The suspension of mortality common to most RPGs today dilutes the sense of character and story, and results in creating an inflationary system of levels and loot, where character is meaningless, and players are defined by what levels and loot they possess.
Some common arguments why people would never play a permanent death game:
“Who would want to play a game where they lose a character they labored over for months who died because of lag, or a bug. ?”
There are a few iterations of this argument, essentially devolving around the idea that once a character dies the player looses their hard earned efforts to make that character successful.
The typically envisioned scenario is the player logging in to a game at which they have labored to advance a character, only to have that character die, rendering them unplayable, at which point the player, alienated and frustrated quits the game, and tells all their friends about it.
I have no doubt that in the context of current game design, introducing permadeath without any consideration for issues surrounding it would have exactly that effect. But that scenario is a shallow assessment, particularly in something as pliable as a computer game.
There are a couple of issues here that have more to do with how a player death occurs, and is handled in game. There are also questions about character success and advancement.
What is the nature of a ’successful character’ ? Is it their accumulated levels and loot ? The number of interesting quests completed ? Their active involvement in an guild or group ?
There are options for each measure of 'success' that would be applicable in a permanent character death game. An ‘account karma’ system could be used to award accounts based on playing style, group association, or quests completed. Thus advancement by a particular character accrues not just to the character, but to the player account, and any affiliated characters.
Karmic accounts could also affect the type of characters that can be created by that account, good, evil, legendary type character classes, inherited skill bonuses, or items, etc. A player would need certain account karma in order to unlock classes or abilities.
The benefits of level and loot could be attributed to an account, not merely to a character. In effect, one could have a character that attains levels and loot, some of the benefits of which are inherited by other ‘characters’ created on an account.
The question of levels and loot have a couple of aspects that could be addressed, particularly in the context of games where death is a temporary setback. Firstly is that currently level and loot are inflationary and need to be balanced. The iterative and inflationary nature of current games result in the use of levels as a 'counting system' for character meaning, and measuring character 'success'.
The inflationary nature of level and loot based 'success' in games means that there must be an ever increasing rate of creatures to harvest for xp and loot, allowing the ravening hordes of PC's to fatten on game worlds teeming with killable creatures.
A system of more realistic difficulty could mean a game of fewer levels, that are more significant, or no ‘levels’ at all, merely ’skill ranks’ which accrue based on playing habits.
Inheritance or allegiance systems could allow for a distribution of accrued benefits of play that could be lost through character death.
A second common objection to permadeath games is that dying ‘permanently ‘ could result from accidental forces, lag, bugs, griefing, player misadventure; think 'Leeroy Jenkins', and further alienate the player base.
An admin based arbitration, 'going before the gods judgement' could be presented to resolve accidental death issues and grant ‘intervention’ to save the character.
In game mechanisms, whether player based, or AI could handle events that would count as ‘intervention’, NPC's that like players are capable of magical healing, or resurrection.
Awarding xp to PC's that provide healing or acts of mercy to other players that have been defeated and are 'near death'. NPC's that provide healing, or will 'take a fallen person to the physic', can
Account karma and NPC/PC justice code can be an answer to the problem of griefing, with bounties placed on the heads of griefing characters, and a karmic ‘debt’ attributed to their accounts for actions towards players and NPC’s.
With regard to the ‘physics’ of ‘health’ in game terms, these are skewed by the inflationary levelling system of difficulties of current MMORPGs and require very specific limitations on combat.
Health and hitpoints, mortal injury, death (of the temporary respawning variety), all occur on a collapsed timeline. Mortal injuring and dying in most cases is actually a slower process (in most cases), often allowing for some type of intervention (health care) to occur.
In games driven by level inflation MOB/NPC difficulty is driven by a need to challenge super powerful characters, resulting in an overabundance of overpowered NPC's and creatures. The experience of having your 7 foot tall, 350 pound, claymore wielding lvl 1 barbarian warrior cut down in his prime by a single rabid rodent is not uncommon in contemporary MMORPGs.
Creature difficulty could be handled differently, allowing for hunting and adventuring with a different level of risk. A risk that would be felt all the more acutely given the possibility that the character could ‘die’. This ‘acuity’ itself however potentially adds great interest to the game.
Many MMORPG’s today offer epic and visually rich settings sparsely populated by story elements, with a superabundance of XP and loot generating ‘mobs’. This particular unbalance is necessary due to the mechanics of the game, requiring lots of creatures for exploring PC’s to kill and loot.
The same constant and overwhelming abundance of monsters undermines any presence of meaningful dramatic story, becoming instead a shooting gallery in which the attention of bored players requires constant additions of loot bearing creatures in order to maintain interest.
Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ talks about the need for risk and loss in order to add intensity to a story. An audience seeing a sympathetic character die is saddened, and becomes more focused on the story outcome, hoping for the preservation of other sympathetic characters and story elements.
Heros must suffer in order for their ‘heroic character’ to show, stories must involve a real sense of loss in order for an audience to show interest in the story, that loss has to be in terms ‘people’ can feel, or relate to.
The locale in which a player acts, and the need for their participation in the storyline must be framed in terms of suffering, loss and danger. There has to be some normalcy for players to relate to, and that normalcy endangered provides the basis for the dramatic tension.
But getting back to the idea of character meaning, and storytelling even in the current MMORPG context, the ‘Leeroy Jenkins’ story illustrates my point. Stupid and ridiculous as the episode was, it actually became a story worth telling, watching and referring to. It became for a time, a meme of the MMORPG culture.