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Death Penalty – the Right Way

So, it seems in the last week the Death Penalty mechanics in Star Wars: The Old Republic have been the subject of much discussion. It sounds like members of that game’s player community are calling to BioWare to make Death mean something.  Just in case you haven’t read it, I want to quote game designer Damion Schubert from BioWare from when he weighed in on the subject:

I see a lot of posts saying things like ‘death should have sting’, or ‘players should feel death’. We agree! However that being said, miscalibrating your death penalties can very insidiously destroy your game from the inside out.

We don’t want people to ignore the cost of death, but at the same time, we also don’t want players to avoid taking chances. We want them to take risks. We want them to try wacky new strategies, and exotic new builds. We want them to wonder if maybe they can solo that boss creature. In the name of creating a sense of fear and risk, overly harsh death penalties can inadvertently make people stop taking them.

To wit: too harsh death penalties can create grinding. If death sucks too much, players will stop taking on higher level creatures or even equal level creatures, and instead only take on creatures that are lower level than them – even though those creatures carry far less reward, the fact that they offer far less risk, might make them seem safer and more efficient to the player. Of course, now the player is fighting boring, ultimately non-threatening enemies, and is being bored to death.

Harsh death penalties can disincentivize grouping. I’m sure we’ve all been in some pretty bad groups in our MMO playing. How likely are you to group with a healer or tank that you don’t know if the penalty for failure is disastrous? How hard is it for new players to learn the skills they need to contribute to groups if other group members feel they can’t risk taking on a new guy?

Harsh drop penalties (i.e. you lose all your stuff when you die) can result in players leaving their best epix in the bank all the time. Sure, you’ll PROBABLY win fully decked out in ph4t purples, but what if you don’t? And just like that, your epic purple lightsaber is something you only ever equip at the bank… just in case.

Harsh death penalties can create flavor of the month builds. If death isn’t something disastrous, players will take risks and find new and exotic builds in the skill tree that continue to reinvent the game (and challenge the combat design team :-) ). But if death is too harsh, more players will feel they have to go with a cookie-cutter template they found on a website, because it’s just not worth the risk if your wacky idea is wrong.

Harsh death penalties can ultimately force designers to make the game easier. If it takes 10 minutes to respawn after a fight or the dungeon becomes inaccessible, for example, it dramatically limits the ability for players to repeat the fight and learn it. This forces designers to make the fight easier so that a reasonable percentage of the players can succeed.

Ultimately, we want players to play the freakin’ game. We want them to group. We want them to deck out in their gear. We want them to experiment with builds. We want them to explore the nether regions of all the planets. We want to make really hard stuff for them. And we most assuredly want them to seek out challenges bigger than themselves.

Does that mean we want the game to be a cakewalk? No, we want there to be tough fights. We want there to be complex fights that might take multiple tries to get right. We want to put in challenges for groups of players that require good tactics, good teamwork and flawless execution to pull off. But I would seperate the idea of ‘challenge’ and ‘punishment’. I would rather our challenges be gated by whether or not you have the skill, the gear, and the teamwork to succeed than whether or not you have the credits and/or time to wait out the forced downtime in between, you know, the fun part.

(Source Post)

Personally, I think his head and heart are in the right place.  I know that I’ve played some games, especially the ones where death has an XP penalty that have strongly discouraged risk taking or exploratory behavior.  Even the ones where death has a financial burden, like repair bills can have the same effect.

I feel that the greatest penalty any game can use to punish me for something is wasting my time.  I can’t count the number of “corpse walks” I’ve done in WoW that I just didn’t want to, only because the walk back to my body would still be less time consuming than the 10 minute resurrect sickness & how long it’d take to make back the lost gold in repair bills. Misharum and I have also talked about Guild Wars’ approach to Death Penalty.  While it lacks the long-term effects of WoW’s, the fact is you still can acquire enough DP that you have to start whatever you’re doing over again, and sometimes that means 20, 40minutes of work down the drain.  The rough no-wipe tolerance of most of the game’s campaign-missions are even worse.

Even outside the realm of multiplayer games, I feel that the death-induced time penalty can sometimes make/break a game.  I know I’ve had points in a couple of Final Fantasy games where the long distance between save points has caused me to take long breaks from them.  I love that Fallout 3 saves at every major doorway, but that hasn’t stopped some absolutely epic runs through some wasteland sewer get ruined by a crash and having to redo 20 minutes of work. At least in Fallout I have luxury of “Well maybe I should have saved,” but not every game gives you that choice.

So I was curious if any of you had any thoughts on the subject of Death Penalties in games, or really Failure Penalties et-all.

One Response to “Death Penalty – the Right Way”

  1. avatar paris-pearles.com Says:

    Thank you for this valuable post. It changed my idea.

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