Why MMOs Need A Harsh Death Penalty
Playing EVE Online again has made me feel something I haven’t felt in quite some time. Fear. It’s a strange emotion to feel when playing a computer game but it’s also quite a welcome one. I’m by no means a masochist who enjoys punishing myself but I do like feeling emotionally connected and immersed in the online worlds that I inhabit and when I take my ship out for a spin in EVE and embark on a tough mission or venture into low sec space, the hairs on the back of my neck stir ever so slightly. Will this be the time when the Grim Reaper comes calling? Am I prepared to meet my maker? Will I punch my monitor if my prized ship explodes into a million tiny pieces?
Death in EVE isn’t the end of the game but it does comes with a nasty sting, accompanied by a rollercoaster feast of the senses. Fear and trepidation are your appetizers, shock and awe are your entrées and desert is a healthy portion of regret and anger. You certainly don’t want to die in the world of New Eden and that’s exactly the point. We should be scared of death, after all it’s the most terrifying concept human beings can deal with.
I felt these emotions back when I played the original Everquest. Death in that game was not something to be taken lightly and players and groups would avoid it at all costs. Which, kinda obviously, is exactly how it should be. It wasn’t just about losing experience and the resulting time you’d put into it though, it was also the fear of losing your body, your items and everything that you’d work so hard to achieve and make yourself unique. It was a game mechanic designed to invoke emotion and bond you with your character and, certainly for me, the thought of my corpse being stranded at the bottom of some treacherous dungeon made me wince.
I can remember every time I’ve died in EVE and I can recount fantastic stories of comradery based around death, the fear of it and overcoming it, in Everquest. Death mechanics in these games are an integral part of the design and the fear of it is used to leverage our emotions. Would players have the same stories to tell in EVE if they never had anything to lose? Would the Universe even be worth fighting over if pain could never be inflicted upon the enemy?
Death in newer MMORPGs is almost, if not completely, meaningless. Why does it even exist as a mechanic in WoW or EQ2 or AoC or WAR? There is no emotional response, no fear or anger, and no resulting immersion so what purpose does it serve other than to set us back a few seconds in our gameplay? The death mechanic here could simply be replaced with a 30 second countdown followed by the avatar resurrecting automatically in the same spot they died in. At least that way there wouldn’t be a redundant illusion of mortality.
The meaning behind death penalities has been lost in many MMORPGs and replaced with a false sense of accessibility. There’s the misguided idea that taking the sting out of death makes the game more suitable to the casual or new player. Accessibility and a healthy fear of death are not mutually exclusive though and, I believe, the two can co-exist in the same game if there’s impetuous to design it that way.
We need harsh death penalties in MMORPGs because they give us risk and emotions. Without risk we cannot possibly appreciate the fruits of our labours and without emotion we cannot bond with the environment and other players. WoW is infamous for it’s antisocialness and I have absolutely no doubt that if players were scared to die, if they were forced to work together to keep each other alive, to truly help each other avoid the sting of death, it would be a game over-brimming with conversation and comradery. Instead, we’re left existing in a hollow shell of an online world in which one cares if they live or die.
Just like in real life, we need to feel the exhilaration of accomplishment in our games and that cannot happen as long as there is nothing to risk and nothing to lose. Death needs to matter, it needs to hurt, because without it we’re nothing more than bored, spoilt immortals living in emotionless worlds.