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Permadeath

Let’s address the elephant in the room: My long hiatus. First I’ll have you know I’ve written several posts since the last one, and all of them turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought they were going to be. And if you’ve read any of my posts, you should be able to guess how bad things got. But it was amazing trying to write them and I regret nothing.

Second, I can’t believe I’m going to quote a Stephanie Meyer movie, but this is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship. A benevolent dictatorship, but it’s a dictatorship and I will post when I have something to say. I think people frequently post things when they have nothing to say and it’s almost always a mistake. But I do feel regret that I still haven’t finished either of those posts.

On Topic: I was having a lovely discussion with some folks from the RSI forums about Star Citizen’s death system. For those who haven’t read The Death of a Spaceman, let me sum up:

When you die, you keep your progress but need to design and name a new avatar to act as your “next of kin”. They lose most of your faction reputation, but inherit most of your stuff, perhaps with some sort of death / inheritance fee. 

The game developers refer to this system as “permadeath” because your avatar dies, but in reality it’s “lite permadeath” at best, because you keep your progress. In real permadeath games, you start at ground zero with nothing left. 

The Debate:

Some of the fans argue that this type of gameplay (true permadeath) forces you to be careful with your character in order to save your progress because your avatar matters - your “character” and your progress are linked completely. This is true for everything from Mario to Robot Unicorn attack, to Nether and DayZ. Once you die, you start over and any progress you have made is gone forever. 

My challenge to this argument is that “true permadeath” does make your avatar matter - but it inherently renders progress insignificant. You aren’t encouraged to get too attached to that progress, because the game expects that at some point you will die.

Of course, the farther you get the more invested you become, but designers should be aware when developing such a game that the farther a player gets, the more frustrated they will be when they die. 

So What’s The Difference?

CR’s Death of a spaceman trivializes the Avatar in order to make progress more significant. The design goal is for it to feel like upon the death of your character, you leave a legacy behind. 

True Permadeath trivializes progress to make death (and, by extension, the avatar) more important.

The Big Question

Of course, you’re probably wondering “Can we make a game where progress and death are both equally important?”

I would say that such a game would be possible under several circumstances:

  1. Players, as a character, can make significant contributions to the persistent game world during their character’s lifetime. Allowing next of kin to inherit valuables is a start, but I’m talking more like starting a business, building a new house or space station, discovering a new planet or a new continent. In real life, we leave behind more than just our possessions.
  2. Upon the death of a character, the social relationships that player formed with other players through their character are fundamentally changed when the player’s character dies. An easy start for this would be for the NPC friends of the original character to react to that character’s next of kin based on the NPC’s relationship with the original character. At a higher level, this means that there has to be a meaningful way for the game to track and represent social relationships.
  3. Dying is really, really hard to do. In real life, where both dying and your progress matter, dying is pretty tough. Which is not to say you can’t go stick a fork in an electrical socket or jump in frontof a bus and get it over with right away if you wanted to, but it’s a far cry from the wild, wild west, and even then people didn’t just go killing each other all the time. If you die every couple of weeks, you don’t have time to get attached to the character you play. If you have years and years to play the same character, you WILL get attached whether you want to or not. For example, in the LARP I volunteer at, Steam and Cinders, players shed real tears for characters that died in the concluding battle of the first iteration of the game. This was because they had been building up these elaborate stories and relationships with other characters for about five years. To an outsider it may sound ridiculous, but to the people who had been showing up month after month and acting out the role of these characters that whole time, the gravity of each death was very nearly real. This was a game where players were rarely allowed to die outright. They were kidnapped and knocked unconscious or otherwise temporarily disabled, but it was all done in-fiction (which is to say they did not die and then respawn, they were bleeding out on the ground waiting for a medic to save them). This leads us to an important discovery: Progress becomes unimportant when death is common. Sounds very obvious, but it’s important to keep it in mind when you’re dealing with permadeath. 

So how do you make death rare, but victory in combat more meaningful? Left 4 Dead (among other popular titles) has a system where players can be downed and then “helped back up” (I think Gears of War used this too, though L4D is notable in that it doesn’t let you keep doing it forever. Eventually your screen goes  ”black and white”, indicating that your next fall will result in death. This condition is canceled if you repair your damage with a med kit first. Star Citizen uses a similar system where, upon defeat in combat, your character is sent to a med bay with various injuries which, if left untreated, will build up to the point where your character can no longer survive another defeat. 

Legacy also needs to be balanced. A player needs to lose something important when their character dies, or they won’t feel it. It isn’t easy to do that to the player, so you have to be reasonable, and that’s a difficult call to make. In general, I would say make them lose most of something they can’t afford to lose and keep most of something they can’t afford to lose.

For example, consider an online RPG where items are non-disposable. You rarely get new-and-improved items, they are typically  balanced with your old items (slower attack, higher damage) and you don’t need to level up or augment your stats to use something (requires STR 13!!). You can also unlock new skills or progress down some kind of skill tree where each unlock augments your abilities or unlocks new fighting moves. My suggestion for this scenario is simple - next of kin keeps the things you earned (objects, gear, etc but not gold perhaps) and loses the skills. Give the character’s successor a few skill unlocks for free so they don’t need to start completely from scratch. It’s also possible that the things that the original character had on their body at the time will stay with their body, and their successor merely gets legal authority over the estate of the deceased, including property and storage accounts. They might then have to track down the body to find the things they were carrying with them.  Reminds me a bit of minecraft.

So hopefully this inspired you to think a bit about permadeath. Once again, the goal of these posts is to get you to think about and have opinions on subjects you probably don’t get hands-on experience with on a day to day basis, even if you work in games. Nothing beats practical experience, so get out there and build something!

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