Every so often, someone gets the idea in their head that “permadeath” is something that should be in an MMO, usually to make it more “hardcore” or to make people “respect the world” in some way. I tend to think that this idea is just kicking people in the head for making mistakes, so it’s not something that I’d ever actually want in a game.
Still, I have toyed with generational game design, mostly in the context of my cyclic world that gets hit every so often with a server wipe in the form of a periodic apocalypse. Permadeath for everyone is part of that design, but it’s only death to that “age” of characters, not the player’s progress. It’s also not a DIKU lineage design, where a powerful character might have months or years of investment involved, and permadeath would be a kick in the teeth and stolen lunch money.
I think that’s the sticking point: permadeath for characters, persistence of player progress. How do we make that distinction while making the game interesting in itself?
My cyclic game design doesn’t actually use permadeath so much as create a lore reason for server wipes. Characters don’t permanently die any time except for the Razing, and even then, there may be ways to squeak through the cracks. (Albeit scarred and potentially unstable.) Still, when a character dies in the Razing, their progress is folded into the player’s account through a variety of legacy mechanics. Players starting in a new era have access to heirlooms and inheritances that more or less maintain player progress, despite forcing a “reroll” of the player’s character. This might take the form of a descendent, reincarnation or just a lucky random benefactor relationship. (It’s left up to the player as part of the role creation of the new character.)
The server wipes are ways to bring players back to a rough parity with each other across a server, since I’m designing around a level-less system that allows players to affect the game world. (The Razing is also a mechanic to curtail abusive players, as their influence on the world is wiped. They can rebuild a dynasty of terror, but since they are reset to a degree, other players can act to stop the madness this time through.) Players that “put in their time” will see benefits from familiarity with game mechanics and personal experience, but their avatars will not have an overpowering advantage over new players.
I’ve also toyed with the idea of letting players establish a “lineage of losing”, effectively giving them mechanical toys to play with if they role play their story throughout the ages as a series of incompetent characters. The hope is that the story of Limpy the Leftfooted and his great grandchildren becomes something to hang unique gameplay on. Sure, the Leftfooted lineage is known for being utterly useless when it comes to swordplay, but somehow has managed to find a peculiar aptitude for blacksmithing.
Basically, I want to give players a reason to play roles a bit more, and to reward them for it. I want them to have good reasons to maintain their own narrative over the span of generations, hopefully in the interest of lending a bit more emotional heft and storytelling potential to the mechanics. It may just be a pipe dream, but it’s something that I’ve been pondering for a while now.
In that context, “permadeath” of a character is less an overbearing punishment for incompetence, and more a tool for weaving a gameplay tapestry. I don’t have everything ironed out yet, and I welcome comments, but for now, it’s at least a different take on some core elements of MMO design. Whether it’s enough to be interesting to the “critical mass” of players to make an MMO possible financially and/or thematically, I’m not sure, but it’s at least been fun to play around with the concepts.