Sunday, July 01, 2007

Defeat is penalty enough

Over at Eyes Like Ours, Ryan raises the old question of death penalties in MMOs. Here are my thoughts on that.

"I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed." --General George C. Patton

You gotta love ol' George. For most people, any defeat, any failure to accomplish a goal that is desired (and not merely required) is quickly followed by a natural sense of shame. The degree of shame varies considerably from person to person, but it's nearly universal where the goal is personally relevant (again, actually desired by the individual).

Not only has the player lost face (in his own eyes, if not in the eyes of others), but he's also lost time. He just wasted the time spent in combat, and probably some time getting back to where he was when he died (assuming he was sent back to some place of safety; I'm not talking about a corpse-run).

And then there's consumables. No, they're not present in every game, but they are common. If you spent a health potion in battle and died anyway, then that potion was wasted. The same goes for purchased buffs, as I recall were common in EQ1.

If the player is pursuing something they really want to do, there's already at least one penalty (shame), if not more. The player's desire is the key: he or she must want to win, not just feel compelled to win by some demand the player feels has been imposed upon him. Hence, developers should focus on ensuring that players are playing, as opposed to grinding. Further penalties are typically just a cop-out, strong-arming the player to care about a gameplay system that is not sufficiently engaging.

The players should care as much about individual battles as they care about becoming more powerful or any other long-term goal. When players perceive their momentary experiences as mere barriers to progression, that's when additional penalties become necessary to instill fear of defeat.

What's wrong with the possibility of a player who keeps throwing himself at the same powerful enemy, only to die and die again, possibly winning in the end just by luck? In single-player games, that's allowed regularly. What makes an MMO setting different? The player has surely not gained some advantage over other players by acting so.

In fact, lack of additional penalties... like temporary debuffs, corpse-runs, xp loss or debt... seems to encourage a number of beneficial gameplay behaviors.

Redemption: The shame of defeat is not a fun feeling. Many players are interested in a challenge, yes, but defeat only equals fun when that defeat can be redeemed through victory. There must be hope of regaining one's honor, in a sense. Lost battles can be swallowed only if they don't cost you the war. Harsh penalties can wear away at hope (particularly xp loss/debt), even if just by pushing the chance for redemption beyond the immediate future.

Revenge: Let's face it, it can be an extremely fun feeling in a game. Personal vendettas are discouraged by harsh penalties.

Personally, I hate systems that allow players to weigh challenges with a high degree of accuracy, but some awareness is good. When people raise the debate over difficulty in MMOs, I'm almost tempted to laugh, because most of these games are already so conducive to the player choosing his or her own preferred degree of challenge (though it requires breaking from the maximist culture that has overtaken MMO communities, and social pressures are not always easy to shrug). Using EQ as an example: If you want a tough fight, try a yellow-con. If a yellow-con's too easy, for whatever reason, just step up to the red-con. If you want an easy fight, try a blue-con. Degrees of challenge are painted for players with sickening precision in most MMOs.

Hence, some players have already been playing at a very different level of difficulty than others. I like to pick fights I can barely win, while I watch many others pick battles they're certain to win. Those different styles have coexisted in MMOs for a decade without any great problem. The players who choose a high difficulty level are often rewarded with higher-value items, because they took on NPCs of a higher stat level.

However, I won't go so far as to say there's no logical grounds for this debate at all. Gamers quite often spoil their own fun, and one way they can do that is by failing to challenge themselves at all.

The catch is that the same gamer may be attracted to different degrees of difficulty from one play-session to the next. There are times when I want a tense encounter to drive adrenalin through my veins, and there are times when I want to calmly use my acquired skills and weapons to walk over my enemies like cockroaches.

Contrary to the article's title, I'm really not suggesting that those "natural" penalties are enough for every situation. However, I am saying that making additional penalties regular, applied to all or most encounters equally, is just not sensible. Additional penalties should be applied sometimes and sometimes not. The penalties might even be divided by category of encounter.

The most interesting additional penalties seem to be the ones most MMO designers have been loath to apply; but perhaps that's mainly because they've been thinking in terms of universal application, instead of one type of penalty here and another type there.

In a Battle for Middle Earth 2 war campaign (War of the Ring mode), losing just one battle can mean losing troops, losing critical Power Points (which the player uses to purchase useful, timer-based skills) or any one of a variety of other bonuses, allowing the opponent to upgrade units and/or heroes, and losing an easily defensible position (perhaps even allowing the enemy access to a completely defenseless territory)... all in addition to the shame of defeat. That's quite a smack in the ass! But a typical loss is more forgiving.

Likewise, it would be alright for an MMO player to be punished much more harshly in one battle than in another. A "boss" NPC might be capable of breaking a weapon, causing a temporary injury (a debuff that's lasts "x" amount of gametime after player resurrection), or even setting a bounty of revenge on players it defeats (some of its minions try to hunt you down). Losing to a particular enemy might cause the player to lose face with the faction that put him up to the fight (sometimes there's animosity for failed saviors).

One situation that might require a different take on death penalties is raiding. If a player or group can't get back to a fight before the opponent fully regenerates (which a game can make automatic at the moment of player/group defeat), then additional penalties aren't definitely necessary. But when the encounter involves an NPC fought by a large militia of players, and the first players to die can rejoin the fight before the last players are defeated, then that's a problem.

Of course, one obvious solution is level design: place the encounter far from resurrection sites, so it's impossible for players to rejoin the fight quickly enough. But the developer might desire to have an epic encounter like this close to civilization. Even then, something like the injury-debuff penalty I suggested earlier would suffice.

It's been a long time since I've engaged in a conversation on this topic. So if there's something obvious I'm missing, please point it out.


  1. I'm working on a post related to/responding to this, but it probably won't be up til tomorrow or Wed. A couple of concepts/questions to fill the time...

    Perspectives: most people feel little shame in losing a coin toss, or failing to pull a specific card from a shuffled deck. Even in more complex situations, shame usually only accrues if you feel had a chance to be victorious and made a mistake, especially against non-human opponents like computer AI. It's a common perspective that might play into the "need" for death penalties...

    Groups: most scenarios that consider the death penalty postulate a 1-on-1 situation. On the other hand, MMO groups are far from immune to deaths in their midst. Does that change the dynamic?

    Taking advantage of vengeance: how about a death penalty which can be largely recaptured/recovered by achieving revenge? Positives? Negatives?

  2. I'm looking forward to it. =)

    People feel little shame in a coin toss or card pull because winning in those situations relies on luck, rather than skill or knowledge. The more control the player has during the encounter, the more he'll regret losing.

    Certainly, groups would sometimes take advantage of lesser penalties by strategizing for "acceptable losses". But not many would enjoy being the expendable one. The group members would still try hard to survive. And nobody would enjoy have to run back from where they respawned. But you might be right that there's more to this.

    I think I'm going to address your last suggestion in a new article. =)


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