The mechanics of Death

The debate about death mechanics in WoW has continued for a while, and recent nerfs in Vanguard's death mechanics sparked my interest, since their system is relatively close to an another Blizzard game I used to play.

Diablo 2, the previous Blizzard net hack n' slash had a very similar death mechanic to Vanguard. You lost experience and gold upon death, and your character would spawn at a friendly city naked (figuratively speaking). If you successfully made your way back to your corpse, you'd retrieve all your gear and regain some lost experience. At no point you would lose a level through experience loss, though.

Interestingly enough, this death mechanic scaled throughout the game. Dying at low levels was relatively harmless, since the amount of experience and gold lost was small. But after you went past level 85 or so, a single death could set you back significantly. At level 90+, going to a dangerous situation was simply stupid.

How did it affect the game? Obviously, risk-taking decreased when you progressed in the game. High-level characters would not even go near hazardous situations, like Iron Maiden-casting Deathknights in Chaos Sanctuary, Nilthalak's Corpse Explosions, Arreat Summit's Barbarians or Lister's deadly loading lag. A high-level player would pick a risk-free spot and farm it. While the death mechanic did instill a healthy aversion to death upon characters, it also made the game boring, since increased risk was very rarely met with an appropriate increase in rewards. It was much more worthwhile to farm Mephisto than to risk dying without even reaching Baal.

Contrast this with WoW, which has one of the most forgiving death mechanics ever used in an MMORPG. The only penalties are a monetary penalty in the form of repair costs and a time penalty for corpserunning. You only lose experience if you really want to. Death in PvP only incurs a time penalty with no lasting effects. The difference in player mindset when compared to Diablo 2 is striking. WoW players are much more receptive to the idea of trying something different and quite likely fatal. Like attempting a raid encounter that could even be untested and completely unbeatable. This in turn is both a blessing and a curse. It lets players try to perform at the very edge of their gear and abilities and thus provide them that much-needed challenge. On the other hand, many players do get an optimal performance out from their characters, which sometimes results in players finishing off content at a faster pace than Blizzard would like. This results in bored players. To keep them interested, Blizzard has to keep making more and more content and new encounters.

A harsher death mechanic is not really a solution, and it could even backfire. One of the things that keeps the so-called casuals playing is that even short sessions benefit them. A short grind session, a quest or two, a bit of PvP, an instance run. Even though the benefits might be neglible, you always gain something, be it a bit of honor, some reputation, some gold or a sliver of experience. You never lose anything that would take hours upon hours to reacquire. That's currently reserved for bleeding-edge raiders.

Speaking of raiders.. A raider can currently burn several hundreds of gold in consumables when trying to down a new boss. If they also had to regrind experience and reacquire lost gear, raiding progress speed would grind to a halt. A few dedicated guilds would keep trying the new content, the rest would stick to farming easy encounters. Blizzard's current focus on new content development would most likely be a waste, since only a handful of people would even try to reach it. Raid encounters would stay bugged for months and months until Blizzard would eventually give in and nerf them enough for safe farming. If you think that having to clear trash mobs after a few wipes and farming 500g worth of consumables for a night of raiding is bad, you haven't seen anything yet. It could be much, much worse.

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