23 August, 2006
Scott Jennings posted a link to someone talking about permadeath, again. Never a popular topic with people given the current "cumulative character" design that dominates game design these days. I mean, who wants to spend hundreds of hours raiding if you're just going to lose it all when your character dies? After all, raiding is the ultimate form of gameplay that should be heavily rewarded.
Too much sarcasm there? Sorry. Anyway, despite the naysaying, I've had a system that I think would fit the bill nicely here. Instead of just offing characters after they "age" so much, have the "death" system tied into a system of character "generations". That's been talked about before, but here's the interesting twist: tie these systems into expansions for the game. Intrigued?
So, what do I mean by a system of character generations? Well, it means that you manage your character's descendants as part of the game. In most discussions of this type of system, people talk about offspring; this parallels our experiences in the offline world where, as Scott's wife puts it, "raising children is twinking in RL." But, the descendant doesn't necessarily have to be an offspring: the grizzled master passing his knowledge and powerful weapon to a protégé is a common trope in fantasy. But, the idea is that some of your character's identity passes into the "next generation".
The specific mechanics here tend to be a bit fuzzy, since no one has done it in a mainstream game. The concept is that some of your hard-earned stuff (equipment, skills, money, etc.) passes to the next character. Most people refer to only part of the stuff passing along: a few bits of equipment, a certain percent of your skills, a part of your cash. Only a part can pass along to the new character because otherwise you'd just be, essentially, cloning the character.
At this point it is probably appropriate to look at what the design goals of this type of system are. The usual goal is to stop people from simply reaching maximum level and then getting bored. Richard Bartle has been a fan of good permadeath design because he knows that a bunch of bored achievers can't be good. Of course, this is one of those things that is good for them in theory, but they probably won't like it much when they see their character permanently dead. Most people consider that the hard-core achievers will likely quit rather than have to "work" to regain all they have lost through the character death: this is a "point of exit" that most designers want to avoid as much as possible. In current games, we have implemented the "elder game" which replaces the need for permadeath, but also gives people the impression that "the game doesn't really start until you get to X level."
Another reason is so that you don't get the outrageous level distribution curves you usually see in these games. You know, where you have a ton of people at max level, a handful of people in the last few levels before max, and almost no one else from newbie to the last gauntlet of levels to grind through. As complained about in the article Scott linked to, this results in completely new players feeling alone in the low-level areas since all the high-level people are killing a dragon somewhere. Alternatively, the alts that may be in the low-level areas are so heavily twinked-out that they don't need to group with some dumb newbie that will just slow them down.
Now, this isn't totally from left field here. A Tale In the Desert has the world reset on occasion. Originally it was intended to be every 6 months, but the resets have been a bit less common than that. But, starting a new "telling" allows the game to change in significant ways and to allow one segment of the game to come to a graceful end. As far as I understand, ATITD doesn't allow characters to keep much between each telling of the story, although older characters can keep the old graphical character style as a sign that they were in the previous telling.
My first idea is to expand upon this concept of generations a bit. First, make generations something beyond just a clone or a way to keep people from hitting max level and staying there. Rather, allow the management of a lineage to have serious game impact. For example, perhaps one school of magic that focuses on teleportation and other grand magics requires the character to be part of it from birth. They are, of course, highly selective in who they allow in; not everyone should wield the powers of time and space! Your character, born a common magician, fighter, or whatever, can't possibly hope to belong to the school because the character is too old. But, what if your current character did a few heroic quests for this mage school? The elders agree that they will take one of your descendants as a student. In game terms: this means you can roll a mage that studied in this school in a future generation. This could also apply to other group memberships, the creation of powerful artifacts over multiple generations, or the ability to participate in certain levels of politics in the game world.
One of the big benefits of this is that you get some of what permadeath critics fear you lose: there are accomplishments and achievements which stay with the character's lineage even past death. The player can accumulate a bunch of achievements like this and it gives the opportunity to create a wider variety of characters when it comes time for the next generation to take over. Instead of merely managing a character's accumulation of stuff, the players can manage the lineage of a whole series of characters.
My second major idea is to tie generations to game expansions. In most discussions of permadeath, the assumption is that your character will grow old or die screaming at the hands of some horrible boss monster. This can be very disruptive, since if you lose your high level character to a dragon your regular dragon slaying group probably doesn't want to haul around a newbie even if he or she has the same name as their old high-level dragon slaying buddy. So, instead, have characters behave as they do in current games during the time between expansions. They can fight, die, be resurrected, etc. But, when expansions come along, the world advances enough time for all characters to pass away and for the descendants to take over.
Really, expansions are the perfect time to do a generational shift. Expansions are major events, and most games see a very large increase in subscriptions when they come out. Even though characters are permadying, the draw of seeing the expansion is likely enough to keep people interested in the game. Now an extra bullet point is that new players won't be hopelessly behind all the other characters in the game if they decide to play with the expansion. You can also radically change the game during the expansion without worrying about backwards compatibility. One of the largest issues with expansions is making sure the old characters still work in the new system. This also allows you some freedom in making radical changes to the game. Old characters wouldn't have had choices foisted upon them, and the changes could be temporary if they turn out to be severely unpopular. The next generation could bring a new system (or bring back and old system) without the intense pain required to adjust existing characters.
There are other benefits here as well. One of the most interesting things in Meridian 59 is the "frenzy", where players can kill each other in a free-for-all contest that is not saved. After the frenzy, the server is reverted back to the last "normal" saved game. One reason why people enjoy it is because they can test out new things and engage in PvP competitions that feel "real" but that don't have a lasting impact. The last bit before an expansion could be similar to this, where people could try out risky things knowing there will be no long-term effect. Perhaps some special events could happen during this time, such as an epic attack against the game world that the players must try to repel. Adventurers might try die in the effort, and thus have the opportunity to be remembered as a true hero who sacrificed his or her life in the great battle against the nigh impossible enemy. This same effort seems a bit hollow in traditional games where you are just a resurrect spell away from getting another crack at the enemy.
One of the biggest problems here is how the expansion schedule affects new players. If someone joins the game a week before an expansion is due to go live, what can they really do in the game? Perhaps learn the controls and go through the newbie tutorial, but that's about it. Will this be enough to keep them engaged? Will forcing them to roll a completely new character in a week make them lose some of the connection to the character? Perhaps one alternative is to have it so that new characters can somehow make the transition to a new generation intact. Explain it as either magic or even just a surprisingly identical (even in name!) offspring. But, this breaks one of the benefits listed above: the ability to radically change the mechanics without worrying about character compatibility.
You also potentially have the other problems normally associated with permadeath. What if people see this as a reason to leave the game? This results in less income for the game. On the other hand, it might be nice to give people a graceful way to leave the game for a bit instead of sticking around a game they have burnt out on and only remain to cause headaches for the administrators.
What do you think? Does this system sound interesting? Would it allow some element of permadeath without it sucking quite so badly? Or, is it yet another bad idea some designer latches onto and refuses to let go of? ;)