Last week, I spoke with Ryan Barker, the current Lead Designer on MMOG granddaddy EverQuest, who said that the game had become more casual-friendly since its launch in March 1999, but that it wasn't a bad thing. You know what? The man is right - not only is appealing to casual players better for EverQuest, it's better for the MMOG genre as a whole.
Back in the day, EverQuest was as hardcore as they come. If you died, you lost experience and had to retrieve all your gear from your dead body, running through hostile territory completely naked. To make matters worse, if you had a monster's attention and tried to run away, it would pursue you until you exited the entire zone or were dead, whichever came first.
Not only was this a punishing game, it was a fiercely dog-eat-dog one. There were no instanced dungeons as is commonplace these days; everything was out in the open world, which meant that if you wanted to kill something, you were competing for it with everybody else. Rare monsters were on week-long respawn timers, which meant that if your guild wanted the phat loot off of one of these rare monsters, everybody had to sit there for hours waiting for it to spawn just so no one else could beat them to it. There's a reason that the term "poopsocking" exists, y'know - unfortunately it's not figurative.
For some unfathomable reason, players gladly put up with all of this. Sure, for many there's a fond veil of nostalgia over the whole thing, but even Barker admits that it's usually in the context of "Oh man, remember how much that sucked?" These sorts of gameplay mechanics would never fly in a modern MMOG, and for good reason: They did suck.
The first lesson we need to learn from this was summed up neatly at last year's PAX by Jumpgate Evolution's producer Hermann Peterscheck: There's a difference between a hard game and a punishing one, no matter your skill level. Early EverQuest and games like it with severe death penalties aren't challenging, they're just punishing.
If I make a boss that requires twenty players to maintain maximum healing and damage-dealing while being aware of ten different situational dangers like area damage and additional enemies, that's pretty damn challenging - but if they die and can just run in and try again without penalty, it's not a problem. If I make a boss that requires twenty players to close their eyes and nod off as they deal with no special abilities, that's easy - but if they mess up and die and they lose half their items, a level's worth of experience and have their hit points halved for five hours, that's punishing.
Obviously, the two examples above are extremes, but here's the crux of the matter: The only thing that a hefty penalty for failure does is make it so that it takes longer for a player to get back to the action after they die. By instituting a heavy death penalty, you just add time that a player spends standing around not playing the game. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the things that most modern MMOGs have kicked to the wayside. In LotRO, when you die, you gain Dread, which lowers your abilities slightly for a period of time. In WAR and Aion, you receive a similar minor penalty, and can simply pay a sum to have it removed. In WoW, your equipment takes damage and will eventually need to be repaired. These are really just penalties in name only; none of them prevent you from playing the game - from just running back in to get back to try that challenging boss again.