Sunday, June 19, 2011

Death Penalties

Before I typed in the title of this post, I checked the blog's history. Can it be? I haven't written a post titled "Death Penalties" before? That was a surprise.

But then, perhaps not. Death Penalties are boring. They have been discussed for forever and there is just no solution. There's just no perfect death penalty. Do you expect to finish reading this post knowing a brilliant new death penalty? Exactly my point.

The first problem is to find out, how harsh your death penalty, considering your game, really is. For example, in a WoW-like game any death penalty that includes item-loss is game-breaker! In a game like Eve, where there are no epics, and (mostly) no item grind, where (most) items are just tools to be crafted, used and sold, item-loss is a possibility.

To determine the actual harshness level, I suggest to imagine what the player is likely going to do after a 'typical' death. Is he going to run/wait for 20 seconds and continue with whatever he just did? That's the least harsh penalty. Does the death penalty end his immediate adventure? That's quite harsh. Is he going to have to invest major amounts of time to rebuild his character / wealth? That's very harsh. Does the death penalty have any chance to maker him rage-quit? That's too harsh.

Contrary to what the name implies, death penalties are not supposed to punish players. Instead, the purpose is to make them not want to die. That's a big difference! In a perfect world, a player would really, really hate to die, but once he does, he doesn't care and moves on to new adventures. And that's exactly why most kinds of aftermath are wrong!

You don't want your players to become annoyed about their death long after they have died! It has to be a clear cut! You want them to forget about it as soon as possible. You just want them to not want to die before they die. The perfect death penalty is an extremely effective deterrent, but completely harmless once it has actually happened.

Death penalties have to feel fair. The player needs to blame himself if he dies. He needs to feel in control for as long as possible and like he dies due to his own actions! If he doesn't feel in control, it must have been a conscious, prior decision to give that control up. Fairness is the more important the more harsh the death penalty is.

Finally there's the simulation aspect of the death penalty. Does it actually make sense in the game's lore? If you are free to choose your lore, choose one that makes your death penalty make sense. It's a real bonus.

Completely unrelated: I love this.


  1. Couple more to add to your list:

    5) Death mechanics should not be abusable as a kind of benefit - e.g., in DAoC level 50 characters (who didn't care about the XP loss) would sometime suicide for a quick teleport to their bindstone.

    5) Death penalties should not make it harder to try again... actually, this is probably what you're getting at in the comments on point 2. If a player tries something challenging and just barely fails due to bad luck, one fumble-fingered move or inopportune spouse aggro, the death penalty should NOT be a stat debuff that makes them less likely to succeed if they try again.

    Taking all of the above into account, the most workable death penalties are probably either the WoW model of a thinly-disguised cash fine for dying, or the XP debt system used in Earth & Beyond and City of Heroes - although that doesn't penalise characters already at level cap. How about a "loot debt" system where the quality of drops you get depends on how little you've died recently? LOtRO already does something like that in skirmishes, where the number of skirmish marks (loot currency) earned is reduced for each death while completing the skirmish.

  2. Thanks, Tremayneslaw. I agree with the non-abusability. Parts of it are already in the deterrence, but not completely. It's an additional point.

    I also agree with your second paragraph. I think it is covered by point (2). I actually disagree with your suggested death penalties. They are not a 'clear cut', I think.

    I have a post coming up tomorrow about one specific example in an imaginary game. I'll be interested in your opinion then ;)

  3. I am not convinced that is the main motivation for letting players take others stuff in EVE.

    I posit you can not fully explore death penalties without also exploring death rewards - what benefits does the killer get?

    Sadism: In many games, a lot of people play the game or at least that alt, in order to cause pain and suffering to others. So anything you do to make the death penalty less painful will make the killers enjoy the game less.

    Military: we can't let our non-allies have this scout or fleet near our forces/bases/transports.

    Direct Economic: Item loss; I shall kill him and take his shiny.

    Indirect Economic: Person A is undercutting me in this market. I shall have him killed, either to distract them, retard their access to a marketplace, or intimidation.

    virtual, typically non-immersive/artificial: I get 5 XP or 5 HK when I kill that person.

    So with the wrong death-rewards, you get positive sum situations (e.g. sequentially killing and being killed for Haala battle tokens for your mounts)

    How easy it is to kill me and how beneficial it is to someone else to kill me affects how often I die.

    Frequency of death is a component of the death penalty; I would expect a much less onerous death penalty in games where I die twice in a half hour than if I die once a year.

  4. I agree with most of the points of the post, but I would argue that EVE does have items that are similar to "Epics" in WoW, items that are so ridiculously expensive and difficult to attain (mostly faction, deadspace items) that their loss would represent a significant financial loss (in millions if not billions of ISK).

    Otherwise a pretty solid post, I am curious about what your idea is for a death penalty system so I'll check in tomorrow.

  5. I'd like to see death penalties that more explicitly vary according to what you're trying to do. The WoW (and other MMO) "run back to your corpse" model is strangely random in how much it penalizes. Sometimes you have a really short run, sometimes a really long one. Some dungeons have painful run backs, some have short ones. The time loss rarely correlates at all with how hard the area (or dungeon) you're fighting in is.

    It would cool if challenge and death penalty was more consciously linked.

  6. (2) sound very good, but is it actually possible? Isn't it the fear of repercussions that makes us fear video game death in the first place? If we knew there were no repercussions, we would not try to avoid death, would we?

    I can see the following possible punishments:
    a) Loss of some accumulated value. Be it gear, money, experience, points, what have you.
    b) Loss of time. Corpse run, restart at a save point, etc.
    c) Temporary reduction of character strength.
    d) Loss of real world money. (Insert coin to continue)

    All of these have in common that they annoy the player in some way or another after she died. Do you have any example of that not being the case while still making players afraid to die?

  7. I'd like to be able to choose my own death penalty -- such as in Diablo2 where I could choose to play "hardcore" and lose my entire character upon death.

    A "minimal" penalty could be similar to the soul walk feature in Rift where you wait a few seconds and then respawn exactly where you died and are invulnerable for a few seconds while you move out of range of the mob that killed you.

    Really, since every player is different, and since what causes one player to ragequit might only cause another player to shrug and try again, I think allowing some sort of choice is the only way to begin approaching #2.

    As stated though, I don't really think #2 is possible at all. How do you propose to design an event that I really don't want to happen, but which doesn't punish me in any way -- aren't those two things mutually exclusive?

  8. A DP should also make you not want to die in a raid. Calling for a fast wipe is very un-immersive. And to make that possible if should be to the advantage of the whole raid if you don't wipe.

    And you should also discuss the DP for rest of group. In a WoW dungeon they have to wait until the player who died recovered. Plus some characters have to ability to rezz, therefore neglecting parts of the DP.