Enlightened Penalties

My son and I are  nearing the end of a  retro  computer game, a "bug hunt" played over many battles, days (X-Com UFO Defense) - I'm soldiering the game and he is the very occasional general.  I don't yet have the heart to tell him, we're in over our heads: we are going down...

Jeff Freeman's "It's 4am...do you know where your corpse is?"  had me thinking about those unfortunate denouements in online experiences.  Can shared purpose in misery be enriching - or are fair-weather encounters all that count?    Jeff's muse was:

The only system-related design that I hate as much as I hate the above things is corpse-recovery. And I have to ponder...Would I hate that as much if it weren't for the... [level-spread on the mobs that forces you to kill everything in one or two rooms about 500 times over before you can move along to the next room and kill everything there 1000 times. It forces the same gameplay dynamic as the camp-n-pull thing]?

True, most game world corpse retrievals seem routine and tedious.  Yet, perhaps there is the world-as-entertainment paradox:  why are penalties penalties?  With  MMORPGs, a typical answer is that anything that detracts a player from the accrual of the persistable stuff that progresses her in the game world is a penalty (experience, loot,...) .  By this test, corpse recovery qualifies, consider this Jan 2001 Broken Toys (BRAD MCQUAID VS. THE WORLD ON DOWNTIME) exchange:

Meleagar: I think that the whole concept of “corpse recovery” is just a flat-out bad idea, and it involves far too much work to recover from a death. It prevents people from even WANTING to explore highly dangerous areas, simply because they could lose everything they’ve earned up to that point, equipment-wise. The experience penalty is bad enough … why tack on a huge corpse-retrieval penalty?

Because ‘corpse recovery’ allows us to add a variable to the death penalty. It’s based on the premise that death in the depths of a dungeon should incur a greater penalty than death on top of a hill outside of a city. The depths of a dungeon should be a scarier, more risky place (and therefore, have better treasure) than, say, the top of a hill outside a city, and therefore dying there should be nastier. So while experience lost is the same regardless of where you die, the time involved in recovering your corpse is not, and neither is the risk you’ll not get back your equipment.

Lerahs: I understand totally. But why does time lost (due to one death) cost a heck of a lot more than [the experience gained] winning that particular fight. I understand there has to be a penalty, but your system really seems to be designed to hold the player back.

Because we expect the majority of time the ratio of NPCs killed to you dying to an NPC to be significantly in your favor. In other words, many more NPCs die than players in most adventures, and so a single death needs to cost the experience gained by killing many NPCs.

A long while ago, friends and I played Diablo (I) in a short but intense burst.  From hindsight, it seemed the more memorable moments of those times centered on corpse retrieval.  Because of the idiosyncracies of the game at that time (long since changed/rectified), corpse retrieval was a commitment that could last hours with in some cases real doubt about the outcome and whether someone's game livelihood could be salvaged.   By nostalgia, the best runs were great cocktails of challenge and desperation.

Strictly speaking, we were on occasion  seriously penalized.  Say four players at 2 hours each, that is an 8  hour ka-ching.  Yet is it that simple?

With MMORPGs, corpse runs seem to have less an aura of desperate engagement and more of a flavor of inconvenience.  It is as if both sides (the benefactors, the beneficiary) understand the weights and measures  implied by the design of the world.  There is an underlying cost/benefit: time is money, and money is resources, whether it be hired hands or a "SOW" (haste spell, EQ), etc.   Altruism or not is beside the point - penalties exist palpably within a larger fabric of world transactions.

My Diablo anecdote is perhaps undermined by our real-life relationships - more reasons to hang in there for each other.  Yet, looking back, I can't help but wonder there is an actual qualitative difference.  Is it possible to  build in-game penalty systems that are in themselves sources of excitement: can penalties, shared, be engaging?


Comments on Enlightened Penalties:

Petrus says:

While I can't speak for anyone else, corpse retrieval runs are probably some of my most exciting/memorable experiences in either UO or Diablo 2...UO moreso, though.

I'm canny enough though to be able to see why players want to get rid of it though. It's one of those things which only adds to the game in hindsight...while you're actually playing, it's seen as a bad thing because there genuinely is a risk of losing some stuff you've taken a while to collect...and so now we've got such things as item insurance (if you want to talk about crass mechanics which really break the rp element, that's probably the original) and bless scrolls which mean that for the most part when you die these days, you'll get rezzed with most stuff still on you.
For the most part however, I used to let the chips fall where they may...I'd only insure something like say that proverbial disgustingly overpowered amulet which shouldn't have been in the game anywayz, but which I knew if I lost I'd never rediscover its like again. ;)

Posted Dec 25, 2004 9:35:47 PM | link

Andres Ferraro says:

I'm sure there's a specialized term, but I call it "Bonding in Misery". It works, really well. Up until you frustrate the player and they go to some other game. Only to remember with longing the shared misery that made him the truest of friends. In times of bonanza, we are all bothers and sisters - In times of need, however, truer colors show.

Right now, thinking about all the recent discussions around commoditization of ingame resources -purposeful or not- the relationsip of time to money to penalties, and also reflecting on the gaming experiences of arcades and even 'bangs', a single provoking phrase comes to mind: "Insert coin to continue."

Posted Dec 26, 2004 12:49:37 AM | link

Slyfeind says:

It seems to me that the intent behind this was, originally, not that you have to spend time getting your stuff back, but that you would *lose your stuff.* I played UO for about three years, and I think I went on one corpse recovery. I typically had three sets of the same stuff I had on me in the bank. Sometimes my reserve gear was *better* than my usual gear. Why go back for something I didn't need?

That carried over to the two or three years I spent in Asheron's Call. Good loot was easy to aquire there too, so I did corpse recovery infrequently there, as well. This confused a lot of my companions, because they thought corpse recovery was "the way the game was meant to be played." And they, in turn, confused me, because I thought "losing my worthless stuff that I had ten duplicates of was the way the game was meant to be played."

I think it's time to blame EQ once again, because the stuff you lose in that game tends to be hard to get, or really expensive, and you need it for every game session in order to do your thing properly.

Posted Dec 26, 2004 1:36:08 AM | link

Jeff Freeman says:

> Can penalties, shared, be engaging?

Sure.

But is that the experience that you're looking for, that all players are looking for?

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about this, as it seems like a lot of design decisions drive games - and the entire industry - in a direction that I'm not sure I personally want to go as a player.

"If you don't want to play with other people, then you shouldn't play an MMO" is one common response. "If everyone is forced to group, then more people will play longer than if no one is forced to group" is another.

Along the same lines, harsh death penalties feel like they're serving a desire that I don't personally share (as a player) with the customers the MMO industry seems to want. This could be driven by a desire to create "a more realistic world". I mean, death is usually terrible and nearly always absolute in the real world. It's the most "life altering" event anyone could ever have. Or it could be serving the goal of "community building". Hang together, or respawn separately.

But a lot of the time, that sort of organization - the artificial community grown through grouping requirements, corpse recovery (when it serves the same purpose – requiring a four-hour+ group to recover your corpse) and so on - feels more like a cult than a community to me.

I guess a cult is a community, I'm just saying I don't think it's the sort I want to join.

Offline, I don't even know who my neighbors are - my friends don't live with me, work with me and play with me. Apart from seeing movies in the theater, there's not much I do that requires me to group offline - and I've heard rumors that some people are even able to overcome that particular phobia.

So corpse-recovery as a shared-misery mechanism, used as a tool to foster community, leaves me cold. Used simply because "It's death, and death is supposed to be bad", leaves me mad.

I already feel like I'm constantly having flash-backs to that terrible DM in 8th grade who'd tell everyone to bring 5 characters to every game, because he prided himself on being such a "tough" dungeon master. I didn't want that kid to DM back when I was in 8th grade. He was terrible.

In terms of using it for the sake of realism... egh. What to say? The worlds are too static for it to make the least bit of difference. In Lassie Online, you play the role of heroic wonder-dog. You need to group with 10 other Lassies in order to rescue Timmy from the well. When you get to the well, there are 10 Timmys in it. One for each of you. An unlimited number really, because the well is actually a 'Timmy well'.

So the only thing that matters now is that it's fun to rescue the Timmys from the well. The only possibilities for immersion come from the well looking like a well, and the Timmys looking like Timmys.

Realism through the game mechanics though? There are so many things higher on the list of things to do, than making sure death feels like the end of all that's good.

Just IMO, and I realize this wanders from the topic of 'shared-misery builds community' and onto the 'death is supposed to suck, being death and all'-angle.

Anyway.

At this point what I really want in an MMO:

1. It's a fun game, at its core. I'd play it even if everyone I knew went offline for a month and left me with no one to play with.

2. I can play it with my friends. They're using their avatars and I'm using my avatar in more or less the same spot, and we're all cooperating to achieve a goal.

3. My friends and I can play the game while other people and their friends are playing the game, in the same environment.

4. It's immersing: to a degree that I can sometimes pretend, while 'playing the game in an environment', that I'm actually that little dude on the screen, doing whatever he's doing, and that 'the environment' is the world in which he actually lives. 'Sometimes' is good enough; more than that would probably kill point 1 for me.

That's basically it. I could get more demanding and go from there to ask for the ability for me and my friends to compete with other players and their friends (not necessarily via actual combat), but no one has really delivered these four yet, so that seems like feature-creep.

Currently I play a lot of these games the same way:

1. Start out doing the newbie thing, generally SOLO because that's just how newbie bits for MMOs are done. :) Sometimes you can technically play the newbie bit with your friends, but even then it's probably counterproductive and you aren't really playing 'with' them so much as just playing in the same park (Later on you can't play without them).

2. I group with a friend and we look for something to do that isn't too hard, nor too boring. When the game is new to us, almost nothing is 'too boring', even if it is really easy. But if it is too hard, then it's just too hard and we have to go play something else.

3. We do that until it becomes too repetitive. Then we go back to step two: Look for something to do that's not too boring, and not too hard. I'm pretty tolerant with the 'too repetitive' angle there. It could feel like we're playing Bejeweled or Tetris: Where you're basically doing the same thing over and over with subtle variations and periodic bells and whistles and the occasional 'close call'. That's good for hours of entertainment, right there.

4. Then I quit, because I couldn't find anything to do that wasn't either too hard, or 'we already did this', or more typically, the game becomes too hard: Pushing us to group with more people, more often, 'til it acquires that peculiar cult aftertaste that I don't like, is the most common way for a game to become “too hard”. We try to play without grouping even though it's painfully obvious that we have to, and it becomes too hard.

So good games give us a new skill or ability or spell, or the ability to remort - at JUST THE RIGHT TIME - which renews the game enough. They become more difficult as we become better at playing the game, so that the challenge remains 'just right' – and a good game doesn't become more difficult than that.

Bad games make us do the same thing over and over for longer than it is interesting, before renewing the gameplay. Bad games become more difficult too quickly (usually because the devs are trying to force grouping), so they become too hard to play.

Going back to the question 'Why play an MMO if you don't want to group with people?': Having other people in the same gameworld that we can play with occassionally, serves to break-up the repetitive gameplay. MMOs are also frequently patched and expanded with new content and new systems offering new things to do, in ways that single player games are not. Also, I want to play with my friends, and single-player games are terrible at that.

So, yeah, penalties can be engaging things, but that sounds to me like a slippery-slope: Too many of those won't cause me to bond with the community, 'cause I won't even be playing that game.

But you know, that's just me.

Posted Dec 26, 2004 3:19:37 AM | link

Eric Schwarzkopf says:

I guess this is just another facet of the conflicting interests between "players" and "inhabitants of a virtual world".

Low penalties match the experience and behavior of players, because they are similar to reloading a saved game in single-player RPGs in that it takes at most a little time to return to the place or the state you were in just before something ugly happend to your character. In my experience in graphical MMOGs, this is what most people expect and count on when they head into a difficult dungeon just to try it out and have some fun.

High penalties, with the most extreme being permanent death, require a totally different approach: It would be stupid to go unprepared and alone into the Abyss of Certain Doom, so you would need to hire or otherwise convince characters with supporting abilities and knowledge to accompany you. Sort of organizing a potentially dangerous expedition in the real world. And since there is a high risk envolved for everyone, the group bonding (or "Bonding in Misery" as Andres called it above) is probably much higher than in the more game-like scenario.

Assuming that I am not too far off with what I have written, it seems to me that a commercial MMOG should err on the side of too low a penalty for death in order not to drive away the majority of paying customers.

Posted Dec 26, 2004 5:47:23 AM | link

Slyfeind says:

Maybe it's time to get back to basics again. The mention of table-top gaming brings back memories of all the characters dying in an encounter, then waking in the temple of some deity the players couldn't care less about. But the high priest says "We have brought you back from the dead, and demand a service in payment."

How about "rez quests?" Your character doesn't advance, or suffers some stat/skill penalties, or you don't get your equipment back, until you complete a quest for the temple. If a whole group dies, they get a group-quest. Too harsh? Maybe you don't have to do what the high priest says. But if this happens too often, the high priest won't rez you anymore, and pretty soon they don't even like you, eventually sending out templars to collect their "tithe."

Of course, the system has been coded for that already, and is widely in use today. We call it "faction loss." A possible problem arising there might be players enjoying those rez quests so much, they go jumping off cliffs in order to see what the temples will make them do. But such system-explorers notoriously do crazy things anyway, just to see what happens. >:)

Posted Dec 26, 2004 9:14:53 AM | link

magicback says:

I think Jeff's experience is common.

Sure penalities, shared, can be engaging. But I hope devs don't rely on this to engage. There are too many other better alternatives.

With specific regards to corpse-run, I think a successful implementation of a MMORPG that had this design was a variation of Rogue/Angband (the two variant name I recall).

The following is a long account of the design before reaching "what's my point" at the bottom:

The ASCII MUD starts in the town where there are all the necessary vendors (temple of healing, alchemist, weaponsmith, grocery store, etc). It's fully PVP, so it was good that you can see a higher level player approaching before being in range of combat and then proceed to run away. This establishes the pecking order and the right of way.

From the town you enter the dungeon starting with level one and then ending with level X, each subsequent level harder than the next. This easy-to-understand difficulty level allows me, the player, a clear understanding of my progression. Example: (1) if I group with X then we can go down to level Y; and (2) if I solo, I can go only go down to level Z.

When you die, you lose all of your items which may be picked up by the monster or by any other player. To balance this realistic "penalty", players can buy town portal scrolls that they can cast upon entering a new dungeon level with the knowledge that the duration is sufficiently long, the portal can only be seen by you or your group, and the portal can not be dispeled.

All you have to do after death is to rez, equip with your spare items and use the portal to get back to your items before someone pick them up. Usually, it is the monster that picks up your item, so you have the fun of payback. As for on the occasion that a PC pick your stuff up, the design is balanced by the fact that on occasion you pick up other people stuff.

What's my point? Why call it corpse-run and not item-recovery? The term corpse-run does sounds like a penalty while, IMO, item-recovery sounds a gameplay that is an added dimesion of a particular MMORPG. The game design I outlined above is relatively "hardcore", but the item-recovery design fits.

If corpse-run had a "real" purpose in game, more people will categorize it as an added gameplay element rather than a penalty.

Posted Dec 26, 2004 12:25:41 PM | link

will dieterich says:

Not a big death penalty fan; it is one of the few items that I definatly look into before purchasing any MMORPG and the reason I will not get vanguard when it is released.

So far about the best system I have seen is EQ2, it provides a good mixture of reason to advoiding death, retreiving corpse and not really having to worry about it.

When you die you leave a shard, you have 5 of them, you get a slow down in exp gain, and your equipment gets damaged. When revive you get a short rez sickness which means you will not be of much use during the current combat, if revive during combat. Also all priest type characters get revive almost at the start of the game, and also get a way so that other characters can revive the priest.

With the shard lose you get a reduction in your stats until you get it back, if you cannot get to it after 72 hours it is retreived. Also most dungeons allow you to click on the entrance to the dungeon and retrive it. Loosing 2 is not that bad but noticable, having 3 out gets to be a real pain. So it is a good reason to get them back, but if you cannot get to one of them ok, just wait.

damage to your equipment does not really do anything until you get 10, then you reach 0 then you cannot wear it. You can goto town and have NPCs totally repair it like new for coin. Basicly a money sink. You do not leave equipment on your corpse.

Then you get an exp reduction, which is the worse part, and still needs a little twinking. An amount of the exp you gain goes to reducing this, also when you are offline you start reducing this.
So people have a problem with this in that when you are in a group and one person dies then this penalty gets split amoung all people in the group so who ever dies is not the only person penalized. When a group most of the time you can remove the penalty in less then 20 min, unless the whole party dies then it is as if you had died solo.

Posted Dec 27, 2004 3:38:16 AM | link

peterb says:

Corpse retrieval is yet another sign of the complete moribundity of the MMO genre. "Gee, let's wrap our MMO around an IRC server or MUD client." "Gee, let's use _all the same game mechanics_ that previous MMOs used" "Gee, let's have character levelling and stat wanking." "Gee, let's have quests that respawn."

None of those attributes are prerequisites to making an interesting game. All of them are used throughout the genre. And that has less to do with player desire than with uninspired design and development.

Posted Dec 27, 2004 9:50:55 AM | link

Nathan Combs says:

One facet of the CG I'm playing (cited above) is that is a compelling sense of the "tragedy of attrition". You bond with your "squaddies" and some percentage are lost on each encounter. They are replaced, rinse and repeat. Thus, what you end up with in the end, are the few, who through some accident of the game narrative, made it to the end.

Because of the frequency of battles and the duration of each - it is also not likely one is too tempted to save/replay too often in this sort of game: it would simply be too awkward. This arguably speaks to one benefit of a larger "simulationist" backdrop rather than fewer linear, highly-crafted scenarios - where the ability and temptation to save is much enhanced.

What, if anything, could this mean to MMORPGs?

Well, perhaps in some cases, the one(few)-avatar-player bias should be relaxed? This would imply there then has to be some sort of "meta" player-feature persistence. In other worlds, if the avatars are like horses - they got shot from under you, per the old pony express metaphor - you still are progressing in the game per some higher level objective (getting the mail delivered).


Posted Dec 28, 2004 1:01:30 PM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

Nathan Combs> This arguably speaks to one benefit of a larger "simulationist" backdrop rather than fewer linear, highly-crafted scenarios - where the ability and temptation to save is much enhanced.

I think you are confusing "scenario" with "narrative". Handcrafted scenarios don't have to be linear. The problem with simulationist approaches is that the structures carry less meaning than handcrafted objects/agents. E.g. the perceived depth is much lower IMO. MUD-Dev was largely a simulationist mailing-list until approx. 1999, I believ much of this was covered there.

Btw, the sole purpose of the avatar is to be a handle/representative of the user. If avatars are like horses, then they aren't avatars...

Posted Dec 30, 2004 7:40:10 AM | link

Nathan Combs says:

Ola>

Btw, the sole purpose of the avatar is to be a handle/representative of the user. If avatars are like horses, then they aren't avatars...

Okay, poking at this a bit:

1.) Does the "avatar" device bias player experience toward the "first person?" I realize a lot of folks run with their avatars with cameras in 3rd person - speaking however less of camera perspective and how players id with the toon. My instinct is yes.

2.) Why not a "3rd person" handle/device?

3.) If 3rd person, why not multiple characters?


Think of the AD&D model - IMO this at least proved that it is possible for players to bond and role-play multiple characters *simultaneously". Emphasis on simultaneity: current MMORPG ALTs don't really support/or encourage (at least from design side - business side may be different).

Posted Dec 30, 2004 11:09:48 AM | link

Dan S says:

"Well, perhaps in some cases, the one(few)-avatar-player bias should be relaxed? This would imply there then has to be some sort of "meta" player-feature persistence. In other worlds, if the avatars are like horses - they got shot from under you, per the old pony express metaphor - you still are progressing in the game per some higher level objective (getting the mail delivered)."

Nathan,

Jim Dunnigan's "Hundred Years War" some year back had this in that the players played noble families. We were putatively the head of the family, but when we died through assassination, battle, or any number of other causes our designated heir would take over. I loved the model. We got into our roles as nobles (designed our crests and arms, had lots of communications in character, etc), but it wasn't on a purely one-to-one basis in the sense that the big MMPORPGs dictate. We knew our "avatar" (text-based, but same idea) would die, it was a matter of when that would happen, how, and how prepared we would be as players to carry on in the heir. Heirs weren't guaranteed either. If your family died out, you could come back as another available family.

I like the idea of permanent avatar death (but make it uncommon and "difficult"), but with the proviso that we have designated heirs that will inherit their goods. We should have to invest in advance to transfer any skill, however. And then it should only be some fraction of that.

There's a single-player German published game that does this. I don't have it handy, the name is something like "The Guild" and a date. It incorporates this model. To do well you have to work to increase the fortunes of your family. This means investments in a well-chosen marriage partner, education for kids, jockeying for offices and positions, along with the more normal sorts of "gains." And there is death tax. One option you have is to hide some of your property in ways to avoid that tax.

I'd love to see us be able to play a family, stepping into the avatar of any member to work on their training and education, but the number being limited by some sort of real in-game maintenance cost. Those really actiue could have larger families than those who play occasionally. The latter just wouldn't be able to support a large family. Marriage in game could also have real meaning in that marriages would actually produce offspring. You might have the skills/caharacteristics of the parent influence the baseline skills/characteristics of the kids, giving benefits to picking marriage partners carefully. How you divide up the kids would be interesting, but you could work on the ATITD model where marriage is real, both partners can log into the other's avatar, and the kids would be a shared pool. Each player would designate an heir, but if they chose the same child, the first to die would take over that avatar as their primary.

Being able to actually play those children means a death would not be a return to start. The children could exceed their parents powers before they become the primary avatar if the players so chose. And they could, of course, die before ever becoming a primary.

Throw in the hook that dying without an heir means starting a new family from scratch (for my taste) and you have a really interesting system that keeps me coming back, encourages risk-taking, but not stupid risk-taking, and rewards strategic long-term planning. I can start a whole new character concept without having to scrap my developed one.

Smart business could toss in the idea that you can only play your primary avatar (and your partner's, if you have one) unless you pay an activation fee for an heir (or until the primary dies, in which case you move into the heir automatically) or other child. That would give incremental revenue, at little additional load to the system. It wouldn't inordinately penalize the more casual player if there was some inheritance of skills in play automatically from the parents. It would allow those who activated early the ability to actually diverge radically in the heir from the parents' templates.

Having "people" grow old and die adds a much greater sense of history to virtual worlds. Even in the relatively short period I played HYW, we ended up with some of that. While there are shared memories in SWG, they don't much feel like history, because most of them are repeatable with the same avatars. History really only has meaning in the context of death. We need a way for avatars to pass into history without crippling players.

Posted Dec 30, 2004 1:14:03 PM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

Nathan Combs> Think of the AD&D model - IMO this at least proved that it is possible for players to bond and role-play multiple characters *simultaneously". Emphasis on simultaneity: current MMORPG ALTs don't really support/or encourage (at least from design side - business side may be different).

Is this referring to multiple embodiement? It is indeed possible, and also quite common in MMOs and MUDs. I think it is called "multi-play" in MUDs.

For it to be an avatar it has to convey identity, at the very least. And IMO also be a locus for communication with others.

I sometimes switch between 1st and 3rd person many times each minute. Or did you mean something else?

Posted Dec 30, 2004 7:21:34 PM | link