« Indie MMOG: Richard Bartle's Massively Inspirational Keynote | Main | MMORPG... read all about... us! »


Michael Chui

The first paragraph was absolutely invigorating to read. It's never occurred to me, either, to question the "sacred cow" of death itself.

But I think that metaphor is contingent upon another one: lethal, physical contests that have a failure state. In other words, if the world Activity To Do was playing Tetris, then you wouldn't have death. You'd have "running out of room at the top" as a failure metaphor.

Ace Albion

Is it "death as the failure" the sacred cow, or is the failure itself that?

If you're replacing metaphors, there are ways to do that. Your game might be a dreamworld, and failure (death) is shown by the player "waking from a nightmare too horrible to deal with". You might make the waking/dreaming states part of the game. You might make it interesting/advantageous for dreamers to be woken for certain reasons, making "death" not a failure, but a branching of the story. A failure when unwished for, but not necessarily so. It might become increasingly difficult for dreamers to settle into slumber after too many bad dreams, or they may be vulnerable to becoming lost in the dreams- in that instance, "surviving" becomes a problem, from which "failure" offers a relief.

Replace "dreaming" with "astral journeys" or "visiting the world of the dead" or "exploring the planet outside of the space station with your emergency trauma teleporter switched on" there are so many ways to replace the casual frequent "death through combat" as a game mechanic.

Would "permadeath" be as big a worry, if it was instead some enrollment into a "Hall of Heroes"? If players could still interact and play using these cherished personas, just no longer in the blood, sweat and mud of the endless war on the ground? Would it be ok if you wore a tag that said "ancestor" and had different options for interaction and play than if your character were still among the mortals?

Craig Huber

I was frustrated as well that the conversation couldn't move into exploring "death" as a sacred cow to be removed. There was so little time to even touch on any one topic, really, let alone explore it. Oh well, maybe next year.

There's also the perspective that _no_ game is currently doing "death"... every game is already exploring the fantasy of Immortality in one way or another. I realize that's not the perspective you are actually talking about here, but perhaps focusing on the term "death" actually is counterproductive to getting to the real underlying meme that needs to be challenged?

Just a couple random thoughts. I enjoyed your presentation, btw, thank you for making the time.

Michael Arteaga

Why offer any form of punishment at all? Why do we use systems for play that advocate punishment? And, more importantly, why do we use punishment in our daily lives?

I could point fingers, but I probably don't have enough. And it's too much type to fit in this tiny type-box.

Other games may not make my avatar die, instead there may be a repetitive load screen, a cut-scene, or - worst of all - you may be forced to play the game again. I usually find that last one to be the funniest.

Celia Pearce

Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Why failure indeed? And why a zero-sum outcome. John Nash, with his now-famous "Nash Equilibrium," showed through the mathematical practice of "game theory" that it's actually much better for everyone if no-one wins. He modeled a scenario that transcended the zero-sum outcome.

The New Games Movement (see Bernie De Koven, linked to from here), a response to the Viet Nam War, also tried to move away from a cold war zero sum model.

Perhaps the next sacred cow we need to dissect is "winning" and "losing."

Don Teal

I really enjoyed the round table, as Dr. Bartle mentioned from a marketing standpoint, perma death is a horrid thought in regards to marketing a game. Yet one of the sacred cows I want to slaughter is the idea of the permenance of the avatar.

There are other ways for players to become a permenant part of the game other than playing their avatar till they get bored and quit permenantly.

By tackling the idea of a final game death for an avatar a whole slew of sacred cows are led to slaughter, like level based progression systems, or the concept of having to slay an opponent to win at combat.

When you take the focus off the avatar, you open the door to other forms of permenance. Maybe someone wants to be a sculptur and make a sculpture that remains in game for people to marvel at. The sculptor may have left the game but has gained permenance through his/her creation.

When the advocate program for Asheron's Call was shut down a statue was put in game to honor all those who volunteered their time to the program. As a once member of that program I have a permenance in Asheron's Call because of that statue. Even though I left that game years ago. I can say that I am still a part of it because of that.

I hope to see the focused removed from our "mains" and more focus put on what we accomplished as virtual worlds become more interactive to the players and more freedom is given to the players

Jeff Weinstein

Lord of the Rings Online, which is currently in open beta, has replaced the "health" stat with "morale" and replaced "death" with "defeat". When you are defeated, you retreat to a rally point, not a graveyard.

The healer classes are Captains, who can rally the troops, and Minstrals who raise morale with a song. The mechanics are all pretty much what players are used to, but they changed the names and tweaked the classes and roles to fit better with the source material.


I would love to hear some of your thoughts on Blizzard. It seems very few folks in the MMO industry take Blizzard to task for some of the nonsense it does "in the name of game integrity."

In most cases this boils down to punishing your customers, who Blizzards seems to feel are lucky they're getting to play this game, instead of focusing on the companies engaging in acts they don't like.

And it isn't like this has worked. I would say there are more "cheaters" - people who have bought gold, powerleveling, characters or other perks - in WoW than any other game out there right now.

And while companies like IGE are making money hand over fist, its the little guy getting the shaft.

And that's without even getting into how they can just declare your account dead without any form of due process or even explaination.

Just some boilerplate thrown at you and investigations that don't go beyond "yep - we looked into it and we were right."

Martin Grunbaum

Removing death as a mechanic is certainly interesting, but I do wonder if the question isn't deeper than that. Death is merely a form of failure; the underlying question then seems to be, what happens when you remove failure from a persistent game?

I believe failure is a convenience factor (and a vital one in many cases, no doubt), because it shifts the focus from doing good to not failing. Assuming that players play a game, and in doing so reach some sort of conclusion as to a difference in state, would minimizing the methods of failure give room to expand on the methods of success in this search for a new state?

Nick Fredman

I'm not sure if anyone here has played Gemstone 3 (a pretty solid MUD for its time), but the "death" system and healing/life systems were the most comprehensive I've seen in a MMOG to date. Characters had the basic health statistic which would deplete as they were wounded by monsters. Items and one or two classes had the ability to heal this statistic on others. However, when an individual took damage they would also receive "wounds" and "scars" which would persist after healing. Wounds would sometimes bleed causing death at a future time, and scars could cause combat and other actions to become difficult over time. The only way to remove these harmful effects was to find an Empath character who essentially stole the wounds from you and was able to heal their own body (and could die from taking too many wounds from others).

At the time of death there were two options: players could either drag you into the safety of town for an Empath or Cleric to resurrect you, or if you were alone and a timer ran out, you would re-spawn at the temple of a particular deity with your wounds still intact and go search for a healer.

Overall I loved the system as it encouraged you to make friends and helped to create an incredibly community within the game itself. I have friends who played the game for months at a time without ever leaving town (Empaths gained experience and levels from transferring wounds) as they would mostly socialize with others and gossip about the game. I've recently begun to realize that the death system within an MMOG frequently determines if I will continue playing it--as death itself is frustrating without having to run too far/recover lost items/or lose exp and gold permanently.

Very interesting topic indeed!


Death is always tricky in games, mostly because of the logical break with reality that "resurrecting" entails.

Most people simply accept the death of their avatar as a penalty to their play session, or a break in their rhythm. Its simple to understand, and more importantly removes a stress situation, you cant do something because your dead… if your not dead there is always something else you can do, whether or not that is actually true in a particular situation; players are hardwired to feel this way, or at the very least their group members are.

The alternative in the standard MMO as it is now is to inflict a state of unconsciousness, but that doesn’t work for game play reasons, chief among them being that the thing that made you unconscious is still there drooling over your inert body.

The problem with removing death has more to do with how people play than with actual game dynamics. For group players, those people who spend the majority of their play session grouped (I would argue that this actual number is very low relative to player populations), unconsciousness could work providing that their friends survived the battle however if they all died your screwed.

Solo players have it tougher, there is simply no way to wake up and sneak away, and face it if a monster or beast made you inert, chances are it would be chewing on your bones as soon as you quit resisting. Nominally human NPCs would simply kill you to remove you as a threat like Scott, Dr. Evils son enter the Dr. Evil paradox. Dr. Evil couldn’t simply kill Austin Powers, he was required to devise elaborate death inducing routines, which ironically enough always failed to kill the victim by allowing ample opportunity for escape. Dr. Evils son Scott, was more realistic, goading his father to simply shoot Austin.

Getting rid of death essentially means designing a game that is free of physical violence, and while I do believe this is possible I do not believe that it would be a game that Id enjoy personally, not enough to subscribe anyway. MMOs, create worlds where we can do things that we are not normally possible, they are much more than games, I would argue that an MMO is an experience in and of itself, which is made up of a number of games. I could flesh this out more if there was a good discussion forum.



Nick - the first version of Star Wars Galaxies (before they completely changed the game not once, but twice) had a similar system to the one you described.

Over time your player accumulated wounds on their three health bars. Wounds were gained both during normal combat (as you got hit by opponents you had a chance to be wounded) and after you died (unlike say WoW you weren't just returned to full health - you took a considerable wound hit for dying). This "black rott" lowered the overall health of the character to the point you would need to find a doctor character and have them removed.

Players also had "battle fatigue" - the more your player took damage over time the faster this fatigue increased. When it got high enough your health regeneration was slowed, your character was less effective in combat, you couldn't be healed as well and you also took more damage. Battle fatigue was cured by going to a cantina and watching dancers, entertainers and musicians and was something you constantly had to monitor, or else find yourself in a bad situation.

Robert Rice

I didn't get a chance to say anything at the roundtable, but I wanted to submit polygon based graphics as a huge sacred cow. Hehe.

By the way, I still play Gemstone. Started in 1995. Man, I'm getting old.

Celia, I really enjoyed your session, it gave me a few ideas and got me to rethink a few things, particularly in reference to emergent behaviors. Thank you! It was a pleasure meeting you as well.


Hi Robert,

It was great to get a chance to meet you at the conference, and I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to attend either of your presentations. I did hear good reports on both... and it was a crazy busy conference. Also, congrats on the launch of your blog also, not too long ago ( http://www.curiousraven.com/robert/ ).
Good point about the representation - possibly one of the games that engaged me most was hack, which had nothing but text characters (now nethack - nothing as terrifying as an enraged "d"). And I think one of the reasons I've never really cottoned to Second Life, for example, is the poor quality of the graphics and movement... I can invest something simple with my imagination, but I'm really sensitive to poor or awkward graphics. But anyway, there's a lot of opportunity for innovative stuff, as you point out. What about some sort of abstract shapes or colors?

Nick Fredman

That's great that you still play! I think I played from '95 or '96 till 2000. I tried to get back into it last year, but quickly realized most of the community I so enjoyed had moved on from the game.

A rather strange idea came into my head and I'm curious what others think about it...What if death caused the player to turn into some type of undead/zombie character after about 30 seconds or so. During that time a priest/cleric class could put a ward to protect them, or can turn them back into a normal character by casting a 10-15 second spell (castable in combat). As an undead, the player gains exp by killing other players (a lot of it too) and has unique abilities and maybe even undead quests and a type of level/skill up system. If the undead player is then "killed", again, by a normal player, they suffer a decent exp/stat or similar loss and are returned to the living again.

The basic idea would be to allow the player to continue having fun and make death exciting rather than frusterating. I'm just imagining a raid setting with 20-30 people who keep turning undead and having to be glyph'd/rezzed by their friends during combat, and some type of pvp battles where a well placed AoE spell causes complete chaos. Seems fun.

Carl Symborski

In the Uru MMO, there is no explicit character death. Each player carries around a "linking book" that when used teleports the player back to a home location (called a Relto). This also happens to be the starting location every time at login. During game play if a player experiences some mishap, such as failing to make a jump across a chasm, it will automatically use this book to safely return to Relto. Avoiding "death" all together, still it is just another way to handle a player failure mode. (Interesting but watching closely you can see the avatar animation reaching for the relto book and using it.)

The actions of our players, as in real life, do have consequences. The reduction in player stats and ultimately death is a popular way to capture those consequences. There is also death avoidance as with Uru's Relto and retreating to high ground mentioned earlier. Were there other ideas mentioned at the round table?

Personally I think designers should toss the notion of leveling and explicit character stats. This may be a helpful paradigm for some players, but it is not reflective of real life social dynamics. In real life we do not have a "level number" floating over our heads, nor do we have gauges which indicate how good we are at this or that. Instead we "know" how good we are intrinsically by what we like and do, as well as how we perform doing those things. Be that communicating, playing sports, and working, creating, and yes fighting. Basically, we have street creed.

One way to capture this is to make the gear visually meaningful in some way. So in battle orientated games you'd get a good idea what you are up against based on what kind of weapon or armor you visually see the other player wearing.

Even better would be the idea of reputation based skill communicated via word of mouth, or perhaps reading in books or other "in world" new periodicals. So as you size up your opponent you might realize, "OMG that is Kodos the Executioner, run!" A side effect will drive players to be more involved in learning about other players via interacting socially in city/village settings as well as through reading and keeping up with current events in the in world news. This lends it self toward a RP-PvP world and a diminished or nonexistent role of NPCs.

Given the above perhaps perma-death might be actually appropriate. A player could then be "reborn" at some future time as a descendant of the original character. Thus gaining some "reputation" based on blood line. Just a thought…


Will Riley

So there are significant differences between being dead, dying, commiting suicide, killing, murdering, torturing, injuring, accidently hurting, losing, and failing.

In the flash-based ninja platform game, N, as a ninja, you cannot kill, murder, torture, injure, be dead, or lose the game, but you can die, commit suicide, accidently hurt yourself by falling, or fail a level.

Being dead is analgous to having lost. Both are permenant.
Dying is analogous to failing. Both are potentially temporary.

Murdering is an intentional and immoral act of killing.
Killing is the destruction of an organism, but it is not always intentional or immoral.

Torturing is a severe form of punishment.
Punishment is an intentional and immoral act of negative retribution.

In thinking about the dysfunctionality that death plays in games, it may be helpful to consider these other forms of destruction. It may be that death is not a major culprit. Other forms of destruction, such as murder, torture, and punishment, may be the primary players of immoral violence and the ultimate boredom that follows.

Taelos Katran

As a designer avatar in THERE.com I have been fortunate to have my designs avidly used by others in their own in-world creations. So from that perspective I have my own "permanence" in THERE as long as people like my work and keep it out on display. Interesting analogy was raised by Don in another post about a sculptor being immortalized via an installation in-world. In THERE and Second Life you can buy your own permanence. As long as someone keeps up on the rent for the land being used you can create a shrine to your own honor. What is the price of vanity? As much as you can afford.


Celia Pearce

I think Don's and Tae's comments are very interseting. In Second Life and There, the world is an extention of the identity of the players. This is one of the reasons people become so attached to these worlds: players ARE the world. This idea of permanance/persistence as instantiated in the world itself is very interesting and I think we are going to see an exponential expansion in worlds that explore these types of paradigms.


The oldest and most sacred cow is the success/failure dichotomy. How does one fail (or succeed) in a 'world' that cannot change? No matter who wins the battle, no matter who live or dies, the world be exactly the same from now until patch day. The Princess you rescued last night will be missing again tommorrow. The slain dragon will return to life. Failure is impossible, so is success.

"Did I sleep well? Not really, I made several mistakes." -- Stephen Wright.

Don Teal

Until a truely dynamic world is created then there is no failure and no success. Can a truely dynamic world be created for 100s of thousands of people. I dont believe so, but an indie developer can aim for a smaller audiance that allows a dynamic world to be created. Blizzard can't create a dynamic story on each of its 120 different shards with 10,000 people on each shard, but an indie dev can create a dynamic world on his/her single shard with 5,000 to 10,000 people. As long as the dynamic world is designed from the beginning to be dynamic. Which means that the toolset the backend, everything must be thought out and planned with the ability to let player actions change things in place from the start. I believe when we see this happen then we will see games move away from the one quest fits all approach we see today.


"...the toolset the backend, everything must be thought out and planned with the ability to let player actions change things..." It's called Second Life. Second Life is no MMORPG. Blizzard is King of Today's Hill. How much longer will we continue to be satisfied with 'dungeons and dragons version 996975.666?


On the other paw, there might be a better way. Failure fails because the game designers attempt to decide what failure means. Yet they have no idea what a player's goals might be. Thus "failure" defaults to "you couldn't kill the orcs, nyah nyah nyah." Whopping goblins with a big stick is very low on my priority list. So that kind of failure doesn't make sense to me. From another angle, "penalizing failure" is a designers attempt to punish his players for not doing what he wished or expected of them.


Failure need not end in death, or be permanenet, or even necessarily harmfull. If I take the long way round the valley, because orcs are guarding the bridge and they look tough, have I 'failed" or 'suceeded?' Can't I still reach Rivendell in time? Shouldn't I get 'niceness' points because nobody had to die? Who has the right to decide whether or not I "did it right?" I propose that we simply abandon the yes/no, dead/live, failure/success model. Instead we need to think about the consequences of the event. Did we kill anyone, or get ourselves killed? Did we accomplish whatever goals were set? How would killing the Orc under th bridge affect our future dealings with the local orc tribe?

Celia Pearce

Thanks for this latest batch of insights. Personally I am banking on Don's comment: that dynamic worlds are the next frontier, and this is exactly what we are trying to do with the Mermaids project. While I was presenting our demo at Indie MMOG, my students were building a java prototype of a dynamic ecosystem. The idea here is that rather than having creatures that spawn repeatedly at the same point, there is a complext interrelationship btween flora and fauna that players have to learn about in order to succeed at the game; understanding the relationship between these life forms can also help players to in a sense collaborate with the system, to help promote the growth of certain things, or harvest resources without depleting them.

We still haven't figured out what failure means in that scenario. But there are plenty of games that have no state that we would recognize as failure and losing. Myst and it's MMOG variant Uru. I think the whole die/lose points thing is really quite clunky; can we come up with a better more nuanced system? I like the "take the long way and avoid killing" scenario proposed by Don. In the upcoming Night Journey by Bill Viola and Tracy Fullerton, there are certain bonuses you get in the game by staying still and looking for details. What are the rewards of "taking the long way"? You may give something up in the process, but what do you gain?

The comments to this entry are closed.