I have not played any MMORPGs that have implemented an important, game affecting perma-death mechanic.
MMORPGs have focused on players cultivating single characters throughout some predefined progression scheme. The effect of the character reaching zero hitpoints is some kind of baffling reset of location and arbitrary penalty that isn’t particularly related to being dead. Sure, corpse runs in all forms make some sense—but they’re still quite ridiculous if given an iota of thought. Bob dies, so Bob gets a brand new body and has to run back to his old one? We’ve succeeded in violating conservation of mass and energy, though I guess magic borks that from the onset. We’ve also instituted an intensely arbitrary time penalty by making the character’s new form physically run back to the old one’s lifeless remains.
Lord of the Rings Online sidesteps this oddity by claiming that when a character has no life points left (called “morale” in LotRO), he is demoralized and must retreat to some nearby rally point. This makes a little more sense, but I think it’s a little more than demoralizing to be whacked by weapons and consumed by magical flames. It’s also odd that the demoralized character would return to a graveyard. I thought being around the decaying corpses of deceased heroes and commoners would be more demoralizing than not?
In order to make death a meaningful occurrence in MMORPGs, we need to broaden the scope of the game to not just one character. Progression needs to be extended to cover multiple characters in some kind of lineage, and individual character progression needs to be more horizontal and much less vertical. Characters that live longer and do more in their lives make more bonuses of higher value available to their children. Bonuses are passed down in a diluted form from grandfathers and mothers and so on. A deceased character’s assets can be passed down to its children, as well, though they might not be immediately usable. Characters can also have an actual lifetime in in-game time. Aging can turn into an important mechanic that ensures players don’t get too attached to individual characters. The emphasis will shift from playing most often to maximizing your characters action while he has the ability to act.
The larger design I’m working on as an exercise uses a more involved form of what I just set out. I will lay that out in future posts here.
There’s an article on MMORPG.com by Nathan Knaack where he reviews several ways to make permadeath a plausible mechanic beyond what I’ve mentioned here, you should check it out. It’s well written and has some great ideas.