Thursday, June 17, 2010

What would you be willing to risk in a MMORPG?

Larísa has a very nice post up about Wolfshead's latest rant about there not being enough death penalties. So lets talk about death penalties a bit.

My first big 3D MMORPG was Everquest. If you died in Everquest, you lost xp, and even could level down because of it. Your complete gear stayed on your corpse, while you respawned naked at your bind point, potentially very far away from your corpse, and had to do a "corpse run" to recover it. If, for example, your death occured deep down in a dungeon, with dungeons not being instanced and the mobs having respawned, there was a potential for not being able to recover your corpse inside the time limit; at which point your corpse with all your gear would evaporate, leaving you naked and poor. I especially remember the Erudin having a newbie zone with a cliff, falling off which would result in your corpse falling into a high-level zone and dying, from which there was no chance to recover your corpse. Do I need to mention that this system wasn't very popular?

Now Wolfshead would argue that you should take that sort of losses like a man and not be a crybaby. But having played EQ long enough, I noticed that the corpse loss system also had serious repercussions on player behavior: Nobody wants to lose their corpse, thus players avoid situations in which such a loss could happen. As a consequence, dungeons in Everquest were notoriously empty. And they were especially empty of players of the levels for which they were designed. Instead of players going to level-appropriate dungeons, you had players of much higher level going to those dungeons, and "camping" the final boss. Thus for example the Frenzied Ghoul at the end of the Lower Guk dungeon, a level 42 to 44 mob, was rarely hunted by a group of level 45 to 50 players, who would have gotten xp from him. Instead level 65+ players who didn't have any risk dying there camped the Frenzied Ghoul for the Flowing Black Silk Sash, a rare magic item, which could then be sold to the lower level players for a lot of platinum. Everquest developers repeatedly failed to get players interested in dungeons with various rewards like "zone xp bonuses". Moral: If your death penalty is too high, players will become risk averse and just play it safe, neglecting the dangerous content.

But there is also the other extreme. When Star Trek Online launched, the death penalty was too low. Thus if you got shot down in an instanced mission, you came back at full strength, while the enemies were still damaged. Thus you could beat anything if you were just persistent enough and didn't mind dying a lot. (A bit like me going fishing in Northrend with a level 7 character). But I read that Cryptic realized that was a mistake, and increased the death penalty, and even added a difficulty slider. In Star Wars Galaxies the death penalty was having to hang out in a town for a while, but traveling could take longer than that, so players regularly committed virtual suicide to respawn in town and get a free teleport out of that. Moral: A MMORPG needs to have *some* death penalty to avoid players zerging or dying on purpose.

A further problem of death penalties is that in older games the penalty was in some form linked to experience points. You lost xp, or you would earn future xp at a slower rate. Now how do you do that in a game like World of Warcraft, where the majority of players is at the level cap and couldn't care less about experience points? Obviously it is unthinkable that a level 80 raider after a wipe loses xp, falls down to level 79, and suddenly can't wear all his level 80 epics any more, forcing him to grind mobs until he is back up to 80. And if you hit a player with some time-out death penalty, and that player happens to be just one player in a raid who made a mistake, you'd force all the other raid members to wait for that one guy to be back up, or kick him out and find a replacement. And of course a harsh death penalty in a group situation only increases the tension between players, as they might feel that "not dying" isn't completely their responsability, but that it is up to the healers to keep them alive. Moral: Death penalties have to hurt the individual, to give him appropriate feedback that he made a mistake, without hurting the group he was with.

That would bring us to solutions like repair bills, but those have obvious disadvantages as well: If a player needs a lot of gold to pay for his wipes, and find farming gold to be boring, he will be tempted to pay somebody else to do that gold farming for him, and further increase illegit RMT from gold sellers.

So I would like to hear from you what you would be willing to risk in a MMORPG. What kind of death penalty would appear harsh enough for you to make you want to avoid silly deaths, without keeping you from seeking out adventure and danger? How would you design a death penalty that doesn't hurt group play, and doesn't encourage players to buy gold?

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