Death Penalties in MMOs
The other day I played Star Trek Online and accepted an instanced mission without noting that I still was in a party. STO scales enemy numbers and strength according to the size of your party, so naturally I got blown to bits when approaching those enemies alone. Not to worry, though, I simply got to respawn at the last respawn point I passed. Essentially, STO has no death penalty. Other games require you to run back to the place at which you died to avoid penalties and/or deduct money or experience from your character. Keen claims that no one should want to die – and I guess there is some truth to that statement. I still don’t like death penalties though, and here’s why:
On a purely emotional level I hate losing stuff when I die, hell I even hate corpse running in World of Warcraft. On one hand, that’s obviously the whole purpose of death penalties. If it wasn’t annoying, why would I want to avoid dying? On the other hand, harsh death penalties make people overly cautious and are really annoying when one dies to no fault of oneself. Died to lag or a bug? Here, have a death penalty. Tried a new strategy that didn’t work? Spend some time running and grinding those lost XP back. Made a last ditch effort to protect your base in PvP? Good luck finding that rare breastplate again that was just looted from your corpse.
Sure, ideally a player is totally immersed in the game world and constantly on edge, carefully avoiding enemies and looking out for traps – but players should also be able to use virtual worlds to experiment with things that they wouldn’t dare to do in the real world. The reason I hunt panthers with a bow in WoW, but don’t in real life is because in WoW it doesn’t matter if I fail.1 I enjoy trying to take on a high level monster that crosses my path to see if I can beat it, harsh death penalties wouldn’t allow me to do that. Exploring would be discouraged, as would raiding content of a decent difficulty. Gordon of We Fly Spitfires commented on Keen’s post that light death penalties are great for more casual games (like WoW) while harsher ones are for more hardcore games. I greatly disagree. I consider myself somewhat of a hardcore player and that attitude manifests itself in my desire to tackle challenging content. I hated cruising through Trial of the Crusader on normal mode, but liked the repeated tries on some of the hard modes in there. With a harsh death penalty, the former would pretty much the only type of content available.
Having a death penalty in PvP is even worse in my opinion. Sure, your current battle should be influenced by you dying – but why would one want an overall penalty? All that does is encourage zerging (you might die if you go anywhere alone or in a small group) and games of chicken. How many people do you think would have stood in the front lines of a medieval battle in real life if they hadn’t been forced to? None, or at least very few. If your death penalty is harsh, armies will chicken around each other trying to pick up stragglers here and there until someone makes a major mistake. That’s not engaging gameplay.
You can put a great value on individual players’ lives by simply making deaths count in the current battle, as exemplified by various non-persistent games. Players in League of Legends, for example, try to avoid deaths because dying means getting closer to losing a match. The same goes for your various first person shooter games. One doesn’t need any persistent effect from deaths to make people try to stay alive.
I know there are players who enjoy such gameplay as the hardcore mode in Diablo II, but I would wager that the majority of players would rather not see all their hard work lost to a single fluke. A flatmate of mine almost killed me once because I restarted our router while he was playing Diablo II in hardcore mode. Why anyone would risk losing hours of work (and that’s what leveling in MMOs is, mostly) to such a fluke? Or even to a random high level player that likes to gank others? Put optional hardcore modes into your games as much as you want, but keep those harsh death penalties away from me, especially if I’m playing a more hardcore game.