29 June, 2010
There's been some discussion about death penalties lately, and I figured it was a good opportunity to discuss some issues with death penalties in MMOs, and penalties in games in general from a game design point of view. So, let's take a look at this topic and see how many flamewars we can fan!
Identifying the problem
This round of discussion seemed to have been kicked off by the cheery Wolfshead in a recent post where he gets cranky about light death penalty, going so far as to point to light death penalties as one of the conveniences that replaced risk and therefore has emasculated MMOs.
Now, I will say that I think there is something to his core argument, since I've said that risk is a necessary component in our games. But, is a death penalty really an appropriate way to add risk?
Some people agree
Gordon of We Fly Spitfires says that he agrees that MMOs need harsh death penalties. He explains that playing EVE Online has given him something he hasn't felt in a while: fear. And that fear of losing something of value has enhanced the game for him. He mentions that he remembers every death he's suffered in EVE, mostly because it's can be a fairly crushing loss if you risk too much.
So, for some people, risk does add more excitement to the game. For an experienced MMO player like Gordon, having some risk does enhance gameplay by making victory that much sweeter. Even when bad things happen and he's penalized, a player like Gordon may viewsit as a story to share and a lesson to learn for next time.
A dissenter appears!
Larísa, the charming bartender at the Pink Pigtail Inn, says that death penalties really aren't necessary. To quote the title of her post, "the Defias were scary enough" to her, no need to add more risk to enhance that.
The problem, as I point out in the comments, is that there are a few different concepts being confused here. To quote from a comment I left:
1. Risk is what Wolfshead's article is arguably about. He's arguing that most modern MMOs lack as much challenge because there's less consequences for your actions. Dying is the canonical example: it used to be that dying put your whole character at risk. The original MUD had it so that if you died, the character was deleted. In EQ1 you could lose all your stuff. In most current MMOs (including WoW), you run back (or, better, wait for the healer to run back) and spend a bit more of your nigh endless gold supply that night.
2. Difficulty is what you seem to think Wolfshead was arguing for, making people work harder for their epics. Difficulty is different than risk. Difficulty must means it is harder to succeed, whereas risk means that failure carries a steeper cost.
3. Newness is what you're talking about at the end of your post. Experiencing something for the first time is mind-blowing. The first time I was on a text game, playing in the United States and chatting with someone in England, it was amazing. Getting online and seeing other characters in graphics. A lot of people would like to recapture that feeling, but it's almost impossible to do so.
Larísa's fear seems to be that this is just about adding difficulty instead of risk. She mentions that she had moments of fear while playing the supposedly emasculated WoW: the Defias bandits in an early zone chased her down in the newbie area. This was added to her unfamiliarity with the game and made for a very trying first experience. Therefore, she reasons that some people might be merely remembering their initial experiences and wanting to recapture those fleeting memories when they were inexperienced.
It's also important to know that Larísa is a less experienced MMO player. She just recently took a few tentative steps into LotRO as her second MMO. I suspect that risks like death penalties are definitely something that more experienced players want. Always make sure your design is appropriate to the audience.
What's the design problem?
So, let's dig a bit deeper and figure out what the design problem is surrounding a lack of death penalties. Elder Game has a great summary of death penalties in MMOs and how they affect players. The belief is that harsh death penalties will encourage grouping over soloing, provide more challenge, and also reduce the willingness of players to try something different.
But, let's take a step back and look at the larger issues. Some players will chafe at the idea of being punished in a game; aren't games supposed to be fun and carefree? Why does there have to be punishments in games? As I said before, though, risk can enhance the game because the troughs make the peaks seem that much higher. Winning a rare drop is much more exciting if you had to endure a lot of risk compared to simply putting in sufficient time.
The other important thing to note here is that punishment (and negative reinforcement) are great tools for helping people to learn. Punishment is a negative consequence for a undesired behavior, while negative reinforcement is avoiding a negative consequence through a desired activity (similar, but different). Only using positive reinforcement to help players learn tends to lead to diminishing returns, so these can be important tools.
Finally, I think that risk adds opportunities for heroism. Andrew over at Systemic Babble wrote about the story of a brave Canadian soldier who ended up throwing himself on a grenade to save his fellow soldiers. As I mentioned in a comment, we don't give players opportunities to do this in our games. The equivalent in a game, say that a DPS character grabs aggro off of a healer in a raid, is not necessarily looked on as heroic. Plus, the DPS character will fall behind on the meters, meaning that he or she needs to lrn2play noob. But, seriously, I think giving players the opportunity to do heroic things would not only make the games more fun. It would also give people a real appreciation for what it takes to make such a sacrifice, more than the intellectual understanding we might have.
What's the design solution?
So, what's a good design solution to the problem. That's a Terrible Idea has an interesting proposal: don't have death. Instead of dying (or "being demoralized" in LotRO or whatever substitute for death you have), harmful blows reduce your combat effectiveness. This is potentially interesting, because there's still a penalty there: eventually you'll probably become completely ineffective at fighting to the point that you have to retreat and regroup. No silly "resurrections" at graveyards or whatever to "cheat death". I think it adds a level of storytelling in that a "raid wipe" doesn't have to be a complete failure, you could have the story about how most of the group gets knocked around, but then the group retreats, regroups quick, and springs on the encounter again before the enemies can fully recover. Dare we mention that this could also be an interesting opportunity for optional permadeath situations?
Let me point out a system I proposed in a comment to Larísa's post I linked above:
Upon entering a raid you get X soul points (depending on the difficulty of the raid, let's say up to 5). As you die, you lose a soul point. Once a boss is downed, any soul points are converted to favor points and a new batch of soul points are awarded.
What do favor points do? They increase your chance to find rare materials to make raid items (such items for flasks, etc.) Maybe also a small bonus to raid cash rewards and income from daily quests. The goal is that raiders would have to spend less time farming to get raid consumables the better they do.
Points might decay over time to encourage people to stay active. The exact bonus and maximum number of points would need to be balanced out. There would also need to be provision to prevent people from adding a new raider right as the boss is going to die in order to have the one "farming alt" that has the max bonus without the risk. Or, doing an "easy" raid to pad the point totals.
Of course, this still waters down the risk. But, again, it's something where it adds a bit of risk to dying (requiring more farming).
How does this system address risk? The player has a potential reward that comes from exceptional performance in a raid (not dying). The player has a strong motivation to perform well, but the consequences for failing aren't dire. The players are encouraged to learn their roles in a raid in order to help the group succeed. This doesn't not necessarily add any more difficulty to the encounters. Yes, it can be disappointing to lose the opportunity to get a bonus, but failing to get the bonus leads to players experiencing the same thing as people who aren't raiding.
I'll admit, though, it's not a great design. It's something I threw together in a few minutes to provide a point of discussion. Perhaps you can do better. What's a good way to increase risk without increasing difficulty? How can we manage player expectations to let them know that taking some risk might actually enhance the game?