On Death and Penalties

Over at MMORPG.Com there is an editorial debate on Death Penalties. While I’m a strong believer in the theory that challenging MMO’s will have a longer lifespan than those with little or no challenge and that death in an MMO should be something that the player is encouraged to avoid I don’t agree that this requires the harsh death penalties advocated by Frank Mignone in this article.

In fact he makes several flawed points so lets dissect his arguments shall we.

It used to be, back in the days when your choice was either Ultima Online or Everquest, that there was one constant between them. They were hard! One of the key factors that made it so was their death penalty. The death penalty made the games exciting! Everything was not a cakewalk; you really had to consider your actions. You could lose all of the stuff that you had in your possession with one false move. This added a lot of tension and a bit of white-knuckle-mousing to the experience. How many of you back in the day found yourself, at some point, running for your life shouting ‘REDS!’ with your heart pounding? It was good times.”

One thing this argument misses is the fact that not only could your actions put “all of your stuff” at risk so could the very act of wandering around and exploring the game world. If, like me, you’re someone that really enjoys that act of running around and finding new places in these worlds odds are you’re going to find yourself in a place you really shouldn’t be. Now if the game allows me a reasonable chance to extract myself from that situation everything will be fine but in EQ for example if I came across a monster that was 20 levels higher than me I was probably going to be dead before I knew what hit me and my corpse and all my stuff were in a place where I had no chance of recovering them. This doesn’t make that game hard it just makes it frustrating and is likely to drive me away from the game.

Now I know the counter to that is that you really shouldn’t be in those places anyway and you knew the risk when you went off exploring. This is true, and if this is how you want your game to play fine, I’ll just go find one that allows, or better yet, encourages me to explore their world.

The other issue that he conveniently forgets was the horrible level design in those early games. I remember a time in EQ when a group of us were hunting Orcs in West Commons. We were all about level 10 and there was a full camp of these orcs and they were a challenge to us – this was also very early EQ, back when having Bronze armor meant something – so we were dying fairly frequently while we worked at learning our characters. This was hard, this was challenging, THIS was fun. Then out of no where a giant came wandering by, it basically killed everyone in the group before we could run 100 yards. Ok, that’s a risk we weren’t aware of but we can get back to our corpses and we’ll keep a sharper eye out next time. We run back to our corpses get them looted and start the long process of “rebreaking” the camp and getting back to the business of driving the orcs out of the Commonlands. During the first pull we have multiple mobs, this is going to be a close fight no matter what, suddenly I hear this kind of swishing sound and our wizard falls over dead. Next is the cleric so we all just take of running. Once again none of us made it and looking back we found that we had been jumped by a Griffon. Another monster at least 20 levels higher than us and this one was up in the air so once again we never saw it coming. We again made the run back to our corpses and in the process of recovering our stuff the giant appears again and kills the cleric while the rest of us run away. We come back one more time and are again jumped by the giant but luckily all of us managed to escape thanks to some random higher level that just happened to be running by. At this point we gave up. Four hours of game play and we had nothing to show for it but frustration.

What had we done wrong? Was there anything we could have done differently to prevent that frustration? Sure, we could have stayed in the safer areas and hunted the easier monsters but doesn’t that make the game less challenging and isn’t his point that challenging equals fun?

Another example of poor level design putting you at risk. When I was around level 20 I had a standing group of guildmates and we decided to head into a nearby dungeon that was filled with goblins. Some of the goblins in this dungeon were going to be way to tough for this group but smart play would allow us to avoid them and make the hunting here challenging, and once again challenge equals fun. For those of you that have played EQ this was Sol A, for those of you that haven’t the entrance to this dungeon was a narrow twisting path. On one side a solid wall and on the other a shear drop of about 50 feet into lava. If you happened to fall into this lava, and you had a decent fire resistance so could survive long enough, and you knew the way, it was possible to swim to an area where you could climb out. The only problem with that was you were in a place where those higher level goblins were, you know the ones we were trying to avoid right now. Now because some of these goblins were wizard type mobs they liked to cast a spell that not only damaged you but also tended to send you flying. As our group was working our way slowly down the entrance we spotted one of these wizard types through a hole in the wall and, unfortunately he spotted us as well. One of the game mechanics was that wizards couldn’t cast spells without line of sight, or at least player wizards couldn’t, NPC wizards on the other hand were able to cast their spells through solid rock. This wizard proceeded to knock one of our party off of the path and into the lava. Luckily the rest of us made it out so we go back in and try and see if we can recover the corpse of our fallen comrade. Again for those not familiar with EQ, there was in the game a command /corpse that would allow you to kind of drag your corpse from a short distance away. You could also /consent someone and that would give them permission to use the /corpse command on your corpse. The problem was that the range on /corpse was fairly short and trying to drag a corpse on the Z axis (up and down) was tricky at best. So while the group kept the area around the entrance clear of goblins and ran around trying to use the /corpse command on our mates corpse the person that died had to run back – through 3 different zones with no weapons or armor and at least 2 of those zones had things that could kill him in one shot. Once they got back they tried the /corpse command as well and since it wasn’t working sent off a petition. Again, this was fairly early in the life of EQ so we actually got a response within an hour. Unfortunately falling in the lava was part of the “risk” of that zone so they refused to help us. Lucky for use we were in a guild and had some guildmates that were higher level and in the area. They came over were able to levitate themselves and slowly drop down over the lava, grab the corpse and drag it back to the entrance then kill about half the goblins in the zone that had followed them. Once again, a night spent fighting game mechanics instead of monsters that ended in frustration.

I know many of you are thinking these are probably isolated instances but trust me they’re not. I played EQ for almost 6 years and during that time the death penalty didn’t get lighter but it did get much easier to counteract. As we got higher levels we got resurrection spells that nullified the XP loss. Certain classes got Summon Corpse that would allow them to retrieve your corpse from those places the game let you fall into etc. During the first year of the game I would guess that I spent more time looking for my corpse or a guildmates corpse than I did actually playing the game and easily half my nights ended in frustration after fighting these so called “challenging” death penalties.

So why didn’t we quit? Well at the time it was EQ or Ultima and that was it. Today, I’d leave that game in a heartbeat because there are games out there that are just as much fun to play without the frustrations imposed. But, I hear you saying, people are still playing EQ. Yes but they’ve eased the death penalty greatly. They’ve added resurrection spells at much lower levels, the GM’s are now allowed to at least drag your body out of the lava and place it on the nearest point of land, and with mud-flation those giants probably can’t 1 shot kill even a level 10 anymore and besides they’re rarely seen in the commonlands these days.

Next point please Frank:

“The stricter death penalty not only applies to those poor players getting killed while they are simply trying to quest, it also applies to those zergs. Zerging is a tactic that is a lot easier to partake in when you have no real penalty for it. Arguments about the morality of the tactic aside, it is unpopular. There is nothing to fear by earning a reputation as a zerger, ganker or whatever, because no one can do anything about it. Even if I were to avenge the activity and kill you, what’s the point? What’s more, fear of this tactic in an environment where the death penalty was unforgiving, encouraged community. People needed guilds in UO, and reached out to others for support. Playing solo in UO was a sure-fire way to get yourself killed a lot.

“MMORPGs are trying to attract more and more single-player gamers into their medium. These games are used to the security of a save game button and are not used to real consequences, except perhaps the occasional death where you must load the game from five minutes before. When these gamers enter the realm of MMORPGs and see that there is no reset button, they freak out and run away. As such, we are getting more and more MMORPGs with limited death penalties, if any at all, to accommodate this style of risk-nothing gamer. The more this happens, the more the MMORPGs are moving away from the first three letters in their acronym.”

Ok lets dispose of the second paragraph first. There are a limited number of people willing to pay a monthly fee to play games. Some of those were the early adopters that began playing UO and EQ but there aren’t enough of those to keep the games going long term. Of those a percentage have gotten burned out on the genre all together and an even larger percentage have gotten bored with the originals and tend to jump from game to game. So in order to be profitable the games need to continue attracting new players, this applies to the new games as well as the established games. Since you can figure that at least some new gamers are coming into the market every year as today’s kids grow up and as broadband and gaming in general become more mainstream. Some of those new gamers are going to be the early adopters of today so they’re going to want to play the latest and greatest game and yes maybe they would deal with the harsh penalties of the original EQ but I tend to doubt it since they have options. Most of these new gamers, as he suggests, are going to come from the ranks of the single player gamers. So yes the companies have to appeal to these gamers thus they tend to put in content that appeals to the solo player. I don’t look at this as “dumbing down” the game but in reality its an easy way out. What the designers really need to do is find ways to encourage these players to group without using the frustration factor of a harsh death penalty. The real issue isn’t so much that these players want to solo it’s that their play style forces them to solo. Most of these new gamers can log on for maybe an hour here and there because they’re also playing this strange game called Real Life.

Now for the first paragraph. The penalty not only applies to the poor solo player that’s getting ganked but the zergs that are ganking him? Come again please! The solo player is probably the only one at risk here, why do you think that Zerging is a tactic. It helps to eliminate the risk for the members for the zerg rush. Sure that poor player may kill one or two members of the zerg rush but he won’t get them all and they’ll most likely have the tools at their disposal to recover quickly. The poor player still has to navigate back to his corpse and get his stuff while there is a group of people hovering around it. And that’s just in a PvP environment.

Why do you think that zerging is a popular tactic? It’s because it helps to minimize the impact of harsh death penalties. In the original EQ the designers have said that they didn’t really expect people to kill the dragons as early as they did and they really never anticipated them killing the gods in the planes. The players did this by throwing 50 to 70 people at these monsters and just burying them under their numbers. Sure this is a cheap tactic but look around you, people are always looking for the shortest and easiest way to achieve their objective. If you decrease the penalty for dying you actually encourage people to attempt unique strategies for overcoming these challenges. A harsh death penalty actively encourages the easier tactics since not only are you having to overcome the challenge of the encounter but you also need to do something to overcome the challenge of the death penalty.

And finally:

“There is nothing wrong with single-player gamers coming to MMORPGs. However, they should expect a different type of gameplay. The MM means “massively multiplayer.” They would change it to MAORPG, Massively Anti-Social Online Role-Playing Games. The acronym used to me that the sole purpose in this genre is cooperation and interdependency. Doesn’t making the game solo-player intensive defeat the purpose?

“Besides, even those solo missions are just turning a crank with no death penalty. I can die a thousand times and all I need is the stubbornness to keep running at that brick wall.

“Death penalties make you think, “Okay, I don’t want to die again, maybe I should get some help,” and the MMO aspect of the game are then reinforced. Griefing is still present in WoW, with its limited death penalties; I think it is even worse. There are no consequences to obnoxious behavior. If all you can do is kill me, and that has no real penalty, I can just run back in three minutes and resume being a gerbil.”

Finally something I can agree with! These are Multiplayer games and that should mean that players are supposed to cooperate and work together. My only gripe with this is that having a harsh death penalty is really a cheap way to encourage player interaction. It smacks of lazy design to me. There are much better ways to encourage social interaction than to frustrate your players into seeking out other players.

A great example of the games coming down the pike would be Dungeons & Dragons Online. They have the advantage of having a source material that was built around small groups so they can just point at their license and say see you have to group. The thing is I don’t need to group in DDO just because there is a harsh death penalty, in fact they’ve really watered down the death penalty from their source material, I need to group in DDO to accomplish an objective, period. If I try and go it alone I just can’t beat the encounter. Sure I’m going to die a lot in the process but that’s really only mildly annoying – mainly costing me some time. The real penalty is that as I progress I just CAN’T win without a group.

As for the griefing aspect. I’ve tried playing on PvP servers in both WoW and EQ and quickly left because of the griefers. It’s an inherent flaw in any open PvP system that there will always be someone who gets their kicks by trying to ruin other peoples fun. Having a harsher death penalty doesn’t make that less likely. The person that’s ruining my fun doesn’t really care about their character, they’re getting their kicks from ruining my good time.

I played Dark Ages of Camelot for awhile and only once got “ganked”. We had a group PvE hunting in the frontier and a couple of much higher level players came along and killed us. Sure it was annoying but we knew the risk when we went in and we were in the first frontier zone out from our realm and within eyesight of the frontier fort. You had to respect that they made it that far into our territory. They also killed us and moved on, they didn’t stand around camping us trying to stop us from playing. They also took it in stride when we yelled for help and brought in a bunch of higher level players from our own side that chased them all the way back to their realm, killing them several times in the process. That was part of the game, the mechanics were such that I couldn’t be griefed unless I put myself in a position to be griefed. But that’s my rant on why open PvP is a bad thing so I’ll save it for later.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of different arguments calling for the “hard core” rules of the early games. People, like Frank here, seem to believe that frustrating equals hard equals challenging equals fun. They tend to forget that back when we were all being frustrated by the mechanics of EQ or UO we really didn’t have a choice but today’s MMO gamer has a wealth of choices. If your gameplay frustrates me then I have a lot of other places I can look.

They also go on and on about harsh death penalties and other such frustrations lead to communities and isn’t that what MMO’s are about. What they don’t get is that, yes these mechanics lead to guilds being formed but that those guilds aren’t real communities. I know people that were in large raiding guilds in EQ because the game forced them into those guilds not because they liked the people in those guilds. Most of them couldn’t stand their guildmates and wouldn’t go one zone out of the way to help them unless it was to do something that was going to benefit themselves on a raid in the future. Wouldn’t it be better if the game designers could come up with a way that encouraged you to form communities of people that you enjoyed hanging out with instead?

Of course that’s a lot of work and requires some serious thought on the designers part so why not just take the easy way out.

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