I find it very interesting that WoW’s death penalty is much harsher than the death penalty in EQ2, which goes against our preconceived notions of these two games. Let’s look at the facts:
World of Warcraft Death Penalty:
- Death causes damage to your equipment.
- You are expected to run a long way to your corpse and then reappear in a dangerous area, taking time and risking a second death.
- Your other option is to resurrect at a graveyard, whereupon your equipment suffers serious damage (likely requiring you to trek back to a repair NPC immediately), and you are unable to fight for ten minutes.
Everquest 2 Death Penalty:
- Death causes damage to your equipment.
- You accrue a very small penalty to future earned XP.
- You respawn at a safe spot.
WoW’s “travel back to your corpse or sit for ten minutes” mechanism, combined with the danger of dying again when you reach your corpse, makes it more of a nuisance than EQ2’s penalty. But here’s the real kicker, the reason that puts WoW’s penalty high above EQ2’s: WoW’s graveyard spots are not particularly safe. I remember my first trip to Scarlet Monastery: I got very lost and ended up in extremely dangerous territory, and died. And then I died again and again. Finally I respawned at the graveyard, only to discover to my horror that horrible monsters found me in the graveyard, too! I was instantly killed AGAIN. In WoW, when you’re in an area that’s much too high-level for you, monsters will come for you from miles around, and they are nearly impossible to escape.
In fact, I would have been stuck at that graveyard forever, except for a glitch in WoW that they’ve never bothered to fix: if you log out and log back in, your ghost can then travel to a different graveyard spot and respawn there instead. But you have to log out and log back in first, and you have to know about this trick. This is well-known among a certain part of WoW’s audience, but is certainly not known to everybody playing WoW. And when a game’s death penalty can result in effective perma-death of your character (unless you know how to exploit a bug), it’s hard to call your death penalty “casual”.
Compare it to EQ2, where death is a mild nuisance and then you get on with your evening. It’s much more casual friendly. You don’t have to run out into the same horribly dangerous spot and risk your life a second time. On the other hand, I’ve heard people complain that death in EQ2 is so tame that many people become careless, which gets groups killed.
Just to be clear: I’m not complaining about this. I don’t mind that WoW is more aggressive in punishing death than EQ2 is. (Neither of them are anywhere near as tough as, say, EQ1’s death penalty, which was so punitive that it regularly made people quit the game forever.) But it does go against our stereotyped assumption that EQ2 is more “hardcore” than WoW.
The Purpose of Death Penalties
But what should the death penalty be? What’s the point of a death penalty?
Some games don’t have much of any death penalty at all, such as Dungeon Runners. These games are aimed at players who are looking for a game that engages and entertains them, but doesn’t particularly challenge them.
Most MMO’s, however, have relatively punitive death penalties because they are designed for players that want to be challenged, not just engaged. The theory goes that if a game doesn’t punish you for playing poorly, then your rewards for playing well will be hollow and without much significance. That’s true to an extent … but of course, that’s only true if “playing well” is your motivation for playing the game.
But the death penalty has other side-effects, too. If the penalty is lenient, players find themselves experimenting with more tactics, exploring the landscape more, and poking into nooks and crannies of the game. If the penalty is harsh, they tend to stick with the strategies they know. Good survival strategies become more valuable, and in many games, players find that grouping together makes for a better survival strategy. So we often find that strong death penalties correlate with more grouping.
Correlation of death penalty to other aspects of MMO gameplay.
The exact death penalty should be based on the target audience you want to reach. This is a gross simplification, of course, but it helps point out some of the ramifications of a particular death penalty. There are many other correlations, too, such as Time Expenditure, Opportunities to Zerg, and Rewarding In-Game Knowledge. None of these are hard and fast rules, and will vary depending on the exact details of the death penalty, but I think they hold up pretty well for a large number of penalties and games.
I think both WoW and EQ2 are towards the “lenient” end of the spectrum. But is WoW’s death penalty too harsh or too mild? Well, the current death penalty is obviously not a deal-breaker for 9 million people — then again, we don’t know how many more people they would have if it was harsher or more lenient! If I were making a new game, I’d make it more lenient. EQ2’s more-lenient death penalty was more enjoyable to me than WoW’s, and I’m not exactly casual, so I think going lenient is the safer bet for modern MMO audiences.