Friday, January 22, 2010

The Death Penalty Difficulty Fallacy

Discussion of the Rise of the Leet King exercise continues on the blogosphere. Responding to some suggestions about harsher death penalties from Tobold's original post, Gevlon says the following (bolded emphasis mine):
- Slower leveling: long =/= hard. Saying "cheese" is easy. Saying it 10K times is long, but not harder. Yet it would be great if one could finish his questlines without greying out all the quests and monsters.
- Experience loss death penalty: Definitely yes. Without death penalty all content, regardless difficulty can be brute-forced: you try and try and try until the RNG gives it to you. So without death penalty nothing is hard, just long (need more tries).

For someone who spends a lot of time talking about opportunity costs, I'm especially surprised to see Gevlon of all people fall for the "harsh death penalty = more difficult" fallacy.

ALL MMORPG death penalties are really just time
When you die in WoW, you suffer two penalties:

- Time lost running as a ghost back to your corpse to revive, recast any buffs, and deal with any respawned mobs.
- Money spent on repair bills and refreshing any consumables that ended early because of your demise.

The time is, obviously, time. The money, however, can also be measured in terms of the time it would take you to replace it.

Now let's look at the exp penalty that Gevlon says prevents players from repeatedly retrying content until they win via RNG default. Experience debt on death delays your next level, while the losing levels outright might obligate you to go back and regain the level immediately before you can continue what you were doing. Still, both penalties are ultimately reversed by spending more time playing to re-gain the lost exp.

How about item loss? Games with item loss/decay very rarely feature items that simply cannot be replaced. EVE veterans repeat the motto "don't fly it if you can't afford to replace it". In this context, loss of items is effectively loss of money, which we've already established is actually loss of time.

But what if the game goes even further, and actually inflicts irreversible harm to the character, whether it's permanent loss of an irreplaceable item or even the almost-never used extreme of permadeath? Even in this case, the amount of damage the developer can inflict on the player can be reduced to a quantity of time - the time it would take to replace their character re-starting from scratch.

Unless the developers are actually charging you real world money by the death - and playing a game with that business model would be a real leap of faith - there are no penalties that cannot be reduced to an amount of time that it takes to recover from the damage.

The effect of increasing time penalties
Though all penalties are ultimately an amount of time, there is no question that the amount in question differs drastically from game to game. In WoW, I find that the gold cost for repairs and consumables is all-but irrelevant in the context of my daily income. In EQ2, the experience debt for a death can be fully paid off with a handful of mob kills, or logging off for the night. By contrast, losing a level in FFXI can put the player in the difficult position of having to seek a group that's farming in a different level range.

Even so, all of this is merely increasing the time the player is penalized for their mistakes. And, as Gevlon himself says barely a line before falling for the death penalty fallacy, long is not necessarily hard. If anything, the game that players actually experience when harsh death penalties are implemented becomes easier, not more challenging. Players are not willing to risk failure when the penalty in their time is so steep, and thus they are far more inclined to demand group-mates who outgear the content or can otherwise demonstrate that they will provide a SAFE experience.

Ironically, we're seeing precisely the same behavior in WoW today, despite its supposed lack of death penalty. The fact is that a five-man group that wipes twice on every boss and needs to replace someone midway through via votekick or frustration can easily spend double or triple the time it takes an overgeared raid team to clear content that's five tiers below them. And, sure enough, players bail out on unpopular dungeons and immediately votekick their team-mates if gearscores and achievement checks raise concerns that someone will not be able to pull their own weight. Perhaps even WoW has more of a death penalty than people realize.


Logan said...

agreed. couldn't have said it better myself.

... and the fact that some people fail to see this, is just sad... to some of us it seems like common sense... to others... i dunno what the heck is going through their head..

evizaer said...

MMOs have no sufficiency requirement and they offer very little in terms of rewarding efficiency, so the game amounts to an expenditure of time in exchange for the benefit of character power, be it through gear or XP gain. (Once again, we're referring to material I've covered before Tobold posted his article and the conversation began: my article about why world of warcraft is easy.) To change this would be to run counter to the goals of the themepark design philosophy.

Themeparks' goals aren't accomplished by their content being entirely unplayable to most of their players because of sufficiency skill tests. Complaining about WoW being easy is counterproductive for this reason. The game has to be easy--accomplishments in WoW are of course a matter of time, though the optimal amount time the game should be designed to reward is debatable.

Perhaps reasonable ways to institute time penalties should be discussed. There's no point in discussing difficulty--to do so would be to argue about a superficial issue when we have the opportunity to discuss the root of the matter.

Klepsacovic said...

There is no way to make leveling hard except to add skill checks which cannot be bypassed. This might mean solo or small group quests (instanced) which prevent xp gain until completed. Or a narrow range of XP from mobs coupled with higher difficulty, such that you could not level past challenges because if you cannot beat them, you cannot get the XP to go higher.

Death penalties, as you said, are just more grind. An especially harsh penalty increases the cost of failure which encourages learning from failure, but I've yet to see Gevlon understand the concept of learning. Or that's just part of his trolling.

Gevlon said...

What you don't count is that death penalty can decrease your effective XP/hour below zero.

I mean if you can grind 10000 XP in an hour, a death in your level costs 20000XP and you die once every two hours, you will stop advancing, ergo "lost the game".

The game is hard because you must play BETTER to decrease your death/hour*penalty below your XP/hour to advance AT ALL.

Carson 63000 said...

I seem to recall Diablo 2 hitting the point Gevlon describes: as you got closer and closer to level 99, you needed more and more xp per level.. yet the xp loss penalty for death was a flat percentage of a level. So it took longer and longer to recoup, if you died too often, you could find it simply impossible to make ANY forward progress.

mbp said...

I almost voted for "bigger death penalty" because I played EVE for a while and I remember how much the fear of being killed greatly increased my sense of emotional involvement in the game. However I held back for the very reason you state. Ultimately bigger death penalty just means more time to grind back to where you were. and the one thing mmmos dont need is yet another timesink.

Perhaps some other means could be used to make death a significant event without it being a timesink. Here are a few thoughts:

- Have a title or that reflects how long it is since you have been defeated, a bit like the "undefeated" titles some games already have but resetting so you don't just lose it once you get killed for the first time.

- Here's a slightly wacky idea. How about your character actually dies (perma-death) on a defeat but you are allowed to immediately create a new character (son or daughter?) of the same level and skills who inherits all the fist characters stuff but has a different name. People get attached to character names so I think this would hurt.

Green Armadillo said...

@Gevlon: Your cause and effect is backwards. The player didn't die repeatedly because their xp/hour was a negative number. They died because the game was too hard for them for reasons unrelated to the death penalty. Arguing that the penalty for having already failed the game retroactively affects the difficulty of the game is like arguing that it is hard to get money because Mammoths are expensive.

I suppose there's a fringe case where the player would have been willing to tolerate extremely slow but non-zero progress but will be knocked into the negatives by an exp penalty. This doesn't actually make the game any harder for the rest of the players, though it might convince that borderline case to quit the game. Whether that is a good thing depends on whether you value removing that player from the community more strongly than the developers value that player's subscription fee.

Yeebo said...

Totally agree, nice post. You even proactively answered my one quibble in your response above.

My spare time is worth a lot to me. Any developer fool enough to set a bunch of it on fire with a steep death penalty isn't getting my money.

Cory Lee - said...

Interesting, I knew MMOs were linear time sinks generally, but I really liked the equation of Eve isk to time... for some reason it seemed different, but I guess your right, it doesn't make Eve harder per-say.. it just takes longer to replace your losses.
Perhaps Gevlon is right however, if you increase the death penalty to a point where the player cannot advance, it would remove the linear time component. ... Obviously it'd take longer to 'beat the game' however unskilled players wouldn't be able to advance.... then again who wants to lose subscriptions over that.... ah well, I can dream.

Klepsacovic said...

@Cory Lee: The death penalty is not at all important. All that matters is the difficulty of the mob. Make a mob that you have to be skilled to beat and until people can kill it, no XP. Death penalties don't make it harder. All they do is make the player go back and grind easier mobs to try again.

Yiftach said...

As I see it, since the only real resource in MMOs is time, there are two options:

1) Once you die, you lose resources and your progress is taken back. Then you need to win a challenge that you've already beaten, perhaps even mastered. This creates a grind.

2) Once you die, no progress is lost, and you can try right again. This option allows succeeding by brute force, which in my opinion takes the feeling of risk out.

What I'd do is as follows:
Each encounter has a different reward. Once you've died to a certain encounter, you cannot try to beat it again, thus losing the potential reward. Each encounter would offer an equally appealing item, but a different one.

Gevlon said...

@Green armadillo: you wrongfully assume that the average player consider death a failure.

Assuming that there are finite numbers of options, with enough tries, everyone, regardless knowledge can win.

I mean if there is a very-very hard quantum physics exam with 10 questions, A, B, C, D answers, someone with 0 knowledge can get 100% result with 1/4^10 chance. Allowing the students to try again indefinitely would make this exam trivial to anyone.

Claiming that someone who does that has 100% quantum physics knowledge is nonsense. That's why exams have death penalty. If you fail them twice, you have to redo the course.

Death for the common gamer is not sign of the failure. It's just "bad luck".

The death penalty is needed to force them to stop gambling and start thinking.

Randomessa said...

I recently maintained in a comment to another blog (I think it was MMOCrunch) about risk/death penalty that rather than the commonly-held position that because players value their time, they are averse to risk, I hold the position that the loss of my time IS the risk. I risk loss of time with every encounter. Every failed encounter doubles the amount of time I have to invest. This is a great risk to me, and because of this I do not "brute force" every encounter the way death penalty advocates insist players do in the absence of penalty. I have to get it right, or I lose time. I might only get one shot at a battle each game session, because of my limited time. That's enough to make me use strategy and consider how I am going to approach any given battle.

I do not need an additional in-game incentive to "make" me behave the way I am already behaving. If other people aren't using the game in this way, then that's their problem and shouldn't be anyone else's (i.e. "so what" if people brute-force encounters? Why does it bother folks so much that everyone doesn't play the game the same way, or have the same goals?)

Garumoo said...

Did I read that being well geared, buffed up, and possessing power bonuses due to an extra level or two makes once difficult encounters easier or even trivial?

It therefore follows that if you apply the reverse then encounters become more difficult.

Thus: make the death penalty be a stacking debuff which decreases your capabilities, like a -2% DPS for each death.

Don't let this debuff wear off with the passage of time otherwise we're just back to it being just a matter of time. Have the debuff only wears off by the accumulation of experience (which is now harder to acquire due to the debuff).

LOTRO has something like this ... how does that affect the game?