Player Death and Consequences

Each game has its own set of rules about how player death is handled, what consequences are doled out, and how players must recover from it. In some games death even has a habit of evolving from one set of parameters to another, even increasing in scope how players can come to their own demise. While the death of a character may not always seem like a factor that should drive the mechanics of your game, if it’s not setup correctly or in a way that positively effects you game (go figure), then this is a feature of your game that may cause you some serious headache down the line. Death of characters also provide you, the game developer, with unique opportunities when you create an online game. Not only do they give you the potential to keep player stats, items, development, etc, in balance, it gives you the potential to create new levels of detail or experiences in your game that don’t follow the typical game progression.

The Basics

There are a few things that a life system offers in a gaming environment. In most cases, and in most games, your characters are not usually truly immortal – that is to say, there is very rarely a game that does not punish their players in a death style manner, if they mess up. Player death and life systems of a game provide you, the developer, with the idea to keep game play and advancing through your game in check; it allows you to sprinkle a few caveats throughout the mechanics of your game, making it necessary to think before you act. Is it a good idea to go guns blazing with your most expensive (and perishable) equipment, if the situation seems like it may very well end in death? If those items die upon death, it may make the player decide to rethink their actions, or at least put a bit more thought into the situation before rushing through various situations you’ve so carefully setup.

Death, in some games, is also a way to keep a players progression through the system in check. In many games, especially MMORPGs, its been a traditional mentality that death should penalize the player in a reduction of stats. This mentality says that this will then make players work harder to regain those points, thus creating extended game play time. The same philosophy can be seen behind making certain expensive items break upon death. While this was a readily accepted mentality for most RPGs years ago, it seems the tide is beginning to move away from this. EVE Online for instance takes away all items attached to a ship (and the ship itself) when it is blown to bits. In some cases and depending on the situation your character can also suffer skill/stat points. However, EVE does provide players with the ability to insure their ships, and create ‘clones’ of their current skill sets so that in the event death occurs, little is lost. Nice, eh? This is an example where the developers of the game have clearly said “Yes, death should have a penalty”, but they have also said “But… We should give players a chance to hold onto their goods, even if death does come their way.” In many ways this approach appeals directly to more casual players who would be incredibly turned off by losing it all, simply because they were killed. This has special meaning because it is fairly easy to die in Eve. More on this later.

Development Opportunities

It may sound strange that in death there would be opportunities for additional game play and experiences, but it’s true. A player being killed in a MMORPG does not need to be a completely painful experience. In a more old school RPG, Ultima Online, the creators made death a bit more interesting. Instead of just making it so that players would resume where they left off upon returning to the land of the living, they made it required for the departed to locate someone who could resurrect them individually. While this adds additional game play time to death, it also adds in new elements of the game play that players are forced to deal with – interacting with other players, and working together. There are numerous other approaches to death. What if the return trip from the underworld spawned additional quests that were only active to those who had perished? What if death actually was a part of the game in that there were unique skills and items to gain once you’ve perished? Since death is such a normalized part of most games, why not make it something that is truly designed? In many ways creating a crafted death experience for your users when they come to an unfortunate demise can also change how those players perceive death. Is it merely a consequence put in place to add time to their game play, or is it an experience that actually has some merit and adds to the game?

Implications of Death

Depending on how easy it is to die in your game, how easy it is for other players to kill one another, what happens when a player does die, how they recover their character from it, how they retrieve their items, and so on, all play a part in how death is perceived in your game. Ultimately, if you’re like most developers you want your game’s death system to have some bite, and for players to fear it for one reason or another, but you certainly don’t want players to hate it so much that they leave your game over it. Because death is an inevitable part of most games (and most likely yours!) it’s important to consider what your “death penalty” does to a player.

In most cases if a character is killed off for good as a result of dying, players will probably be incredibly upset and unsatisfied by those results unless this is readily expected from the beginning, and it’s easy for players to recover what they may have lost. In most cases games that have “perma” death tend to be games where players don’t get a chance (and aren’t expected) to become heavily attached to their characters. Additionally, games where perma death occurs don’t leave much room for player made history or development, especially if death is a frequent occurrence. Even the looming possibility of perm death, say after 100 disposable lives that players can come back from easily becomes a bit hard to digest. Unless you can find a way to work it into the game play and storyline flawlessly, it would be wise to keep your distance from such an approach.

Like EVE, Guild Wars has a fairly balanced and reasonable approach to death. When players die, they don’t “perma” die, but they are resurrected at a shrine closest to where they were killed. When players set out to continue their journey, they have a timed handicap that limits their health and mana. If the player dies before the handicap has expired, their new penalty simply adds onto the old one. While not creating permanent stat penalties, this can slow down game play and force you to be a bit more careful as your progress (at least until your stats are restored).

Probably the most important factor to consider when determining what the penalties for death are is to decide and figure out how frequent death occurs for the normal player. If, like in Eve, it is fairly easy to blow up your ship and everything inside of it, you probably want to make death something that is 1. reasonable and 2. something that players can mitigate on their own (like in eve through purchasing insurance plans that protect your assets). While making sure that every player in your game is “happy” with every aspect of your game should not be your primary concern, making sure that at least most of your players are satisfied with the consequences for such a big system (like death) is incredibly important in retaining the people who play your game.

What do you think about all of this? Have you ever encountered a game that had an awesome method of dealing with player demises? Let us know!

– The Game Studio