We must look at death both from a game mechanical perspective and a metaphoric perspective.
Death is a consequence for defeat in combat. The current structure of MMORPG combat is similar to how combat works in bad movies. The hero fights a bunch of nameless trash and the fight ends when the trash are all dead. The trash are designed to be killed. Designers have made every fight essentially a fight to the death—players expect this and would be confused by having it otherwise. Other outcomes are nothing but cheap excuses for death—mere icing on top of the death-cake meant to make it look as if it is not death but instead some form of retreat or injury. But the effect of the prettified death-cake is still practically similar to unadorned death-cake: namely, death.
Regardless, we all know that the death-cake is a lie. It’s the cooing noises a parent makes at its child to ease the child down from the brink of a tantrum. We are no more than petulant children, looking to have some vague feeling of mock-accomplishment we can pass off as “fun”. Death is an unpleasant detour on the path towards that mock-accomplishment, and so designers find death a difficult obstacle to either include or exclude.
Some people want their character’s death to be a mountain, some want it to be a speedbump. The mountainous death is meaningful, the speedbump death is the smallest obstacle possible on the road towards the accomplishments that many think give meaning to MMORPGs.
Lord of the Rings Online cheats death on the player’s end by making the player’s death not actual death, but a mere shock to the character’s morale. The effect is the same: you lose the fight and your character becomes unusable until someone brings him back to the fight with an ability or the player elects to be teleported at some penalty back to a place of relative safety.
How do you design death into an MMORPG without “cheating”? Without being too punitive? Without it being meaningless?
- Come up with death mechanics that actually make sense and aren’t such a cop-out.
- Get players used to the concept of death being meaningfull and not just a speedbump.
- Come up with a metaphor to make the mechanics fit tidily into a game world. Hell, you could even design the game around death mechanics if they’re going to be serious and important to how the game plays.
I’ll go into more detail on each of these points in a future post.