The Perfect Ten: Death penalties

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|03.24.11

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The Perfect Ten: Death penalties
Death penalties belong in that tier of MMO discussion topics that is reserved for the most controversial subjects, along with skimpy armor and the New Game Enhancements. Death, as we know well, comes for us all with big, nasty, pointy teeth. But for some reason, we are not fans of it, neither in real life nor in online games.

One of the reasons death penalties continue to be a divisive subject is that they used to be brutal beyond belief in MMOs back in the olden days of yore. As the MMO genre progressed, the penalties were lightened and experimented with in an effort to avoid driving players barking mad because of them. So we've ended up with two camps: one group of gamers who campaign for harsh death penalties to make the world seem exciting and dangerous, and another group that campaigns for lenient penalties in the interests of sanity.

So today we're going to go through 10 of the most-used types of death penalties in MMOs, starting with the most brutal and ending with the most lenient. Stay for the after-column party as well, as you'll get a taste for this debate in the comments section!

1. Permadeath

Ah, permadeath, how I love you. Not in my games, mind you, but just when I throw it out to the crowds when I want to see a bunch of people go bananas arguing about it.

Really, this is the ultimate death penalty: having your character killed off forever after one or a set number of deaths. Because of the sheer time investment that MMOs require, permadeath has been shoved to the far fringes of the genre. Most players would rather chuck their computers out of a fifth-story window than lose all of their characters' accomplishments.

That said, permadeath has poked its head into a few games, mostly as optional modes. Diablo II, Dofus, EverQuest and even Star Wars Galaxies' old Jedi could face the prospect of eternal death if you decided the thrill was worth it.

2. Huge financial and potential skill loss

This unique hybrid is the sole domain of EVE Online, which makes dying about as painful as can be. While insurance can reimburse you for your basic ship upon destruction, you will forfeit all of your modules and cargo -- which can set you way back financially -- and you can even lose a chunk of skillpoints if your character isn't covered. In a sense, it's only a few steps away from permadeath, since your principal avatar is irrevocably destroyed and you have to attain another one (albeit with established resources). It does have an upside, as it gives your opponent a reason to feel good about his life before he heats up another Hot Pocket.

3. Experience loss and deleveling

This used to be one of the big standards of MMOs: If you die, you lost a hair-rending amount of XP. Worse yet were games like Final Fantasy XI that would allow the system to "delevel" you if the XP hit was bad enough, so it was entirely possible to go from level 14 to 12 on a bad night. How's that for motivation and gaming inspiration? Hard to attain, but easy to lose. Of course some would argue that made hitting max level that much more of an accomplishment -- well, that or a sign that you're more stubborn than a prickly mule.

4. Full-body looting

Nothing like putting in a hard day's work and seeing the physical rewards of that work in the form of loot -- and then having all of that stripped away from you after you are killed and humiliated by a roving band of player-killers! What joy! What fun!

While the odd recent game like Darkfall is trying to bring back full-body looting as a consequence of death, this feature by and large remains a relic of the cold, cutthroat days of Ultima Online pre-Trammel.

5. The corpse run (old-style)

While several MMOs had it, the corpse run is usually associated with EverQuest -- and for good reason. Die, and you'd be tasked with running back to your corpse naked, feeling like a streaker at an all-you-can-eat monster buffet. Couldn't get to your corpse for whatever reason? Then say goodbye to anything you were wearing or carrying! Sucks to be you!

6. Future XP debt

In an attempt to avoid taking away experience from death-prone players, the brightest minds of the MMO industry got together and figured that they'd take a page from the credit card companies by putting players in debt instead. Until your "debt" is repaid, you only earn a percentage of your normal XP while the rest goes to the sinister spirit lurking in the soul of the game. Die now, pay later -- that sort of thing.

Back when I first started playing City of Heroes in 2004, a bad mission that ended with several deaths would rack up bars and bars of XP debt. As a result, morale would always be in peak form during tricky runs, with threats and not-so-veiled insults about one's parentage flying among comrades trying to bully each other into not screwing up. Six wrongful death lawsuits later, Paragon Studios toned down this penalty somewhat, although too late for my good friend Paco.

7. Rez sickness

Resurrection sickness (aka "rez sickness" aka "sit on your thumbs for 10 minutes sickness") became much more the staple of MMO death penalties following World of Warcraft. Why rob players of hard-earned XP when you could lightly spank them on the wrist and tell them to sit in a corner for a little bit?

To me, rez sickness never seemed like a good deterrent to dying. You'd never really fear it enough to fight hard to avoid death, yet when it happened, it would serve to just annoy you for a period of time. The severe bite of earlier death penalties had transformed into the bothersome nip of a mosquito.

8. Stacking debuffs

Some titles, like Guild Wars and Age of Conan, experimented with a different type of debuff, one that would get stronger the more times you died in succession. This kind of makes sense, as the Grim Reaper is probably quite annoyed at being treated as a public transit service for immortal MMO characters. Why wouldn't he want to put the smackdown on those who kept passing through his domain without so much as wiping the soles of their feet?

9. Item damage

Somewhere along the line, MMO developers decided to stop giving death penalties any sort of serious consideration and merely paid lip service to them, usually in the form of a minor repair bill to keep your armor on the up and up after a troll smashed in your chest cavity. I've never been pleased with how we've gone between two extremes with MMO death penalties without ever seeming to figure out a sweet middle spot, one that would function as a good reason to avoid death without being either too coddling or too severe.

Nobody's afraid of item damage, especially in games that hand you so much coin you could open your own kingdom by level 20. It's like a rich brat being punished with a new Porsche that doesn't include the optional jacuzzi attachment.

10. Nothing

Aaaand here we go: no penalty whatsoever. It's amusing to hear devs justify this with phrases like "Spending time running to get back in the fight is a penalty in and of itself" and "Nobody likes death penalties; they aren't fun, so why should we include them?" Of course, if you follow these flighty phrases to their logical conclusion, you may worry that devs will eventually strip any obstacle or challenge from MMOs in an attempt to not frustrate today's apparently thin-skinned gamers.

Grow a pair, devs, and don't dismiss death penalties -- but don't go back to the Middle Ages with them either.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.
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