Returning to Bind Point: The Death Penalty in MMOs

Updated Mon, Jun 15, 2009 by Sardu

We’ve all experienced it at one point or another; that sinking feeling you get the first time you realize that you’re staring down on the ragdoll body formerly known as your character. Whether you bit off more than you could chew or simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing quite compares to the sudden realization that not only has your beloved character died, but that there are... consequences.

*queues up the death march drums and wailing horns*

Enter the dreaded Death Penalty; a gameplay mechanic that oftentimes is at the very heart of the debate between what constitutes casual vs. hardcore in MMOs. This lone aspect of design can even go so far as to help some players decide whether or not they want to give a new game a few spins around the virtual block based simply on which side of that fence they want to plant their feet over a longer period. For some, the thrill of raising the stakes and going all in is paramount to having an enjoyable MMO experience, while others might prefer to simply bop along in a persistent world that lacks the same kind of harshness as this nutty place commonly referred to as “real life”. MMO gaming is an entertainment industry after all.

So why do we have death penalties at all? Is it all about providing the risk vs. reward factor, or are there deeper thought processes at work behind the design decision to include them as a gameplay mechanic at all? To help answer these questions, Ten Ton Hammer contacted two of the leading developers in the current MMO space race; Noah “Hammerhead” Ward, lead game designer for EVE Online and Hermann Peterscheck, lead producer for NetDevil’s upcoming Jumpgate Evolution.

To help provide some deeper insight into the design process, when asked what considerations are made to incorporate a meaningful death penalty during the development process, Noah had this to say:

“I suppose it would depend on the exact game but in EVE the harsh death penalty was designed in as a core aspect. All of the ships in EVE are built by players and as we all know when you build battleships for a living war is good for business.”

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