Friday, April 9, 2010

Count to Five, Let the Fear In

Permadeath. Reading that word these days is more likely to make you roll your eyes than crap your pants in fear, and that’s unfortunate. I’m not pro-pants-crapping, nor am I pro-death, but I do wish there was still respect and fear attached to the concept of permadeath in video games. Instead its now viewed as an MMO taboo that is simply ridiculous to consider viable. Why? Because when a player loses a character they’ve invested dozens and dozens of hours in, the game will lose that player, because they couldn’t possibly handle the stress of such a loss, nor would he be willing to start over anew?


The level of achievement a person feels when they overcome a challenge is directly proportional to the level of risk taken. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. When the greatest risk you run in an MMO is a very temporary death (which equates to a corpse run time sink and relatively small maintenance costs for equipment), how sweet is any victory? When you defeat a dungeon boss, how rewarding is it when you know that if you had failed again you would have had an infinite number of chances to try again? What greater risk is there than losing your character forever? Now this is probably the line where people stop reading, thinking that I’m one of countless people on the far end of the permadeath ideology spectrum, but keep your shirt on for a second. Psychology aside, if you institute across the board permadeath, you’ll never have a playerbase. No one wants to HAVE to lose their character forever, especially in the normal course of the normal game for normal rewards.

Thus there are three coMMOndments for Permadeath in MMO’s:
Thou shalt make all instances of Permadeath occur in optional endeavors
Thou shalt make the rewards for risking Permadeath phat and epic
Thou shalt make a big deal of Permadeath endeavors to the rest of the game world

What do these mean? The first coMMOndment means you should never ever force permadeath on someone. There should be no activity that a player must accept the risk of permadeath to take part in. Make a permadeath version of an activity, but never a simply permadeath activity.

The second coMMOndment is the simplest. Make the rewards match the risk. And don’t underestimate the aversion players have to losing a character forever. The rewards for permadeath risk don’t scale like other types of difficulty, this shoots it through the roof, so loot drop rates, experience, and any other rewards should flow like wine for the risk takers.

The third coMMOndment will justify Permadeath’s presence in the game explicitly (complementing the implicit justification that hardcore elite player’s won’t be able to whine about difficulty). We always hear people whining that their quests and actions have no significance because everyone is doing the same thing. But if the first person to achieve a major quest in permadeath mode closes that quest forever and moves the story forward, that would give significance to questing, and would allow for lots of people to try to be heroes, and only one to succeed.

So here are my five ideas for applications of Permadeath in MMOs:

1) Gladiators- Have your typical arena setup with teams, prizes, individual matches, rankings, etc. But offer the option for any player to enter the Big League, where they fight one on one with the loser dying permanently, and the winner getting huge rewards and fame. People could issue challenges, move up the rankings and gain real notoriety. Any Permadeath match should be prescheduled and publicized at least a day in advance, and any player would be able to watch the match live.

2) Difficulty Meter- Meter for each player that they can adjust any time out of battle, which determines their game difficulty and the rewards they get from battle. Highest level is permadeath. Groups play at the average difficulty level of each individual.

3) Dragonslayer- Taking a specific group quest and attempting to beat a dungeon and slay the final boss under threat of permadeath. Failing would mean permadeath, victory would result in that boss being gone forever and the story being advanced further to open new content. Even if there was success, any players lost in the attempt would be gone forever. Victors (even dead ones) would be immortalized in the history books of that server, and celebrated as heroes.

4) Highlander- Players can permanently designate themselves as “Chosen” once they reach a particular level/time played. A Chosen player can attack ANY other Chosen player, and when one kills another, that character is gone for good. The winner gets all of the loser’s equipment and money (Even bound items), a big portion of their experience/skill, and positive boosts to any factions that the loser was very friendly with.

5) Protector- This I saw on another person’s blog, if you’re reading this and it was your idea (you described it as trees), please email me so I can give you credit. A player can opt to sacrifice their character forever to create a permanent guardian for a city or town. The power of the guardian is directly related to the sacrificed character’s power. This would work best in a game with player towns and/or faction bases.

6) BONUS: Progeny. Inheritance is a concept sometimes linked with permadeath as a way of cushioning the blow, and while I haven’t heard of a system I like yet, I really believe there is a system out there somewhere that will work perfectly and make this a really fun mechanic.

So you see, Permadeath should not be shunned and laughed at, it has the potential to bring heroicism and significance back to MMOs, as long as its done right.

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