I've been playing some Age of Conan this weekend, as I'm sure many of you can imagine. You know, despite not having a machine that can play the game at any sort of frame-rate a normal human being would call playable, I've been enjoying it... Enjoying it, that is, until now.
The problem is, as it often is in MMOs, death penalties...
Have you ever stopped to wonder what the point of a death penalty actually is? I do, often. You see, I worked on Auto Assault, a MMO with one of the lightest death penalties I've ever seen. We were often criticized for this lack of a "serious death penalty," but you know what? I don't think we made a mistake. I think the true mistake in this industry is the idea that death penalties are necessary, at all.
Dying is the penalty.
What happened when you died in Auto Assault? INC flew in, picked up your wreck and whisked you away to the nearest INC station, where your car was restored and you were free to go off and try again. To a lot of people, this was wrong, for some reason. It wasn't "hardcore" enough for some players. For others, it was perfect. The most common complaint we heard was that it made death meaningless -- because you just throw yourself at a monster over and over again with no consequence until you ground it down and killed it.
You know, they're right about that - where my opinion differs is that I think that was a a good thing and here's why: It alleviates frustration.
When Everquest 2 shipped, it had a death mechanic very similar to Age of Conan's. When you died, you had to go back to the place of your death to retrieve your soul shard. If you did not, you had to endure a long duration debuff. The only difference between that and AoC's death penalty is the icon you had to click on the ground (a glowing crystal in EQ2 vs. a tombstone in AoC) to get your debuff removed. It's telling to me, that this was removed from EQ2 relatively early in its life. I just wish the folks over at Funcom had got the memo.
You see, the problem with the "corpse run" mechanic is bleedingly obvious to anyone who has to do it: If you couldn't beat the monster that killed you the first time, why the hell would you be able to beat it the second time, when you're suffering under a debuff?
I've actually just been told that AoC compounds the problem, with stacking death penalties. Didn't make it the first time eh? Well, that's cool because when you try again and fail, you'll leave another tombstone behind and suffer two debuffs! Isn't that fun? Apparently, it stacks up to 5 times, total.
That's what I don't get and have never gotten, to be honest; who is that fun to? Frustration is the bane of gaming, when a game crosses the threshold from challenging into frustrating, we've lost our player and our game has failed to provide the promised entertainment, so why do we insist on adding features to the game that do nothing but cause player frustration?
To it put it another way: Penalizing failure doesn't add a new challenge to overcome, it makes the challenge that the player failed to overcome even more difficult. That's a huge difference, don't you think?
So, going back to the number one complaint about death penalties in AA, that it makes death meaningless, I say, "So what?" Dying is a penalty. The drive back to where you were, the wait to repair your car, all of that made death a pain in the ass -- but not such a huge pain in the ass that you consider quitting your game over it. How is that bad? How is what AoC, EQ2 and even WoW does, any better?
Worse, in some ways, is the way AoC hides it death penalty so that you're unaware you have to deal with it until you hit level 10 (I should probably point out that I haven't actually had to deal with it yet - I've just spoken to people that have). They basically teach you that when you die, you resurrect, lose all your current buffs and have to trek back to your last combat to try again... then they surprise you 10 levels later with the idea that now you have to do that same fight you just died in, but with one hand tied behind your back.
OK, that's a little hyperbolic - I'm told the death penalty debuff is actually pretty light, but the point remains the same. Why hold that back from players? The answer is sort of obvious, and again - very telling. You hold it back so that new players don't get discouraged by it and quit before they've had a chance to grow connected to their characters, right? To put it a more realistic way: You do it because you know you could lose subscribers over it, so you wait until their hooked then spring it on them, so they're more likely to remain subscribers than quit.
Now, stop. Ask yourself this question: If you know the feature is annoying to players - so annoying that you need to hide it from them so that they'll start paying you before they see it - isn't that a "feature" you should cut?
Death penalties are ridiculous. They're a holdover from games like EQ1 - a bad holdover that makes the entire MMO genre suffer. Seriously. It's time to get over them, toss them in the rubbish and get back to what we're paid for: Helping our players have fun.