Series Info...Storms on Cloud 9 #39:

Consequences and Death

by Scott Holliday

Character death in games has always been one of my favorite topics. Some of my best table-top games and early MUD experiences involved losing a character, or an entire party. Losing a character can be an exciting chance to see how people react under adverse circumstances. One memorable experience involved the death of a whole adventuring party. An accidental explosion caused the entire cave system to collapse - thoroughly ending all hope. What made it so exciting? It was dramatic. It was unexpected. It was the only reasonable consequence for our actions. On the other hand, I've lost many more characters in dumb, unexciting ways.

Since I've been doing some internal testing on my current game project, this has become an especially important question to me. Players will put in time and effort building up a character. Not through experience or abilities - but rather in a list of functional spells that they know and (as a player) have memorized. If the character is killed, they would have to begin again from scratch.

Naturally, losing a battle won't cause death, since your character will automatically retreat if things go too badly. Likewise, even if you are hit incredibly hard, you aren't necessarily dead, because there are medical wizards on hand to do their best to keep you alive. But, if you really get whacked hard - you might meet the laughing skull and crossbones. This leads to all sorts of additional player decisions based on risk assessment. "I only have one hit left, and he's casting a really nasty looking spell, should I go ahead and retreat now? What if he's bluffing?" What happens when the character IS killed? Will the player hang up their pointy hat, or will they give it another go? I'm forced to keep asking myself, does the added risk in the design make the game more fun, or less?

Death in online games is hotly contested topic. However, a look at the largest online games reveals an ongoing trend. Game designers (and probably players) seem to think that bad consequences regardless of reason are unacceptable. Reading the blurbs for the games of this and next year, I think the most common advertising snippet is "No Death Penalties." No death penalties? The statement alone seems pretty goofy, but I think both sides of the argument are missing the point.

First, what constitutes character death? Most online gamers would probably respond by saying that their character was killed. Admittedly, this sounds bad, but in almost every case it simply means a respawn and perhaps a hit to the character's abilities or experience or some other nonsense. In almost every case, online characters are immortal. They can't be killed, merely inconvenienced. The only reason it's even called "death" is that the developers put in a nifty death animation.

Second, what constitutes a "death" penalty? I imagine most gamers have fish stories of how much experience they've lost, how far they've been set back, or how far they've had to run to get back to their corpse. Of course, even games that claim that they have no death penalties are lying. Generally those that use this claim don't penalize the character directly, but instead cause the player to lose the contest and wait to respawn. The loss of time is just as much a penalty as the loss of experience, skill, or equipment.

The only games I've found that have no death penalties are games that you can't die. In RPGs, in online games, the best examples are games in which there is no way to be harmed. A example of this in table-top games is Teenagers from Outer Space. You can be horribly embarrassed, your relationships can go sour, you can get bad grades, you can fail to stop nano-goo from eating the planet… but you can't die. This does holds some attraction. It allows the players to take outrageous risks and do truly stupid actions without worrying about serious consequences for their character.

So the question… with so few examples of this style of game in table-tops, why is it nearly ubiquitous in online games? I've heard it said that players attach more meaning to their online characters, but I have no evidence of this. From what I've seen, the majority consider the online character itself a tool, perhaps just an extension of their own psyche. In fact, I think this is possibly why so many online games come across as feeling shallow. Without real risks, any "risk-taking" is only as much fun as the player forces themselves to role-play.

Consider your experience in your online game of choice. For simplicity's sake, since it seems to be the standard, I'll assume the goal of your game is the hunt bunnies. What kind of bunnies do you hunt? Well, naturally you hunt the biggest baddest bunny that you can possibly handle. Dire Vorpal Bunnies? You betcha! Or even bigger bunnies if you're part of a well-organized group. You're going to ride that razor's edge to see just how big of a bunny you can take.

This is the inherent problem. Players want to ride that edge! They want to push the envelope. They want to make important decisions of risk versus reward. That itself is the most basic premise of almost all games. Just how much risk is acceptable? How much of a reward is worth this risk? Players want to be able to make mistakes. However, when they do mess up, they want the consequences to be deferred to someone else.

Personally, I prefer "iron-man" style games. Once my character "dies" in most online games, everything afterwards seems like a cheat. On the other hand, "iron-man" games have their own drawbacks - especially those that delight in killing you over and over. I've been playing ADOM lately, an old rogue-like that I enjoyed in the past. What's amazing (and frustrating) is how many ways there are to die. I've been killed by monsters. I've been killed by traps. I've starved to death. I've poisoned myself. I've died from sickness. I've died from old age. I've died from my own lightning bolt that ricocheted off a wall. I've died when my pet got confused and bit me on accident. Once I even died when my strength spell ran out and I was crushed under my own equipment. Each time, the character is gone, and I start over from scratch. This can be a lot of fun as a single-player experience, but I'd generally expect a multi-player game to need more continuity.

Is the key then finding a way for players to ride the edge of safety without truly endangering themselves? Seems like a contradiction in terminology. However, this is the route many online games are taking. Some consider most "deaths" instead to have knocked the character out. Alternately, the character can prepare a clone or some such insurance to continue life when their previous body is destroyed. One solution I've seen would take control of your character, making them go chicken whenever they get in over their heads.

Of course, in our imperfect online environment, no solution is ever going to be perfect. When a server disconnect can kill your character, the degree of frustration could turn most players completely off. Worse, a single grief-player could ruin years of careful hard work and continuity. Although, in both cases, by using some of the solutions above, perhaps these problems could be mitigated. On the other hand, from what I've seen, the more margins of safety you provide, the further players will feel free to push it.

[ <— #38: What Went Wrong | #40: Fortune Telling —> ]