Behind the Curtain: Gone for good?

Craig Withers
C. Withers|07.18.08

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Behind the Curtain: Gone for good?
I've been thinking recently about loss. Having been incredibly lucky with my own brush with the possibility of losing my World of Warcraft characters, I got to thinking. Not only about what I would have done if things hadn't worked out for me, but about how loss works in MMOs today.

Last week, Gabriel wrote a fantastic column about item decay in games past, present and future. I've been playing Diablo 2 again lately, for obvious reasons, and I had found myself thinking on the similarities and differences between the durability system in Diablo and WoW.

I've said before that my MMO career started with Star Wars Galaxies, so I don't have the long-term experience many of the other writers here at Massively do. I've never had to worry about making corpse runs in Everquest, or had to concern myself with losing my items in Ultima Online. While Galaxies did have item decay, it wasn't set to a punishing degree – items did wear out eventually, but at a reasonable rate. When an item eventually gave out, you crafted yourself a replacement, or you picked one up from another player. By doing so, you knew you were contributing to the economy, so if you tried hard you could convince yourself that you were actually helping the game.

But I don't really want to talk about item loss specifically. I'm thinking about loss in a wider sense. Like the song says, you don't what you've got till it's gone; so would we appreciate more what we've got in-game if there were a real chance that we could lose them permanently?

Take permadeath. It's a particularly thorny subject, almost certainly one that guarantees strong opinions, and a feature that isn't implemented in any modern MMO that I know of (feel free to correct me here). The downsides to permadeath are obvious; It's a rare player who has no problem with losing everything the first time they die; End-game content may never be reached if your characters keep getting smashed to pulp before they leave the newbie zones; PK'ers become a serious threat to your players, rather than an annoyance. At the Indie MMO Developers Conference in 2007, Richard Bartle likened player's desire for permadeath to their desire for paedophilia, such was his perception of the attitude towards the feature. That said, I do know of one guild in Dungeons & Dragons Online, 'The Sublime Permadeath Guild', which practices permadeath. That is unquestionably hardcore.

Permadeath is a feature which would suffer badly under the current paradigm for MMO design. Repeatedly playing through the same starter areas, completing the same level grinds, visiting the same quest givers and killing the same faceless mobs, beacause they have to, and not because they've rolled alts, simply isn't going to entice players to stay. What are some of the upsides to permadeath though? With a higher likelihood of retribution having lasting consequences, players may be more likely to 'play nice'; a more social type of gaming may emerge if players are unwilling to risk death, with player-generated content and RP events, for example, possibly gaining popularity.

What about skill loss? In real-life, any skills you don't exercise or make use of on a regular basis become rusty. How many of us, a year after leaving school, could still speak whichever foreign language they were taught? What if the skills your character rarely made use of atrophied over time? What if your Frost-spec'd Mage in WoW might even lose the ability to use Pyroblast over time? In a skill-based MMO, your character might struggle to swing a Blacksmith hammer if he or she had been away from the anvil for a while.

If permanent loss was the result of mistakes – how would it change the way we looked at our avatars and their gear? Would you play more cautiously, being careful not to bite off more than you could chew, and treat everything about your character as precious and irreplaceable? Or would you see them as throwaway, replaceable things that didn't matter as much?

We naturally place a lot of value on our characters, as they are integral to our experiences in-game. But what if they weren't? With permadeath and loss we might focus less on our characters and our virtual possessions, and appreciate more our experiences in the game, rather than the material rewards gained through those experiences. I ran through Scholomance with some of my guildies on Tuesday night – being level 70, there's little reason for me to go there, but I had an absolute blast, not caring that I would come away with little to no material gain at the end of it. It didn't matter though, the experience, playing with friends and revisiting a favourite dungeon, was enough for me.

With less investment in how you are represented in game, you might find that your experiences are focused simply on where you've been, instead of where you've been with a particular character. Would you project more of yourself into the game, instead of tying your memories and experiences to specific characters?

What if loss extended beyond your character and the items he/she carried around? What would happen if in-game housing had to be secured against burglary or vandalism? If you weren't locking your virtual doors and windows, or hadn't installed an alarm, would or should it give people the chance to break in and steal your belongings? Such a system might give rise to a separate economy geared around insuring your belongings, or guarding against thieves and trespassers.

That's a lot of 'what if?' and 'would you?' for one column. From my own point of view, I don't have a problem with permadeath, in and of itself. I rolled up more than one Hardcore character in Diablo 2, but I'd played the game through so many times that it was easy to level up more characters. Plus, in single-player games, you don't have to worry about other players messing things up for you – you're not going to get hacked and you're not going to get PK'd. For permadeath to work, it would have to be worked into a very specific game, one which would almost certainly play completely differently from any of the MMOs we're playing just now.

Going back to Dr. Bartle at the IMGDC '07, he asked that the designers present surprise him. For permadeath and permaloss to work together and work well in the same game, there would have to be a brave designer willing to surprise not only the good Doctor, but most of the MMO-playing public as well.
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