Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cheating Death (Pt 2): Kill It

Either make player characters truly immortal or build the game around death being a meaningful and inevitable event. In this article I’ll discuss removing death from PvE MMORPGs.

We can see that moderating the effect of death leads to a watered down, minimal slap-on-the-wrist. Death is not a notable event more than taking a flight path is an event. Serious players deride weak death concepts because if death doesn’t have meaning, then, in an analysis of mechanics, combat where the only punishment for failure is death cannot have much meaning.

PvE MMORPGs generally have long, steep vertical advancement. These games are reward ladders intertwined in an interesting fashion. The decisions the player makes aren’t on the “what should I do to kill this lizardman”-level, but instead on the higher level of abstraction on which rests character advancement and time budgeting. Long and dramatic advancement encourages the player to invest a lot of time in a single character. The player naturally hates the concept of losing that character—and the time it represents—in whole or in part. PvE MMORPGs are supposed to be fun, and seeing 300 hours evaporate in the context of a game is not fun.

In a PvE MMORPG, skill growth is easy and short. You learn how to play the basic aspects of your character in the first few levels. Over the next several hundred hours of your character’s life, the game will grant you access to new abilities at a slow trickle, giving you plenty of time to fully adapt your play to use whatever has become available. The content doesn’t give you a reason to learn to play at anywhere near an optimal level, either. Because players don’t have much room to grow their skill, there’s little skill carry-over to make being forced to start a new character (because your old one is permanently dead) anything but a chore compounded on existing chores.

Death is a pointless mechanic in PvE MMORPGs. It means very little and usually has a crappy lore justification. When designers tack penalties on to death in order to give it meaning, players will avoid interesting, risky content, and when they do die they will end up unhappy for no particular gain. Let’s get rid of it.

Make the game so that the player character can’t die. The player can fight indefinitely against any enemy and eventually probably win, but he can’t be killed and forced to respawn. Give the player an ability that allows them to teleport out of battles (or bad places that would usually cause death) at will. Let the  player disengage an enemy’s aggro, but then bump the enemy’s health and expendable resources back to where they were before the battle. Build the game around rewarding players for efficiently dispatching with enemies. It’s already this way in effect, why not make it the central issue?

Removing daeth would make PvE MMORPGs a smoother and more enjoyable experience, while sidestepping the awkwardness and mechanical faux pas that a concept of death needlessly brings to such games.

17 comments:

Dblade said...

I agree in that death makes no real sense lorewise. The only difficulty I can see with this at all is that an "instant restart" would make player investment in a battle much less.

Like if you were fighting a minor four man battle, and your healer gets long-term aggro, its panic button then restart rather than try to deal with it. Its like an offline game that offers it: at the hint of trouble you restart the level rather than try to salvage it.

Still it's a good idea, and I could think of some humorous ways of doing this, like having a "dead" character lose control and instead throw a tantrum till their life and mp bar restored. Or the classic "KO with stars over their heads." Of old cartoons-when the stars float away, you are back in action.

PaulH said...

I can't see a game, where death isn't an option, being rewarding. Self-admittedly I have not played many MMORPG's in my short life, but there must be a better solution than removing the concept of "dead".

Perhaps if you defeated a foe, you get +2xp. If a foe defeated you, you get -1xp. This way, if you never die, you get rewarded by gaining xp much faster than if you were dying once out of every two or three enemies. In the worst case scenario, you're dying every time you attempt to kill an enemy, constantly taking negative experience (not very fun). That should be your clue that you should try something easier (with potentially less xp gained) before you attempt something that hard.

As an aside, I wouldn't feel comfortable de-leveling with this concept, but rather lose up to a maximum of all of your gained xp of that level. E.g. If you're at level 30, and you have 0/200xp and you died, you would not go back to level 29 but rather stay at level 30 but remain at 0/200xp. At this stage, yes, there would be no punishment for dying (except of course for maybe a durability hit). This may cause an issue when level capped.

As I was typing this, I thought of this being applied to group quests. Let's say a group of 5 go through a dungeon and they all have the same quest. The quest would reward a minimum amount of xp, but give bonus xp depending on how many deaths the group had combined (or rather, lack of deaths). Obviously, worst case scenario is they don't complete the quest (0xp gained) and suffered some xp loss because they died a bunch trying. A group of skilled players (not carried players) would be granted 100% bonus xp for completing the quest with no deaths. A group that died only twice would receive 50% bonus xp... you get the picture. Obviously, there are some flaws that I haven't looked at yet.

Kenny said...

I can't say I wholeheartedly agree with this. Some form of punishment is necessary otherwise people will simply brute-force their way through the game. Yes, yes, now they still do it but there's a price. Death is nothing more in pve than an abstraction of punishments. The severity is up for debate, but with no failure you'll end up with a pretty dull game.

This approach reminds me of the suicide gank issue in EVE for some reason...

shalcker said...

There are easy ways to reward "efficient" kills rather then "brute-force" attack-disengage-attack-until-you-get-lucky.

To avoid "negative reinforcement", which we're obviously trying to do when we remove death, we can give players buffs (like "High Morale") that disappear on disengagement, and perhaps stack on success.
Nature of those buffs can vary (extra damage, extra xp, extra loot every 5 stacks etc), but it should still focus player on mechanics that maintain and improve them, rather then selecting "loss" situations.
You might not think twice with first stacks to disengage when your healer gets aggro, but when it's rolling 25th stack decision might be alot harder.

As far as i remember Final Fantasy MMO did something similar while still retaining concept of death, but nothing technically prevents you from stripping death from equation.

motstandet said...

FFXI has exp chains. Killing mobs of even or higher level than you will give bonus exp as long as they are killed within a time limit that begins when the last mob was killed.

The Chronicles of Spellborn, before it was re-designed, had stacking buffs that players acquired for staying alive during combat. The designers were thinking along the same lines, shalcker. Rather than punish players for dying, they decided to reward those who played well.

motstandet said...

And since my link was stripped for some reason: http://wiki.ffxiclopedia.org/wiki/Experience_Chain

Tesh said...

The ability to run away and effectively "reboot" any combat was one of the good design choices in Chrono Cross. You could run away from *any* fight at any time you had control (it was turn-based), and go regroup. The foe would also recharge.

You could still die if you pushed yourself hard enough, and have to restart at a save point, but the all-powerful escape mechanic was a great way to dodge some frustration.

Of course, that game was also paced very tightly, and you couldn't really outlevel most content thanks to the star level system. You were almost always assured of success if you just played better. It made for less frustration all around, because if you failed, you knew it was because you needed to do better, not because the game wasn't playing fair.

evizaer said...

The mere specter of death does induce some vague kind of fear, even if death is mechanically toothless (as Dblade and PaulH point out). I'd like to see game mechanics, like those Dblade mentioned, that turn failure in combat into something more interesting. In the absence of those, removing death seems like an interesting and yet untested idea.

I don't think you can make a solid statement about how death's removal would effect player psychology until you actually try it. It's such a radical change that no one can be sure how players will react and adapt. I think an experiment on the issue would be worthwhile, though, and that's why I suggested it.

Kenny said...

Well, long story short we tried to dumb Battletech down more and more, until we hit a point of player invulnerability (you still take damage and it costs credits to fix it, but the 'Mech you're piloting can't be destroyed completely in battle) - and then there was a very quick and spectacular rebound to full rules including lucky headshots and such.

Sure, while invulnerable we were doing funny stuff like "Death from above" attacks (you jump on another 'Mech, you both take damage, very risky and uncertain results) but it ceases to be fun after 10 minutes when everybody was doing whatever they wanted - because there was no chance of failure in the system.

What you're saying is aking to turning on infinite lives in a shot'em'up game. So are those games about winning or getting to the end?

Again, I think that catering to the mentality of players who want to face an illusion of a challenge and "IWIN" instead of facing a real challenge and potential defeat is a bad way to go.

evizaer said...

People who play Battletech (and most other P&P RPGs) are not the same as the core audience of WoW and themepark MMORPGs. The fact that mechs can be destroyed is important to the nature of battletech, whereas in themeparks death just stands in the way of goals the players have no realistic chance of legitimately failing to accomplish anyway--let alone failing in a consequence-rich way.

Kenny said...

That's why I already said that those ppl want to face an illusion of a challange so they can "IWIN" instead of facing a real one and possibly fail.

However for this illusion you have to have at least the illusion of failure - otherwise it won't be convincing enough.

But what is real failure and what is the illusion of failure?

evizaer said...

I think it'd be more accurate to say "the illusion of consequence" and "real consquences". Failure is significantly more subject to the player's whims.

Econniff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Econniff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Econniff said...

More important than the illusion is the bottom-line reason for death. Not for reasons of "feeling" or "emotional impact" or the psychological effect or the time/stat penalty. The pragmatic reason, in other words. And that reason is fairly straightforward: you died because your load-out or your attack strategy was incorrect. It's like a big complicated matching game, in other words, where missing a match is not the same as a loss.

In that sense, Death actually *expedites* that fight and future fights. If the player was invincible and had the incorrect load-out/strategy going into a fight, that fight will either end up taking ages or worse: be a perfect stalemate. Because the way players understand fighting in video games, it will be difficult for them to grasp the idea of a "bad" victory.

One of the major things that gets players to communicate in MMO is the subject of death-avoidance. "How do you get through such-and-such dungeon without dying, or without nearly dying?" "Oh, so-and-so knows, talk to him"

But if you're questing "successfully" using terrible strategy and equipment, you have little incentive to communicate...yet paradoxically, you'd also be critical of the game for being either boring or giving mobs too much health - something that could be solved easily through the very communication you have no incentive to engage in.


On the other hand, we might consider MMOs that *already* make it impossible to die. The Sims MMO comes to mind. It is a very, *very* community-heavy game, obviously. In fact, much of the game is played outside the game itself. Even though it's impossible to die and impossible to harm another characters, the stakes in an MMO like the Sims are very high. But instead of losing a life, the consequences are a loss of actual status within the real-world community that exists within the game. In a way, that's higher than any threat posed by any in-game death. It may be more difficult to lose status than it is to lose everything you worked for in Darkfall, but in Darkfall you can just get back up and try it again. Not so with a social fall from grace, as I'm sure we've all experienced in the past, at least 2nd hand.

So in a way, removing death doesn't actually remove danger. But the question is, would any of those consequences translate to an MMO like WoW? Or would its single player aspects turn the inability to die into a sort of god mode like the one Kenny described in Battletech, which bores players quickly? Would players grow to value community more like in The Sims? Or would the community die along with the incentive to play correctly, as I predict?

Econniff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Econniff said...

(...)

On the other hand, we might consider MMOs that *already* make it impossible to die. The Sims MMO comes to mind. It is a very, *very* community-heavy game, obviously. In fact, much of the game is played outside the game itself. Even though it's impossible to die and impossible to harm another characters, the stakes in an MMO like the Sims are very high. But instead of losing a life, the consequences are a loss of actual status within the real-world community that exists within the game. In a way, that's higher than any threat posed by any in-game death. It may be more difficult to lose status than it is to lose everything you worked for in Darkfall, but in Darkfall you can just get back up and try it again. Not so with a social fall from grace, as I'm sure we've all experienced in the past, at least 2nd hand.

So in a way, removing death doesn't actually remove danger. But the question is, would any of those consequences translate to an MMO like WoW? Or would its single player aspects turn the inability to die into a sort of god mode like the one Kenny described in Battletech, which bores players quickly? Would players grow to value community more like in The Sims? Or would the community die along with the incentive to play correctly, as I predict?