Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cheating Death Pt. 1: Introduction

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.


pendent said...

When my wife and I got married, I did not allow anyone but the photographer to bring a camera into the church. My argument was--and still is--that the ephemerality was the core of the beauty of the event. And while our wedding was impressive in itself (due in no way to me, mind you), it has grown to mythical proportion in the minds of the people who attended. We've been married 10 years now, and people who attended much larger weddings are still talking about it.

So what does this have to do with anything?

The fact that life is so short is part of what makes it beautiful ("Nature's first green is gold..." and so on).

And the fact that, 45 seconds after you die in WoW you are back in the fight is, in my mind, exactly what makes death so cheap (and removes its sting). The answer, in my mind, is harsh: permadeath.

And with that word, people have skipped to the next comment. But without a fear of "death", "life" has no meaning. Until you are in danger of losing something, you won't know what it means to you. I think this is exactly why EQ stays so strongly in the memories of players (nostalgia notwithstanding). Nothing makes you cautious like losing 3 weeks of progress because you thought you could make it through those caves alone.

I'm considering a death penalty sort of hinted at in the comments on another blog (Wolfshead?): a harsh but rare death penalty. Permadeath with "hierlooms", in a sense.

Kenny said...

"Get players used to the concept of death being meaningfull and not just a speedbump."

Good luck with that. Most players want to "IWIN" while face the illusion of a challenge instead of facing a real challenge which might mean defeat. Simple as that.

Also I don't think "punitive" and "meaningful" go hand-in-hand. It can be overly punitive (like any HC mode) but it might not have any real meaning. For meaning you need context, for context you need either a very strong story and very harsh punishment OR you need.. Well, you need to educate gamers to value more than raw power and equipment they gathered.

Oh, these whole games are about these two things, you say? Then I see a problem here.

Here's a question for you: XP and factions both require same types of grinding and they are all just scores (not actual tangible things like equipment). Why do players accept faction decrease but no XP loss?

Verilazic said...

Whenever I read or think about death in games, my mind always turns to Planescape:Torment.

Character death is definitely one the main parts of a game that you have to consider the tradeoff between realism and profitability. =/

Kenny said...

@LBF70: "You can'T take a picture of that moment, it's already gone." :]

Anyway. As 'Ive just said, pd doesn't (or probably won't) mean anything. You either start over or you quit. Does it make for deeper gameplay? I doubt. You might consider your actions much more carefully but at the same time you wouldn't even attempt a % of what you do today.

MMOs nowadays play like a platform game or shot'em'up with unlimited life whereas they want to be like the oldschool adventure games. They don't need harsh penalties, only one thing: failures and those failures carrying on and those failures having negative consequences on the character.

evizaer said...

Permadeath and punitive death doesn't make sense in the context of modern MMORPGs. You need to change the context of the game a bit and make death somewhat more normal--in the sense that death should be something that happens anyway, so why not do risky things now and perhaps gain a lot in the mean time?

Kenny: XP loss is the most direct form of stealing time back from a player, that's why players have come to hate it. Usually rep loss is superficial compared to the intrinsic and personal nature of XP.

Kenny said...

@Evi: but if grinding faction and grinding xp takes the same time and effort, the same penalty on both should be equal, no? And herein lies the problem with today's games of power and combat.

Anyway a few days ago I had a dream (I mean a proper dream, while sleeping, etc :]) about an MMO. The more I think about it the more it is "just an EVE clone" but it all makes so much sense. Death included, it exactly has the system you're hinting at: death being a normal part of everyday life with the game set up accordingly. I'll write it up later if I won't forget about it by then. ^^

Randomessa said...

I will never be in support of a death penalty in either the form of a speedbump or a mountain for the simple reason that my time is the ante for every in-game encounter.

If I am attemtping something for an hour and die - I failed. My failure punished me; that encounter was a waste at worst, a "for freesies" learning experience at best. It matters not to me that others throw themselves against the proverbial wall in the effort to put a dent in; I'm not playing with those people and I would appreciate it if their methods did not determine the game mechanics for me, just because they don't take death "seriously" enough.

I have come from the days of MUD death traps, and mobs that loot corpses and track. I've come from Guild Wars' Death Penalty, where once I've accrued more than half, I usually just log out for the evening, because that was all the evening I *had*. Death penalties punish me for trying and failing, because they assume that I'm not doing a good enough job punishing myself.

Randomessa said...

They don't need harsh penalties, only one thing: failures and those failures carrying on and those failures having negative consequences on the character.

One of the much-vaunted (and still unseen in action, so YMMV) features of the upcoming Guild Wars 2 is that their dynamic events have "failure states": if the players fail, for example, to prevent an attack of a rampaging enemy, the enemy will take over an area, establish a base, send out attack parties, etc. Every event has numerous failure states that branch out depending on the respective performance of the players in any given event.

Whether this will occur as advertised in the game proper remains to be seen.

pendent said...

Randomness: Then why have a death at all? In a platformer, for example, why kill you when you get squished by the giant boot? Why not just squish you flat and shoot you back the way you came? Or, out the other side, for that matter? If the point is just to run through the game and succeed, then why have obstacles at all?

Randomessa said...

Prof, the point is that the death/failure is the punishment. You have to start over/run back/try again. If that's "running through the game and succeeding" then you and I have different definitions of success.

If the objection is that other people would just throw themselves against the encounter a million times until they beat it by brute force, I wonder why people are unhappy with the way others play their games, and suggest that these unhappy people take it up with those players at the time it becomes an issue.

Even in baseball you have three tries to hit the ball. Then you're out. The pitcher doesn't then run up and sucker-punch you in the gut so that it means more to you.

Dagda (Brooks Harrel) said...

Why in the world are you making death the focus of these posts, when the underlying game design issue is the consequences you give player failure?

Eugene Conniff said...

Re: Permadeath.
Have any MMOs truly experimented with this concept? It's easy to dismiss the idea as ridiculous and overly harsh...but psychologically, human empathy is built on the fear of death and the fear of witnessing death. At least that's the theory - it's untested of course, because humans have never developed in an environment where immortality is the norm.

The suspicion I have is that a lot of the griefing and assjackery we see in multiplayer games in general, and MMOs in particular, stems from the inherent understanding by those players that nothing is at stake. How would they react if that were not the case?

As designers, we distrust the idea of permadeath *because* of those players (which goes hand-in-hand with the dislike of alienating players). But it's entirely possible that the very LACK of permadeath is what creates those players in the first place! With nothing at stake, it's easy for many players to ignore empathy.

At the very least, with the proper warnings and start-game understanding in place, a permadeath mechanic would make for an interesting and valuable experiment for a niche MMO, in the same vein as "A Tale In The Desert".