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…

The Backstory

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.

The Solution

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.

-Gordon

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26 Comments

  1. Longasc says:

    This is a very cool idea! I am sure Captain Carebear and Joe Casual will already start howling, but it has merits.

    Face scarred, stats reduced – but you fight on, and might even recover. Things like a lost leg or arm would be interesting to balance, but I think there should be a point where people should be encouraged to voluntarily retire their character and then…

    … I will expand the idea (Tesh and Wiqd had it originally) … this character will leave a heritage for the next char you create.

    Bonus points if you met a female or male partner and agreed on having a kid…. :)

    • Gordon says:

      Hehe, maybe I’m a little odd because I want to see characters become maimed? :D I think it’s a more “realistic” concept than death in a MMO though plus it has a certain coolness factor to it :)

      • nugget says:

        This isn’t new. Quite a few MUDs had this feature, though… I’d be hardpressed to name them offhand, since I didn’t tend to like the systems that went with them!

        On an MMO front, I’m not sure I’d want to walk around ever so many fellow non-zombie adventurers missing bits and bobs of body parts.

        However, if you make it a ZMOBIE MMO! Then suddenly, the hilarity ensues, and I, for one, wouldn’t be able to wait to play.

        ‘How much of me can I lose and still be a mobile brain-eater… WOOT!’

  2. Bristal says:

    But…we’re trying to kill the monsters. If they had no chance to kill us, what, truly, would be the point?

    The whole premise of “save me, Hero”, or “save the world” is that the princess or world are in danger…of death.

    Surely death has become a formality in many games. But if we are killing others, we have to die in some form, too.

  3. Kaarbaak says:

    I like this idea. The mechanics of ‘death’ are too often overlooked on game design. Game designers should also look beyond “kill or be killed” encounters. When most animals realize they’re losing a fight, they switch to flight mode. Experience for damaging an enemy rather than killing an enemy would make this possible. Would also make distribution of xp in a raid/fleet more fair.

    I like the idea mentioned in comments of heritage…and to build on that…a generational game that allows players to pass a certain amount of experience on to their progeny when they become too damaged to go chasing after ogres (too damn old for this sh!t)

    I’ve also always wanted to swear game at
    Least take a shot at ‘ironman’ mode. I wish EvE would’ve made wormhole death permanent (or something like that…a la Cylons too far from resurrection ships,&etc).

    Good ideas in the post. A good read.

    KB

  4. Jason S says:

    I love the idea but I have to say that it would be a bit unbalanced between player demographics. Casual players innately take less risk than those who raid therefore would be less affected by the maiming of their characters. Now I know you will argue that this is the RISK that hardcore raiders take when throwing themselves at a new mob, but it is inevitable when fighting something for the first time that you will most likely wipe. It’s the nature of the beast. I don’t know about you, but as a raider myself I would not welcome the idea that the character I have spent so much time on and plan to play more in the future will become nothing more than flesh and bones simply because of my style of play. I designed all my toons at creation and barring a few things here and there I want them to stay cute and cuddly for the foreseeable future.

    That being said, I really do like the idea of having death permanently affect my toons in game. I have always been a huge fan of harsh death penalties and will always support creative thinking like this in all games I play. I do think maiming could work to a lesser degree… If you have ever played Fable you know what happens to your character when you do evil tasks versus valorous deeds. Perhaps the more scars your character gets the more “barbarian” races will talk to you, and so on. You can “heal” your scars by not dying for X amount of time… sort of like a death-to-life ratio. This could work extremely well if my toon changes in this way, with no permanent changes to stats beyond the usual armor durability.

    • Garumoo says:

      “it is inevitable when fighting something for the first time that you will most likely wipe”

      Only if the game mechanics are set up this way – e.g. the boss encounter is in a locked room, he one shots anyone other than the tank, and mindlessly kills everything, even invoking some “enrage” mechanic after a time.

      Look to other genres, other media, and you’ll see tactical retreats, escape plans, distractions, misdirection, and even cases of the big bad forcing a surrender and capturing the survivors.

      In a game where serious raiders have multiple alts, how come the big bads never hold anyone hostage? How come we never have to break out of a prison cage, fight naked against some runty mooks, and recover our gear to fight another day?

    • Gordon says:

      Yeah, it is probably a mechanic which will only appeal to hardcore gamers. Although I think the idea has merit for being applied to more casual situations. It could be non-permenant and healable, for instance, and just replace the normal death mechanic in MMOs. Either way I love the idea of my character being scarred in battle :D

  5. Klepsacovic says:

    Doesn’t this run the risk of a maimed player then being rejected more often for raids, due to being maimed and therefore being less effective? For hardcore players, it might as well be permanent death; they’d probably reroll anyway, even if the debuff isn’t so terrible, the stigma isn’t so good.

    This also means death would have to be so rare that content would be burned down even faster, especially on the low end where death is so much more likely.

    Imagine being the person who causes the wipe for 25 people. A DC at the wrong time, a mislick, some sort of normally trivial mistake, which would normally be bad, costing a lot of time, but not permanently hurting 24 other people.

    Any sort of permanent change, whether damage or death, encourages us to be less attached to our characters, and therefore to care less, to play less, to quit sooner. For the player, that might actually be a good thing, since it would help to control addictive qualities and reduce the cost of rerolling (since our main might get killed anyway), but for a company, if it means people might quit sooner, that’s not going to work. Maybe for a niche game, but nothing mainstream. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, just that it’s a niche and therefore we all get to point and laugh and claim your game sucks. That is how it works, right?

    • Gordon says:

      “Of course that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea, just that it’s a niche and therefore we all get to point and laugh and claim your game sucks. That is how it works, right?”

      Basically, yeah :D

      The damage to stats could be offset by the stats from the gear obtained though… so a character only has one arm but he’s got a bloody good sword to use :P

  6. scrusi says:

    There’s a quote that has been attributed to Alan Kay which goes something like this: “If you aren’t failing at least 90% of the time, you aren’t aiming high enough.” While I find this to be somewhat exaggerated in some situations, I agree with the general notion that challenge requires failure. That means that most of your game would be utterly challenge-free – which might be fine for a certain demographic but certainly not for me (or any Bartle achiever types I suppose). WoW’s Crusaders Coliseum normal modes were an absolutely awful experience for me simply because the chance of failure was pretty much zero. They could have added permadeath on raidwipe as a punishment for failure in there without hurting me the slightest.

    That leaves the small part of your game that actual comes with the possibility of failure, but I would be inherently discouraged from even approaching that part through the threat of what might as well be permadeath for a min-maxer like me. Just how often could you reasonably maim a character anyway before it becomes utterly useless?

    As a gamer I like to be challenged (which you intend most of your content to not do) and I greatly dislike losing things I’ve worked for (which the rest of your content would do). I’m not saying that this is a bad concept, but it absolutely isn’t for me. (And, as Klepsacovic pointed out, being niche is, alas, permadeath for your MMO. )

    • Gordon says:

      It’s a tough one. I mean, if failure has no consequence than can it really even be considered failure? For me, there has to be loss and pain in order to create a true sense of accomplishment. Hmm… maybe I’m actually a masochist deep down :P

  7. Kaarbaak says:

    Kind of funny…the comments are beginning to lead to another long-debated RPG game topic: realism vs fun.

    The comment about one small mistake leading to catastrophic failure for a group…well…history is full of examples of that actually happening.

    People sometimes complain about a lack of “realism” in a game…random mob spawns, irregular physics, etc…but introduce “smarter”
    PvE AI and complaints about difficulty abound because “difficult” isn’t “fun.” It’s supposed to be a game, right?

    One thing is certain, any such changes have to be part of a game from the beginning. Changes in game mechanics have/will always go from harder to easier, lest the game lose subs.

    And, as stated above any “difficult” game is destined to be niche. I believe a game can survive as a niche game, as long as the business model supports it. Some would call EvE a niche game with “only” 300k subs…bit they’re doing fine.

    • Gordon says:

      Indeed. So long as the amount of people paying for the game is sufficient to cover the costs and make a modest profit, a MMO doesn’t need millions of subscribers to be “successful”.

      I think the point about one person making a mistake and it being frustrating is really just a WoW issue. When you manage to create a more developed sense of comradarie, you don’t actually feel as annoyed because you’re working as team and feel close to the people you fight side-by-side with.

  8. Shane Woodward says:

    I really like the idea of maiming, not only from a risk standpoint, but also from a strategy standpoint. Obviously a balance would need to be found so as not to turn away the casual players, while still challenging the thrill seekers.

    I sort of see an “accelerated reality” type mechanic working here. For instance, in real life, I can pick a fight with somebody twice my size, get me ass kicked, and walk away with a broken arm. Eventually that arm will heal, but I probably won’t be out the next day picking fights.

    In real life, it may take weeks or even months for my arm to fully heal. Obviously, in game it would need to be a substantially shorter time, but still long enough to prevent me from immediately jumping back into the same battle and continuing as if nothing had happened.

    I see maiming being just as big of a strategic element, both in PvE and PvP. This would do away with the whole boss reset on wipe philosophy. Let’s say a boss fight doesn’t go exactly as planned, and your group opts to retreat and regroup. It doesn’t make much sense for the boss to undergo a miraculous recovery any more than it makes sense for your player to.

    Now imagine that you’re fighting a flying dragon. It could be your groups first objective to maim the dragon so that it can’t fly. Your party may equip certain gear that would allow you to pull the beastie out of the air, and once done, retreat, change gear, assess the condition of the group/casualties, resupply, etc, change tactics, and rush in to finish the beastie off while it’s licking it’s wounds.

    This would also change the whole healing aspect of the game. Instead of having guys spamming spells which replenish hit points, you have field medics which are trying to keep your party members as combat ready as they can, wrapping and bandaging wounds so that people aren’t bleeding out, splinting a bone so that fighters can rejoin the battle in a lesser capacity (guys with broken legs can usually fire a bow/gun).

    The same sort of things could apply to PvP. This would allow classes differences to become much more apparent, and important. You can have your CC classes again. Your roguish classes can be more roguish again, becoming more of a maiming class than a melee class that does damage in a slightly different way than melee class Y. Sneak behind that fully armored dude, slice him up a bit in a weak spots and bring him to his knees so that your team mates can jump on top of him with less risk of injury.

    Also, risk and consequence would scale in a world like this. For the average Joe, learning to play the game beating up on world mobs, the consequences of failure are lower. Scrapes and bruises that could prevent you from completing a fight, but are quickly remedied. Now if that same guy thinks he’s going save the world by himself, and picks a fight with the arch badguy, chances are he’s going to end up with more than scrapes and bruises. Maybe he doesn’t walk away at all.

    In a world like this, world pvp would have to be tightly controlled. Obviously you don’t want to have your veteran, well geared players in a bad mood carving up newbies in a starting zone to blow off steam, maiming them to the point of unplayability.

    It would also be neat to develop a grouping system that allows people to swap in alts under an instanced environment, with certain restrictions in place. You don’t want to create a situation where raid groups are just sending in waves of red-shirts until you finally drown the bad guy in your groups blood, but it makes sense that you should be able to send fresh soldiers to the front to extricate the wounded and pick up the fight.

    Sorry for the wall of text, but your idea is a good one, and it really got the wheels turning. I could probably go on for another dozen paragraphs, but I’ll cut it short and let the rest of you roll with it.

    • Gordon says:

      Awesome comment, Shane :)

      It is definitely an interesting concept and I think the notion of being “maimed” or hurt rather than being killed actually has a huge amount of possibilities. It certainly doesn’t need to be taken to the extremes that I wrote about :P

      I think it would be really interesting to see a MMO which did something different with the death mechanic and really made it part of the game. I just think it would be so awesome to be able to how damage, failure and success is reflected directly on your character. Having them visually change as you play depending on your actions would be very cool!

  9. Larísa says:

    I’m all with Klep in this. I really don’t think this would work out well in the way you suggest. Not even for hardcore raiders, since they’ll so quickly be shelfed due to not being min-maxed anymore.

    Purely cosmetic scars that won’t affect performance is another story. I’d support that. But I don’t think it’s what you were looking for. Not harsh enough.

    Funny though that you keep arguing for super-hardcore games. I’ve never seen you like a bleeding edge-player, but actually a pretty casual one, at least as long as it concerns WoW… Maybe I’ve misunderstood something there.

    • Gordon says:

      Hehe :) I wouldn’t actually say I argue for super-hardcore games (or at least I don’t intend to), it’s just that like I exploring and pondering all of the different aspects of MMOs, design and gameplay.

      TBH I don’t like the terms ‘hardcore’ and ‘casual’ much because, to me, they don’t mean anything useful and are impossible to measure. Hardcore is usually associated with the idea that everything is a huge grind and you’ll be forced into non-consensual situations where you’re attacked by higher level players or put into unfair situations because “that’s the way the game is”. That’s not what I really want (or I’d go play Darkfall ;) ). Rather I think/hope that it’s possible to achieve a balance in which there are mechanics that create feelings of risk, challenge and camaraderie but done so in a voluntary fashion and still accessible, not requiring huge investments of time. Unfortunately I don’t think we’ve ever seen a game like that yet.

      So I guess I’m just one big contradiction :D

  10. rowan says:

    Doesn’t LOTRO have this sort of mechanic? If I remember right, the character loses morale rather than ht points, and the healing class is the minstrel, designed to boost your spirits, in order to fight on. I never got far enough in to fail, but I think when the toon runs out of morale, it retreats. No idea what the cost of retreating is though, certainly nothing permanent. Heh, maybe it’s the cost a few pints of ale to drown your sorrows in.

    I like the idea overall, but I agree with the comments about the difficulty of implementing it in a game.

  11. Melissa says:

    LotRO has 2 deaths, one you rez right where you are, but can only be used sporadically. After using this one, you have to retreat and you appear at a rez point if you die again. Both cause a debuff called “dread” where your health is decreased for a period of time. These can be counteracted with a “hope” buff which anyone can give from tokens, but if the token or buff doesn’t last as long as the debuff, then your health will drop again.

    All the people who are screaming that there isn’t enough of a death penalty? These are games. Running back to your body naked in a game doesn’t really hurt you. I think these people should live by the sword so to speak. They can hook an electrical device up to their computer that tasers them every time they die. Then they can have their more realistic experience. Because when you really die, you won’t be running back to your body, clothed or not!

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