on their way. In the second case, the dead player can fight and engage in other activities on their way back to where they died.
The only issue is that it costs money to revive. In a game where dying is incredibly easy (especially after the scaling changes), this is just a money sink and a waste of time. If you are going to remove most of the consequences for death, you may as well go whole hog and remove them all.
3.) Change XP loss to XP debt, and give gameplay methods to clear debt faster
Another suggestion that comes straight from a different MMO, albeit a defunct one. Rather than smacking the player with XP loss on death, City of Heroes gives players an XP debt that is a percentage of the XP to the next level. You will only earn half XP until you clear the debt, at which point you will continue to level normally. It’s a good way to create XP loss without actually pulling a character back into previous levels.
The caveat is that there has to be a mechanic where the player can clear away the debt at a faster rate. City of Heroes did it via two methods: the Flashback system, where players could return to outleveled or locked out missions and replay them, and the level scaling, where players could help lower level players and put all XP towards the debt instead of half. No debt? Both systems pay out in money instead! Players were punished, sure, but they were incentivized in the punishment to replay missions they may have passed over or help other players. The designers used death as a way to create more interaction.
4.) Make the permanent death of a character still contribute to a player’s progress
The ultimate goal in any MMO is to progress. Whether it is in player skill, character levels, or even social standing, players want to feel like they are growing as they play. Permanent death seems completely antithetical to this, as they destroy the character and all its progress. How can you continue when there is nothing left to continue with?
The answer is simple: Give players a reason to play after they lose something. In the earlier-mentioned Realm of the Mad God, character death gives your account currency (Fame) – based on the level and deeds of the character that died – which can be spent on account-wide unlocks like XP potions and such. In more classic permadeath titles, like Nethack, players were encouraged to continue by the ever present scoreboard and the fact that you could never discover everything in a single playthrough. In both cases, players are encouraged to continue playing via unlocks and knowledge that their earlier selves did not have.
That’s it! Death is common in all games, but you’d be surprised how many botch it up. MMOs are no exception. For every MMO that gets death – both its consequences and benefits – correct, ten other MMOs come along to muddy the waters with bad, grind-focused design. Use death to push players into learning more about themselves and the game. Use death to create more potential interactions between the player and the world they inhabit. Don’t smack them on the wrist with a ruler and expect everything to be okay.
As always, these design suggestions are my own recollections and musings. A lot of these suggestions are likely to be in the games you play, even. Got some suggestions of your own, or want to tell me how wrong I am? Leave a comment. I always read them!