Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 30, 2006
Changes part 1: Death penalty

I am planning to write a series of posts on how game design elements have changed from 1999 to today. I'll mainly compare the original Everquest with World of Warcraft, as these two games both had a dominant market share in their time. I will try to discuss what changed from EQ to WoW, and more importantly *why* it changed. The first part of this series is about death penalties, how games punish you when your avatar gets killed.

First of all it has to be said that a penalty for dying is absolutely necessary. If whenever your character died you just would need to push a button to resurrect with full health and mana, ready to continue the fight, you could beat any monster, and the game would become pointless. To be able to win a game, there must be an option to lose.

What has changed from 1999 to 2006 is the harshness of the death penalty. In Everquest, when you died, you reappeared alive but naked at your bind point. You could only have your bind point in a city, and non-casters weren't even able to set their bind point themselves without the aid of a caster. So potentially the bind point was very far away from the point where you died. You then had to do a so-called "corpse run", running naked from your bind point to where you died, to collect all the items from your body, your armor, your weapons, and all your bags with all the items in them. In addition to this corpse run, you were also punished by losing xp. If you were just fresh into a level, you could even lose a level from dying.

Unsurprisingly, corpse runs were not very popular. The worst case scenario was that you "lost" your corpse, having died in a place where you were unable to retrieve it, thus losing all your equipment and inventory. That did not happen very often, but it was possible. For example from the Erudin newbie zone to the newbie dungeon The Warrens you had to pass over a ledge. If you fell down that ledge you ended up dead at the bottom of a level 50 dungeon, and unless you had some high-level people help you, your body was irretrievably gone. A more common occurrence was that you retrieved your corpse, but died a couple of more times on the way, losing more and more experience points. A bad evening could set you back weeks in experience points.

One notable consequence of the corpse run system was that there were a couple of dungeons where people of the correct level to gain experience there would never go. If you fight your way into the deepest point of a dungeon and your group wipes there, while the monsters behind you have all respawned, you were all in deep trouble. Thus for example the fabled Frenzied Ghoul at the bottom of the Lower Guk dungeon, a level 42 to 44 mob, was never 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. As dying deep in a dungeon had a real risk of you losing all your equipment, the reward / risk ratio wasn't good enough for dungeoneering. So people played it safe and went hunting in zones where they were sure to be able to get back to their corpses if they died.

Since Everquest death penalties have become less harsh. Corpse runs where the first thing to be eliminated from MMORPG game design. But also the experience point penalty changed: You lost less experience point for dying, then games started to introduce a xp debt instead of a loss of xp, so you couldn't lose levels any more, and finally World of Warcraft eliminated the xp penalty totally. One game erred on the side of having a too lenient death penalty, Star Wars Galaxies, where people found that committing suicide and repairing the death penalty damage was often faster than running back to the city. World of Warcraft has a reasonable well balanced death penalty system, where you lose 10% of the durability of your items from dying, and you can walk back as a ghost (that can't be harmed on the way) to recover your corpse, or you can speak to a spirit healer at the graveyard and resurrect there, with all your gear, but with an additional 25% durability loss and 10 minutes resurrection sickness.

In summary, the death penalty of a game is a powerful tool which strongly influences how much risk the players are willing to take. Theoretically you could make a game with permadeath, where when your character dies, you need to roll a new one. Obviously in such a game you would see people not even daring to attack to bunny without a group. Given how many fights you do in a MMORPG, even a 1 in 1000 chance to die would be far too dangerous. In games with corpse runs and lots of xp loss, people will play safe, and avoid getting too many monsters between them and their bind point, which makes dungeon design difficult. At the modern level of death penalty people are willing to be "heroic", as failure isn't too harshly punished. But you can't possibly make the death penalty much lighter than now, because then people would just play foolhardy and not care about dying at all, which then becomes silly.
This assumes you don want people to play in a very agressive, experimental, devil-may-care way.

Auto Assault has even less of a death penalty than WoW. Upon death, you're simply moved to the last repair pad you touched, sit on it less than a minute to fully heal and recharge, then you're back in the action. In instanced mission arcs, you don't even have to deal with respawns of any real degree.

As a result, I have a lot more fun playing than I do in other games, and I enjoy it a lot more. I can be unreasonably agressive, tackling targets of opportunity I'd never think to try otherwise, because if I lose, it's no big deal.

The difference in expectation: In AA, I'm expected to win. The creators create the impression they want me to see their content, and enjoy it. I actually feel like they want me to see and enjoy their endgame content, and that's a deeply welcome change from Blizzard.

I'm a casual gamer. I know I am. These are good evolutionary developments.
I like to compare DPs only when when they ment/mean something, if that makes any sense ;). EQs DPs almost vanished when you had a corpse summoner at hand and/or one of the 90% rezzing classes, both combined was like godmode. I know that this is apples and oranges comparison, but i bet most of the EQ players made friends with rezzers and summoners really soon. It made those classes really valueable, compare this to the value of a rezz mule in WoW, you just can not. I got so many tells for rezzes in EQ it was a blast, it built a good reputation for the class (Paladin) and the player. I did not get any of those tells in WoW yet.

For me WoWs real DPs only kick in when you decked out in epics and crush your face in raid progression, then the repair costs really hurt just as a level loss in EQ did. So while EQ had mechanics to negate the penalty, WoW has not. There is no repair-class in WoW, well at least not yet, we all know something like this will come sooner or later. WoW lures you into the real penalty and does not stun you at low levels with a mechanic like the EQish corpse runs.

I miss the risk of a death penalty. There is no risk in WoW. You grind the money for repairs or you do not, there is no loophole to avoid it.

In games with corpse runs and lots of xp loss, people will play safe, and avoid getting too many monsters between them and their bind point, which makes dungeon design difficult.

I do not agree to the risk/reward thingie in EQ. Sure the XP grind was set in secure areas, cause it was mindless at times and the reward (xp) was the same as in harder areas, so players chose the least effort as usual. Items runs though were worth the risk of death and a corpse run. FBSS was good enough even for sub lvl 50s to risk a death getting it. Guk, Seb, Chardok and others were perfect cause they supported all playstyles. You could grind safe or risk some and get the candy and yes it took actual skill to move deep into such zones. EQs fault then was to not reward the risk instantly, but that is another topic.

To add some idea for the future, i would like to see different levels of penalties. Players should be able to choose between high and low risk/reward ratios. WoW got this in a passive way, with the scaling repair costs. But its not used right, in that you are forced down this path, rather than choose to.
Agreed that the death penalty in WoW when working out tactics for a new raid boss is annoying. The penalty is supposed to kick in when you do something wrong. But wiping repeatedly at a new boss before cracking him seems more to be a standard feature of WoW than a real mistake made by the players.

The problem extends further if you think of the cost for potions, repair bots, etc., which makes going on a raid for "learning" a rather expensive venture. I easily use 3 stacks of potions in a long MC raid, a mix of greater fire protection potions and major mana potions. At 10 gold per stack you end up having to farm just so that you can finance your raids. One more reason why I like mixing raiding with dungeons, where usually you earn money from the loot, even if you just disenchant the BoP blues nobody wants.
I'm glad the exp penalty is gone. I never played EQ but DAoC had an exp penalty on death that wouldn't drop you past your previous level or mini-level. Plus the exp penalty scaled with increased deaths - the first had a small penalty, and the penalty increased each death at that level until your 3rd or 5th death or some such, when it reached the max penalty.

I suppose I could deal with a limited exp penalty a la DAoC. I would refuse something like EQ's de-leveling one, though. Too hardcore / not forgiving enough for me.

There has to be some penalty on death but it has to be balanced enough that players aren't overly penalized for repeatedly dying. Death is a natural part of MMOGs.
In my mind, having a strict death penalty appeals to a certain type of gamer or even the same gamer but corresponds to mood. I am a long-term Eve-Online player and if you pay the cost for insurance for your clone, when you die you suffer no loss of XP, but you wind up at the clone center which is generally very far away from the fight you were just at which makes sense in a game where your primary competetion is other players in massive fleet gives resolution, but then with new Capital Ships (mobile clone centers), you can get back into the fight quickly but also creates an instant objective for opposing forces. However, the REAL death penalty for Eve-Online is the money invested into a decent ship and equipment. Sure, you can ensure the ship and get significant money back, but it takes hours-days to get those ships and modules. It creates a circumstance where often people are loathe to risk their best ships and fights are usually hordes of lesser value ships but then you run the risk of losing valuable mines and objectives if you don't fight with your best equipment. All and all, this draconian system has necessary safeguards to include safe areas to ensure an enjoyable, sometimes not-enjoyable, but intense gaming environment like none other that suits some and not others. (Yes, I really like EVE..sue me (jus-kidding)

On the other hand, sometimes, I get tired or frustrated or just want to chill out after a long-day and sometime like Planetside really appeals to me where you can blast all-day long and get killed 20 times an hour and have little effect beyond travel time back to the fight. I have not played City of Heroes or Guild Wars but I imagine it is roughly the same interactive there as well.

Bottom line is that it really is a matter of personal taste. I find that games with minimal DP, while they have fun game mechanics, ultimately just don't hold my interest. My wife loves World of Warcraft for other reasons, she does not feel like she is getting smacked down harshly over minor mistakes or getting distracted as she attends to chores or watching our daughter. It really is a good thing to have various DP systems out there. I think that there would be a market for well-constructed FUN game with harsh penalties as well as well-constructed game with light penalties.
Good old Diablo II let you play Hardcore, die once, and it's Game Over, Man!

You can choose to play WoW in the same vein, but you need to manually delete your character upon dying.

Not sure how many of us are that committed to playing Hardcore.
I wonder if they(blizzard) would ever make a server for those daring enough to take the risk of death really meaning death?

When you saw a level 40 + you would really be impressed!!!

I think i might try it, knowing i have another character elsewhere to play....

But imagine your a preist in a group where they are really depending on you not to die. now thats some pressure!!
ah galaxies
the trick with death traveling was to pick a town on the planet that was hard to get to then store your DNA their then the death penalty was getting free travel their.
EQ was too harsh. Bad connections left a real sour taste. Dial-up was prevalent and it killed exploration, grouping, leveling and fun many times. WoW seems to have the right mix(at least by their subscription levels)
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