Blaugust EverQuest MMO Project1999 World of Warcraft

Death is taxing: on death in MMORPGs

August 5, 2019

I died twice yesterday on Project1999. So I decided to write on death in MMORPGs.

The first death was reasonable. I play an Enchanter, and when soloing I ‘charm’ a monster and make it a pet – I then use said pet to destroy other monsters. Unfortunately the charm is not fooprool. It wears off, usually at inopportune moments. This was less than opportune as I had the first monster angry at me, and that quickly became two when my charm broke. I had also ‘buffed’ my pet and given it some nasty weapons, which made it quite the beefcake. Unfortunately, this is all well and good until the beefcake turns around and starts going to town on its former master! I went splat pretty quickly.

The next death was just silly. While waiting for a resurrection (where I would get back my lost experience) I decided to go down and try to get my corpse. I messed up some ‘calm’ spells, where I reduce monster aggro range to move around safely, and I went splat again.

Luckily a guildmate was nearby and could come and resurrect me, meaning I only lost a few percentage points of experience. Were it not for her, I would have lost hours of work.

This made me drift to the oft-discussed issue of death in MMOs. Let’s open Pandora’s Box again, shall we?

Consequence vs inconvenience

Image taken from a 2003 video by the guild Mirage – watch on YouTube.

The personal experience I relayed above was a great example of the ‘consequence model’ of death in MMOs. I was lucky to get my experience and corpse back, but that was because I was in a high traffic zone and had a friendly guildmember around to help.

Lacking those things, I would have potentially paid dearly for my death – hours of work gaining experience and my corpse disappearing with all of my gear on it. A ‘consequence model’ death puts your time and effort on the line. Essentially it makes death meaningful because both the time you have already spent and the gaming time you will play in the immediate future, is now in jeopardy.

The ‘inconvenience model’ is now much more prevalent in modern MMOs. Typically, a death in this model requires you to run back to where you were playing, and you will be debuffed in a way that makes you weaker for five to ten minutes. In some games, your gear is damaged and you will need to pay to repair it. This will be the most familiar model to anyone who started playing MMOs in the last ten years.

There is occasionally a call for the most punishing death model of all – ‘permadeath‘. But even someone who can suffer a consequential model shies away from permadeath. I’ll leve this particular model out of the conversation.

Looking behind the shroud

Which is a more meaningful way of dea? The obvious answer would be the ‘consequence model’. You lose progress, possibly your gear, and a whole lot of time. But is this just an artificial way of creating difficulty and forcing time investment in a game? Does it truly make a death more meaningful? For me yes. But perhaps that’s a personal thing, and for you an inconvenience is sufficintly meaningful, or you roleplay and every death has meaning.

In my story above I had to find a rogue to drag my corpse and find a cleric to resurrect me. Were it not for those things being closeby I would spend hours on a corpse recovery. But in most cases I would have eventually been able to get back my gear, and perhaps just sacrified my experience points. In that sense, is the ‘consequence model’ simply a harsher version of the ‘inconvenience model’?

For many, the best part of the inconvenience model is probably the fact that they can take their punishment for a death but recover and continue playing without the assistance of others. I needed two other humans to help me get back my lost gear and experience. Without one or both of these, I would have been forced to at least forego my lost experience, and possibly wait around online or log off and try another day to get my corpse (which is on a seven day timer). These days most people don’t have the time for this level of inconvenience. I would count myself among those – and yet I still play this style of game!

Life and death in the age of fast-paced gaming

Image courtesy WoWWiki.

Of course time-consuming death penalties wouldn’t work so well in today’s gaming market. Many games – including most MMORPGs – are designed to be cosumed in bite-sized pieces. Look at World of Warcraft, the most successful MMORPG to date. You can log in, do a few dailies, or run a quick instanced dungeon (with 4 other ‘humans’ as silent as bots!), or a range of other chunks of content, and then log off. Throw a consequential death penalty in there and that all all goes away.

In my view, the strong shift from a consequential death model to an inconvenience model is symoblic of the shifts in the MMORPG genre more broadly. Content goes bite-sized, player interaction is facilitated so smoothly that verbal communication is unnecessary, and ‘single-player’ MMORPG play styles are not just possible but indirectly encouraged by developers.

Consequential death penalties – that require a time investment, communication between players, and a multiplayer play style – would be the proverbial spanner in the works.

On that basis, unless something disrupts the trend in the genre, I can’t see this model of death in MMORPGs ever coming back in a big way.

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  1. My preferences in the death and consequence space have definitely morphed over the years.

    I used to be all about the full PvP, item drop on death style of Asheron’s Call PvP servers when I was younger. You didn’t really lose XP there like in EQ, but your potential to earn further XP could be diminished if you died too many times in a row.

    Essentially, each death incurred a 5% Vitae Penalty, which reduced your hp/stam/mana and primary stats. This could accrue up to a maximum of 40% if you were really unlucky, and then it was quite a dance to get back to full strength without dying further from your weakened state.

    Earning XP was how you reduced it, and you did ‘keep’ that XP, it was just potentially slower going than your normal after you crossed say a 10-15% threshold of VP.

    On the items front, you didn’t lose everything, but you dropped a certain number of valuable items depending on your level, up to a maximum of about 8 items I think. They ended up changing it in beta so that dying to PvE wouldn’t allow just anyone to come loot you, but if you died in PvP your stuff was a free for all. xD

    Anyway! I wouldn’t really get on with such a system any more. Give me my inconvenience death. Mostly. I do sometimes play Hardcore, or Permadeath in certain ARPG titles, e.g., Diablo 3 / Path of Exile. πŸ™‚

    1. You might be surprised if you tried a ‘consequence model’ game these days Naithin! Ever had any interest in Project1999? πŸ™‚

      I actually played AC too for awhile, and enjoyed it. Some fascinating and truly innovative systems at play there. EQ unfortunately ended up with the dominant vote for me, but it was good to have MMORPGs on the market (UO, EQ, AC) that were so different from one another. Now we have just homogeny.

      In terms of death, I don’t think I could do Permadeath but honestly, something a bit more arduous than ‘run 2 minutes back from town’ actually makes staying alive worthwhile!

  2. Finally found your corner of the internet Quin πŸ™‚

    P1999 specific, I find it’s still not even that harsh outside of more time. My main is also an enchanter, and the weaponized angry pet death is definitely a thing I have experienced. High risk, high reward (highest dps in game, even, for the most part).

    But p1999 has built in safety nets too. My main alt – a Druid – ports to help move the server around and is part of Dial A Port (to make that even easier to do.) I recently was granted access to the guilds Epic Holding cleric account to help people rezz. Yup, that’s right, there is a shared account to help people rezz explicitly for that purpose. It’s nuts!

    Also very cool. That and most people have guilds / formed relationships that even the most punishing of death penalties is a mere inconvenience AND an opportunity to help someone in need. The latter always feels great.

    1. I agree. I think what we see in P99 and what we saw in Classic is different in many ways – the sheer number of alts and epic-geared clerics is one of those!

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been on a bit of a P99 hiatus for a few weeks but I usually get the bug once a month.

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