TGDRT #58: Death in Games

TGDRT

Episode #58 is live!

Jon, Dirk and David discuss the role of death in games. What is it for? How does it interact with narrative? What games has it been represented well and poorly in? And how can it be improved?

Okay, okay, #58 has actually been up for a while now – apologies for the delay in putting up this post. I’ve added a bit more meat compared to this podcast announcement, so hopefully all is forgiven. Christmas day is perfect for catching up on things!

This has been a topic rattling around inside my head for quite a while, but it came back with a vengeance while playing Chucklefish’s Starbound. There are several elements of the game that I really like (and even more in Re-Logic’s spiritual prequel Terraria – which I’ll be talking about at length soon), but what stood out to me the most was how unhappy I was with their representation of death.

When you die in Starbound you get zapped back up to your spaceship, and in many cases this is actually helpful. You don’t lose any equipment, and if there’s a monetary cost I certainly didn’t notice it. By contrast, Terraria offers three interesting options for the player to choose from. Upon death you either:

  1. Drop (but not lose) half your money and respawn at home (“Softcore”)
  2. Drop all of your equipment and items (“Mediumcore”)
  3. Permadeath

In Terraria money is useful but not the end-all be-all so losing just about any amount isn’t a big deal. Additionally, you can (and probably will) return to the location of your death and recollect your cash, which remains sitting there politely waiting for you until the end of time. (Edit: Just FYI, @Tegiminis on Twitter pointed out to me that items actually do disappear eventually.) And of course, if you stuff your loot under your mattress at home before venturing off there’s no chance of losing it, so the penalty for dying in Softcore is basically just a slap on the wrist.

Mediumcore raises the stakes quite a bit, as losing not just your items but also the equipment you wear all the time in a particularly hazardous or far-from-home place is a really big deal. Not only do you always want to head back to reclaim your stuff, but it’ll also be a much weaker version of you making the journey. And if a particular item was required to even get there? Well, death basically means losing all of your items for good. Needless to say, this is something you’ll work very hard to avoid.

I really like this three-pronged approach, and in doing some research about Terraria I discovered that it only came about through iteration – originally there was no Softcore mode, then the penalty was removed completely before the developers settled on the current setup. I love permadeath but it’s obviously not for everyone. The other two options are particularly brilliant from a game design perspective as they not only dangle the omnipresent sword of Damocles over players, but dying actually provides new goals.

Oh, you died? Well, you don’t just appear back at the starting line, but you’re going to be racing along a slightly different track now.

This approach isn’t ‘perfect’ in my book as it still doesn’t feel like death, but even so, it’s far more interesting than 99.9% of what’s out there, and is exactly the kind of creative design I hope to see more of in the future.

Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad. I understand why many developers feel the need to take a light-handed approach, but as both a designer and a player I relish seeing all of the new ideas popping up in the smaller and/or indie games that don’t need five million sales to break even.

- Jon

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4 Comments

  1. Starbound is a tough example because it is still rapidly changing. Currently they have a 30% penalty on money which is not recoverable. In addition currently there is no way to fast travel and your spawn point on the planet is static. Meaning if you are on a large planet it can take 5-10 minutes to get back to the dungeon you were in when you died. I agree that it’s not terribly severe, but the 30% penalty rapidly makes you cautious of dying once you’ve played long enough to acquire a savings account. Money is not bankable until very late in the game. Thus the penalty for death early in the game is low, and the penalty grows with your investment in the game. Pretty neat approach really.

    Reply
  2. “…a missed opportunity”
    Wtf are you Serious or Just a Troll?
    Terraria – Basically finished (Was finished at one point)
    Starbound – only in stage 1 (of 3) (testing phase) beta.

    Not only is the comparison at this point in StarBound’s development just stupid.
    But there were already modes (similar to Terraria) in the plans way before SB’s test beta even released.
    There is even a mode section next to your character slot waiting to be used…..

    You say the current SB death system is a missed opportunity. BUT Terraria Itself took a long time before the current modes were setup the way they are. They weren’t added until the Official 1.0 released long after beta.
    You even mentioned this process in the post/article.

    Hell Starbound actually has (basically) the exact same death system as Terraria had during Beta/before 1.0. Simply a loss of money.
    Well except that in Starbound you actually need that money to craft the good stuff.. but we won’t go into to that.

    So how is this a missed opportunity? Starbound won’t hit 1.0 for a long time. Terraria got until 1.0. So why can’t Starbound have until 1.0 (or at least until its in late stage 3 beta), Before you complain about a death/mode system that is currently incomplete/still being added.

    Reply
  3. Evan

     /  December 26, 2013

    I was with you until the end of your article. The following is an opinion:

    “Allowing players to die, respawn and try again a hundred times with no penalty, disincentive or new gameplay attached is not just a missed opportunity but a ‘feature’ that cheapens the rest of your game. Player actions are only meaningful when they have consequences – both good and bad.”
    ,
    Furthermore, it’s an opinion many people (including myself) do not share. However, this article is written in a way that seems to imply/say “You agree with me or you are wrong”. It’s not conducive to discussion to appear unwilling to move on your stance.

    I, for one, am not interested in meaningful consequences in my games. I deal with that in real life. My game time is to rewind and not have to worry about losing progress, items or money. I just want to relax. That doesn’t mean I don’t want permadeath and hardcore as options so other people can enjoy them. It just means I think all types of gamers should be able to enjoy the game in their own way, at their own speed – not to be forced away from games because being “Easy” somehow becomes associated with “cheapening” the experience.

    Reply
  4. A couple of games that add an interesting development on death:
    – Path of Exile: A Diablo clone where players can choose from a number of “Leagues” upon character creation. Standard characters can be played the same as a traditional diablo character, but joining a league is either time limited where all characters at the end of the specified time drop down to standard characters (softcore if you will), or Hardcore league where dying once drops you to a standard character, or Nemesis league where bosses are toughened up and dying once drops you to normal hardcore league. As a long time Diablo hardcore & roguelike fan, these are very good treatments of the genre by keeping the sting to the players who desire it, while softening the blow to more casual players if they wanted to dabble in hardcore.

    – Rogue Legacy: Platformer where each time you die you choose another “variant” of your character with slight skill and attributes that progressively become more powerful. Dying is almost required to reach the upper echelons of the game. What I find most interesting is that the pain associated with death is deferred until after choosing a new variant. Instead of the typical Roguelike die -> pain of loss -> choose to play again -> roll character (possibly a slightly different variant) -> play, Rogue Legacy has die -> choose more powerful variant -> pain of loss by tossing any unspent loot to play again -> choose to play again -> play.

    Adding to the discussion on using death as forced time outside the game; yes, it does lend itself well to a F2P monetization strategy and Candy Crush Saga uses this method to great effect (for better or worse).

    Reply

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