I’ve talked about death penalties before — let me bring back an infographic from one of those blog posts. This correlates an MMO’s death penalty with other aspects of the MMO.
My death penalty is lenient. My game is first and foremost about exploration, so I need a penalty that makes it easy to explore. Actually, my death penalty may be the most lenient in the MMO universe, because there’s actually benefits to death: you earn Death XP, which is useful for many things, like necromancy.
I’ll have a minor money-sink, too, but nothing very painful. I really want people to be able to wander the world, try things out, and figure out how the game works. The game is really complex, and the fun is in figuring all these little systems all out. If you felt compelled to read the internet to learn how everything works, rather than exploring for yourself, you’d miss the most important part of the game. You’d be left with the stupid grinding part that every MMO has. I would have failed.
So yes, Project Gorgon has a very lenient death penalty. But at the same time, I sometimes want games to challenge me, especially when I’m working in a small group to accomplish something hard. I like the feeling of overcoming tall odds — and getting that feeling of accomplishment is much easier if the stakes are high. A high death penalty does make the game feel more epic. Can’t I have the best of both worlds?
I think I can, yes. The trick is that my graph up there represents a death penalty as a single axis, but actually death penalties have many factors, such as:
- How much time is lost before your character is “back to normal” again
- How much of your resources are lost to death (items, money, etc.)
- How far you have to travel to resume playing
It turns out that even a lenient death penalty can be pretty painful in particular circumstances. The trick is to fiddle all these variables just right so that you get more nuanced behavior. I can at least give it a shot!
I’ve played with lots of ideas, and I’m still working on it. Not every idea pans out. I thought for sure I could build upon the unusual fact that my game knows how you die: it knows if you were arrowed to death, or burned alive, or poisoned by a snake, or whatever. Every kind of damage has a “cause-of-death ID” attached to it. So I figured if you died by the same cause too many times in a row, or too often, the penalty would go up. That would fix zerging. But that was dumb because… fuck zerging, that’s not even a real problem. It’s a PvE game, and important PvE monsters can’t be zerged like that — they heal too fast.
So I had to stretch a little further. What exactly should my death penalty accomplish and what should it avoid?
The Death Penalty Traps
There are a couple of well-understood “death penalty trap” scenarios that I must avoid in order to be successful. (These are the reasons that games have been gravitating to lesser and lesser death penalties for years! They hurt business.)
- You log in to just chat with some friends and end up getting killed while running from town to town, and lose something valuable that is hard to get back. Odds are you’ll rage-quit over this: you weren’t expecting to be punished.
- You are soloing monsters and having a good time, but then you have some bad luck and get killed a few times too many, and now your character is too weak to keep fighting these monsters. Now you have to go to some earlier place and get strong again. Chances are dangerously high that you’ll just give up instead, and may not come back to the game.
I need to avoid these and similar scenarios. Hence the very lenient penalty when you’re exploring. But I still want to get a feeling of accomplishment when people do hard things.
The Death Penalty Benefits
The biggest benefit of a high death penalty is when grouping. You’re working as a team, you’re greater than the sum of your parts, you’re kicking ass and overcoming tall odds! The death penalty can help make the odds feel taller. I still don’t want an EQ1-esque “lose all your items” death penalty, because that makes people too afraid to try new things. But I want the danger of death to give your successes a little bit more shine.
The other good thing that death can do is bring scariness into the game. In most MMOs, there’s a definite lack of scariness, because anything that can kill you is about the same. A 50-foot dragon and an 8-foot ogre represent the exact same stakes: “either we win or we die.” There’s nowhere else to go.
Death penalties are a somewhat unorthodox way to make some creatures scarier. I want to play with that idea, too.
Travel Time: The Classic Casual Death Penalty
My main death penalty is travel time. When you die you reappear in a central area in the zone. If you were just out exploring, this is no biggie — you can go explore somewhere else. If you were trying to complete a particular quest, though, you’ll have to hoof it back. This is pretty typical for MMOs.
But in dungeons and other difficult-to-reach spots, this penalty is more painful. That’s because my dungeons aren’t instanced — they’re like EQ1/EQ2 dungeons: shared areas. Each one is a large labyrinthine place that’s big enough to support several groups of people exploring at the same time, with monsters respawning over time. (This design has many great social benefits that I’ll talk about later, but also, my server tech just doesn’t do instancing well.)
So if you die deep in a difficult dungeon and have to work your way back down to the bottom, that can be a big time penalty. If you’re lucky, some other group will have cleared the path recently. Otherwise the rest of your group will have to return to the surface and then fight back down again.
To make this penalty stick, I have to be very stingy with resurrection abilities. Otherwise I lose the penalty! (This is what happens in most games that try to use travel time as a penalty — the designers are so desperate to give out useful abilities to healers that resurrection becomes dirt cheap… they end up throwing the penalty out, almost by mistake.) So my resurrection powers have long reset timers, and resurrection items are rare.
You may still quit over something like this — “we were almost at the bottom and then Andy died and we had to start all over, wasting another hour!” But your tolerance for it will be higher. You came into a group-combat area, so you knew the stakes were going up. And if you ever want to give up and go do something else, you always can. It’s not like you ever lose levels or items from dying. So the penalty is still very lenient and casual-friendly.
But I have one last trick up my sleeve…
Death Curses: Making Bosses Scary
The most powerful bosses in the game are supposed to be scary and horrible. These are the stuff of legends, after all, so you should know what you’re doing before you fight these monsters — and the game is happy to teach you how. There’ll always be in-game lore or explanations of how to best defeat them. Unlike most of the game, the big bosses aren’t about “keep trying until you learn how things work”; they’re about “figure it out before you go.” One way I make this work is with curses. They selectively bring back a harsh death penalty.
A curse is just a debuff… one that lasts a long time, possibly even permanently, and doesn’t go away if you die. The main way to get rid of a curse is to kill the thing that cursed you. As long as you win the fight, no biggie. If you lose, that’s a problem. Hopefully the group can finish it off for you. If not, you’re going to have to work your way back and try again.
These curses range from losing 20 from your max health for the next 10 game hours to being stuck as a giant bee for the rest of your life.
But don’t worry too much about being stuck as a giant bee. Hey, bees can slow-fall! Of course, bees can’t talk to NPCs or use weapons… but you’ll never have to worry about dying from falling off of tall places!
Heh, but seriously, there are always at least two ways to remove a curse. You can kill the thing that cursed you, or you can find an alternative cure. If you’re stuck as a bee, there is a rare loot-item from insects that can cure you, if it’s made into a potion by a high-level alchemist. (I admit that this part is tricky to get right… these back-up solutions need to always be rare, but never be so rare that they seem dishearteningly impossible. It’s hard to make the economy work out that way, but I’ll see if I can pull it off eventually. Or maybe it’s just one of those “medicine is almost as bad as the cure” things: you stop being a giant bee, but that curse is replaced by a more mild curse that lasts many days. Dunno, still poking at it.)
These scary curses are just for the big bads — the ultimate bosses of the game universe, which take a long time to build up to. But much weaker curses are fun for occasional changes of pace when soloing, too. A few trash monsters have curses, but these aren’t too scary, because you can just kill any creature of the same type to remove your curse. If a Goblin Necromancer hits you with Fragile Skull Disorder, causing you to lose 20 from your max health and power, you can fix it by killing any Goblin Necromancer anywhere in the world. And even if you don’t bother, those curses only last an hour or two — long enough to notice its effects and be annoyed, but hopefully not long enough to really piss you off.
Death Penalties Are An Art
I think that most games don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what they want their death penalty to accomplish. I know this because I’ve worked with lots of MMO developers, and they just… don’t really think too hard about it. They rightly assume that the game needs to have a casual-friendly death penalty, so they copy an existing MMO and call it a day.
They don’t consider the down sides of those existing death penalties. I mean, how often have you been about to die, and had a super-healing potion ready to drink, but thought, “nah… my life is worth less than this super-healing potion, I’ll just die instead.” My bank vaults are often full of powerful survival tools because it never feels worth using them. If death never has a sting, you shouldn’t bother giving out save-your-bacon items, because nobody will use them.
That isn’t to say we need entirely new death-penalty systems, because I don’t think we do. But MMO designers need to think about death a lot more instead of just slapping something in and calling it a day.
That’s one of the joys of making my own MMO, because I’m more than happy to try new twists on things and see if I can improve upon the problems of what’s come before.
If you don’t even try new stuff, it won’t ever get better.