Tobold's Blog
Thursday, June 17, 2010
What would you be willing to risk in a MMORPG?

LarĂ­sa has a very nice post up about Wolfshead's latest rant about there not being enough death penalties. So lets talk about death penalties a bit.

My first big 3D MMORPG was Everquest. If you died in Everquest, you lost xp, and even could level down because of it. Your complete gear stayed on your corpse, while you respawned naked at your bind point, potentially very far away from your corpse, and had to do a "corpse run" to recover it. If, for example, your death occured deep down in a dungeon, with dungeons not being instanced and the mobs having respawned, there was a potential for not being able to recover your corpse inside the time limit; at which point your corpse with all your gear would evaporate, leaving you naked and poor. I especially remember the Erudin having a newbie zone with a cliff, falling off which would result in your corpse falling into a high-level zone and dying, from which there was no chance to recover your corpse. Do I need to mention that this system wasn't very popular?

Now Wolfshead would argue that you should take that sort of losses like a man and not be a crybaby. But having played EQ long enough, I noticed that the corpse loss system also had serious repercussions on player behavior: Nobody wants to lose their corpse, thus players avoid situations in which such a loss could happen. As a consequence, dungeons in Everquest were notoriously empty. And they were especially empty of players of the levels for which they were designed. Instead of players going to level-appropriate dungeons, you had players of much higher level going to those dungeons, and "camping" the final boss. Thus for example the Frenzied Ghoul at the end of the Lower Guk dungeon, a level 42 to 44 mob, was rarely hunted by a group of level 45 to 50 players, who would have gotten xp from him. Instead level 65+ players who didn't have any risk dying there camped the Frenzied Ghoul for the Flowing Black Silk Sash, a rare magic item, which could then be sold to the lower level players for a lot of platinum. Everquest developers repeatedly failed to get players interested in dungeons with various rewards like "zone xp bonuses". Moral: If your death penalty is too high, players will become risk averse and just play it safe, neglecting the dangerous content.

But there is also the other extreme. When Star Trek Online launched, the death penalty was too low. Thus if you got shot down in an instanced mission, you came back at full strength, while the enemies were still damaged. Thus you could beat anything if you were just persistent enough and didn't mind dying a lot. (A bit like me going fishing in Northrend with a level 7 character). But I read that Cryptic realized that was a mistake, and increased the death penalty, and even added a difficulty slider. In Star Wars Galaxies the death penalty was having to hang out in a town for a while, but traveling could take longer than that, so players regularly committed virtual suicide to respawn in town and get a free teleport out of that. Moral: A MMORPG needs to have *some* death penalty to avoid players zerging or dying on purpose.

A further problem of death penalties is that in older games the penalty was in some form linked to experience points. You lost xp, or you would earn future xp at a slower rate. Now how do you do that in a game like World of Warcraft, where the majority of players is at the level cap and couldn't care less about experience points? Obviously it is unthinkable that a level 80 raider after a wipe loses xp, falls down to level 79, and suddenly can't wear all his level 80 epics any more, forcing him to grind mobs until he is back up to 80. And if you hit a player with some time-out death penalty, and that player happens to be just one player in a raid who made a mistake, you'd force all the other raid members to wait for that one guy to be back up, or kick him out and find a replacement. And of course a harsh death penalty in a group situation only increases the tension between players, as they might feel that "not dying" isn't completely their responsability, but that it is up to the healers to keep them alive. Moral: Death penalties have to hurt the individual, to give him appropriate feedback that he made a mistake, without hurting the group he was with.

That would bring us to solutions like repair bills, but those have obvious disadvantages as well: If a player needs a lot of gold to pay for his wipes, and find farming gold to be boring, he will be tempted to pay somebody else to do that gold farming for him, and further increase illegit RMT from gold sellers.

So I would like to hear from you what you would be willing to risk in a MMORPG. What kind of death penalty would appear harsh enough for you to make you want to avoid silly deaths, without keeping you from seeking out adventure and danger? How would you design a death penalty that doesn't hurt group play, and doesn't encourage players to buy gold?
I'd say instead of a penalties have bonuses. Something like a permanent buff which slowly over time increases your stats the longer you stay alive (maybe per login, also encouraging players not to log out?)

Dying then resets this buff back to zero etc.
Joe's suggestion reminds of Champions Online's death penalty. If you had a series of successful battles and quests, you get these little stars. If you had 5 stars, you were at full power and did a little extra damage. But for each death you get, you would lose a star, diminishing your power.
The WoW DP works, because

1) It is slightly annoying.
2) A corspe run is a trivial challenge that you know that you can 'beat'.
3) Most importantly: Players actively do someting while removing the DP. E.g. There's no reason to log out.

I do agree that a DP that makes player play risk averse is bad. My ansatz, however would be to attack this problem without totally giving up a harsh DP.

WoW-like raiding/dungeons could be special in that healer classes could spend gold to cast a big spell that makes everybody respawn in front of the dungeon in case of a wipe. Just an idea.
That is: If you really want to have WoW-like raiding. I could imagine other forms of group PvE.

The advantage of a harsh DP in general is
1) that you can make content relatively easy
2) and still make it feel like a challenge and thus create tension.

With a WoW-like DP you need to make content extra hard and make wipes be normal so that the content feels challenging. You also need to make it predictable. All this is not necessarily good.

So my solution:
1) Harsh DP combined with
2) relatively easy, but
3) rather unpredictable
4) that you have control over.

This way a raid would scout out the unknown dungeon and pick fights carefully. They would usully win and a wipe would be considered really rare.

You need to remove any incentives/possibilities for players to grind 'low-level' content, of course. The unpredictable dungeon needs to give players the feeling that they can indeed pick only those fights they can win. They would also only explore those parts of the dungeon that are not too dangerous for them.

You need a mechanism to make the players understand what danger is involved with which action here.
I don't know when or what server you played on, but I played from the original EQ till around the third expansion and from the start to the end people of relevant level exp'd and hunted in the relevant dungeons. Sure later on that overleveled people started farming the lower dungeons to sell loot but from the start I exp'd and hunted in top level dungeons as they were the best place to get loot not only to sell (so I could buy what I needed) but to gain loot for myself.

I have fond memories of hunting in Sol a and b, also places such as Sebelis and Karnors Castle later on. Once I started raiding we would start to ironman the content, what took 18-25 people to start clearing (Ntov east wing) we would do with 5 people then 3 people (yes it took allot longer but we still could do it) and we were still the same level as the people coming into the place to do the content for the first time.

WoW DP isn't a death penalty what so ever, a few silver at lower level up to a few tens of gold later on when you are carrying around 10k gold (and I wasn't even rich compared to some people) how is less than 1% of my money even a penalty?

Exp penalty was the good part I would say, meaning that people were a) afraid of losing the level and b) it kept people in dungeons topping up exp so they don't lose a level (along with Alternative Advancement).

Losing your corpse was never fun, but very rarely if ever happened (I never lost one and never new someone who did either as the timer was 7 days to get your corpse back), guilds would help newer guilds clear and break into the harsh zones if they had wiped out and couldn't break it, helping them recover their lost corpses.

Remember that raid zones were not instanced so that you could call in any amount of people to help you out if things went from bad to worse and you wiped out in a raid zone. I remember many a time helping out a smaller guild either break the zone to help them into the raid zone or breaking the entrance spawns so they could recover they corpses.

Group dungeons were slightly different, but you could always follow a group down and then recover your corpses quite easily. Remember that camps were usually camped by a single group and a group would come into the zone and check the major camp spots, if you were wiped and couldn't hold your camp then they would move in usually and hence you would move with them and collect your corpse. Worst came to worst in a group zone your monnk/sk could flip flop drag your corpses to the zone line (you could give permission to others to drag or drag/loot your corpse as well), The monk would run down then Feign death to get rid of agro then drag your corpse by succesively fd'ing and dragging to the zone line and via a macro (I had to do it many a time :P) you could drag your entire groups corpses whilst running through the dungeon with 40+ mobs after you. Sure it was a time sink but it was part of the rush of danger not wanting to wipe out. It meant that you had to trust the guys you were with in the place, if you had some muppet who couldn't crowd control or was breaking mezes or not assisting on the right mob you would be in the s**t and quick. Unlike the face rolling that happens in WoW dungeons these days.
Your EQ examples are written from the point of view 5 years or so in. For the first couple of years, before there were hundreds of zones, EQ dungeons were absolutely filled to the brim. They were the only places to go level 45-50. In fact, a low level 20 rogue could easily and safely go to Guk and walk with relative safety to get the DE mask and maybe the dagger (forget the name) because every room and hallway was camped.

I think I prefer the EQ style penalty with one exception: make it so you can't de-level. That was the rough part. It took so much darn effort to level in EQ (not to mention hell levels, etc... ugh), that exp loss and corpse run was enough. Level loss was just a kick in the nuts.

The scare factor in EQ was much more significant than in WoW. Nowadays in WoW, the biggest thing people have to worry about wiping in an instance is whether they and the rest of their group knows how to actually get back to the instance the LFD tool magically popped them into. There's little incentive to avoid death. Again, EQ provided tools like evac that allowed the group to play on the edge, but everyone wanted to avoid a wipe at all costs. They usually played better because of it.

Like most other things in EQ, there was a large social component (both good and bad) to the death penalty. There were several abilities and class spells that were related to helping people locate or retrieve their corpse, and social interactions took place because of them. A level 4 bard with Selo's and Locate Corpse could easily help out a level 25 find his corpse in some huge zone. People didn't have to, and of course there were jerks now and then, but much more often there was a cheerful moment of camaraderie knowing you could help someone out. And who doesn't love corpse dragging! Come on, it was hilarious, especially when done by an invisible character! :)
I'm not sure what a good death penalty would be but I do know that we need one that has a sting. Death should hurt and it should be scary after all! If we don't fear death in MMOs, what's the point of the mechanic existing?

I actually quite like EVE's death mechanic because it really does hurt but it's not the be-all and end-all of the game. A big factor of why I like it is probably because I accepted it before I even played the game. So long as the player base accepts the death penalty and it doesn't happen too frequently, then I think developers could be more severe with what happens.

As I said, I don't really know what the best death penalty would be but perhaps linking it to item loss is a good idea becuase it helps stimulate demand for items in the economy.
It would be interesting to see a system similar to WoW but that cannot be fixed with Gold. The problem of people buying Gold illegally to repair themselves can be fixed by taking Gold out of the equation while keeping the same loose armor or stats per death. A fatigue bar could be implemented where you lose stats after death which can only be regained by visiting an Inn and spending a few minutes in bed to regain your fatigue. This way players can't simply buy their way to perfect form with real world money (the black-market gold problem) and only you carry the burden of the death because you can stay with a group and finish a raid and then spend 7 minutes at an Inn to refill your batteries.
you can sum up all death penalties in the time it takes to get back to where you were, in level, gold, and power. how much time should the worst death imaginable take?

In wow its like 10mins
Bring back "hardcore" mode from Diablo and create a server for World of Warcraft.

But instead of permanently losing your character, you cannot play for X amount of time (X depends on your level).
Why not have variable rates? Higher reward means higher risk. Then players can choose.
Death results in respawning at the nearest "graveyard", "medical center" or "bind point" (or whatever the MMO wants to call it). This first part is to remove the player from the action and prevent having a series of corpse runs to "get out" of a dangerous area. This does mean starting over making your way into an area, so it is a set back of sort.

Loss of experience, without level loss. At maximum level or at the lowest exp of the current level, loss of gold equal in value to what the exp loss would be.

Armor sustains durability damage. Instead of just losing durability during combat. Armor can not be repaired, and will eventually need to be replaced. This would mean better armor drops and more often (much like Diablo 2 style). Would allow for "glass weapons", used in many Rogue-likes (super stats, extremely low durability).

Being alive and successful in combat generates a groove bar. Higher bar means character has more power. Death resets the bar. (yes much like Joe, and Amphigory, and Champions Online).
@Dar: that would ruin raiding and pvp.
Keep in mind that death penalty doesn't have to be universal. Dying in raids can have one penalty, dying in PvP another, dying to a random wilderness monster a third penalty, dying to an environmental hazard a different penalty altogether, etc. For extra variety, every raid boss and PvP battleground could have its own unique death penalty.

WoW already has some vestiges of this approach (if you die in PvP, you don't lose durability; if you die in AV, your team loses reinforcements).
I really, really, don't like death penalties in games.

I see it as punishment for simply trying to have fun. Why should I be punished for that? I don't even like WoW's armor penalty. If I make a mistake, I don't want the game I'm paying for to punish me for it.

I died, yes, there should be some indication. The WoW method of becoming a ghost and having to run back s more than enough. To be penalized on top of that is excessive.

All the penalties do is teach people to stop taking risks, and the game gets very boring when people stop doing that.
Players incorporate death penalties into their usual min/maxing. If there are heavy death penalties players will be cautious, and if there are few death penalties players will be reckless. Cautious play is usually boring play which is why severe death penalties are bad.

If a game is truly fun to play, a very effective death penalty is just having a ten or twenty second respawn timer. That's what most multiplayer FPS games do. You don't want to die because you'll quit having fun.

If you only dread dying because there is a severe death penalty, that means you are not having fun playing the game.

A true test of a game is having a tiny death penalty. If those ten seconds you are out of the action is a sufficient death penalty, then the game is fun.
I think you are attributing the L-Guk (and other "obsolete" content) problem in EQ.

I think its much more a problem of population density--you need 6 players of the right levels, on at the right time, with the right classes (tank, heals, debuff, 3x DPS) to head for a place like L-Guk. Add to that you need some fairly specific knowledge of how to get down to the Frenzied Ghoul (thinking of the bridge). And as I recall he was fairly darned mean too, for his level.

Depending on when you played, those six 42-50 player might be as much of 100% of the players of that level on line at that time.

And, barring the FBSS, there was better loot in Kunark for that level.

I think logistics is the bigger problem for L-Guk (and the like) rather than risk (death penalty) aversion.
I think the death penalty that's currently in WoW is enough - death costs you time and means you didn't achieve your goal. I'm in a casual raiding guild, we usually raid for about 6 hours a week. Every wipe on the Lich King costs us a significant amount of time - between the time spent fighting, corpse run, rebuffing etc. That means every death is significant, even without further losses - gold can be easily gained or bought, but you only have a certain amount of time reserved for playing.

Look at games other than MMO's - death usually means having to press continue or load game, loosing no more than a few minutes.
I wouldn't risk anything without a good potential payoff. That's what bugs me about death penalties: they always seem to be for trivial tasks. If I lost all my gear fighting Sargeras, that might make some sense. If I lost all my gear because I disconnected during dailies, that's bullshit.

Then there are groups. Would higher death penalties make the asshole in the random play any better? Or just give him another way to be an asshole?
""But instead of permanently losing your character, you cannot play for X amount of time (X depends on your level)."

That already exists, miss. It's the "You can't resurrect for another 5 minutes".

The WoW system works pretty well.
Your posts about EQ is sort of off. While some dungeons were empty others had huge wait lists to get a spot and had lots of people trying to solo at the zone in.

Velks Lab, Karnors, and Sebilis are just a few of the super popular ones.
As much as we gamers complain about games stagnating, games and especially MMO's do evolve. Only by skips and hops instead of leaps and bounds. All these death penalities and other archaic game systems you mentioned may appeal to a very small niche audience, but games are a business and the market in general is not tolerant to severe penalities.

People wax poetic about past games and tv shows that they grew up with. But the truth of the matter is that few of those memories hold up to today's realities. Remember Planescape Torment? Awesome reviews and I had a blast when it was first released. But recently I bought it again and ... you know compared to today's RPG's like Dragon's Age, it didn't fair so well. Don't get me wrong, it is playable and fun but no where close to what I remembered.

In the same vein, Any modern MMO that does not allow solo play to max level is going to fail. It might have worked for Everquest and FFXI way back when but do that today and I guarantee. There might be more leyway for death penality severity but over all, I highly doubt that any game will regress to the days of Ultima Online and Everquest.

Thank God.
The reason the EQ method was so severe is because it was so time consuming and difficult to acquire the gear.

Darkfall and EVE both have systems that have gear loss when you die and this penalty is mitigated by the fact that it's relatively easy to reacquire.

Of course, it's not REAL easy and gets increasingly more difficult as your progress.

EVE is a poorer example because there IS a lot of risk aversion.

However, in Darkfall, loss is even expected because gear "wears out" over time.

The penalty is therefore inconvenient yet not punishing.

I think where DF likely crosses the line for what most people could accept is in the full looting of your corpse. Even here, however, the loss is rarely so great that you can't overcome it.

And, as you wrote above, players learn to be risk averse. You don't just run around with all your gold on your person without a reason.

The critical part about such a "loss" system is that it's not horribly painful to recover from that "loss".

Even losing XP wouldn't be a huge deal if you were handing it out like candy.
I have heard this has been changed to be a bit less, but I thought Vanguard's death penalty system was pretty workable when I was in their beta.

If you died, you lost xp. You couldn't de-level, but would have an xp debt to be paid off if you would have de-leveled. If you were higher in the level's need for xp, the bar simply moved left, though. But then you had options for how to mitigate that debt or loss.

If you were in a group and got rezzed you got back 90% of your xp.

If you did a corpse run (with your backup gear you kept in your mount's saddlebags) you got back 80% of your xp, and since you probably killed a few things to get back to your corpse, you might break even by the time you actually get there.

Or you could pay some gold and "summon your corpse" to you at the respawn point. You didn't get any xp loss mitigation then, but you got all your gear. And the option to retry the dungeon or to go "oops, shouldn't have been there at this level" and go a different direction.

Summoning your corpse was the harshest penalty in order to encourage people to try to make the corpse runs, but it wasn't so harsh that it wasn't something people were willing to do.

All in all I thought the system worked quite well. It made you cautious but not risk-averse.
I think the WoW death penalties are actually tuned very well. In PvE it's mostly a time penalty. The repair bills are an annoyance, but I don't think they drive the gold sellers. Raid bosses generally drop enough gold to make up for an occasional repair. Admittedly, our four night wipefest on the Lich King was a bit pricey but we were so excited to get the kill nobody cared. I think what drives gold purchases are the gold sinks. Dual spec, flying mounts, bags, expensive crafted gear. WoW players are also apparently willing to pay $10-$25 cash for vanity items, so I suspect some are buying gold for mounts and minipets.

In PvP there is basically no penalty, other than tactical, which is smart. There is no sense of another player taking something from you when you die. Instead you are teleported away from tactical objective, so the death hurts the team.
I'm fully of the opinion that from a design standpoint, a death penalty is a necessity to offer feedback to players so they can improve their skills.

Too much, and players don't take any risks. Too little and players just throw their own corpses at the enemies hoping to bury them in a pile of bones.

So here's an idea: Instead of the penalty being a game mechanic, what if it was psychological?

When a player dies, they reappear at the respawn point. This respawn point can be at the corpse itself (at which point something must be done to recover the body) or nearby and the players then have to run back. Instead of taking some kind of durability loss or money or XP loss though, a ghostly bard appears and plays the most annoying song ever until the player revives. The game could even analyze a player's music library and play the exact opposite of whatever they have. It wouldn't be a very long song to torture the player or anything, just long enough to be a minor annoyance that grates on the nerves.

There could even be something where if you somehow meet the king of the underworld, they could explain that the underworld has been getting fuller than they could handle lately and they assign these annoying bardly spirits to discourage people from dying to make their job easier or something.

And no, turning off the sound doesn't stop the song from playing. Turning off your speakers or sound in windows would disable resurrecting and turning them back on triggers a 5 second timer during which the player cannot resurrect.
Death Penalties could also be used to encourage teamplay. Have hard penalties however also give option to get aid from party members on dead. Like multiplayer fps games where you get near a fallen ally to recover them in time. If you are late penalties apply.
It is used in gears of war, left 4 dead etc. It could be used in a mmo, I guess
Your description of Everquest isn't all that accurate. The things you describe could happen, but they were very much "worst-case scenarios".

It's true that it was possible to lose all your gear by not being able to recover your corpse.I did it at least three times. I took it very seriously the first two times and became pretty upset. I'm sure that many, many people had similar experiences and decided to give up playing Everquest as a result. Consequently I agree that it wasn't commercially wise to retain such a "harsh" death penalty once other MMOs appeared that were less draconian.

BUT... my perception of what I was losing and the level of risk I was being asked to accept was largely wrong. Those times when I lost my corpse I was level 8 and level 6 respectively. I thought my loss was significant, and emotionally it was, but in practical terms it was largely meaningless. Once I'd recovered my poise I was easily able to recoup my losses and carry on from where I left off.

At higher levels, when losses really do have potentially severe consequences, very few players back then would have found themselves in aposition where they genuinely couldn't recover either their corpse and the gear on it or the experience. Most people by that stage would be in guilds and would get help, unless what they had been doing was suicidally reckless.

What we mostly lost at that point was time. Many people resented this. Personally, I felt, and still do feel, that helping a player to recover his or her lost gear is a much more convincing and satisfying "quest" than anything any NPC will ever ask me to do. I always liked corpse runs, especially really tricky ones and found time doing them was well-spent in terms of providing me with entertainment.

That said, the clock can't be turned back. Everquest itself hasn't had corpse decay, item loss or level loss on death for years. Nowadays you respawn with all your gear on and for a small fee you can pay a n NPC to summon your corpse and your cleric mercenary will give you a 96% rez for free.

I'm grateful I played through those years, but to answer your question on what I would now be willing to risk in an MMORPG, my answer is "nothing that matters enough to make me even mildly irritated". I play for different reasons now than I did then.
I like the 'teleport your living body to the nearest GY' idea. Removing someone from the scenario where they died can be a very good thing. Of course you can do this in WoW already, with a small penalty. (Time to stretch, get a drink and sandwich, and when you sit down again you are good to go.)

Of course WoW still offers the chance to run back to your death location, meaning if you want to be persistent, you can without having to fight through elites to get to a quest boss you died on.

I would keep WoW' current death model with a few exceptions: Increase repair cost, but make it payable with multiple currencies; in Cataclysm that would be pve/pvp points and gold.

Possibly faction specific items such as unidentified plant parts or ogre warbeads at CE/Nagrand vendors could be used, but anything BoE runs the risk of becoming confusing by trying to optimize repair costs.
I feel the death penalty should be proportional to the game play. More twitchy game needs weaker one, more tactical games required stronger penalties. So forgive me if I start droning on about what an ideal MMORPG would be while talking about interesting death penalties.

I love the idea of exp and level loss; I also would love a more challenging, skill based, tactical game. The idea that a player would eventual balance out at a level that denotes a certain level of skill sounds like a very fun game. Once the player learns how to play better he would then rise further in levels. Yes it would be much slower than current MMORPGs, but there would always be something to work towards.

As far a the exp and level loss, I figure that it would not take affect until the player is actually resurrected. That way there could be multiple paths to get back to the game. Say once you die you are send to the Grim Reaper's playground, now you have to fight your way back to the living world. You can take a shorter, easier route but you would lose more exp. Take the longer and more difficult route, and do well, and the penalty would be less. As far as raids go make the healer classes have powerful spells with long cool downs and/or expensive components that reduce the penalty in addition to normal resurrection spells.

No doubt people would complain about the PvP, that it would take too long to get back in the battle and really slow down PvP. I say that a long death penalty would be a good thing if this is a tactical PvP game with actual goals with real repercussions. It would force players to thing about tactics, find weak points, pick their moments. It would make every attack all the more serious and tense knowing that if you fail the opposing force will be able to capitalize in your absence. It would be more like a real battle where each side is not getting a constant stream of reinforcements.

Gear loss is another good idea, even outside of a death penalty. It creates a more cautious player and encourages frequent dungeoneering. Looting players is another good death penalty but lets make it not as serious as Darkfall or UO. Make the drop rates for your greens, blues, and purples the same as a world drop of similar items. Toss in a tiny percent of your coins and the few garbage items you are caring and you got yourself both an incentive to PvP but it's not so nasty people will avoid the game. If you really wanna carebear it up, make it if you take down the player who looted you you can get your junk back (as long as the player still has it). Also, make the monsters able to loot their player kills, it's only fair they get a shot at it too.
Glyph, I'm not sure if you're being serious, but the notion of punishing the player for failure is different from offering constructive feedback. If the point of a death penalty is to teach something, it needs to teach, not just be a time sink or other punishment.

Players understandably avoid punishment. It's not the best way to motivate behavior, and it's no fun.
I'm going to repeat my comment (with modifications) that I posted on Larisa's blog, because I haven't seen it addressed directly in the comments here yet.

The problem with risk and death penalties comes back to convenience versus loss. You can have temporary loss, or permanent loss.

Any temporary loss can be recovered from by an investment of time, as HXstak touched on. Gold, experience, even gear can be re-earned. In a game like WoW, where the core player base has less time, people find this type of loss off-putting because it seems pointless. Would I rather be spending my time regrinding those last 80,000 experience points because a mob that just spawned on top of me killed me? Or would I rather spend the time doing other things?

Then we have permanent loss. Other than rerolling, no amount of time could make up for this. Scars, stat penalties, even permanent character death. These things are even more off-putting to many players, because the player no longer has direct control over what happens to their character, and hours to days of time can be lost to this.

WoW's solution has been to impose a minor time penalty of running back to your corpse and dinging you a small amount of money. The upshot of that is that they can afford to make some encounters (like raids, or PvP) more challenging because players aren't afraid of dying other than as an inconvenience. The downside is, yes, death is not to be feared, and that feeling of risk is gone.

Another idea I had postulated on Larisa's blog, which I see themes of in Ephemeron's comment, is the idea of different "death penalties" depending on how you died. Most games, WoW included, have a black and white definition of losing. You're dead, or the other side is dead. I wonder if there's not room in between for defeat?

Some quests could have different outcomes if you lose the fight, or some mobs just wanting to drive you off instead of killing you (you go unconcious and wake up elsewhere, or you've been captured by the Defias for ransom!). Why everyone and everything ends in death when there are so many more interesting possible outcomes in between is something I don't see many people asking.

In your 3rd paragraph you touched on something that I think is actually a serious problem for MMORPG designers:

In actual fact many deaths in the games we play are completely pointless. Deaths from monsters spawning on top of us, from falling off cliffs, from pet and monster pathing issues and from boss abilities you couldn't possibly figure out before hand (ignoring online boss guides).

The death penalty has to be set low when it's thrown at you like it is.

That's what most multiplayer FPS games do. You don't want to die because you'll quit having fun.

If you only dread dying because there is a severe death penalty, that means you are not having fun playing the game.

Its a good point albeit I a lot of FPS takes it too far. Death is completely meaningless in them.

I think counter strike had the right balance - you would have 1 to 5 minutes to watch other players play (and see what you did wrong) and learn, instead of respawn and mindlessly rush again

MMOs need some kind of sting imho in order to prop up economies. ( well in ideally MMO repair shops would be player ran and it would have whole player economy layer)
I think an exp-based DP in WoW would be fairly easy to implement via their "percentage modifier." When you die X number of times, your experience gain is lowered by 10%/20%/50% whatever. Then there's a stronger disincentive, but not a game-ending one.

I don't really think you need one at the level cap though, because dying repeatedly doing end-game stuff costs the most valuable resource of all -- time. I'm sure everyone here has dropped a PuG 5-man or raid because they felt their time was being wasted. Enough of a death penalty for me.
I think of a lot of death penalties as a kind of a time ratio, i.e. how long are you playing vs. how long are you not-playing to support play.
For FFXI it was about a 1 to 1 work to play ratio until RMT became entrenched, then it went more towards 3+ to 1.
For a micro transaction game where the removal of a death penalty can cost cash, my guess is somewhere around a dollar for an hour of play for US players is getting to be a harsh.
Aside from that, the death penalty should be specific for the type of game play. For PvP zones and instances, a stacking time based stat penalty is appropriate.
For solo PvE questing, a WoW like corpse run is probably a sufficient time out.
For group PvE you should have a mix of a personal and a group penalty. For example, you drop the loot rolls of the player that died and you decrement the overall value of the loot table.
Death penalty is too weak in modern games. I could care less if I lose bonuses or have to take a 2 minute corpse run. It feels like a death penalty in Quake.

I like the rush of almost dying but even then there's little fear of that. So I'd like to see PvE toughened up and the death penalty should result in about 1 hours loss of work/items/EXP.
Dungeons & Dragons Online seems a fair solution for me.

Player only gets XP if he finish the quest. He receives penalty XP per each death (no for the current XP but the XP gotten with the q).

When a player is in level cap this method is not valid... a solution could be reduce the level of the treasure given by the quest.
The death penalty needs to work with the game style. For a loot centric game like WoW gear lose would be too painful. Repair costs are negligable and anything that reduced stats would mean that anything more than a couple of wipes would kill a raid.
A good penalty would be a lose of features, such increasing cooldown on hearthing or locked out of a daily quest centre for the reset of the day.
Alternatively, a death could result in a rep loss penalty with someone (guild?) and the possible lose of associated perks.
People are indeed risk averse and prefer to be given everything on a plate. Doing a raid? Be sure everyone already did it once and has gear that's much better than what's needed to complete the instance.
@Ben: that's the description of the death penalty in DAoC. It worked after a fashion. There were other incentives built into the game.. the longer you spent camping a specific spot, the less XP you got, etc.
Apologies if this has been mentioned but I gotta get back to preparing for my university exams.

I was a fan of the death system in Asheron's Call. When you died the following things happened:

* Your corpse was left in place with a portion of your gold and a few of your more valuable items (went up with levels)
* You gained a debuff called Vitae. This debuff reduced all stats by 5%, stacking by 5% for each death. It could only be worked off through experience.

This worked out quite well as losing a vital piece of your gear was possible but unlikely. Players carried high value items such as mana stones which would drop first. But after a death or 2, your real stuff would start dropping. There were items had a property that stopped them from dropping on death. Because of the random loot system in AC generating some of the best items players ended up wearing droppable gear.

The vitae debuff worked out well I think. What it meant was you couldn't just rambo over and over like we do in WoW. If you died twice then you might not be able to run into that group of mobs anymore and you'd end up having to work off your vitae. Working it off only took about 5 min and there were mobs everywhere.

I can see a modified version of this system working. Not too harsh of a penalty but not nothing.
@ Ben & Opsy

Something I thought of as far as what to do for exp/level loss at cap was to allow the play to continue to gain exp up to a level or so worth and bank it up. That way when they die it uses this saved up exp instead of just suddenly dropping a level. As long a raids continue to give exp most players would not have to worry about losing your capped level but it still would require caution as wiping on the same boss too often would result in the whole group dropping a level.
Have small penalties to your character's power, but also have some "loss of prestige" aspect linked to death.
Like the game keeping track of how often you died in total, how often you died in that level, how many bosses you killed without dying and how many quests you solved without dying.

Have some prestige achievements and prestige items linked to doing something cool without dying. Those items do not give more power, but are for showing off "I ran through this Raid Dungeon without dying" or "I made 10/20/50/80 levels without dying once".
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