When talking about the death penalty in an MMORPG there are two main areas that we have to consider when weighing the pros and cons. These two main areas are the division between PvE death and PvP death. Different games approach these areas in two separate ways (assuming of course that we are talking about a game with PvE and PvP). The first approach is to make the death penalty different for each scenario, and the second is to make the penalty the same for PvE and PvP. Almost all games are a variation of first approach, because there is always something that makes death different in PvP than PvE. What really matters is that the death penalties match their intended area well.
So how do we determine if a death penalty is appropriate for PvE, or PvP? This is a tricky problem because everyone has a different opinion on what a death penalty should be, and thus developers have implemented a wide range in the history of MMORPGs. So in order to answer this question, I am going to list what I think is important for a death penalty, but I’ll freely admit that others will disagree on how we get there.
Why should we have death penalties?
- Make avoiding death meaningful, and thus dealing death meaningful.
- Add an element of risk. With risk comes reward.
- Make player’s care about keeping their avatar alive.
Those are the basics for me. I don’t like EXP debt, but I do like the reason for EXP debt, which is to make players work to not die. That being said, there are much better ways for furthering that motivation without the debt method. Many games have approached this method differently, from debt, to loosing exp, to damaging armor and thus costing you a resource, to costing you time as a resource and various combinations of all of the above and then some. But the reason is the same, give player’s more than a surface reason for wanting to avoid death. I think that this is important, because when a death penalty is too mild, players stop caring about keeping their avatars alive, and when players become disconnected from their avatars, then you have a game that isn’t worth playing.
Closely related to this issue of caring about one’s avatar comes the reason to make death and it’s avoidance something meaningful to the player. This is important because it reinforces the relationship between the player and their avatar, but it also serves to contribute a large, yet very invisible reward in PvP. If no one cares whether they are defeated by another player, then the satisfaction for killing another player is diminished. When that happens, players become less interested in PvP because they don’t get as much as a reward, and players are more likely to throw their avatars into certain death because they a) don’t care about being killed, because there is b) no penalty for being killed. When players throw away their avatar’s lives so cheaply, the satisfaction of killing them is diminished. All these interactions work in a circle, feeding and interacting off of each other to shape the experience of the player in a game.
With the penalty of death, whether that is for PvE or PvP, comes a risk. With risk should come reward. That is that if players take a risk that brings them closer to death, there should be some sort of reward that scales with that risk. This type of system can be hard to implement, but there exists a very common form of this in almost all MMORPGs. You get more experience for killing mobs that are higher level to yourself. The same can be said (in small ways) for better loot or coin. Though usually this is implemented backwards, so that you get less for killing mobs lower level then yourself. MMORPGs will differ on their methods, but in general I think they’ve foolishly settled for simply lowering the risk so much that they don’t need to worry about compensating that risk with a reward.
In summery, the point I am trying to make is that if you lower the penalty for death, you remove any meaningful reason to keep your avatar alive. When you do that, PvP is cheapened, and in general player’s lose an important connection to their avatars, which just lowers the overall experience they have in the game. To have a viable, (fun risk vs. reward system) you have to have risk, and without a significant death penalty you won’t have that.
That being said, I’m not advocating really harsh death penalties, obviously if the penalty is so harsh that players cannot die without quitting from frustration you have an even greater problem on your hands. How to make a balanced death penalty is beyond the scope of this article, but I will say that it’s important that personal responsibility plays an strong role, not only for reaping what you sow, but also avoiding situations where you are (too much) at the whim of the success or failure of other players. Basically, if the penalty is rough, and other players get you killed, you’ll probably not want to group much with such people, which can lead to elitism and so forth. But that’s a topic for another day :)