Project Gorgon’s Death Penalty

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.

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22 Responses to Project Gorgon’s Death Penalty

  1. Adam Schroeder says:

    Giant Bee! Can you still use your magic abilities that don’t require speaking to activate? If I can make myself invisible and go around stinging things… lots of possibilities!

  2. Kdansky says:

    Ultima Online did it correctly: Lose all your crap on death. That way, there is never a question if using a potion would be worth it, and gear accumulation isn’t such an issue. People also are less attached to most of their items, strange artifacts are rare and generally tension is miles higher.

  3. Eric says:

    Well, technically all your words will come out as “Bzzz” for a while, but as you master the Beast Speech skill you’ll be able to talk somewhat (though some of your words will always be buzzes).

    And I suppose there are viable combat configurations for a giant bee that might be fun, yes. :) Some magic skills are usable without hands, and you can also still control pets. So you could be a giant bee that controls weather, with a pet giant bee sidekick…

  4. Adam Schroeder says:

    Necromancy work? Could I be a giant bee leading a horde of zombie side kicks? Isn’t there a wasp that can take control of other insects with some kind of neurotoxin?

  5. Eric says:

    Heh, yep, that was the other pet skill you could have. So you could be a giant bee that leads zombies into battle. They’d be zombie humans, though, not bees… I don’t have any zombie bees planned yet. But I’m sure it’ll happen eventually…

  6. Zubon says:

    Do harsh death penalties (still) encourage grouping? It would encourage careful grouping, but PUGs would be even worse. It’s not just encouraging you to be hardcore — you need to exclude anyone around you who is not similarly hardcore because they can get you killed.

  7. Eric says:

    @Zubon: well in the aggregate they do, yeah. For instance, in WoW it’s never been very useful to group up to do solo quests. You might do it occasionally, but there’s not really a need. But if there was a harsh death penalty, then it would be wise to always group with somebody when possible, even when doing minor tasks, because of safety in numbers. We saw that in UO and EQ1. If two EQ1 players were soloing in the same area, they were likely to group up and kill solo mobs together. The XP per hour goes down, but the cost of failure is so high that it’s still worth taking the hit.

    I think the PUG culture that WoW created for its instances is particularly toxic and I would never suggest WoW have harsher death penalties… it would just make things way more horrible, you’re right. But a lot of that is because WoW defined the problem for you very specifically (5 people go in to tackle very specific things to “win” the instance), and because WoW throws you together with a bunch of people that you will literally never see again ever. Neither of these things helps to create a friendly atmosphere.

    The non-instanced nature of my group content (and EQ2’s older group content, for instance) actually makes things a lot more fluid and user-definable. If you’re grouped with somebody who’s not so great, you’ll probably vote to take the left fork of the labyrinth and kill the weaker boss, not go for the ultimate boss at the bottom. There’s no “winning” a non-instanced dungeon; it’s designed with many different respawning sections, and if you wanted to you could stay in the same dungeon with the same group for hours. Usually the group ends a lot more amicably because of that — you haven’t “lost”, you killed a sub-boss and decided to call it quits. The open format also lets other people help you out and deal with disasters — and it lets you “cheat” the content by having multiple groups work together if they really want/need to. (It cuts down on earned XP-per-hour and loot-per-hour a lot, though, so in my experience it doesn’t happen except in emergencies.)

    In short, I won’t have the problems (or benefits) of WoW’s PUG system, so I’ll have different issues to deal with instead. Such as making sure you can find groups even when there are relatively few players in the world.

  8. Ahtchu says:

    Eric, I don’t subscribe to the concept of the death penalty as you’ve described it. Granted, we all form systems to help us with understanding problems as we see them, and to help portray to others our understanding. Whatever works for you, however consider:
    The harsher the penalty, the more incentive to experiment to find methods of tackling content that give more breathing room. The more lenient, while I am free to experiment, I have no reason for doing so. I can point to multitudes of instances whereby I completely zone out on the faceroll content (don’t we all), mindlessly applying the same tactic again and again (if I fail, I don’t care, the penalties allow me to throw myself at it the same way until it works). But yet on more than one difficult encounter (with harsh penalties), even while being successful, I (and the team, should one apply) seek out better ways to accomplish the goal, six sigma style.
    Ultimately you’re attempting to describe a system in a dichotomous manner (which is fine) but the axis will be inverted depending on the person. We’re dealing with cause:effect, and it will be unique for all.
    All that being said, I agree with the sentiment of death penalties being an art. And might I say more excited than ever that you won’t be taking the easy way out (hi AAA titles!) with hardly a slap on the wrist for failure.

    Regarding implementation (and it would solve one of your ‘death penalty traps’), I’ve always wondered why designers don’t use a ‘stacking’ concept. Someone dies, slap on the wrist with an hour timer initiated. They die again within an hour, a spanking and clock resets to an hour. They die within that hour again, the paddle comes out. In this manner, someone might be preoccupied with something else (chatting, afk…) but the game ‘reminds’ them that ‘hey! don’t forget about consequences! focus!’
    If someone doesn’t have the time or attention for given content, they will have the opportunity to shift lanes before the death penalty becomes ‘unbearable’. Difficult encounters will incur multiple deaths, and the stacking effect will ensure that attempts are cherished (hi EQ). Also, imagine how great this system would deter botting. Not to mention the emergent behavior of players who find a bot, knowing about the death penalty’s functionality, and stacking bots up with plenty of penalty…

  9. Peacewood says:

    Hmm…if your dungeons are all non-instanced, how do you deal with the old EQ problem of spawn-camping? (Or are you assuming your population is too small/not hardcore enough to do this?)

  10. Jason says:

    Definitely a hard thing to determine what works best. In Istaria we have a progressive death penalty. The more you die, the more penalty you get. Over time the death points wear off or you can consume food to remove them more quickly. It works pretty well in that it isn’t so harsh at first, but the more you die (trying to zerg the enemy or whatever) the worse your penalty gets (penalty reduces your stats).

    Anyway, reading your post and looking at your chart got me thinking. One additional way to “both have your cake and eat it too” might be to give players some control over their death penalty. For example, a slider they set on themselves (or on their raid group perhaps). Set it low, the penalty for death is reduced, but so are the rewards. Set it high, the penalty is much greater, but so are the rewards. Could even adjust the difficulty of monsters with that as well. Higher penalty, harder mobs. Etc. Don’t know if it would work, just a thought that popped into my head.

  11. Stabs says:

    Very thought provoking reading, thank you Eric.

    One thing I would add about death penalties is that, at least for me, they’re a big factor in how immersive the game is. If I feel in danger my character feels real. If I’m trying not to die I’m playing a character that behaves somewhat like I would if I were in that situation myself. When I play a game where people just zerg in, die, respawn, zerg in again, I feel after a while that I’m playing something abstract. It’s more like counters on a board than anything anthropomorphic, my character simply isn’t a person.

    That’s not to say I never play games of that type just that I feel they sacrifice something important for ease of play.

    It does, however, sound to me like Gorgon will avoid this problem in its group content (depending where you site the graveyards). If the good bosses are deep in a dungeon and dying provokes a weakest link feel as everyone else sighs and tries to figure out how to get back to the exit to get you then there’s a strong social death penalty because one won’t want to be that guy who sucks and dies all the time.

    On the other hand if you put a pinata boss next to a graveyard you’ll see pindleskin type boss runs by bored zerging players.

  12. Mitch says:

    How about letting players choose how hard a challenge / harsh a death penalty they want with both negative and positive aspects to each (easier penalty = less Death XP for example). Lock it down so it can only be changed periodically.

  13. Kiryn says:

    “For example, a slider they set on themselves (or on their raid group perhaps). Set it low, the penalty for death is reduced, but so are the rewards. Set it high, the penalty is much greater, but so are the rewards. Could even adjust the difficulty of monsters with that as well. Higher penalty, harder mobs.”

    Star Trek Online does this exact thing. Everything is instanced, and you choose the difficulty before you enter the instance. On standard difficulty, the mobs are a pushover to kill and the only penalty for death is time: you have a short countdown before you’re allowed to respawn (10-15 seconds, I think) and you’re returned to your respawn point. You can unlock more respawn points as you progress through an area, so it’s more like a “don’t respawn me in the middle of the fight” than a penalty of making you walk back to the fight. A couple of times, the fight was happening right on top of my spawn point, so there was almost no downtime.

    However, if you set the difficulty higher, the mobs get very difficult, but the rewards are much higher. If you die, you have a chance to get a permanent injury that reduces your stats. There are three levels of rare-drop items you can use to remove these injuries back at a starbase, based on the severity of the injury. So basically, the game has no death penalties by default, and you can enable them if you want.

  14. Mitch says:

    Oops missed the slider comment. Thanks!

  15. “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”

    How do you recover your lost resources (up to and including all of your gear if someone went that route)? Time. How do you get back to the place where you want to resume playing? Time. Even the curse of permanent polymorph:bee can be expressed as a time penalty (either to find someone willing to invite a useless bee and kill the boss for you to remove the curse, or to re-roll the character from scratch).

    That said, I think you’re onto something with the bee thing. It is time, but it also an experience in addition to a penalty. If implemented well, I could see something like that being fun, or at least generating respect for the world that makes the rest of the gameplay fun. The implementation is the catch – the first time you die due to a bug and spend a week trying to remove the curse of bee may be vaguely amusing, but I would almost certainly quit a game where this happened on a routine basis.

    (Alternately, you may have guilds of people who have intentionally turned into bees, and a cottage player economy in escorting would-be bees to the boss so they can obtain the curse.)

  16. Ahtchu says:

    @ Armadillo
    Time is the ultimate common denom, but figure that the time it takes to recover a given amount of gear is not common. Time to being allowed to ‘release’ would be common (or could even be rigged not to be).
    There are exchange rates for everything, but multiple currencies for a reason.

  17. Azuriel says:

    The harsher the penalty, the more incentive to experiment to find methods of tackling content that give more breathing room.

    Err… what? “Experiment” implies failure, as in trying different things and failing until you come to a correct solution. Harsh penalties discourage risky behavior and experimentation. Your argument is essentially that Diablo-esque Hardcore Mode (death is permanent) encourages more experimentation than any other difficulty mode. That is simply absurd.

    Green Armadillo has it correct, as do the AAA publishers. The player is already being punished time-wise and pride-wise by dying; all fancy death penalties accomplish is increase the magnitude of the time loss. Not only did you lose the Chess match, you got kicked in the shins and can’t play another match for 10 minutes. Roguelikes and similar games can use death penalties to influence player behavior, sure, but that behavior is incongruent with the thrust of MMORPGs. Do you really want your players to not care about the accumulation of items and stats and levels in your game?

  18. Mike Grem says:

    Hey there Eric, I have to say… the bee idea sounds like it’s getting a lot of people interested in your curses. I like how you’re not just slapping debuffs on curses, but actual game-changers that happen to have new experiences attached to them. It almost feels like a silver lining to a black cloud… sure, I just lost this fight and many of my abilities are useless now that I’m a bee, but… hell, I’m a bee! Let’s see what I can do!

    I don’t know if your Pre-Alpha will be open or not, but if it is, I will join that in a heartbeat. Your posts over the past few weeks have been very exciting. =]

  19. Silvanis says:

    I don’t know about death curses on bosses. You’re penalizing people for trying to take on the hardest content by making that content harder. HP loss means they now have to beat something that already killed them at full HP. Polymorphing them means removing abilities they used last time. I don’t see the difference between this and losing equipment in a more item-centric MMO.

    So imagine this scenario: you get a group together, and finally fight your way to the big bad. It’s a close fight, but he wipes the group. Now you have to run back to the dungeon, hope that it hasn’t repopulated, and tackle the same boss, but this time you’re weaker. And the whole party has to agree to do this. Or just one of them could quit, leaving you in an untenable position. Now you HAVE to find the alternate cure, or find another group that’s willing to take someone who isn’t 100% and risk getting cursed themselves.

    I just don’t see how this is a good thing.

  20. Expert Novice says:

    I only had time to graze the post but don’t neglect the fact that you can make LOCATIONS and CHALLENGES have higher death penalties than just doing whatever – like those super boss mobs that people camp could carry more weight or a dungeon could be riskier so like certain things can scale whenever you like. Just make sure that if the super boss mob or whatever whacks you it doesn’t count so harshly. Maybe even have increasing risks if you go deeper into a dungeon or whatever.

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  22. Expert Novice says:

    Read the whole article, sounds like you already have thought about the above.
    Anyway the whole death curse system sounds just delightful. Death actually sounds like something you fear and yet the possibilities for fun here are impressive. It really seems like you nailed it on this one good sir.