I’ve actually been working on this one for a few days, but various issues have popped up to prevent me from getting it done… so, in the interest of getting _something_ posted…

Prompted by various discussions of death penalties around the blogs over the past week or so, apparently starting here, continued with commentary at Eyes Like Ours, and I first ran across it at Anyway Games.

The original question was “Why (have a) death penalty?”  The answers in the thread at MMORPG, ably summarized in this news post, basically revolve around creating tension and preventing “exploits”.  All fair reasons, for the most part, but somewhat unsatisfying to me personally, seeming perhaps a bit incomplete.  Are the penalties currently associated with losing/failure, before the death penalty is added, really so minimal in the first place?  Would there be exploits if “death” was really death in the first place?   

A few musings below the fold…

Now, I am hardly an individual that completely eschews any concept of a death penalty.  I am a proponent of the nuanced integration of permanent death into certain styles of these games… not exactly the default position of someone who is pining for “easy mode”.

On the other hand, I do understand the original question.  Combat as implemented in games today can (on occasion) already carry significant penalties for failure, depending upon the circumstances: consider the time and resources spent penetrating to the core of a dungeon, reaching and engaging the “boss monster” in combat, only to lose and be kicked completely out of the scenario, knowing that the entire challenge will be repopulated and that all the resources consumed the first time around will need to be replaced.  That’s not a “penalty”?

On the other hand, there is the “Well, I’m done for the night.  Bah, it’s a 10 minute run back to town… that group looks like it can kill me quick, I’ll just self-rez at my bind spot in the town chapel” scenario.

To my mind, there are several factors that make the second scenario more likely than the first in MMOGs as implemented today. 

First, there are relatively few games where significant in-game resources need to be spent to participate in most combat endeavors.  To keep the gameplay highly active, “consumables” such as food and drink, ammunition, spell components, and the like are often largely minimized in cost and effect, if not completely abstracted out of the game.  There were sufficient complaints in UO and EQ about the inconvenience of consumables that many titles largely reduced their influence, tho few ever completely removed them… DDO being a recent example of an implementation casting back to the older resource-heavy paradigm, WoW still having ammunition and repair costs, and so on.

There are also balance issues involved in consumables: keeping the core sword-and-shield warrior role from having a significant financial advantage over other, potentially more resource-heavy roles (archers-arrows, magicians-spell components) can be a factor here.

The lack of “consumables” reduces the cost of engaging/participating in combat… a net positive for any game that focusses on combat as it’s core activity, but problematic in terms of building any tension over the possibility of “losing”.  It is just basic human nature to care more about something that you perceive a need to “pay for”, as opposed to something provided for “free”… that logic basically applies here, I believe.

Virtual costs aside, time is the true cost paid in these games, of course.  This is another example where providing convenience gets in the way of creating tension over the outcome.  It is generally made pretty easy to find a decent fight in relatively short order in most of these games… again, a net positive for a game where fighting is the intended core activity.  On the other hand, that means that any particular loss, sans the application of a significant death penalty, is pretty unimportant to the player.  He can find another fight easily enough, in no time at all, really…

You can probably see where I’m going here.  Death penalties are in part necessary because, in these games that are highly focussed on combat, the costs of initiating and participating in combat are minimized for the player’s convenience.  Minimizing the barriers to entry reduces any tension related to the question of success/failure: death penalties restore some of that tension.

Carrying that logic further: if you were to create a game where combat was not the core activity, but just one of many possibilities, presumably you could potentially have higher costs associated with entering combat, and a reduced need for a death penalty.  (I’m not saying that’s guaranteed, just a possibility.)

That’s all I’ve got done at the moment…

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