THE interesting decision around death penalty

I wrote how permadeath made Subnautica an interesting game for me and how death penalty spawns interesting decisions. I now want to quantify it.

Everything in a game can be measured by time (or real money if P2W is allowed). An item or a state of progression is valued after the time it needs. Death penalty is time penalty: how much time you need to regain what you lost because of the death.

In order to have choices, there must be another way than risking death. There is a reason why Cuphead is a niche game. So the player has a choice to grind X hours to get emblems or to get lucky with a low chance drop to get the upgrade. Or, he can engage in a risky mission that can give him the same upgrade in a single hour if he succeeds but Y hours of grind to get back where he is if he loses.

The time cost of the grinding choice is obviously X hours. For the risky choice, the time cost is: 1+(1-C)*(X+Y) where C is the chance of success. The “1” part is the one hour for the risky mission. The (X+Y) part comes from the assumption that after he failed, he just gives up and grinds. It’s easier to calculate with this than with repeated attempts and the result is the same. The player wants to minimize time to reward, so chooses the shorter one. The risky is shorter if X > 1+(1-C)*(X+Y) which can be solved into C > (1+Y)/(X+Y). Assuming the death penalty is 10 hours and you need to grind 100 hours, you should take the risk if your chance is bigger than 11/110 = 10%.

It’s a straightforward formula. Where is the “interesting decision”? It comes from the fact that your chance cannot be measured, it can only be approximated and it lies on the elusive self-consciousness. The question comes down to “how good I am/the team is in this game”? This is always an interesting thing to think about.

Why did the death penalty diminished, along with the whole MMO scene? Because it’s hard to deny that the MMOs are in horrible shape. The most successful one, WoW is stagnating/losing players for years and there are no serious contenders with even 1/10 of its playerbase.

This is because they made the wrong choice of including entitled punks. Not casuals, not even socials. Casuals, like a middle aged mum who plays while the kids are asleep is aware of her limited skills. She is fine with the grinding. Actually, she likes the easy and interruptible entertainment of being in a magical world. The social is fine being around, being involved with the group instead of being at the tip of the spear. This is crucial: death penalty isn’t a problem to low-skill players as long as they are self-aware and have a grindy alternative path of progression.

The entitled punk is in full confidence in his skill, when he has very little. He will jump headlong into the risky path and loses. Then he blames lag, teammates, play time, cheats, devs, God, but not himself. He is the one who will never go grinding like “the n00bz” and jump on the challenge, just to fail and then ragequit. By removing death penalty there is no downside of this. This became the norm.

Please realize the catch: by removing death penalty, neither the skilled, nor the casual/social players got help. The entitled punks did, the group that you really don’t want in any group game. By removing death penalty, the devs invited the most toxic people: those who look down on fellow players based on oversized ego and blame and curse them for their own frequent failures.

The original MMO crowd of the “golden age” was free of this toxic group because the death penalty got rid of them. Players either learned to play and earned skills that commanded respect or they made peace with their lack of skill and were happy to tag along, picking flowers in Felwood, helping with some consumables and being social (in the good way).

The golden age can be brought back if the death penalties are reintroduced and the entitled punks self-select out.

Author: Gevlon

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15 thoughts on “THE interesting decision around death penalty”

  1. You wrote all that as if the elitist jerk stereotype never existed in the olden days, or “git gud” sentiment is not already widespread in harsh Death Penalty games like EVE. It’s entirely possible and extremely likely that skilled players will be complete asses in any game you can conjure up, especially when they can show off like whales in front of masses of grinders. The internet, Twitch, Youtube highlights, meme wars, and social media (including Reddit) are way too widespread to believe there is some magical way back to the MMO “golden age” that existed before Facebook was even invented.

    This is besides the point that just because a harsh death penalty exists, doesn’t make A) for interesting choices, or B) a fun game. If you already have a fun game, harsh death penalties by your own admission reduce sales. Does a toxic playerbase hurt sales long-term more than small, nice playerbase? I dunno, but clearly all the big studios have bet billions that size matters more. Look at Riot, who recently undone their lifetime ban on a famous troll for some reason.


  2. @Azuriel:
    Vanilla and BC (where death penalty existed) was far from small playerbase. You can say that toxic players needed to reach the record subscription count, but even if it would stay at end BC level, it would be still the biggest MMO ever.


  3. Harsh penalty is vague scale. Losing 10 hours grind might be harsh for someone, piece of cake to someone else. Time is a valuable currency and it is good to compare. More important on current MMORPG games, is the ways to avoid loosing time. Literally you progress all the time, basicly a fancy idle game. Eve has acceptable risk, you choose to be on expensive equipment and there is allways a safe and cheaper way to play the game. On other side of the scale, i remember game named Tibia, where death results loss of 10% of the total skills and experience. It sounds small, but there are no exp/skill cap, so if you die after year of gameplay, you lose month worth of time. That is very harsh and there where no way to avoid that risk, you literally can die while playing game and getting disconnected on network. You can not play cheaper version of your character, so longer you play, more time you will lose on death. On that extreme version of death penalty, pvp was allowed, but almost noone do it, noone has even skills to do pvp, because death cost is so big to even risk trying. Ofcorse, bots had alot time, and when they come, pvp was only for botters leisure and normal players left the game.


  4. You don’t even need a harsh death penalty, as long as the actual game content presents a reasonable amount of difficulty. Classic WoW didn’t really have a death penalty (that mattered) even in the highest content; but getting there was the hard part, because you were rewarded for commitment, teamplay, efficiency and putting in the time. In that environment, it was fairly common for guilds to have social ranks for casual players that were almost entirely non-toxic, or non-raiders that farmed herbs in their free time because they genuinly wanted to help with progression (in their own way).

    It’s also why EVE is a cesspool, even though the death penalty is more severe than anything in most other MMOs. You level up by letting time pass (not even logging in), you can farm ISK AFK literally to the point that you can pay for your sub multiple times, and any activity except PvP is completely trivial. Hell, even some forms of PvP can be done on ‘auto pilot’ simply by being in the right group/corp, as it is evident by new recruits of Alliances being able to clone jump to deep Null on day 1 of their character and start participating. This is why the game is swarming with the so called entitled punks, because they can be free to be as toxic as they like (git gud, htfu attitudes are encouraged) while getting literally carried through the game.

    Harsh death penalty can be adetriment to a game, while ramping up the difficulty to promote skill (any form of it) will make it thrive. Sadly most MMOs remain skill-less from start to finish, hence why nothing sticks around.


  5. @Tithian: death penalty is the loss of time, so difficulty of the game matters. In EVE you lose nothing when you lose your ship, since you can get it back by AFK ratting.

    Raising the general difficulty doesn’t give choice, it gives as “you must be this tall to ride” which can be trivial to some players and unreachable to others. The solution is to give multiple difficulties with different rewards. But without death penalty there is no reason not to bang your head at the highest difficulty, hoping to get boosted or lucky.


  6. “The original MMO crowd of the “golden age” was free of this toxic group because the death penalty got rid of them.”

    Leaning out the window here very strong. I wow classic is golden age then we already had toxic back then. Classic had already ninjalooters, lowbie gankers and all that other crap. Scamming was only not a thing cause blizz interferred. The only thing that changed is the coining of term toxic for not behaving as desired.

    If you go way back before wow then there are different reasons. Internet wasn’t mainstream, if you played early UO you were part of a group of people above average. The hurdle to understand the internet and find an early mmo and use it correctly would already filter out most idiots. Secondary the motivation of the players was different. You didn’t play just to chase virtual rewards. You played to interact with people all arround the world. People would mess arround and just talk,rp and do shit like self-organize shops tematically alongside the road in town. You enter the same game 10 years later and it’s a unorganized mess cause nobody cares as they just want to sell their crap because of the mentality shift. My guess here is introducing questing to mmo’s is what trained people into that behaviour of just chasing rewards instead of finding their own goals in a virtual world.

    Tldr: Current playerbase is worse cause it turned mainstream + mentality change.


  7. @cathfaern
    Vanilla and BC (where death penalty existed) was far from small playerbase.

    It’s extremely silly to consider even vanilla WoW to be part of the MMO “golden age,” much less that it had anywhere near a death penalty by any reasonable definition, compared with EQ or UO. If anything, vanilla WoW was where the designers decided a larger playerbase was better. What other MMO allowed you to easily solo quest to the level cap?


  8. I too wonder what changed. Thing is, I don’t recall any death penalty in WoW. What I do recall is actually having to play with other people. People you had found in game, either via a guild or area chat. Going back as far as DAOC, the levelling progression was such that you’d actually see the same names cropping up and you’d actually get to know people.

    So what changed? Auto grouping (dungeon finder). It fixed a problem in what has turned out to be a really toxic fashion. Especially when you include LFR from WoW. Yes, there was a problem that getting a group together for group content started getting hard. This was because the balance of players had shifted since release where everyone was levelling, albeit at different speeds, to a point where mostly people have max level characters and its either newcomers or alts levelling.

    Possibly if the cross-server technology had existed then it would have been a better fix for the problem. Collapse all the levelling content in order to keep the population density high enough to make finding people to play with possible. Of course you still have the issue whereby a slower levelling process that is interesting is best for the newcomers, but alts just want to speed level. The issue there though is, I think, lack of content at max level.

    Ultimately the problem is that the genre is established now. The rush of newness for the player base has largely gone. Even when new games come out, nobody is really interested in levelling anymore. When you’ve levelled in half a dozen MMOs already you just want to cut to the chase.

    There never will be a WoW killer, because the player base is now mature, and spread out across a large number of options. Compare with offline RPGs. D&D vs the myriad of options available now. The big difference with RPGs is that they are all about the levelling and the character story. Once you’ve reached max level and killed the big bad boss you start all over with a new campaign. If there ever is going to be something new in the MMO environment it’ll be from a firm where most of their staff are storytellers, and not developers.


  9. Yeah. WoW would be so much better with a massive death penalty.

    You go on a raid, wipe once… Woop! Gotta grind for 10 hours before the next attempt! Genius! Only those dedicated to mindless grinding would do that.

    But wait! What if you removed the end game! Surely, a massive death penalty would make XP gain by taking risks worth it? Wrong again. One unit of XP gained grinding is equal to one unit of XP spent taking risks. The death penalty merely forces the rational player to stop taking any risks. For NORMAL people, this is incredibly boring.

    (Insert math that shows risk + time reduction equals the same XP as no risk grinding.) Oh! You already did that, thanks!

    The norm, then, becomes abusing the “group bonus” (You left that out of the equation.) to maximize the safe farming route of grinding. At that point, you’re not doing it because it’s “fun”, you’re doing it because it’s efficient. Those are these “skilled” players you’re trying to support… the ones who would grind mindlessly so they can appear “better” simply because they have better gear. These COULD be the most skilled players in the game, but also just narcissistic peacocks doing whatever it takes to get that fix.

    But wait! There’s more! There’s the anonymity of the internet! I can just grind all day to get the same XP as the “skilled” player (Even if that skill level is impossible.) for the same level of peacocking, then just lie about how long it took me to do it.

    As such, the “Group bonus”, which is always there if people can cooperate in groups, destroys the concept of severe death penalty in MMOs.

    For single player games that take more than a single gaming session to complete, the save game feature does the same thing. No matter what the risk of what you are about to attempt, all you have to do to heavily mitigate it is to save the game before you try.


  10. @Smokeman: you are assuming the current raid difficulty. But raids are set in a way that “stand in a bad for 1 sec” = death because otherwise the content would be cleared in a day. Raiding became grinding on its own: wipe 100x on the boss until everyone gets lucky (because even the best raider fails 1%, a good one fails 5% and you need 20 people not to fail, that’s 0.95^20=0.03.

    Subnautica is an easy game. It’s pretty hard to die. But still, the chance of death makes you think about every move. WoW raiding could be at the same difficulty (halfway between current normal and heroic raids) AND still be challenging, since you can’t just wipe 100x. You have to nail it first time or there you go grinding.

    You can lie about XP but can’t lie about loot. If emblems give “Valorous Hero’s boots” while raids give the very same stat “Bad Boss’s boots”, everyone will know if you’re a good player or a nolifer.

    Finally you are keep ignoring the math, that risky but rewarding can (and usually do) beat grinding and many would take this path, just like you see those transport interceptor kills in EVE with 20+B loot. The guy took the risky but profitable path (and was a dumb for not using covops battleship)


  11. As expected, commentators didn’t notice the existing death penalties are poorly balanced because the risk of dying is too high. Most games need some sort of intermediate state so the group gets a signal: now’s the time to retreat, to avoid a true wipe. In WoW I would probably start by giving toons morale, so something bad can happen before someone dies. Only then make the death penalty expensive, like costing a full level. Would also give purposes for inns at max level. Even add in death’s door checks like Darkest Dungeon, because if you die for real, it really hurts.

    Right now the death penalty is basically a forced retreat, so give the player several signals saying they should retreat voluntarily. Punish them only if they don’t.

    The other thing is you want a simulator. No risk, but no reward. Learning happens best and most satisfyingly with fast iteration, which even minor penalties will derail. Have a room where you can summon any boss, but where death penalties and loot are both zero. Die? Respawn just outside the room immediately, with all consumables returned. Win? Exact same. Practice until the group is confident they can take on the boss for keeps.


  12. “Subnautica is an easy game. It’s pretty hard to die. But still, the chance of death makes you think about every move. WoW raiding could be at the same difficulty (halfway between current normal and heroic raids) AND still be challenging, since you can’t just wipe 100x. You have to nail it first time or there you go grinding.”

    Completely apples and oranges. In Subnautica, you just have to remember to save your game often. You mitigate the risk on your OWN terms by setting the frequency YOU save the game. If there was an ACTUAL “permadeath” mode where you lost the game entirely and actually had to start all over, that would be different. Sure, there might be some hard core, OCD guy out there doing that, but that would be the 6 sigma outlier.

    If you pulled that in an online game, where do you set the penalty? It’s not up to the player anymore. The only thing up to the player is the recovery speed if “Group Bonus” is in effect and can be exploitable for that. But raiding as it is now would be done. The number of people that would take that risk is too low to justify the effort.


  13. To be fair, let me clarify something.

    I think MMOs are too easy. But bringing back the death penalty is not the fix. Tiered, harder content that can be done solo in a niche game is the fix. “Group content” should be essentially “Story mode.” For this, “classes” need to be a thing of the past as well as they are impossible to balance. Harder solo content that requires mostly skill and knowledge of the scenario, and is light on the luck component is the fix.

    Why the death penalty is NOT the fix: The “Group Bonus.” Even if the game doesn’t actually reward you more, it won’t penalize you less. grouping up always cheeses content. The CONTENT that COUNTS game difficulty wise needs to be solo and instanced off so no one can help you. (Yes, I know people will RMT that, but really, the ONLY people that give a shit what gear you have is other peacocks.) Ban hammer them. Normal people care about what gear they can get, not what gear the peacock has.

    The REAL PROBLEM here is the cost of access. It’s too low. It’s low because network bandwidth has increased to the point where game access (Both for the developer and the player) is very low. At the same time, the cost of making an AAA game has risen dramatically. (Recall the data a few posts ago, the total dev cost was static, but 1/3 of the number of games were being made… ostensibly tripling the development cost per game because of all of the art and voice actors.)

    We started with GEnie and AOL charging 6 bucks an hour for games. Then it dropped to 3, then to the flat rate of 20 bucks a month. Then AAA studios stepped in and charged a subscription (Typically 15 bucks a month.) just for THEIR premium product.

    All this time, connection cost dropped and dropped.

    Now we’re at the point that “Free to Play” is a thing, and a title can tolerate most of it’s players playing free so long as a few step up and pay. We all know how this is going. It’s a train wreck for game quality.

    This is the reality, and online games have to adjust or there will be nothing but “Idle Games.”


  14. @Alrenous: nailed it, there is no way to retreat and death IS the retreat. Players should be able to use their heartstone in a raid to get out without penalty after ArthasDKlől died in the stupid (who should get his death penalty)

    @Smokeman: Hardcore mode is actual permadeath. You cannot “save” just “save and quit” and if you die, your saved game is deleted. I died a few times when started playing and I had to start over. Now I’m 50 hours into a hardcore game. I guess one can hack the game and extract the save and restore it after death, but how is that different from any other cheat. The point is that they implemented real permadeath and – from the fact that the feature is still there after many patches – I assume it’s somewhat popular.

    @Smokeman second comment: so your suggestion to fix MMOs is making them single player games where avatars meet only to socialize and trade but not to actually play? Funnily that’s the same thing I had in mind. Playing as a group in challenging content is only for (quasi-)professional teams. For ordinary people it just spawns toxicity as losses are blamed on the other.


  15. I stand corrected! Subnautica does indeed delete your game when you die. That’s just crazy.

    But why would you assume it’s popular? I would assume the exact opposite, and I note that “Freedom” mode is supplanting “Survivor” mode as the first choice in some of the docs. I would assume that hardcore is popular only with the fringes.

    But without knowing the actual stats on how often the modes are played, there is no way to know.

    I started in “Survivor” mode, assuming it was the easiest because it was at the top… then switched to “freedom” mode because having to constantly eat was too much of a pain in the ass. Chasing down those damn pufferfish for a crappy 16% health per, and having to constantly eat on a planet with a 1 hour day got old really fast. I got bases to build! The assholes that built the escape pod should have added a few more energy bars! It’s got a damn molecular 3D printer. What, no recipe in there that just uses sea water to make fresh water? Any dead fish should be enough to make a week’s worth of energy bars.

    Of course, the Alterra people probably did this on purpose, with the suit recording everything you do for a reality show back on earth called “Survivor.” Those bastards.


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