On the Drawing Board #3: Death


The theme for this week’s column was (for a change) not taken from the D3 Suggestions Forum, but from a forum post by Blizzard’s D3 Community Manager Bashiok. In that post he explained specifically how player deaths are now handled in Diablo III.

…we’ve found that a check point system works really well. Throughout your adventures, and generally at the ends of each “floor” of a dungeon your character is saved to a checkpoint. When you die you’re dropped back at the last checkpoint with a small amount of health, and the rest regenerates slowly. It’s obviously a very forgiving system as it is. It’s just too early to put a ton of thought in to what penalties there should be, if any, added on top of it.

Potential penalties aside, this is the death mechanic we’re currently using and it’s working really well so far.

This revelation set off a storm of player discussion that made one thing very clear—there’s no consensus among players about how death should be handled in D3. Well, there is one thing everyone seems to agree on; Hardcore is a necessary option.  In Hardcore, death is forever; characters can only die once, and when they do, they stay dead; a dead HC character can not be played again, can’t access their items or stash, etc. This option allows for players who feel death should come with heavy penalties, to vote with their feet. If there’s no HC mode, players who want a harder, more challenging, less forgiving game will forever be clashing with the more mainstream softcore players. (Fortunately, while HC has not yet been confirmed, from what the D3 Team has said it seems virtually certain they’ll include it.)

When it comes to death for non-Hardcore characters, everyone seems to have their own theory. The D3 Team’s current approach is to inflict a very minimal punishment, a strategy that some players wholeheartedly agree with, and that others strongly object to. It’s a complicated issue, since death, and the potential death penalties, are not the whole story. The real key is how often players will die, and how the D3 Team wants deaths to affect the flow of action in the game. Bashiok addressed game flow issue in his initial post:

Before I get in to what we are doing let me go over some things we want to avoid with a death mechanic.

We want to separate being in town and being out on a quest/adventure/dungeon as much as possible. Leaving the safety of a town should not be a decision you take lightly. We don’t want to remove the sense of suspense and danger by making town something you’re always going back to pretty much whenever you like. The intent is to create a greater separation from being in town, and not, and to make your time away from town a lot more tense.

On that same note we also don’t want to remove the player from the action. Throwing them back to town for every death really breaks up the action, and not in a fun, interesting, or necessary way.

Clearly, the design goal for the D3 Team is to minimize death penalties, especially in terms of time loss, since their goal is to keep party games flowing smoothly. They want players who die to be able to get right back into the action, and with that as their design objective, the “resurrect at a checkpoint” system is only logical.

That D3 is party-friendly is not going to change, since that’s clearly one of the core values of the game. It’s supported by features such as individual drops for each player, no PKing, shared healing from health globes, the upcoming enhanced friend list features on Battle.net 2.0, etc. In that light, whatever death penalties we see in the final game, they are never going to be terribly time-consuming or annoying. Dying might become costlier than it is now, but the penalties will never add hurdles or obstacles to getting right back into the party play, with your equipment back on, your spells ready to use, etc.

Furthermore, D3 lead Jay Wilson has “guaranteed” that there will not be experience loss upon death. It’s not clear if that rules out suggestions such as a penalty to exp gain for X number of monster kills after each death, but since technically that is an experience loss (if only vs. the potential exp gain) it seems like something Jay Wilson would oppose. We won’t know for sure until much further along in the game development cycle, though.

So, if there aren’t going to be inconveniences/time loss penalties, and there aren’t going to be experience loss penalties, what does that leave? Gold loss? Players have made many other suggestions, such as penalties to various game rewards for some time after each death. In addition to reduced experience gain, players have suggested penalties to magic find or gold find, temporarily reduced maximum hit points or mana/stamina/whatever. There’s no telling if the D3 Team is considering any of these, at this point. In fact, as Bashiok’s post mentioned, they’re not really worrying about the nitty gritty details of death penalties yet; they’re just working on the basic mechanic of restarting after a death, and they’ve found the checkpoint system a good one, thus far.

Why death penalties?

It’s a necessary question; if the death penalties are going to be so slight, why have them at all? The usual argument against that is a functional one. If there aren’t any penalties for dying, players will play very differently. For one thing, party play and cooperation will go out the window, at least for powerful characters who don’t really need other players around.

For example, I played only HC on US East during the early days of D2C. When D2X was drawing near, and word came that the entire US West realm was going to be duplicated to the beta server, I started up a SC Bowazon on US West so I could take her immediately into Act 5 when the D2X beta began. Predictably, after nearly a year of exclusively DiabloWikihardcore play, I was shocked at how people played (and died, and died, and died) in the public softcore games I leveled up in. I saw zero team work, constant PKing just for the hell of it, incredibly reckless play, total disregard for resistances or hit points, mad rushing through every area since higher experience could be had later, etc. It was worse in normal difficulty games, where there were zero death penalties, but in nightmare and hell the play style was madly reckless.

The party play dynamic that was quite common in hardcore games was non-existent in softcore; not because the characters were stronger and didn’t need help (quite the contrary—SC chars were usually a lot weaker since they didn’t bother to maximize their equipment quality), but because there was no sting to death. I repeatedly saw Whirlwind Barbarians flying through the Chaos Sanctuary (the best leveling up area in those pre-Act 5 days) with no regard for DiabloWikiIron Maiden curses. They’d join a game, portal to the River of Flame, race to the Chaos Sanctuary, and start spinning. Eventually they’d get IM’ed and die, but they got lucky on which curses hit them, they could clear out half or two-thirds of the area first, racking up the best experience and potential item drops in the game. When they did eventually get IMed and drop dead, they simply exited and joined another game, where they found their corpse in town, and repeated the whole scenario.

In that case at least, the lack of harsh death penalties ruined any chance of co-op play in what was the most challenging, most party-dependent area in the entire game. I’d had countless very fun party games clearing out the Hell difficulty River of Flame and Chaos Sanctuary with my HC characters, usually playing a bowazon while a Paladin or other melee characters stuck close behind me, assisting with Auras and Warcries and waiting their chance to join the fray on screens when no DiabloWikiOblivion Knights were in range. That simply did not exist in softcore.

There’s also a fair amount of anecdotal evidence that games without death penalties encourage a “glass cannon” type of character design. (Titan Quest is often cited on this front.) After all, if dying doesn’t matter, then it’s only logical to build your characters to kill as quickly as possible, without much regard to your own survival. Go as fast as you can, reap the quick rewards, and if you die just create a new game and repeat.

Living Rewards

The alternative to death penalties is to reward characters for not dying. These have been popular player suggestions since long before D3 was announced, but we’ve got no idea if the D3 Team is aware of the concept, or would seriously consider it for D3. It’s something we’ll be sure to ask about at Blizzcon.

Wat’s a living reward? (It sounds like a life insurance company you’d see advertised in a late night infomercial.)  It’s simply a reward or bonus of some type that a character would achieve for not dying. Rather than subtracting from characters who do die, this concept rewards characters who do not. How the time alive is measured is open to debate: number of monster kills, amount of experience gained, number of dungeon levels survived, amount of time elapsed, consecutive games played, etc. Such rewards must be balanced so as not to over-reward back row characters, or players who are extremely cautious, or characters who slum in lower difficulty games, but the theory is viable.

The types of bonuses could be almost anything. Common suggestions are boosts to experience gain, increases to magic or gold find, bonuses to total items found, and many more. The duration of these bonuses is open to debate as well; some players say they should be permanent (until your character dies and loses them), others think they should be short term or periodic. Imagine gaining a shrine-like bonus effect (of whatever type) that lasted for 2 minutes, every time you killed 100 monsters (within some reasonable +/- range of your own level) without dying?  Or seeing every 500th normal monster drop like a boss, or ever 5000th drop like an act boss?

Would that sort of thing entice players to play reasonably, to party and cooperate, and to try to stay alive? Would it encourage that more than a harsh death penalty? Would these sorts of rewards be unfair, since some characters would necessarily be better at killing faster, or surviving more damage?

It’s open to debate.

The issue of death penalties (or life rewards) issue is a complicated one, and not just because the game is still under development. These penalties do not exist in a vacuum. They have to be considered in terms of the D3 Team’s design goals (fast paced party PvM play), how they will (or will not) impact play styles and character builds, what the alternatives are, how the overall game difficulty is balanced, and more. What do you guys think?



On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.

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