Toll of the Requiem Bell! How Should Death in MMO Games Be Handled?

By Jeff Francis
Death in mmo games

Every gamer is quite familiar with death in mmo games as it's essentially an occupational hazard for their characters. Adventuring in the online realms can be dangerous, and a player often finds themselves overmatched by a dungeon boss or an enemy mob. How developers have handled mmo death has evolved over the years. It was once common for death to be associated with a pretty high cost and a good bit of aggravation, but now a character's death in mmo games is often quite trivial. It does seem that the overall topic of how online games handle character death is often overlooked. How should death in mmo games be handled?

World of Warcraft corpse run

When I first started playing online games, mmo death was a very cruel mistress. Early games such as Ultima Online allowed free looting of corpses, which meant that hours gathering resources were wasted as virtual outlaws stole the fruits of your labor. One facet of having your character die that most older players are familiar with is the corpse run, wherein the character's spirit had to run from the graveyard all the way back to the character's corpse in order to resurrect. Players could choose to revive at the graveyard, but then they would have to waste five to ten minutes being incredibly weak. When I played World of Warcraft, it always seemed that I died at the furthest possible point in the zone from the graveyard. Some games, such as City of Heroes, inflicted an xp penalty for a character dying. It was not uncommon for players to be in debt for at least one full level, if not more, if they kept getting killed. Probably the most common side effect for a player having their character die was having to repair their character's gear. This could get quite expensive if your character had a set of uber gear. A friend of mine who belonged to a big raiding guild in WoW would spend his daytime grinding in order to accumulate the funds needed to repair his gear during their nightly raids.

The tables have definitely turned in how death in mmo games is now handled. Few games now impose a repair fee on gear, and the corpse run is a feature long abandoned. Now a character's mmo death is essentially just a hiccup as they quickly appear at a spawn point with no real ill effects. At most, they might have to redo their potions and food intake, such as is the case in Neverwinter. But should death in mmo games be more than this? As is the case with most online game features, the actual answer can vary.

Personally, I really hate my character's gear taking a hit if he dies. However, I can fully understand this feature if the game is focused on a player-driven economy that uses crafting. There has to be a demand for a continual supply of gear or needed repairs in order to make crafting an integral part of the in-game economy. I can also understand allowing the corpse to be looted if the game is PvP-centric as there has to be consequences and potential rewards for taking part in fighting another player. You want players to have something to lose if they get jumped, and you also need the incentive for players to take the chance of attacking each other.

Team Fortress 2 match

Other potential possibilities for mmo death are a resurrection timer and xp loss. The main reason for not allowing a player to immediately jump back into the fray is if the developers wish dying to have consequences, such as allowing the character's corpse to be looted. This gives the winning player a small window of time to grab what he wants without having a fully healed character pop up right next to him. However, such timers should not be used, or be extremely minimal, if the object of the game is to have essentially mindless fun, such as in Marvel Heroes Omega or Team Fortress 2. The fact of a character suffering mmo death in such games is of no real consequence. The player should be able to quickly get back into the action and have fun. As for xp loss, I am totally dead set against this as it just represents grinding. Death in mmo games should not be a conduit into tedious, repetitive gameplay.

Can death in mmo games be more than just what's been described above? My answer is yes, it most definitely can. I would love to see a character's mmo death actually serve as the doorway into another realm of adventuring possibility. What if part of a quest could only be accessed if the player's character died? Just imagine a magical object that could only be activated by the power of a spirit. Another thought is that a character's spirit could gain needed information by seeing things in the spirit realm, such as the ghostly re-enactment of a murder which leads to the solution to a quest. What if death in mmo games actually led to an entirely new dimension of quests? Just think about the normal interaction that a player's character has with the in-game world. What if new quests became available that could only be accessed while the character is deceased? Imagine that ghosts and spirits inhabit the in-game world but are normally invisible to the character's perception. Now consider that the ghostly realm comes fully accessible while the character is under the influence of mmo death. In such a situation, death in mmo games is not a small interruption in questing, but rather a bridge into a whole new series of adventures. This could allow for a wider range of classes in order to open up this new realm, such as a class that could easily see the spirit world or those that are much more powerful in the spiritual realm than they are in the normal, physical world. As Shakespeare said, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The final answer to our question in how death in mmo games should be handled is that it really depends upon the game itself. Those mmorpg games that feature high risk/high reward gameplay do need to have consequences for dying. Games that feature more light-hearted gameplay and quick action don't need to impose any harsh death penalties. It would be tremendous to see some online games use a character's death as a chance to do something more, such as venture into the spirit world, but such an occurrence does seem unlikely. The development and implementation of such content would require a lot of resources, and it's quite likely that most players will not normally partake of it. Still, there's quite a bit that developers could do to make death in mmo games more interesting.


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