Worth Fighting For

One of the things that bothered me a lot while playing World of Warcraft is that most people really just didn’t care.  If you got too many monsters in the same fight, or an elite was just too strong, many people just gave up, took the death and came back.  The penalty for losing was so soft that no one minded, and in fact many relied on it to test the waters.  “Hey, let’s try this! What’s the worst that can happen? Lose a couple minutes and a little money on repairs?”  It added an element of fearlessness to the game, which had its own merit, but in the long run as you come to count on that losing doesn’t hurt, winning doesn’t feel as awesome.  Winning is just something that happens.  Winning, in World of Warcraft, is inevitable.

Meanwhile, back in the dark ages of 3D MMORPGs, death could easily cost you a couple of days worth of experience points if you couldn’t get a cleric to resurrect you.  In some ways, this was bad because people were less likely to try things unless they were pretty sure they had a good shot at winning.  However, a charismatic enough leader could convince just about any group to try anything once.  “I know we don’t have a cleric, but I’ve grouped with this druid before, and we have an enchanter to slow, we’ll be fine!”  That was the basis of some of my most memorable moments in the game.  Five monks and a druid as a group in Old Sebilis, ranger tank in the Plane of Storms, and so on.  But the greatest effect of a stiff death penalty was the will to survive.  If a pull went bad, or a wandering monster joined in your already iffy fight, not one person ever said, “Hey, let’s just die and come back in a couple minutes.”  Instead, the chat window would immediately be filled with chatter about who was tanking what, or what mob was going to get pulled away and rooted, or which mob to focus on as various forms of crowd control were tried.  My memories of EverQuest are filled with moments of healers being out of mana while the group is surrounded by five monsters all mesmerized and the enchanter ensuring us they could hold it while I yelled at the group, “No one touch ANYTHING until the cleric says he’s ready!” and people making sacrifices, “I’ll off tank this, but I can’t last more than a minute or two, if you don’t finish by then, I’ll be dead but I wish you luck with the add.”  I fought many fights where bad agro killed the cleric and the rest of the group fought tooth and nail to stay standing as long as they could.  Failure hurt, but snatching victory from the jaws of defeat felt incredible.

Many people will tell you that harsh death penalties are a thing of the past and that today’s players wouldn’t stand for it, and they are right.  The people who would never play EQ who have flocked to WoW aren’t looking for that sort of risk, just a few odd minutes or hours of entertainment.  But to me, that sort of investment in a game is what I’m looking for.  I want a game worth fighting for.

6 comments

  1. Ferrel says:

    I’m absolutely with you on this one. In my many years of EQ I have a huge collection of stories of great success and failure. Nothing got my heart racing like a well fought battle. There was a very real risk of loss. We did not want to die. To me that is imperative in an MMO just as it is in table top RPG. You never wanted to die and start over.

    The fact that death penalties have been watered down is really a loss to the genre. Do we need the massive experience penalty, corpse run and potential of gear loss? No, we don’t. We certainly need more than nothing though. Lets face it. People use death as a travel method in War. That is a serious problem.

  2. Chas says:

    Someday, perhaps, we’ll get meaningful death penalties again, but only after developers start using smarter combat engines that are designed FOR the concept.

    Right now, the basic hit-point attrition model doesn’t allow for much intelligent gameplay. We aren’t given a reliable method for determining the risk before going in, of mitigating the risk through the use of terrain or tactics, or of establishing reliable exit strategies if things start to go poorly. We focus too narrowly on a combat balance that starts when the first attack is made and ends when one falls, eliminating the possibility of scouting and assessing. Heck, we often fudge things- having NPC’s teleport past obstacles or hitting you with melee while at extreme distance- just to keep that damage-ticking model working. Then we have the instadeath (to all but a tank) attacks that give no forewarning, no anticipatiory action (aside from choosing something else to fight), and no recourse BUT a rez.

    And, of course, probing, testing, and strategically disengaging a foe, while of GREAT tactical significance in the real world (and often more valuable “experience” than actually beating a foe) really REALLY don’t work in today’s grindtastic systems that has people measuring a character’s worth by its XP-per-minute value.

    With what we have now, about all that really works IS to trivialize death & defeat.

    It could be very different. It might even be someday… but only after the religious adherence to current MMO combat and reward models have gone away.

  3. Aaron says:

    I would go about it another way. Instead of making failure hurt more, make the challenges more difficult. And don’t make all challenges for all players.

  4. Hudson says:

    “My memories of EverQuest are filled with moments of healers being out of mana while the group is surrounded by five monsters all mesmerized and the enchanter ensuring us they could hold it while I yelled at the group, “No one touch ANYTHING until the cleric says he’s ready!” and people making sacrifices, “I’ll off tank this,”

    RIGHT THERE. You nailed it

  5. Jason says:

    One day, if I ever have the spare cash laying around, I’m going to buy myself a Mac, even though I hate Macs, just so I can play on the EQMac server that is permanently stuck after the release of the Planes of Power. I’d kill to be able to play on a server like that on the PC.

  6. [...] wrote about it a couple of weeks ago, and Darren a few days ago.  I’ve written about it too.  And if you search around the Internet on the gaming blogs you’ll [...]

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