Online Games Learn How to Cheat Death

Designing death is not a simple matter. Consider the following. You spend hours, days, weeks playing in an online universe populated by characters from the Star Wars saga, developing your character’s skills until you are a mighty hero. Then one day you take on one too many bad guys at once, and your beloved warrior walks into a laser blast and dies.

Put aside the tragedy of loss for a moment and think like a game designer. What should happen next?

If the death penalty in the game is too severe and your character is permanently destroyed permadeath, in designer parlance you may stop playing the game and, even worse, stop paying the monthly subscription fee for it.

But if the penalty is too light and you reappear with all your high-tech weapons and health intact, what’s to stop you from engaging in reckless behavior, undermining the credibility and fun of the virtual universe, and then growing bored and dropping out anyway?

Risk, Reward and Punishment

Finding that correct balance of risk, reward and punishment is actually very important in a virtual game, said Richard Garriott, executive producer at the NCSoft office in Austin, Texas, and one of the original designers of the Internet game Ultima Online.

The balance is also shifting with the growing popularity of massive multiplayer games, in which players interact online in a virtual world through characters they have created. Because game play must appeal to both longtime gamers and newcomers, makers of games like EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies and the coming Middle-Earth Online (based on The Lord of the Rings), have chosen softer death penalties to avoid scaring off less experienced players.

The incentive is to make these things not intimidating and not a turnoff, said Jeff Green, editor in chief of the magazine Computer Gaming World. In games of the 1990s, death penalties were generally harsher, he said. All of these games start out a certain way and then tweak it toward being more friendly and easier to use.

Such changes are not always popular, said Rodney Humble, vice president for development in the division of Sony Online Entertainment that makes EverQuest, a popular role-playing game. Still, Humble decided to make changes to EverQuest in 2001 after months of internal debate and at least one sleepless night. At 4 a.m. one wintry day, hours into a game session, his character died.

I couldn’t log off because I needed to get back to my corpse before I logged off or else my corpse would decay and I would lose all my stuff, Humble said. That’s not fun. That’s when I decided, you know what, we’re going to modify this.

Penalty Still Severe

Since Christmas 2001, EverQuest players have been able to spend days or even weeks taking a reincarnated character on a corpse run back to the site of its death to recover magical items and weapons. Before, players had only hours.

In the world of online games, that penalty is still pretty severe. Star Wars Galaxies, set in the science fiction universe imagined by the movies, has a much lighter penalty: slain characters can spawn at specific safe areas, with their equipment somewhat damaged but otherwise intact.

It’s by no means a huge punishment, said Haden Blackman, producer of the game for LucasArts.

But Galaxies exempts characters from any death penalty if they are killed by other players rather than by computer-generated monsters, to create an incentive for players to take one another on, Blackman said. Many games have adopted a similar approach.

We want people to experiment a little more, he said. Any monster that the computer generates, he said, is never going to be as unpredictable or exciting as what another player is going to do.

Player-on-player combat raises other questions, though, because designers want to prevent gaming experienced players killing off newcomers’ characters for their possessions. Games approach this problem in different ways, for example by designating zones where characters are vulnerable or by allowing players to join factions, like the Rebel Alliance in Galaxies, whose members may then attack other factions. Players can also choose noncombat roles, Blackman said, or just hang out in a cantina.

LucasArts Abandons Permadeath

For a few months, one type of Star Wars character, the rare and powerful Jedi, could be permanently killed. But when players began singling out Jedi characters for vicious attacks, Jedi players cried out for help, and last month LucasArts abandoned permadeath, a spokeswoman said.

The evolution of death in these increasingly complex video games reflects changes in both technology and the industry, said Alexander Galloway, an assistant professor of media ecology at New York University.

The earliest video games were defined by a structure of, play for a short time, die, play again for a short time, die, Galloway said. This was best exemplified by the arcade game: Every quarter is a new death.

When people could play video games at home and save their progress, that changed. When you die, you’re instantly just back 100 feet, back to the beginning of whatever the level was, he said.

But because there are so many other people in an online game’s universe, the whole game cannot be reset every time a character is killed.

Backing Up Time

You can’t back up time for one person, said Garriott of NCSoft. Nor can the game demand that players spend too much time recovering from death, he added, because that discourages them from continuing to play.

While that may not matter a great deal to makers of games that customers buy and use at home, online games depend on subscription revenue ($12.95 a month for EverQuest, for example), which means they must keep players engaged.

My guess is it would be utterly boring for someone to play it without such a risk, said Stephen Hinshaw, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley.

Still, some buck the trend. Middle-Earth Online, due this year, will exclude death entirely.

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