Character resets and permanent death

Zubon posted over at Kill Ten Rats about resetting characters (examples given: Torchlight, Kingdom of Loathing) being preferable to resetting worlds (examples given: Torchlight II, Borderlands 1 and 2) when reaching the end of a game. The former entails resetting (or retiring+re-creating) a character to scratch and giving it some boost or other (stats, skill-points, items, gold) to give it a flying start, while for the latter you reset the game-world and increase difficulty to match the current status of the character.

While an interesting topic of discussion on it’s own, this got me thinking.

Resets in virtual worlds

Character resets in games like the ones mentioned above is nothing new – it has been done in MUDs and BBS door-games (like Legend of the Red Dragon) for decades already, after all. It would still be novel in a modern virtual world, however, and personally I would love to see a virtual world where the following mechanics are combined:

  1. Optional or forced retirement of characters that have reached a certain threshold (character lifespan, fame, fortune, epic achievements)
  2. Permanent death(!)
  3. Restarting after either of the above events as a heir of the original character with some form of inheritance/boost (stats, more powerful than usual heirloom item, title, etc)

Permanent death is a taboo feature in the world of MMO development and is shunned and/or ridiculed by many developers and players alike – often rightly so. Players spend time and effort building their characters and if they can lose them (or the gear they’ve collected) they will naturally be upset. Yet, in the right context I think it might do wonders.

In non-MMOs it has worked for games like Torchlight and Diablo, where players will voluntarily play characters they know will be gone for ever when death arrives. It wouldn’t work in a World of Warcraft-esque MMO where players spend absurd amounts of time grinding for levels and gear which afterwards cannot be lost (until the next patch when the gear becomes useless and the players throw it away themselves), where time spent rebuilding a character would mean not being able to play with your friends/guild-mates because what they’re doing has certain level/gear-requirements.

Retirement, death and starting over

However, permanent death combined with bullet-point number three from above, set it in a virtual world designed from the ground up to support these systems? Now that is where it starts getting interesting.

Retiring a character, for instance, doesn’t necessarily have to mean “character is gone for ever”. It could also mean that those characters from that point on stop being able to use certain skills, to fight or to die. They could still be playable, but maybe only in a social context. Maybe new windows of opportunity could open up for such characters, like allowing for a life in politics, running a bar/tavern, etc.

Character dies a permanent death? Give her a spot in a public graveyard, where the size of her tombstone reflects the power/status of the character before death. In a way, that becomes a “ladder/ranking”-system that can give players some recognition even after their characters are long gone. And a place where their heirs can come to mourn their passing/enemies can come to dance on their graves.

The heirs who replace permanently fallen characters? Give them personal quests for revenge/justice. Give them heirloom items that can be passed on from character to character, increasing in strength (or fame) with every generation. Put in a system of inheritance where some/most/all of the fortune/items/real estate amassed by the parent character can be passed on. The more that is passed on, the less punishing the system would be to players – though the amount passed on might also reduce the impact of the original character’s death on the player (for good or worse).

Acts of heroism

Permanent death also opens up for acts of heroism. Richard Bartle talks about permanent death and heroism in Chapter 5 of his book “Designing Virtual Worlds“, where he amongst other things states the following:

Acts are only heroic when there is a significant, perceived chance of real loss and no easier alternative.

Continuing, he goes on to say that the mere presence of permanent death in a virtual world does not automatically make players heroic, just as making all players immortal doesn’t make them heroes. Only players can make themselves heroes. Further more – players value identities in worlds with permanent-death higher than in worlds without; you will never value something you can’t lose as high as something you can. Ownership is key.

Now, assuming that a player values his character, and puts that character at risk of permanent death while performing a courageous act for either personal gain or to help others? That’s heroism. If performing the same action in a world without permanent death, where there is no risk of loss? Not very heroic. Risking your own character to hold off a dangerous monster while your companion escapes to safety? Heroic. “Dying” 17 times before finally managing to take down raid boss #7? Not very heroic.

Care would have to be taken when implementing a system like this, of course. It’s not very heroic to suffer permanent death because the lag-monster prevented you from getting out of the way from a stampede of bulls, or caused you to run off a cliff and plunge to your death, for instance. However, with the right implementation, in the right context, I think it might work extremely well.

One thought on “Character resets and permanent death”

  1. A thousand times yes! I’ve had nearly identical dreams for the last decade, and a lot of people seem to be really warm to the idea of permanent death + heir in an MMO.

    Now that we’re moving into the era of F2P MMOs, though, retention is harder than ever. If you combined this with the previously mentioned “design a toy, not just a game” mentality, you might be okay, but you would have to make sure that you manage expectations really well.

    I think it’s important to create a world in which grinding/leveling isn’t as much of a goal: where new characters can have quite a lot of fun, with no repeated content (traditional, developer-created quests would be doom for such a game). There would still need to be advancement, of course, but not as large a gap between the best and the mediocre.

    Someday we’re going to have to get together and make our dream game.

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