Failure Should Really F***ing Hurt (But It Shouldn’t Be The Death Of You)
Inspired by all of the talk about death penalities in MMOs and the risk and difficulty it brings, I wanted to share an idea about about a type of failure that hurts like hell but doesn’t actually kill you…
When I first started work, over half a decade ago, I used to have terrible trouble sleeping at night. Not because of any health problems or disturbances but just because, one night, I wasn’t tired and couldn’t fall asleep. That single incident kicked off a vicious cycle in my head and I spent the next several months not sleeping simply because I used to lie awake at night worrying about not sleeping. See, I’m the latest in a long line of cronic worriers. My parents worry and their parents before them worried and their parents before them worried and so-on and so-forth for many hundreds and thousands of generations all the way back to Caveman Gor of clan We Fly Pterodactyls who used to lie awake at night worrying about which sabertooth tiger skin would go best with his loincloth for impressing the cave ladies.
That is all, however, until I went for a session of cognitive therapy and my life changed forever. I distinctly remember marching into the quacks room, lying down on his reclining leather sofa, and declaring loudly “I have trouble sleeping!”. My therapist simply smirked and replied, “So what?”. Either he was the cleverest person I’ve ever met or a hugely overpriced twat but, either way, those two words deeply affected me. His point was simple: it doesn’t matter that I couldn’t sleep; what was the worst that was going to happen?
I’m still prone to what they refer to in the “biz” as catastrophic thoughts, a process in which when we encounter a minor issue, our minds illogically leap from a basic resolve of the situation to the most dire and dramatic result possible. Part of the way of dealing with these silly thoughts is by following your thought patterns all the way back to the root of the problem and rationally addressing the worst case scenario and the true likelihood of it occurring. Let me tell you this, 99.9999% of the time our greatest fear of all, death, is not the likely outcome of most situations.
The MMORPG Connection
So how does all of this tie in with MMORPGs? Well I’m glad you asked. My point is that in real life we don’t die very often and, when we do, we only die once. It’s also an incredibly devastating occurrence and scares the living crap out of us all, so much so that usually try to purge all thought of it from our minds. It also draws a clear distinction between death and failure and that actually the two are completely unrelated. If you fail at something, you usually don’t die (unless you’re a member of the Iraqi football squad) and so we shouldn’t actually attempt to link the two together at all.
Death in MMORPGs exists for a number of reasons: to create an element of risk, to increase difficulty and to help represent the illusion of real life so we bond more closely with our chosen virtual world (just like the mechanics of eating and drinking and the day/night cycles do). The problem though is that although we die repeatedly and constantly in MMOs, we only die once in real life and the consequences are far more severe and far fetching than simply a casual jog back to your gravestone or finding a healer to resurrect you. To put it succinctly, death in MMOs is a very inaccurate representation of the real thing.
So why bother having death in MMOs at all? Couldn’t we design a MMO in which the sheer concept of it doesn’t even exist? There would still need to be failure though, the possibility to lose an encounter or fail against an enemy, a way of building risk and tension and drama. Failing should also be incredibly painful but not necessarily very common.
My idea is simple enough: when your character falls in battle he or she doesn’t die but is instead permanently maimed. Imagine that instead of “dying” at the hands of a dragon, your character has half of his face ripped off, his leg badly mauled or a hand bitten off. Not only would this affect the way your character looks but it would also permanently reduce their stats such as making them less charismatic, less dexterous or lowering their run speed etc depending on what damage has been. Theses maimings would also be utterly irrevocable and could not to be healed or fixed or changed. Your character could also be maimed more than once, without limit, to the point where they may simply become unplayable but that would be the consequence of some pretty dire and unlikely actions.
In order to balance things though, the chances of failure for most players would need to be incredibly slim and unlikely. Almost all soloing activities, questing, grouping and even raiding would be easy enough to be accomplished by an averagely competent party without the risk of failure and a resulting maiming. For most players it would be like playing a game like World of Wacraft but just without the death mechanic and the quick run back from a graveyard.
Of course, for the few brave souls who want to truly experience risk and reap the rewards, maiming would be a real and likely threat. After all, going on a grand and epic adventure is tough and scary (even Frodo was maimed trying to return the One Ring). Partaking in such acts though would be completely voluntary and optional. Would it make you a pussy if someone asked you if you want to journey to the depths of Hell and battle the Devil himself all in the name of some long fogotten quest and you refused because you were scared of the consequences? Yes. Yes, it would. But that’s OK because it’s just a game and everyone wants to play differently. For some the normal soloing, grouping and raiding activities would be enough but for those who want more than that, for those that want to experience the truly rare and epic adventures, the pain and fear would be there to make the risk real enough to justify the rewards.
This isn’t about making the game hard to play or hard to access either, it’s just about creating a strong threat which can create a real emotional element of risk in a video game. It’s about bringing back stories of heroes and ancient tales of grizzled old warriors. It’s also so when you venture into a city and see a man standing idly about, showing off his gleaming rare armour and legendary sword, missing half his face, six fingers, his left foot and one testicle, you know that he took the ultimate risk and survived to tell the tale.