I have long been a proponent of death penalties in MMORPGs. Yeah they can sometimes be a harsh penalty that is rather off putting, but there are many reasons why the game design requires the death penalty to be there. Heck I still like the idea of permadeath although I think the time for that is long past and I understand fully why that is. But there are positive reasons why you have a death penalty that really help the game’s long term health.
Perhaps the main reason that death penalties are important is that it usually will prolong the life of any particular character. This is because most penalties result in a permanent loss of something: xp, skill, items, money, levels, and/or “fixing.” This essentially means that the player must work his way back to the previous point that he was, if the player is particularly unlucky, he may find himself set back by days or weeks depending on how unlucky and how harsh the penalties.
There is an auxilary purpose behind the penalty however. That is to increase the risk of any particular fight. After all, if you take away death penalties, or lower them by an extreme amount, you will essentially find no reason to worry about death. I think a sign of this being a problem for any particular game is if dieing for the sake of travel is an acceptable practice. Note to WoW and EQ2, this is a warning sign of a very weak death penalty and you should be fixing it.
The reverse holds true as well, you should not make the risk so huge that the player will avoid putting himself in too much danger because he is so fearful of death. This is the primary reason that permadeath has been taken out of MMOs almost entirely, though I think there may be a good time to do it (I actually applaud SWG for putting permadeath on Jedi originally as it worked with that concept).
As you can imagine, this is a touchy subject because players will typically want to have as little a penalty as possible. It is no wonder why as the genre progresses, the penalty gets less and less. Game Developers want to appease their players, this is especially true when your players are in a subscription service and you worry that if they die too much in a short amount of time, they will just cancel their account.1 I understand this phenomena when you had permadeath, or even losing a corpse with all your best gear in the most dangerous of places. But these days both of these forms of penalties are gone and we still see the penalty getting weaker and weaker.
I doubt most will cancel their account because they have to fix their gear and log out for a week to let their debt go away. As long as there isn’t mass losses (such as losing 5 levels, of which levels loss is gone as well) players will rarely quit over a death. If they do quit over deaths at that point, it is more indicative that there is something else wrong with the game and they are just fed up.
I think in this day and age one of the easiest to pass penalties that actually means anything to players is that of an xp loss. Nearly every game that I’ve seen in recent years has had xp loss in some form. Now the way the xp loss is applied has changed since the advent of CoH which I thought was one of the many great new mechanics that this game brought to the table. By CoH, level loss was already gone, but what they went and did was changed xp loss into debt. This hid what was going on to many players because you could earn your xp back by earning xp. I can’t tell you how many times I have run into players since this mechanic was first instituted, and then picked up in future game designs, where they thought the game in question had no xp loss on death. There is something seriously lost in this logic where you don’t lose xp, you owe debt to it, but the only way to gain xp is by paying off xp. I suppose this fed into people’s thoughts that if they take out a loan of $20,000 that they actually have $20,000 when they usually have far less than that. At any rate, it worked, you got the result of xp loss without the sting.
The other major penalty of this day and age is to have damage done to equipment. I think the original intent of this design was to get rid of the corpse run, while still allowing for item loss on death. In this way, the players could break their items if their items got damaged all the way to 0%. But even this has failed in recent years. EQ2 is a good example of how this has failed. When you reach 0%, you just can’t wear the item anymore, this was a big problem in raids until they offered mutliple ways to fix your equipment without returning to town. But even at its worse, you never lost items at 0%, you’d just have to go to a vender to fix them, so the loss was completely monetary. Items always returned to 100% no matter how much damage was done to them.
I actually never minded the breakage of items when they hit 0%. It didn’t really happen as often as you’d think. I mean players were more careful of their equipment back then, certainly a game like EQ2 may not actually be able to deal with it considering that in a raid 20-30 deaths in a night is not uncommon and having 3 or 4 sets of equipment shouldn’t be a necessity. But what if you could change how damage is calculated?
Perhaps only dealing dmg to only a section of the body. For instance, you take a death blow to the chest, the chestpiece, belt, and maybe necklace take some damage. Further, you could have different levels of dmg depending on the dmg done to the player on the death blow. Or you could also vary it depending on the quality of the item involved. Maybe a normal treasured item takes the standard 10%, Legendary takes 6%, and Fabled takes only 3%. This way you’d give a bigger reward for those hard to get pieces of gear that you might have taken months to get and thus would lower the chance of it actually breaking it and losing all that time. You could also add into the game special powers to lower the break percentage at this point which in and of itself adds a lot to the game.
Lastly, is the corpse run itself. It was a mainstay of the genre for a very long time. It really ended shortly after the first generation of the Big 3. UO, AC, and EQ1 all had the corpse run where players lost every item they had and thus you would need to get a party together to rescue the body. I think the days of losing ALL your items is long gone, and I won’t argue that, but I do think that the corpse run in and of itself is worth keeping. The reason is that the corpse run did create stories in a game without the need of much work on the end of the game developers which in reality is what you want to do right? Player created content is the holy grail fo the genre and this is player created content.
I actually kind of liked what EQ2 did initially with the corpse run. You got half your xp debt returned to you if you went to get your spirit corpse. Of course they then got rid of that and cut the xp debt to be around 10% of what it originally was but the initial concept was great. I would also like to see item drops return to the games as well. But make it a lot less harsh. Maybe a standard 5% of cash that you have on you, and say at level 10 or something you also lose 1 random item that you have on you. You could also change that so that at level 25 that turns into 1 random item and 1 random equipped item. This way ensuring that something of value comes about. AC had an increasing drop amount as you went up in level, but their drops were based on value of the item so players started to carry junk items that were high in value to lower the chance of something real to get dropped. You’d need to completely remove this type of gaming.
Overall, I think that game designers need to start putting more thought into death penalties. The penalties themselves have gotten very lax in recent years which has aided into the “easy” feeling that many modern MMORPGs have these days. By returning to an increased penalty, albeit not as harsh as what it once was, you may increase the risk, but you also greatly increase the enjoyment when stuff goes right. You also lengthen the interest of any given player by months if not years. So while you may turn off players in the short-run, you keep players interested in the long run which tends to be better. (This can also be negated by designing in less penalties for newer players as well).