Thoughts on permadeath
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2013, 3:02 am
Imagine adding a rule to chess where the winner of a game gets to shoot the loser with .45 colt. That certainly would make chess a much tenser game! But would it make chess a *better* game? Whether you lose in chess or die in a MMORPG, you already received a clear signal of having lost. Is the game improved by linking that signal to a strong loss? Or is the loss just an artificial crutch to make people care about a game that lacks inherent motivation?

Apart from permadeath caused by bugs and disconnects, discussed in yesterday's threat, the question is whether permadeath if working as intended adds something valuable to a MMORPG. I played the original Everquest for a year and a half, and while that game doesn't have permadeath, it does have level loss on death, and the possibility to lose all your gear. And my observation at the time was that this led players to avoid risk. For example dungeons were rarely visited by groups of players who could still gain xp there. Rather they were farmed by high-level characters gathering gear for their alts or for sale. If a level-appropriate group died in a dungeon, the respawn would very likely cut the now naked players off from retrieving their corpses. So most players rather tended to play it safe and boringly "camped" monster spawn points in outdoor zones.

Now you might say that having significant risk in a MMORPG makes the fantasy world appear more dangerous and real. But if players react to the heightened risk by playing it safe, you get a virtual world full of possible adventure that is being avoided for being too dangerous. Games can keep up an illusion of us being heroic adventurers only exactly because there is no real risk.

Whether a MMORPG is subscription-based or Free2Play with an item shop, game companies are generally interested to keep people playing for as long as possible. Thus we also need to balance the potential heightened interest in a more dangerous game with the potential rage-quit of players who actually died to that danger. Thus there is a long tradition of games with known harsh death penalties in reality having several ways to circumvent those penalties. In Everquest you could get a necromancer to summon your corpse, for example. And there are even Free2Play games in which the death penalty can be negated with an item bought for real money in the item shop.

Personally I like doing crazy dangerous stuff in MMORPGs. I've been running low level characters from Freeport to Qeynos in Everquest, or been fishing with level 5 characters in Northrend. Doing such non-conventional gameplay requires the game to not have too harsh a death penalty. Permadeath and other harsh death penalties limit the game to some sort of safe mode, and ultimately make the game poorer, not richer.
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