Saturday, June 20, 2009

Life After Death: Permadeath in MMORPGs

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 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.


Green Armadillo said...

EVE has a slightly better system - everyone has a cloning insurance policy, and loses some of their most recent progress (representing time since the last time they were able to upload stuff to the cloning company, I guess). Still, it's a difficult question to address. In a game where you can die due to lag, disconnections, and/or actions of other players, there's a limit to how harsh of a death penalty players will accept. You haven't really done yourself or your players a service if everyone just goes after the weakest mobs that still offer a reward to minimize the chance of death.

evizaer said...

I think the lag problem is less important than the mechanics problem at this point. If we find the right mechanics the technical issue can, to some extent, be solved in stride. We can even come up with feasible combat systems that no reasonable degree of lag will bother. All MMORPGs don't have to have "real-time" combat (I put it in quotes because it is actually just simultaneous turns where every tenth of a second is a turn).

Permadeath is feasible if the game design favors intelligent decisions and is built in a way to severely limit ganking and RNG screwiness. (I'll be making a post on random numbers in RPGs soon.) I'm talking about doing more than shuffling the deckchairs, mechanics-wise--I don't think it's a good idea to take WoW and try to shoehorn in permadeath with a few hacky mechanics. You have to design a game system where permadeath makes sense. I think it's not only possible, but it would make a better game.

motstandet said...

As interesting as Permadeath is to think about, I don't think it will ever be well received by the ever-expanding casual gaming market share. In general, players get attached to their characters; they wouldn't want to give them up just because the game told them so.

And what ends up happening with any huge risk scenario in games is that players will discover the easier solution, the one with less of a risk, and grind that solution even if it takes them 5x as long.

With the lineage system, is it really any different that losing experience/levels on your active character? You are "passing on" traits to your next life. I don't see a difference, other than a change in appearance.

Several months ago I was inspired by the movie City of God to devise a permadeath mechanic. I was really excited at all the social interactions that could take place. But the more I thought about it and tried to build out from it, I couldn't motivate players (in my head) to actually want to play the game.

Dblade said...

I can just imagine the newbie experience.

Newbie steps out into the forest, sees an orc. Newbie atatcks orc without /checking it. Orc is 5 levels higher than newbie, and kills him, and you get dumped back to make a new character.

Or the first mission battle. Newbie party takes on shadow dragon, newbie party dies. Everyone in the party rerolls a character. If you are hardcore, those new characters have to redo everything to get back up to shadow dragon.

I don't know if you realize how often players die in an mmo. I know in my career in FFXI it has to be more than a thousand deaths. If i had permadeath I'd never get one job past 30.

evizaer said...

My Captain in LotRO is 41 and has died maybe 12 times. That's not much at all.

My Minstrel has died less per level. And he would've died EVEN LESS if I had played him more conservatively.

My characters in WoW rarely died aside from PvP deaths.

You're also assuming a couple of things:

1.) That this game is going to be a clone of every other MMO, but with permadeath.

I should have pointed out in the article that you'd have to uproot a lot of the existing tropes built into MMORPGs if you wanted permadeath to work and not be a complete disaster.

2.) That every time your character hits 0 health, he'll die permanently.

I don't think a game with permadeath would kill off characters every time their HP hits zero. it would make more sense if there was a system of wounds sustained from being knocked out in battle and carried out by your friends after it's over.

3.) Playstyles won't evolve to take into account the increased cost of dying.

They will.

4.) Character creation has to be an annoying process.

It doesn't.

Psychochild said...

I posted an option for allowing the permanent "death" of characters in an MMO design a while ago: Generations of characters

Summary: when an expansion comes along, you roll the descendants of your previous characters. You could even do actual permadeath in the last stage before a new expansion since characters are going away already. The game focuses on building your family, not just on individual characters.

StaalBurgher said...

@Psychochild - I have also come to that conclusion that the "goal" of the game should be the buildup of your Family. There should be an interplay between the risk of dying, but the need to take risk to extend your life and/or obtain certain benefits.