Saturday, March 2, 2019

Death Cab For Cutie

Brad McQuaid's Pantheon team likes to sound the waters for feedback on just how old school they should go. A recent tweet on the official feed asked "If your character died in an extremely difficult area, would you bother to try and get your corpse back or just leave it to rot and take the exp hit/loot loss?".

Keen, who likes to bounce off Pantheon's churning idea mill, posted this morning in response. He opened his argument with a cheerful statement on all our behalfs: "I think we can all agree that no one would leave an EverQuest body full of loot to rot. It's simple untenable."

Oh, really? I beg to differ.

In the first six months I played EverQuest I left my corpse to rot three times. Three times that I remember.

The earliest was in Nektulos Forest. I was playing a Dwarven Cleric because some demented guide I'd found online claimed it was a good class/race combo for soloing. I mostly soloed when I started in EQ. Just being there was overwhelming enough without having to talk to people as well.

Clerics, dwarven or otherwise, did not solo well in Classic EverQuest. After two weeks of playing several hours every day I'd made it to level nine or thereabouts. I was hunting Wisps in the extremely badly-lit dark elf starting area when I ran over a small ridge and fell into a river.

I would have made it out if it hadn't been for the piranhas. I tried several times to swim down to my corpse so I could get my stuff back, such as it was, but all I achieved was a couple more fish-bitten corpses.

I was pissed off but I was already somewhat fed up with the tedious, slow grind of leveling a cleric so I took it as an opportunity to re-roll. On a different server.

These fish are no respecters of level, either.

Not too long afterwards I was playing my ranger in Blackburrow, when I made the mistake so many had made before me. I poked my nose into the hollow tree stump near the entrance. Next thing I knew I was deep underground, treading water in a shallow pool with a bunch of deep-red con gnolls staring down at me. The fall hadn't killed me but the gnolls soon fixed that.

I spent hours trying to get back to my corpse. I had a little help from sympathetic adventurers but we were all low level and no-one else wanted to die in the depths.

I never got my corpse back and I very, very nearly quit. It was the first time any video game had ever affected me so viscerally and there was absolutely nothing positive about the experience at all. I stopped playing for three days, which at the time was the longest I had ever stepped away from the game since the day I installed it.

The lure of Norrath was so strong, though, that I couldn't stay away. Not to mention that Mrs Bhagpuss was still playing, so I couldn't even pretend the damn game didn't exist. I re-rolled again and moved on to yet another server.

My third unrecoverable corpse came with the launch of Ruins of Kunark on April 24th, 2000. Well, it might not have been on the actual launch day. I can't remember if I was able to log in right at the start and I think I began by rolling an Iksar, anyway.

Suffice it to say it was the first time my Druid, then in the her very low twenties, stepped off the boat in Firiona Vie. Off she went to explore the new lands. Lasted about three minutes.

Nice. Bait the trap with your own kid.
Somewhere in deep undergrowth, with ferocious frame-rate lag (caused by the soon-to-become infamous trees) turning the game into a slide show, she ran into a nest of thrashing leeches.

I spent what felt like several hours trying to find the corpse. Even when I knew where it was I couldn't get to it. After a bunch of deaths, not all of them mine, I decided to cut my losses before someone lost a level. I left my corpse and everythng on it to rot in the steamy jungles of Kunark and went back to leveling in The Karanas.

Those are the three unrecoverable corpses I remember. There may have been others. Certainly I died in much worse places later on but by then either I'd worked out better techniques to get my stuff back or the game had changed to make it easier or both.

The time eventually came when I actively enjoyed corpse recoveries. I turned into that guy, the one who'd respond to your desperate plea for help in /ooc or guild chat. I'd get my druid to port you or my enchanter to invis you and together we'd get you up and running again.

I remember spending an entire session helping some Erudite recover his corpse from the Qeynos sewers. That was some of the most fun I'd had in the game back then. I remember when six of us stayed up until five in the morning on a work night getting our corpses back from the sixth floor of The Tower of Frozen Shadows. I remember the time a guy paid Mrs Bhagpuss to drag his corpse the entire length of West Karana and then had a paranoid fit that she was going to steal all his stuff and threatened to report her, so she just dumped his body by the side of the river and left him to get it for himself...

So many stories. But losing all your gear because you can't get your corpse is a thing of the past, of course. Are there any mainstream MMORPGs left where it could still happen? I can't think of one. Mostly what you get these days is a swift trip back to a nearby waypoint or graveyard or bind spot. You might lose a bit of xp, maybe your armor takes a tick of damage.

In EverQuest these days you can just pay an NPC in the Guild Lobby to summon your corpse and your Mercenary will rez it and get you 96% of the xp back. In EQ2 you get a tiny sliver of xp debt and a free trip to a safe part of the zone. In GW2 you pick a waypoint, pay a silver or two and start over as though nothing happened.

She died of a surfeit of lampreys.
About the only MMORPG I occasionally play that still makes it relatively awkward is, most surprisingly, World of Warcraft. It always puzzles me that the poster game for convenience expects you to run back to where you died if you want to avoid some fairly annoying penalties. And in black and white, too.

Looking ahead to Pantheon, I suspect the team will attempt to please everyone. Some version of corpse runs will exist for those who claim to like them (as I once did and still, perversely, might even now). For the average player, who at best finds the interruption to gameplay irritating and at worst might decide to give up on the whole thing, I'd bet there'll be some other option.

As there should be. While I would be the last person to claim that having to recover your corpse to get your gear back isn't immersive, that's the damned problem. It's too immersive.

Even twenty years ago, when I took all this stuff far more seriously than I do now, I wasn't playing MMORPGs so they would stimulate my emotions to the point where they actually hurt. It happened. It happened too often. It was never good, it was never fun and I never want to do that again.

There's a vast difference between a frisson and a shock. A little tingle can be exciting. A burn hurts. To my way of thinking, if a video game is engendering feelings that emulate those you'd avoid in real life, it's doing something wrong, not getting it right. Yes, you get some great stories but the cost is too high.

I'm all for being given the option to sneak back in and put one over on the dumb goblins that got lucky by snatching the loot back from under their noses. I understand the satisfaction of payback, calling in some favors, going back mob-handed to take names and kick ass but it needs to feel just real enough to give you a glow - no more than that.

Shouldn't be that hard to arrange should it? You just have to leave a back door.


  1. My take on it is it's better social experience vs. worse personal experience and, IMO, the latter far outweighs the former. Maybe I'm just indivindualist in general, but I don't want death to be too punishing in the genre where trial and error method is the king.

    1. I completely agree. It was fun when I was higher level helping lower levels and when I had a guild and a friends list I could call on for help but that took about eighteen months. It wasn't much fun before that.

  2. Odd that WoW might have one of the more onerous death penalty mechanics now largely by virtue of not changing it much over the last 15 years.

    As for declining to run back and get my corpse, there is a point beyond which it became a an either/or option for people; get back a corpse with all their hoarded gear or quit. Leaving behind a corpse with some cheap gear and a few rusty weapons, no big deal. Leaving behind a corpse with a Ghoulbane and all that rubicite armor I'd collected? Not gonna happen while I still play the game.

    That was, of course, if you could even find your corpse. Before the "/corpse" command, just getting back to it could be a chore. I remember spending all evening looking for a corpse in West Karana. I'd been running across the zone at night, ran into Froon, tried to get away, and then died before I remembered to type in "/loc" to see where I was. Where I sorta thought I was ended up being nowhere near the place I actually died.

    1. Yes, finding your corpse was sometimes a lot harder than recovering it. Thank Brell for the Chipped Bone Rod! As I've mentioned in the past, probably my most memorable lost corpse was the time I decided to go AFK in West Karana while I made myself a coffee. I was on my druid, who was neutral or friendly to most of the roaming wildlife but to be even safer I put her into tree form. When I came back ten minutes later she was back at bind. She'd been killed by the one and only, famously rare roaming werewolf. I set out to find her corpse, which was when i noticed for the first time just how many trees there are in West Karana...

      I had to go buy a CBR for that one.

  3. I missed EQ when it was new and people were exploring it, I was in the main competitor at the time -- Asheron's Call. When I came to it later on the 30 day trial programme they ran, it was alongside some already very knowledgeable and leveled people so missed out (for better or worse) on much of this experience.

    Asheron's Call you dropped items, with the number increasing as you climbed in level. The means of protecting yourself from dropping anything key was to carry around a bag or two of 'Death Items', items you carried with the express purpose of dropping them on death.

    As what you dropped paid no respect to whether or not the item in question was equipped, just what its pyreal (gold) value was. There was some protection from dropping a whole set of armor in the form of subsequent items in a dropped category having their value calculated at half, but sooner or later -- if you were dying too much and not recovering, you'd start to take hits to gear you valued.

    In the earlier phases of beta, other people could loot your corpse even in the PvE servers. This never made it to release though and generally people even during that era were helpful and would often corpse camp and tell the person where it was and that they were protecting the items.

    Anywho, mega ramble. Sorry. There were certainly some memorable corpse runs to be had in AC - some of their dungeons were incredibly deep, getting down to the key hunting spots in some of them could be quite an ordeal without a party. So that moment where you took one just a couple things too many, died, and then saw your breastplate drop, or the main weapon you used in the dungeon?


    1. I'm always interested in stories of how Asheron's Call was, back in the day. I bought it and tried it but I couldn't get on with it. In fact I couldn't understand how it worked.

      I'm trying to remember how corpse runs were in Anarchy Online and DAOC, both of which I played a fair bit. It's not really coming back to me, though, so I'm guessing they were relatively mild, if they existed at all. I think the whole concept of jogging back to where you died was already going out of fashion by the early 2000s, to be replaced by xp loss and item degradation. EQ2 did have "shard runs" at launch but they were junked pretty quickly.

      Which makes it seem even odder that WoW not only went with corpse runs but still has them in 2019...

    2. I don't recall DAOC death penalty well either... I remember some fairly long runs, but not if anything else happened? Given the era one would assume it likely some sort of XP penalty possibly recovered on finding the corpse, but that is pure speculation at this point. I never got to the end game of DAOC though either.

      Anarchy Online definitely had the XP penalty though, some of which you could get back on finding your body. It didn't kick in until over level 10 though. I don't recall if there was item drops as well.

    3. in DAOC you got considerable xp penalty and re-spawned with your items when you died if I remember right. The place you died was marked with your gravestone and its position was marked in your map.
      If you managed to get back to gravestone and clicked (prayed), you got most of the xp back.
      Gravestones decayed with remaining up time calculated depending on your level.

    4. Ah yes! Gravestones! I remember those. In fact, I seem to remember there came a point when there were so many in some places that it caused a drain on graphics processing and an option had to be added to hide them. Or maybe that was some other game...

  4. Coming from a background of single-player games, I've always found the concept of death penalties in MMOs absolutely baffling. It's a largely non-existent mechanic in most other game genres. In most games, the penalty for failure is, uh, failure.

    This is something people who tend to argue in favour of death penalties tend to gloss over: The punishment for dying in a game is dying. You failed in whatever you were trying to do. The mobs have gotten back to full health and/or respawned, and you need to start the fight over. XP loss or gear damage or whatever else is something that MMO developers decided to add on top of that for... some reason.

    The main argument seems to be "immersion," but there's no immersion to be found in any scenario where your character is coming back from the dead. It's all just a bunch of hand-waving over game mechanics no matter what, so making it more frustrating doesn't make it more immersive.

    The other argument would tend to be challenge, but that also doesn't hold up to logical examination. Adding extra penalties to failure doesn't affect the difficulty of the original content. It just adds frustration.

    In fact, I'd say harsh death penalties make games easier, in a roundabout sort of way, because they strongly discourage risk-tasking. I'm not going to push the limits of what my character can do if I risk a major loss of progress by doing so.

    So no, I'm not a fan of harsh death penalties in MMOs. I'd say their day is past, but they never should have existed in the first place. They're not so much outdated as they are a bad idea from the very start. I'm very happy that most games these days either have no extra penalties for character death (like Anthem) or make only a token nod to them (like SWTOR).

    1. Immersion has at least two meanings. I agree that corpse runs and death penalties don't add much to the kind of immersion that's a euphemism for "realism". Most MMORPGs - probably all the popular ones - have almost no connection with that kind kind of immersion to begin with.

      The other kind of immersion, though, is the emotional identification of the player with the character and the character's situation. Corpse runs absolutely nail that, which is my main problem with them. A corpse that you think might be unrecoverable in one of those MMOs creates feelings and emotions inside you that don't just emulate but *are* those of grief, loss and despair. It's immersive in a way I don't want to be immersed; it's like drowning.

      Perhaps unsurprisingly, surviving those situations lays down a level of memory that less impactful experiences just can't match. Some people feel it's a worthwhile trade. I don't. But I do enjoy the milder, more positive sensations that come from helping someone else in their time of trial. That's a vicarious emotional hit I can take. Hence my ambivalence.

    2. Corpse runs were basically a carryover from their earlier incarnation of MUDs.

      Raph Koster wrote a blog post that is still locatable via Google comparing them against MMOs, though I’d add that even in the wrong MUD like the one I’d played, where gear had become more valuable and less disposable, despite the availability of donation rooms for cheaper standby gear replacements and multiple global chats to seek help from, the prospect of losing your best gear HURT and caused more than one or two no-longer-playing-game ragequits if the player walked into a deathtrap that ate all their gear.

      Being an extremely possessive accumulator and hoarder, I would curtail my own gameplay than take such risks, and generally kept all my stuff completely safe until I realized one day, past the point of burnout, that I was reacting too excessively to the game design and needed to break free of the chains of “stuff” tying me down and holding me back from exploring other games out there. That was when I symbolically and voluntarily jumped into a deathtrap (though I can’t remember if I removed a bunch of valuable items first) and left my entire stable of alts (and the valuable items they were carrying) to autodelete on purpose. There’s another thing you’d never see in MMOs these days, the threat of wiping and erasing all your player and account data if you stopped playing for more than 30 days a stretch.

      Little wonder that over time, corpse runs got designed out of the equation, especially if you’re no longer running a free MUD that has to conserve data storage, but a paid-for subscription game service with a customer service department.

    3. Oh, that's a really good recall - the auto-deletion of unplayed accounts. I had completely forgotten that. It haunted the early years of both my and Mrs Bhagpuss's MMORPG play. I forget how long EQ would hold your characters but I think it was measured in months. It was the defining reason why we never unsubscribed, even when we left to play other MMOs. We played DAOC for almost a year from launch but we subbed to EQ as well because if we left we couldn't be sure our characters would be there if we decided to go back. Which, of course, we did, eventually and repeatedly.

      In these days of farmed nostalgia and ex-players as a primary demographic it seems almost unimagineable that companies would unilaterally delete dormant accounts but back then it seemed almost reasonable...

  5. Is there a mainstream MMO that still has corpse runs?

    It depends it you count ARK, for example, as an MMO. It's clearly a mainstream game (so mainstream it spawned or at least WoW-ed an entire genre). Corpse runs are very much a thing in ARK, mirroring almost exactly the dynamics you describe from EQ: corpses in inaccessible places, corpses being camped by high level mobs, logging out for 3 days in frustration vowing to never play again, exploring a hill too far being rewarded with endless corpse runs etc.

    Corpse runs are also a thing in the ARK-derived ATLAS. ATLAS is most definitely an MMO, though with the qualifier "Survival" MMO. It's doing alright (still in the top 100 on Steam), but not as successful as ARK. The ARK devs have signaled though they are going to add even more MMO elements (including daily quests lol). Will be interesting to see if they nerf corpse runs or not.

    - Simon

    1. Yes, I ran across corpse runs in my short time in Atlas. Didn't like them much. Or at all. But then, I didn't like anything about the "survival" aspects of that game. It does seem ironic that as the MMORPG genre has dropped these mechanics it has declined while the Survival genre has embraced them and flourished. Food for thought there...


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