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?