Permadeath: Would It Work?
Permadeath: the utter, permanent death of your MMORPG avatar. No resurrection, no resuscitation, bye bye, auf wiedersehen, sayonara etc, you get the picture. It’s one of those concepts that’s talked about in hardcore rants by forum trolls and occasionally threatened on us by crazy, mad scientist developers. We’ve all heard about the idea somewhere but never seen it anywhere. It is just a silly myth or could it actually work?
In my 11 years of playing MMOs I’ve never played a game that’s had a permadeath mechanic. I suppose the closest thing I came to it was when SOE introduced the concept in relation to the Jedi class in Star Wars Galaxies (I never managed to unlock one). Their idea was to give Jedi players a single, immensely valuable life in order to compensate for an extreme amount of power. The developers wanted Jedi to be extremely rare, mythical classes played by only the elite or the lucky, so powerful they could wipe out armies of opponents single handedly. The power would come with a price though and if the Jedi ever died then that character could never walk the corporeal plains of existence again.
The upside to permadeath is that it creates and instills us with an emotion so uncommon in MMOs – fear. It (aptly) gives death the ultimate sting and makes you so scared to die that you treasure your avatar’s life even more so. If you knew that your character would be deleted and could never, ever play them again wouldn’t you think twice before engaging in battle? Wouldn’t it make your less reckless and more thoughtful? Suddenly you’d be forced to weigh up decisions and take into account factors of gameplay that you’d never considered before. Risk your neck to save your friend or let them die so you could live to fight another day? Permadeath would give our games a depth and substance never seen before.
The downside, of course, is that no one likes to die (there’s a reason murder’s against the law, folks) and, even in a video game, players gives hours upon hours to their creations and to lose all of that would be a huge blow, so big in fact that many may never recover from it. Unlike in real life were we have no choice over dealing with it, we can opt not to experience death and grief in a game by simply not playing. This, obviously, isn’t good news for developers and publishers. If no one continued to play a MMO after dying once, it would be very bad for business.
So the Holy Grail is some sort of balance for the gamer. A way of dying, forever dying and feeling that bruising blow, yet still being able to pick themselves up and continue playing. Is it possible to achieve?
Over the past 8 months I’ve been secretly developing a sandbox survival horror MMORPG in my brain. I play it every night (when I’m not getting spouse aggro from the wife) and let me tell you it’s pretty wonderful. It’s an RPG set it an apocolyptic world overrun by zombies where the surviving humans aid each other or fight amongst themselves to try and carve out some sort of bleak existence. The trick though, is that the game relies on fear and it just wouldn’t work unless the gamer was actually scared to die and the only way to achieve that fear is through permadeath.
There would need to be a compromise though in order to give players an incentive to keep playing after death and make a new character. My idea for that would be some sort of inheritance or legacy system where new characters would receive some of the skills that their previous incarnation possessed. Death would shut the door on one character completely but it wouldn’t eradicate all of the time invested in the game. Plus players would be prepared emotionally for death from the beginning. It wouldn’t be a question of if you die, but rather when.
Would it work? Someone give me £20 million and we’ll find out.