Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Thoughts on permadeath

Imagine adding a rule to chess where the winner of a game gets to shoot the loser with .45 colt. That certainly would make chess a much tenser game! But would it make chess a *better* game? Whether you lose in chess or die in a MMORPG, you already received a clear signal of having lost. Is the game improved by linking that signal to a strong loss? Or is the loss just an artificial crutch to make people care about a game that lacks inherent motivation?

Apart from permadeath caused by bugs and disconnects, discussed in yesterday's threat, the question is whether permadeath if working as intended adds something valuable to a MMORPG. I played the original Everquest for a year and a half, and while that game doesn't have permadeath, it does have level loss on death, and the possibility to lose all your gear. And my observation at the time was that this led players to avoid risk. For example dungeons were rarely visited by groups of players who could still gain xp there. Rather they were farmed by high-level characters gathering gear for their alts or for sale. If a level-appropriate group died in a dungeon, the respawn would very likely cut the now naked players off from retrieving their corpses. So most players rather tended to play it safe and boringly "camped" monster spawn points in outdoor zones.

Now you might say that having significant risk in a MMORPG makes the fantasy world appear more dangerous and real. But if players react to the heightened risk by playing it safe, you get a virtual world full of possible adventure that is being avoided for being too dangerous. Games can keep up an illusion of us being heroic adventurers only exactly because there is no real risk.

Whether a MMORPG is subscription-based or Free2Play with an item shop, game companies are generally interested to keep people playing for as long as possible. Thus we also need to balance the potential heightened interest in a more dangerous game with the potential rage-quit of players who actually died to that danger. Thus there is a long tradition of games with known harsh death penalties in reality having several ways to circumvent those penalties. In Everquest you could get a necromancer to summon your corpse, for example. And there are even Free2Play games in which the death penalty can be negated with an item bought for real money in the item shop.

Personally I like doing crazy dangerous stuff in MMORPGs. I've been running low level characters from Freeport to Qeynos in Everquest, or been fishing with level 5 characters in Northrend. Doing such non-conventional gameplay requires the game to not have too harsh a death penalty. Permadeath and other harsh death penalties limit the game to some sort of safe mode, and ultimately make the game poorer, not richer.

"Heroic adventure" is defined as one that heroes take.

In such game a few "heroes" (top players) take on the adventure, while the "peasants" (casuals) are farming safely.

In the safe games where everyone wins, there are no heroes. To have winners, we must have losers. To have heroes, we must have peasants.
Ever since Darkfall, I have theorized that players will play at the same risk level regardless of what the penalty in the game is. In Darkfall, players would routinely PvP naked and go outside only in mediocre, easily replaceable gear (around the level of questing greens in WoW). In fact, most leveling of skills was done on the "blood wall," a line of AFK higher level players you would hack on until they were low (at which point healers would get to up their healing skill on them).

Despite being a "high risk" game, players played in an extremely risk averse manner, similar to the vast majority of EVE players staying in high sec space.

I would be curious if you could calculate comparable "losses" based on how much time per month each player has to spend to recover their losses from death (sounds like something Gevlon would do). I think all games would be more or less the same, with the average item loss in Darkfall or EVE being roughly the same as a hardcore raider or Arena player's repair bill.
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To have heroes, we must have peasants.

That is only true in the real world. In a virtual world the peasant gets the choice of refusing to play. Which is especially significant if you have to pay to play. Who is paying $15 a month to be lowly peasant? Thus we get a World of Warcraft filled with 10 million pseudo-heroes.
It's like with poker man.
Sure you can play with points, but it's just ain't real. Makng the stakes higher makes it all the more fun.
Where you might be right is, that the player should be able to choose the stakes for himself, and if a developer wants large numbers of players, the the game should let you have fun without the hight stakes involved, which kinda proves your point.
But some actions having dare consequences - what's not to like?

Ok, sure - if getting your stuff is equal to a month's work of grinding then yeah, losing all that is a bad dev choice. It's just that you and devs acociate 'permadeath' with 'penalty', when it should simply be a form of consequence that forces you to start over. The game should be fun enough for people to enjoy the activities in it, and not just munchin' and ownin items. That way sure - you die, but hell yeah, you can start over. Play some FTL: FASTER THEN LIGHT (10 bucks on Steam) as an example.
FTL works because the time investment is so small. Each play-through will take roughly 2 hours and even if you end up dying, you might get some achievements or ship unlocks along the way.

Investing 100-200 hours of gameplay and then losing it all is a completely different matter. You also mention that it is the same as gambling and you are correct in more than one aspects: rational people will avoid it because in the end the house always wins; additionally, people that get carried away by the thrills and lose their shirt are considered morons and/or addicts.
Some roguelikes involve quite a few hours of investment. Probably not 100, but certainly 10.

Still, the point applies: roguelikes are [often, though it may be reducing] designed to be played this way. When you restart after death the dungeon is randomised. And the players know what they are getting into.
I can see two aspects to the perma death question: challenge and convenience. Perma-death increases the challenge level of a game (which I think is a good thing) but it reduces the convenience (which is generally a bad thing).

I am of an age where convenience is very important. I want to be able to pick up put down a game at will and still be able to make progress. Yet I still like challenging games. I have found that I am willing to accept perma death as a means of increasing challenge only as long as the inconvenience is not too great. FTL for example is OK because at worst you lose an hour's progress when you die. I would not be happy with a game where I lost three weeks progress upon dying.
Roguelikes also do it by not having an option to play it safe. There is no point to finding things precious because there is no way to save yourself or your gear. The only way is forward, towards inevitable winning or death. That's why dying isn't a big deal, you aren't risking anything, it's already a foregone conclusion that you lose it.
I hope you aren't conflating your own preferences with everyone else's. Your preference is clearly for low-risk adventuring where the penalty for mistakes is minimal, which is why you 'boringly "camped" monster spawn points in outdoor zones' rather than risked losing your corpse in a dungeon.

Yet there are thrill-seekers and risk takers who revel in the adrenaline rush that the risk of real danger gives them. That's why some people like kite-surfing and others prefer tiddlywinks. In World of Warcraft, players who are bored with playing it safe can take up the Ironman challenge; and for some UO players, it was the risk of losing your corpse that made you so alive in those dungeons.

In virtual worlds we have plenty of options for players who like to play it safe, and a few for players who like more risk. It would be interesting to see if an MMO could intermix those options, and give people the level of risk they prefer.

You mentioned that "Personally I like doing crazy dangerous stuff in MMORPGs". With respect, you don't. But it's interesting that you think that. There is no risk in fishing with level 5 characters in Northrend, because there is no danger. In other words, there's no penalty for failure - other than a 10 second corpse run.

But it's the fact that it makes you think that you're doing dangerous stuff that is interesting. Nils made an interesting point on this some time ago: in MMO games, he suggested, the perfect penalty is one that you greatly fear happening, but don't suffer much if it actually does happen (I mentioned it before, in an essay on Jeopardy).

Why, then, do players come to believe that fishing on a level 5 character in Northrend is crazy dangerous stuff, when all that's at risk is a 10-second delay in your play if you make a mistake? I think it's because of the name we give to that penalty. Death. It has a resonance for us. When we think we're risking death, we seem more heroic. If it was given another name (the time-out chair), we'd quickly see it for what it really is. Danger has to be in relation to the cost of failure. Where there is no cost, there is no danger.
when all that's at risk is a 10-second delay in your play if you make a mistake?

So how is a 10-month delay in your play if you make a mistake fundamentally different than a 10-second delay in your play if you make a mistake?

I don't see a permadeath player actually being any more at risk for life and limb than I am in WoW. Unless you play the Dominion video game from the James Bond movie Never Say Never Again, which gives you electroshocks whenever you make a mistake, there is actually never any danger of real loss in a video game.

If you think you are a thrill-seeker and risk-taker, you are just deluding yourself. You just have a bigger tolerance for delays to your game.
While I do like permadeath I think for a pay to play the worst they should do is level reduction and destroying all your gear instantly (even what was in your backpack).

Free to play can go all out and permadeath their folks all day long. :P

One of the reasons UO was so much more rewarding for me was the risk that all your stuff could be lost upon death, so going into the hot zones where pks and tough monsters lurked really was an adrenaline rush.

Compare that to GW2 where death is merely a minor inconvenience. Even the hardest zone you can just wander through and not really give a crap. Oh look a jumping puzzle where failure is certain death! Ofcourse we'll do it. Hell we'll do it while on the phone eating a bag of doritos because the respawn point is less than a minutes run away anyway. Oh I died. Who cares.
Rinse and repeat.

In your table top adventure, when one of your player characters "dies" do you just let them get up again with all their gear and xps? If so (and if they knew that) would it be a *better* game if they just decided to rush through your adventure half-assed because there is really no threat of death?
If you think you are a thrill-seeker and risk-taker, you are just deluding yourself. You just have a bigger tolerance for delays to your game.

Adding something here: ...and if you are playing a MMO, ANY of them, you definitely are NOT a risk-taker. The risk-takers are doing extreme sports, not MMOs.
In your table top adventure, when one of your player characters "dies" do you just let them get up again with all their gear and xps?

No, and yes. I wouldn't allow a character to get up, but the player would get to reroll a new character, and the new character would have the same level and xp as the dead one did. Tabletop RPGs are about story, and character death is meaningful in the story context. Doesn't mean I have to punish a player by making him play something far weaker than his friends. That probably wouldn't work for group cohesion anyway.
Hmm, same xps that's interesting. Wouldn't a lower level dude level up faster anyway given the party is having tougher encounters (I don't actually know in the latest ruleset)?

Does the player get to reroll a new dude instantly or do they have to wait till the party returns to town/next session where it is more believable?
Actually I thought of another question, would it be acceptable in an MMO for you then if your character should die and cannot be revived that you are made to roll up a new guy maybe just one level below and lose all your previous gear and start back in whatever city?

It would be like your adventures, pseudo-permadeath but not? :)
Rolling a new character takes some time between sessions anyway, so no instant revival.

And on the MMO question there is no single good answer. Basically ANY MMO dead costs you X time. And the value of X which is acceptable is different for everybody. I'd be okay with losing hours, but not days or weeks, of progress on death. Your mileage may vary.
Comparing chess and saying chess permadeath loser gets shot is incorrect. Chess already has permadeath. Once the game has ended the loser (and winner) must start from the beginning if they wish to play again.

A non-permadeath version of chess would be one that multiple moves to be unwound.

Chess even has a powerleveling service to end-game (those "Force mate in x moves puzzles")!

Permadeath in some games is a great option (just look at FTL and Diablo/XCom ironman modes). Without it people tend to face-roll through games and they become trivial. Permadeath forces people to think and that is a very important feature for some gamers.

Permadeath only works well if deaths are fair and avoidable. That is very hard to introduce into an MMO, and a developer could get into trouble if dying caused the destruction of cash-shop items.

Wizardry has ways to limit permadeath if people are careful. As long as deaths are not unpreventable and content is designed to be non-lethal for level appropriate characters then I think it is a good feature.
If you think you are a thrill-seeker and risk-taker, you are just deluding yourself.
It's not just the tolerace for delays - the thrill is in the player's head, but thrills always are. Risking the virtual life is as real a risk as the player believes it is.

I like the Convenience vs Challenge approach to the topic. Permadeath is not a bad mechanic, as long as the actual delay in getting back to speed isn't a fun-kill. Permadeath is not the bottom of the line though, it's just a point on a wider spectrum of possible penalties for losing. Take a game where you get one freebie character, but lose him on his death and have to buy a new one and start over each time you die. This seems ridiculous at first, but it highly depends on other game features. This model was widely used in games in the 80s - every arcade game had that. You lose, drop a coin and start again. I can easily imagine an MMO based off this model, but the one thing this game would have to drop immiediately is the 'levelling game'. Otherwsie the inconvienience would be to big and the penalty for dying to severe.
Nice post Tobold.

If I can draw another analogy - poker. If I play poker for pennies then I don't really play properly. I make crazy plays, I draw every hand, and it's fun.

When I play for £10 a hand, however, I don't play like that because of the risk of losing. I play tightly, I play winning hands and big bluffs, and it's brilliant. It's really tense, and the emotionaly payoff from a big pot is amazing. It's just a different game - not necessarily better though. It can be quite boring waiting for the right hand to come along, and losing money can be painful.

Nevertheless both types of poker can be fun in different ways and at different times. It's a personal choice and most people prefer one over the other.
Good analogy Everblue.

Would you play poker when the blind is a months wages, and goes up every hand?

Because that's kind of what permadeath is like. The amount of your life you put into the character goes up constantly, and eventually you'll lose a hand and get wiped out.

If WoW is too low stakes, permadeath is too high stakes .
On the other hand, permadeath can make people approach the game as if the stakes are very low. It becomes just a repeatable game that we know may be short lived.

Chess is, in fact, a permadeath game. Game over, start again. You don't bother to name your king.
Actually, reading into Wizardry it seems their "perma" death is very pseudo anyway. Your ghost has to reach a res statue while avoiding reapers which reduce the % chance you will be brought back.

And even if you fail, your friends can go collect stuff to ressurect you properly anyway (from what I gather).

I think that's pretty fair, though I suppose I should try it out to be certain! :P

Maybe a good balance in an MMORPG would be have most of the content as is but some high end *dangerous* scenarios where permadeath exists for those who chose to go there. Obviously the risk has to be worth it though... like a component for a highest tiered gear or better yet, a high powered but consumable item to keep people coming back.

I'm thinking maybe a magic gem that super charges your weapon but those charges run out as an example.

Thanks for replying to my earlier posts btw Tobold. I know you didn't need to. ^_^
"And my observation at the time was that this led players to avoid risk."

I think this is precisely the point. Death penalty is a mechanic that is designed to fit the game, not as an isolated feature "to make the game feel more intense", although it does that on the side too.

In short:

1) It doesn't make much sense to introduce permanent death in a game like WoW which is designed to have players learn by trial-and-error(death) to win battles and raids and where character development takes such ludicrous hours.

2) If the MMO doesn't have any levels and all the resources are free for redistribution (and the only path to character advancement), permanent death makes sense a lot of sense.

The general rule is that the more severe death penalty the game imposes on you, the more social it expects you to be, as when you accumulate wealth points in the game, risking it all becomes more and more discouraged.
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