Imagine this scenario: You’ve been playing an MMO title since its launch. You are now a level 40 warrior, or some equivalently generic class, and are about to tackle a little-known dungeon; the closest town and respawn point are both over thirty minutes of travel away via mount. To get there, you have to pass numerous mobs at higher levels than you, but your group is prepared and you are ready to roll. Reaching the dungeon was the easy part -- now the party must traverse its dark depths. Slaying hordes of elite minions, you come up to the first boss: a fire-breathing, two-headed demon of otherwise unimaginative origins… the battle begins. In the thick of it, the heals suddenly stop coming; a 180-degree turn reveals that the cleric of the group, the only cleric, has gone linkdead, and your entire team now wipes. A respawn means a thirty-minute journey back to the dungeon, but that isn’t all: When you die in this game, all of your items and anything you carried in your backpack remain on your corpse, and should you die on the way to get it, you lose everything.
Until fairly recently in the MMO world (within the past few years) corpse runs were regular occurrences. EverQuest was especially vicious when compared against today’s standards -- it handled death punishments with the very serious risk of losing all of the gear that was worked so hard for (later updates gave players 7 real-world days to retrieve a corpse, and even later updates added graveyards). EXP subtractions were penalizing – an entire level could be lost given the wrong circumstances. There was a lot to lose. In many mainstream MMOs, and perhaps it’s the “mainstream” bit that caused this, dying results in a tiny XP dip, a bit of silver lost to repair equipment, some gold spent to remove death sickness, and our characters are back on the road. No real considerable loss, no reason to avoid combat that will most certainly get you killed, no reason to approach each situation tactically, no reason to feel fear, and most importantly, no reason to learn.
The question, then, is which approach is better for player retention and creating a quality gaming experience? Neither extreme will appeal to everyone – harsh penalties risk losing mainstream players at level one, but a total lack of penalties for actions inspired by the “lawful stupid” alignment could alienate veteran players and unintentionally create cliques.
With losing everything, developers run the risk of player burnout through the frustration of losing hard-earned items that the player put, quite possibly, hours (if not days) into getting. By taking that away, especially when it is due to poor design, an unexpected learning -- err -- cliff, a lag spike, or going linkedead, the player might feel robbed and quickly search out games with less hardcore losses when dying.
However, thinking that “death sickness” is a viable option is a pathetic cop-out. What is death sickness other than 15 minutes or 20 silver of inconvenience? When developers don’t give players a reason to fear dying, or in the very least a reason to actively avoid it, the challenge is taken directly out of the game. It’s an insult to players and a disincentive to betterment.
This minor annoyance does nothing to force players to improve their skills in order to increase their survivability. Why should they become a stronger player and learn their class if they only lose a little bit of time or a marginal amount of xp at each death? This approach hardly constitutes a "punishment" (we'll talk about this word in a moment) and serves as no incentive for player character improvement over the course of the game. This is why in many games (here is a nod to my most recent addiction, Rise of Dragonian Era) you can see a clear distinction between new and old MMO gamers. Those who played the games where a death could severely hinder the player are significantly more cautious and take the time to better their skills, they read on the forums, spec out builds cautiously, and otherwise feel pressured into making sure everything is perfect (part of the completionist personality, perhaps). Many of these players are capable of taking on multiple roles with classes designated for specific assignments when another player cannot handle their job (pure DPS rogues temporarily taking over paper tanking duties when necessary, as an example). Yet one sees an equal amount of players who did not go through this transformation, and instead do not care about the marginal consequences of death. These players tend to act significantly more brash and, to pull an old reference out of my “dead meme” hat, are the Leroy Jenkins-equivalents in modern MMORPGs. A tank who cannot hold agro or a healer who cannot heal a group effectively are not good party members and cause frustration among veterans and newcomers alike. It degrades the community and could initiate a game's downfall.
Taking a page from sociology, the symbolic interactionism perspective of game death effects begs us to look at underlying terminology before changing mechanics: The word "punishment" is inherently negative; we're trained to perceive this word as a bad thing, and when it comes down to it, we're playing a game for fun -- not to be punished. As we learned from Gordon van Dyke, senior producer on War of the Roses, punishing stupid actions is only acceptable if the player understands why they died, why they have something being taken away, and how to prevent it next time. These punishments shouldn't be so negative that a player runs from the keyboard screaming, but they also shouldn't be non-existent to the point that more serious and skilled gamers feel offended. There's a market for everyone.
There is no simple solution to this conflict. The formula has yet to be discovered as to what constitutes a fair trade-off between heavy death losses and death sickness. EVE's system of deaths and the fear it generates is worth exploring more, though; its realism-focused PvP and security designation helps recreate one of the most realistic, believable worlds in MMO gaming: Most player characters hang out in high-security space - trading, talking, questing, and generally mulling about. Only the most elite go into low security space, where chances of death are significantly higher, and even fewer return. Players know that it's likely they'll die out there, and they know the stakes are high. There are clear indicators to inform novices (and veterans, of course) when space becomes treacherous, affirming that no one inadvertently travels to their doom.
Having said that, Dark Age of Camelot also took a well-founded approach to this mostly-philosophical issue: A cumulative increase in XP loss helps diminish the deficit of newer players, but yields a wide berth from death in expert players. By the point the XP loss is seriously detrimental, a player has invested him or herself so much that they (most likely) won't quit from one misstep, but they are also skilled enough to understand why they died. Whether or not the balance is agreeable is a different matter, though.
This pushes a reconsideration of play style, thus improving the overall quality of play for all in the game.
It's hard to say for certain what the exact ratio of death-to-punishment should be. Players appreciate a challenge and will appreciate in-game survivability significantly more by balancing this ratio properly. As a designer, the end-all goal is to create a fully-realized gaming experience that will keep players active and challenged, providing constant motivation to continue playing and learning the game that many hours and resources were spent developing.
-Adam "Epsilon12" Davis.