Pete asked about death penalties the other day, which is another one of those MMO-design subjects I tend to be ambivalent about. As the name of this blog implies, I’ve had my share of deaths in games over the years — haven’t we all? — and while I’m resigned to leaving corpses, I like to make sure they’re at least good-looking corpses. Style matters, you know.
Back in the days of walking uphill both ways without shoes in the snow, death penalties were a given. My own cherry-popping game was Asheron’s Call and not Everquest or UO (not counting MUDs/MUSHes, just graphical), but I played both of those enough to know they had them too. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a corpse run other than to prevent some wear and tear on your equipment (as in WoW), heavier death penalties involved a varying combination of experience and possessions penalties. In Asheron’s Call, you “left” a bunch of items on your corpse, usually selected from the most “valuable” stuff you were carrying (more on this later), and you also gained what was called a vitae penalty. This wasn’t an xp hit, it was a stats hit that made it harder to do anything and got heftier both as you levelled up and as you died more. As we used to say, “It’s not vit unless it’s at 35%” which back then was the maximum vitae penalty you could get. It would wear off as you got experience, so essentially it was a sideways penalty — not the direct removal of experience points as other games had it, but more akin to the experience debt CoX used to (still does?) have.
Oh, and corpses would decay. They’d stick around longer as you levelled up, but if you didn’t get to them within a certain number of hours they would eventually go *poof*, along with whatever phat gear had dropped when you died. Nothing like a deadline to get the blood moving.
Some of my most vivid gaming memories involve corpse runs, and not necessarily my own. Depending on where you died and how many times you’d died (and back in those days most of us didn’t keep 18 sets of spare gear lying around), recovering those corpses and your belongings could take quite some time and involve a sizeable group. Waaaay back in prehistoric times AC didn’t even tell you where your corpses were, which could mean a fair bit of running around in the general area where you thought you should be — I died quite often to disconnections back in the dial-up 9.6k cross-Atlantic days, and figuring out how far you’d run before the server logged you out could be… entertaining. (They changed that quite soon — nothing like blind man’s corpse-buff when you have 5 or 6 of them littering the landscape.) As an aside, it used to be common to send people tells when you came across their corpse, especially if it was in some out-of-the-way place. “Hey, KillarDrillar of Doom, I just found your corpse. Coords XXXX, YYYY. Need help recovering?” Later on they added corpse location tracking and corpse-recovery (i.e. looting) permissions, which made death a little easier, provided you could trust whoever was recovering for you.
Note that I didn’t say “best” gaming memories — I said “vivid.” There’s a big, big difference. For one thing, 6 hour corpse runs through hellish dungeons are one of the things that soured me on dungeon-environments right from the start. It’s all very well doing a recovery run when you’ve got help, but a hell of a lot less fun at 11pm when everyone’s bogged off for the night and you can’t depend on the random kindness of strangers. Especially not with that decay timer going tick-tick-tick in the back of your mind. And for another, once people figured out how the “loot dropping” was calculated for players, we all started carrying “Death Items” around — stuff that was extremely valuable to a merchant (which was pretty much how the drop was worked out, with flanges for making sure you dropped at least some armour and at least one weapon-type thing) but not all that useful to a player. A common example would be wands and scepters that casters used, some of which could be insanely valuable while not having any stats a decent caster would actually want; and better yet, they were light.
Oh yeah, this was the day of encumbrance and weight allowances; hell, I remember when money had weight! So, if you got lucky, you might drop nothing but death items and thus recovering your corpse was purely a matter of convenience, of getting back items you could then drop again on the next death. Sure, that stuff took up pack space, but that was another thing we weren’t really short of back in those days. (We had some inventory management issues, but nothing nearly as anally retentive as they are these days. Sometimes I wonder why MMOs go backwards instead of forwards — we’ll get rid of encumbrance, but we’ll limit how many items you can carry instead! (And don’t give me that DB storage stuff — where there’s a will in MMO design there’s a way, and where there isn’t a way they’ll invent one.))
I’m not the gambling kind, but I’d lay money on the fact that anyone who played one of those old-style penalty games has a story about a “quick” corpse run that turned into an hours-long nightmare, usually through a request that came in right before you were about to log. “Hey El (names have been changed to protect the innocent), I died in HellishOutOfTheWay place, can you come help me recover real quick?” First of all, there is absolutely no such thing as “real quick” in an MMO (you have to find other people and then ask them; you have to gather in one location; you have to get where you’re going — that in itself can take hours, and our silly gaming brains always seem to forget that part when we calculate task times). Telling your boss you didn’t get to sleep till 2am because you couldn’t bring yourself not to help a gaming buddy didn’t fly so well back then — remember, back then, your boss wasn’t likely to be playing online games. Now, of course, he’s probably your raid leader. And secondly, it’s one of the Laws of MMOs that if something should be quick, it will be as long and drawn-out as water torture. (Law #1, by the way, is “If you need a spawn, it won’t be there. Corollary: when you don’t need a spawn, it’ll be everywhere.”)
So, yeah… ambivalent about death penalties. They certainly make the gaming experience more immediate, but that can be a bastinado-kind of immediate and in the last half-decade of game design, if there’s one thing (large, mainstream) MMOs now avoid like the plague it’s the merest hint of a breath of “not-fun.” Well, apart from the mould-like proliferation of time-sinks, but we won’t go there.
Ultimately, it comes down to consequences for failure, as Pete and others mentioned. Nobody questions that there should be consequences other than the failure itself, which is interesting, actually. Not managing to do something is never thought to be penalty enough. Why not? But anyway, if consequences for failure are accepted as a given, what these consequences are seems to vary. Nowadays the consequences are so light, for the most part, as to be little more than an annoyance. The pendulum has swung to the other extreme.
Carrots and sticks, sticks and carrots. In games where experience points are the primary mechanic (hello, Gary Gygax!), losing those points or gaining them more slowly or whatever variant is used tends to be the primary penalty mechanic, logically. Getting more of them, or getting them faster, is the primary incentive. Many of us claim to have moved beyond such simple dichotomies but it’s entirely possible we’re hardwired to think in such terms — black-white, male-female, north-south, carrot-stick. I also notice that while many of us *cough* older gamers claim to want to move beyond the usual risk/reward mechanics, we often fall back into exactly that way of thinking when we ponder “new” options.
Is the risk/reward, carrot/stick mechanic essential to our fun in an MMO? Or are we just too accustomed to thinking inside the box? Would we really hate a game that didn’t have any penalty for failure other than saying “Oops, you screwed up, better luck next time!”? I’ve caught myself saying that I didn’t mind trying something because there really wasn’t much of a cost for failing — but if you think about it, that’s just as good as it is bad. I might not try certain things if I knew it would cost me some of my precious game time to recover from failure. Then again, maybe my game time has become so precious not only because I’ve got more RL demands, but also because game design has become so much about the time sink that progress is measured almost entirely in terms of time available / time spent. That thumping sound you hear is me banging my head against the cardboard sides of the box.
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As an only marginally-related aside, if any of you reading this have artistic skill (yes, I know several of you do!), I’m looking for a better banner. I’d like to keep the basic elements (corpse, rez timer), but what I’ve got there now was only intended to be a placeholder, and instead it’s been there for almost 6 months. Help! It’ll only take a minute! 😉