Death Penalties Musings Responses part 2

Quoting from the comments on Damion Schubert’s Zen of Design blog article discussing death penalties:

Maybe XP loss/debt is no longer the answer. Maybe game developers should use alternative methods to make gamers avoid death.

Excellent thought.  Death penalties seem to be an impossible problem given the existing assumptions about what a MMO game is.  Like how the “problem of evil” is an impossible problem assuming some all-influential deity.  An impossible problem should be a cue that we need to reexamine some fundamental assumptions we have on the issue at hand.

In a largely single player game death penalties can work fine.  In an MMO virtual world death penalties seem to break down and introduce problems.  Dev-defined death penalties are essentially one of the many game rules contrived to present players with high-drama tradeoff decisions.  In reality, almost never are we faced with such decisions.  When we play what we perceive to be a “game” we expect these kinds of decisions.  When we play what we perceive to be “reality” we don’t, and “reality” doesn’t work with such decisions- nothing is so black-and-white.  We all know that to force issues to be so results in borked relationships, screwed up politics, more damage than is strictly necessary, etc.

People aware of MMOs are more and more considering them a viable way to spend time, that is, MMOs are being incorporated into real life.  And in many ways, MMOs are indeed part of and thus “real life”.  So, if an MMO is approached as an extension of “real life” any mechanics that are too “gamey” will result in exquisite exasperation.  A mechanic that’s too “gamey” is one that makes sets of decisions too black-and-white.  Now, in real life to make decisions too black-and-white is usually to inappropriately oversimplify complex situations.  In an MMO to make decisions too black-and-white is done by the developer and really actually makes the situation simple.  In real life the “player” interprets situations as black-and-white; in a game the developer crafts situations to be black-and-white.

All this to say that death penalties are a thing for games.  Penalties for death in “real life” need to result in changes to the world.  If you get killed by members of the Congol NPC faction, the Congols receive a small boost to their attribute, effectively making them more powerful.  If a whole bunch of players get killed by the Congol faction, then the Congol faction gets a significant boost to their attributes.  Or, if you booch a mission given to you by the Congol faction, the Congols like you less.  If a whole bunch of players (all from the same faction) blow a whole bunch of missions given by the Congol faction, the Congol faction actually begins to hate that player faction, even to the point of actively hunting them down and attacking their cities and homes.

The idea is that player actions actually influence the world.  When a player dies, the thing that killed him gets some tangible benefit, but that benefit does not have to come at the expense of the player.  And when a player overcomes, the beaten NPC faction actually experiences a disbenefit.  (The requisite mechanic in this is an intelligent NPC faction system, complete with strategy.  The quick and dirty solution would be to have a person decide global strategies for various factions based upon what has been occuring to NPC members of those factions.  That would be an enormously fun project to build the systems for such a thing.)

Right now, MMOs are experiencing growing pains.  They are in between “games” and “virtual worlds”.  As long as they are “games” posing as “virtual worlds” they won’t work.  As soon as they fit the “virtual world” notion, they will.  In fact, they will become an extention to real life, and cease to be a “game” found within real life.  Now that would be a fun project on which to work 🙂

Did any of that make solid sense?  I am still trying to wrap my mind around the whole thing, so I don’t claim it to be perfect.  I am sure it’s headed in the right direction though.