Fear the Reaper – Death in MMOs

The great thing about videogames is that you have the ability to die over and over again, only to be resurrected by the great computer gods to fight another day. Most single-player games give you the option to save at any point, so that when you’re about to head into a room full of flamethrowers, swinging blades and exploding pandas, you can reappear back to before you were annihilated. In MMORPGs it’s a little different. While death doesn’t mean the end of your character, it does mean you may have lost something forever, whether it be experience, gold or your dignity.

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Conquer Online – Open PvP Means you Can Die at Any Time.

Striking a balance

In single-player games you’re controlling a named character, someone who is the crux of the story. Although you are manipulating that character and following the storyline, you’re not wholly invested in him or her, at least not in most titles. With MMOs you have a very real investment in your character. That character is you, it is your online representation in that game. You invest time and even money into making your character into the best it can be. If your level 50 paladin died forever then you would be more than miffed. Death makes you care about staying alive.

Developers must be able to strike a balance between having enjoyable gameplay but dolling out punishment when the player does something stupid. An element of peril is required for players to care about their characters actions. If the only consequence of running into the exploding panda room is that the character respawns outside without a bit of pocket change then it offers no incentive to stay alive and therefore care what your character does. Conversely if they’re grabbed by the gnarled fingers of death and find that they’re now a level lower and vastly out of pocket then there wouldn’t be much point in playing in the first place.

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MapleStory – Death in Most MMORPGs Means Experience Loss

I’m invincible

MMOs with fairly light penalties for getting iced in PVE include Guild Wars, which introduces a percentage decrease in your stats that goes away when you start killing things again. Here it never feels like you’re in any imminent danger and if you’re with a group you an easily recuperate fairly quickly. The Lord of the Rings Online uses a similar penalty except stat regeneration occurs over time rather than being dependant on slaughtering mobs.

I’m terrified!

On the other side of the coin there are games like EVE Online, which is infamous for it’s harsh penalty. If your ship is destroyed then it’s gone for good, and you had better have insured it to get some money back to buy a new one. Once your ships is in bits, a pod carrying your clone makes its way to the nearest safe base, but will only reach its location if it’s not gunned down by another ship (a noble act known as ‘podding’). If your clone is blown to smithereens then you’ll lose skills, possibly implants and experience. This can be avoided, however, if you’ve kept your clone up-to-date. Sort of a no-brainer isn’t it?

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Eve Online Screenshot

Some games implement ‘hardcore’ modes where death results in permanent annihilation, so if players are feeling like taking a risk they can do so if they’re that way inclined.

There’s a current trend in softening the blow of death, but this probably isn’t the best way to go. For a player to care about their character they need to fear the reaper. It shouldn’t be a paralysing fear – but it should make them learn from their actions.

What is the harshest death penalty you’ve come across in an MMO? What kind of penalty do you prefer?

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