Thursday, July 7, 2011

Counterproductive Death Penalties

The prolific Nils has a few things to say about MMO death penalties.  At the risk of trivializing all that work, there's one idea I want to focus on (which Nils himself pullquotes) - the concept that an ideal penalty is an effective deterrent without actually harming the player or the game experience in the long run.  It's a great idea, but one that I think is tough to implement in practice.

I've argued in the past that basically all death penalties that anyone has implemented in an MMO, whether gold, exp loss, gear decay, or even permadeath, can be described as a loss of the time it will take to get back to the state you were at before your untimely demise (whether that means killing a few mobs or re-rolling from level 1).  In principle, developers could tack on a monetary component - for example, branding all future characters on the account with the scarlet noob label, so that the player would have to pay for a new account to escape their reputation - but I suspect that this option would not be tolerated by the overwhelming majority of the market.

An Example in ROM
Of the MMO's I play, the harshest death penalty is probably in Runes of Magic, where you suffer 5% of your next level in exp debt.  A third of this amount is forgiven if you loot your tombstone, which does not expire, even if you log off and don't come back for months, so there's no irresponsible pressure to stay logged in to collect it at that moment.  Assuming that you did not die due to a bug or a quest spawning an elite mob on top of you with no warning, the system is fair, and only requires the player to continue doing something that they enjoy doing anyway (obtaining exp).  The problem is that the system is telling me that I should play the game in an overly cautious manner that ultimately makes the game less fun.

At the moment, my level 52 druid is looking at about 9 million exp for her next level, which means a bit over 300K per death in debt, assuming that I recover my tombstone before dying again.  A typical daily quest is going to award somewhere from 40-70K exp, so I'm looking at a full day's worth of daily quests to pay off the debt.  (Another option is to join a guild with a library in its castle, which forgives about 100K/hour of AFK time at my level, if you have something else to do in another window or offline while you wait.)  The message is clear - stick to easy stuff with zero chance of failure or spend hours of time paying for your ambition.

As I've said repeatedly since I've revisited ROM, there are times when no risk, low rewards gameplay is vaguely amusing.  The real fun, though, is pushing the envelope to see what exactly I can pull off.  In general, at 52 I can beat level 47 elites and I can't beat level 48 elites, but there's no way to be sure unless I try.  If I do try and I'm wrong, I'm out 300K exp and faced with a choice of whether I want to risk doubling my losses.  If I don't try until I've gained a few more levels, it's likely that the eventual victory will end up not being all that challenging. 

The bottom line is that I do less of what I enjoy about the game because of the penalty structure, and I ultimately spend less time playing the game as a result. 

7 comments:

Sente said...

I must say that I like the death penalty in Anarchy Online, or rather I like the XP loss part of it.

In Anarchy Online when you die, you lose any XP gained for the current level, which has not been insured. The good part about it is that you do not actually lose the XP, it goes into a separate pool instead.

Any XP you gain after that will get a bonus gain (1/3 of yhe normal XP you gain) from this pool until it is empty.

So directly after a death you may have lost some progress, but you will also gain XP at a faster rate than before afterwards.

So it kind of gives you a pat on the back that you should back in the saddle and you will eventually get everything back.

The resurrection penalty (takes a few minutes to get your stats back to normal) and that you resurrect a a point that potentially may be far away from your location of death may perhaps still be annoying though.

The insurance mechanic allows you to reduce XP loss as well as distance to travel, assuming you remember to do it.

Anjin said...

Death penalties are a vestigial game mechanic at this point.

Back when gods strode the earth and men were men, MMOs were virtual worlds where death had to be feared and resurrection from such a state exacted a terrible price on your soul. Nowaways, they are just games. Losing should be enough punishment.

But like any superstition, it will be a while before anyone questions why we still follow such ancient dogma.

Azuriel said...

I agree with Anjin: death penalties are sacred cows of bad game design, and the faster we get over it the better games will be.

I was just flipping through my 3.5 D&D Player's Handbook and remembering the campaigns we ran. I don't know anything about 4th edition, but back then death:

1) Made you lose 1 entire level of experience, no matter how close to the next level you were, setting you at the midpoint of the prior level (e.g. 10 --> 9.5).

2) Generally required +10,000g worth of diamonds and a high-level cleric to resurrect you.

3) Could possibly end a night's session then and there, in the sense that the rest of the party generally had to stop what they were doing and haul your corpse back to town. Assuming they had 2) covered. And assuming retrieving your corpse was possible. There were more powerful spells that could rez you without a corpse, but if everyone was level 8 at the time...

4) Could possibly end an entire campaign then and there, depending on whether or not your death was enough to start the startling quick TPK (total party kill) chain reaction. If everyone died in the dungeon, the narrative would have to get rather convoluted to explain why anyone would risk tens of thousand of gold to rez everyone.

5) Made the player himself/herself useless for not just the encounter, but potentially the rest of the night given.

I mean, Jesus Christ, right? What I found in my games is that people would rather almost "reroll" a new character completely than take the level loss - it is a massive pain in the ass for the DM to have to balance encounters and XP around players of differing levels, let alone a player who knows they will forever be behind while their friends get awesome new spells to pick from the next time they get together. I also found that not only was 5) enough to temper a player's suicidal tendencies, even non-death effects that temporarily took you out of the fight produced highly (ir)rational fear. For example: paralysis. Nothing worse than going "Okay, Bob's attack missed. Sally's turn. Still paralyzed. Okay, Tom, your turn."

I suppose that could still be construed as "losing time" considering D&D sessions are finite and thus any chance for you not to roll dice is a wasted one. But other than that? Failure is enough of a penalty, imo.

Xaxziminrax II said...

>I agree with Anjin: death penalties are sacred cows of bad game design, and the faster we get over it the better games will be.

What? How did you read this in Anjin's message? All I got was "games are now games, and we are all gods."

I greatly agree with the idea of insurance against death. Rift seems to pull this off pretty well, except you pay the insurance after you die (via 'durability'). Timed insurance might be a nice gold sink, and wouldn't put raiders into a debt pit. Pay 50g, get an hour worth of deaths for no statloss, or whatever. People who only do things like simple quests wouldn't have to spend money on their death insurance since they wouldn't be likely to die.

Gevlon said...

Can you even define "defeat" without penalty? And without "defeat" can there be "victory"?

Azuriel said...

Can you even define "defeat" without penalty? And without "defeat" can there be "victory"?

de·feat [dih-feet] –verb (used with object): to eliminate or deprive of something expected.

Players expect to win. Players expect to receive the reward of their actions. To not receive them is penalty in itself. Anything extra penalizing beyond that is superfluous at best, or encouraging counter-productive behavior at worse.

What? How did you read this in Anjin's message? All I got was "games are now games, and we are all gods."

I greatly agree with the idea of insurance against death. Rift seems to pull this off pretty well, except you pay the insurance after you die (via 'durability'). Timed insurance might be a nice gold sink, and wouldn't put raiders into a debt pit. Pay 50g, get an hour worth of deaths for no statloss, or whatever. People who only do things like simple quests wouldn't have to spend money on their death insurance since they wouldn't be likely to die.


Oh? And paying some gold when you die makes players mortal? Try this mental exercise: imagine Rift or WoW or whatever without any monetary death penalty. Do you avoid dying any less? Does wiping on a heroic boss feel any less bad?

I think there is an unspoken assumption on your (and others') part that a lack of extra death penalties simply means someone can "brute force" their way through encounters, or that the challenges in the game itself are necessarily less. That does not have to be the case.

Anton de Stoc said...

I used to play DDO in Mortal Voyage, a permadeath guild with a tough ruleset.

By the guilds rules, you had to only do tough content - no farming allowed - and you were prevented from using the AH to gear up.

It took a special kind of player to do that, but boy it made you lift your game. But it isnt something I'd ever want to do all the time, or be forced to do by the design system.