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Permadeath or permanent death is a game mechanic in both tabletop games and video games in which player characters who lose all of their health are considered dead and cannot be used anymore. Depending on the situation, this could require the player to create a new character to continue, or completely restart the game potentially losing nearly all progress made. Other terms include persona death and player death. Some video games offer a hardcore mode that features this mechanic, rather than making it part of the core game.
Permadeath is contrary to games that allow the player to continue in some manner, such as their character respawning at a nearby checkpoint on "death" (such as in Minecraft), resurrection of their character by a magic item or spell, or being able to load and restore a saved game state to avoid the death situation (such as in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). The mechanic is frequently associated with both tabletop and computer-based role-playing games, and is considered an essential element of the roguelike genre of video games. The implementation of permadeath can vary depending on the type of game.
In single-player video games
Permadeath was common in the golden age of arcade video games. Most arcade games (such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man, for example) feature permanent death as a mechanic by default because they lack the technical ability to save the game state. Early home gaming mimicked this gameplay, including a simulation of entering coins to continue playing. As home computers and game consoles became more popular, games evolved to have less abstract protagonists, giving the death of a character more impact. When developers added the ability to replay a failed level, games become more complex to compensate, and stronger narratives were added, which focused on progressing characters through a linear story without repeated restarts. Inspired by the dungeon crawls in the first wave of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, early role-playing video games on home computers often lacked much narrative content and had a cavalier attitude toward killing off characters; players were expected to have little emotional connection to their characters, though many allowed players to save their characters' progress.
Few single-player RPGs exhibit death that is truly permanent, as most allow the player to load a previously saved game and continue from the stored position. The subgenre of roguelike games is an exception, where permadeath is a high-value factor. While players can save their state and continue at a later time, the save file is generally erased or overwritten, preventing players from restarting at that same state. They work around this by backing up save files, but this tactic, called "save scumming", is considered cheating. The use of the permadeath mechanic in roguelikes arose from the namesake of the genre, Rogue. The developers initially did not implement save capabilities, requiring players to finish the game in one session. When they added a save feature, they found that players would repeatedly reload a save file to obtain the best results, which was contrary to the game design—they "wanted [realism]"—so they implemented code to delete the save file on reloading. This feature is retained in nearly all derivatives of Rogue and other games more loosely inspired by its gameplay.
Implementations of permadeath may vary widely. Casual forms of permanent death may allow players to retain money or items while introducing repercussions for failure, reducing the frustration associated with permanent death. More hardcore implementations delete all progress made. In some games, permadeath is an optional mode or feature of higher difficulty levels. Extreme forms may further punish players, such as The Castle Doctrine, which has the option of permanently banning users from servers upon death. Players may prefer to play games with permadeath for the excitement, the desire to test their skill or understanding of the game's mechanics, or out of boredom with standard game design. When their actions have repercussions, they must make more strategic and tactical decisions. At the same time, games using permadeath may encourage players to rely on emotional, intuitive or other non-deductive decision-making as they attempt, with less information, to minimize the risk to characters which they have bonded with. Games using permadeath more closely simulate real life, though games with a strong narrative element frequently avoid permadeath.
Permadeath of individual characters can be a factor in party-based tactical role-playing games. In these games, the player generally manages a roster of characters and controls their actions in turn-based battles while building their attributes, skills, and specializations over time. If these characters fall in combat, the character is considered dead for the remainder of the game. It is possible to return to a previous save game state in these games before the death of the character, but require the player to repeat the battle to continue, risking the loss of the same or other characters. Square's 1986 fantasy shoot 'em up game King's Knight featured four characters, each of which had to clear own level before rejoining the others. If one of them died, they were lost permanently.
In multiplayer video games
In mass multiplayer online role-playing games
Permadeath in multiplayer video games is controversial. Due to player desires and the resulting market forces involved, Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (such as World of Warcraft) and other multiplayer-focused RPGs rarely implement it. Generally speaking, there is little support in multiplayer culture for permadeath. Summarizing academic Richard Bartle's comments on player distaste for permadeath, Engadget characterized fans of MMORPGs as horrified by the concept. For games that charge an ongoing fee to play, permadeath may drive players away, creating a financial disincentive to permadeath.
Diablo II, Diablo III, Minecraft, Terraria, and Torchlight II are mainstream exceptions that include support for an optional "hardcore" mode that subjects characters to permadeath. Star Wars Galaxies had permadeath for Jedi characters for a short period but later eliminated that functionality after other players targeted them. Even World of Warcraft has a following of players who call it the "Hardcore Challenge". Players who join this challenge use an addon in their game to track their combat. If their character ever dies, the rule is they must delete their character.
Proponents attribute a number of reasons why others oppose permadeath. Some attribute tainted perceptions to poor early implementations. They also believe that confusion exists between "player killing" and permadeath, when the two do not need to be used together. Proponents also believe that players initially exposed to games without permadeath consider new games from that point of view. Those players are attributed as eventually "maturing", to a level of accepting permadeath, but only for other players' characters.
The majority of MMORPG players are unwilling to accept the penalty of losing their characters. MMORPGs have experimented with permadeath in an attempt to simulate a more realistic world, but a majority of players preferred not to risk permadeath for their characters. As a result, while they occasionally announce games that feature permadeath, most either remove or never ship with it so as to increase the game's mass appeal.
Proponents of permadeath claim the risk gives additional significance to their in-game actions. While games without it often impose an in-game penalty for restoring a dead character, the penalty is relatively minor compared to being forced to create a new character. Therefore, the primary change permadeath creates is to make a player's decisions more significant; without it there is less incentive for the player to consider in-game actions seriously. Those seeking to risk permanent death feel that the more severe consequences heighten the sense of involvement and achievement derived from their characters. The increased risk renders acts of heroism and bravery within the gameworld significant; the player has risked a much larger investment of time. Without permadeath, such actions are "small actions". However, in an online game, permadeath generally means starting over from the beginning, isolating the player of the now-dead character from former comrades.
Richard Bartle described advantages of permanent death: restriction of early adopters from permanently held positions of power, content reuse as players repeat early sections, its embodiment of the "default fiction of real life", improved player immersion from more frequent character changes, and reinforcement of high level achievement. Bartle also believes that in the absence of permanent death, game creators must continually create new content for top players, which discourages those not at the top from even bothering to advance.
Those players who prefer not to play with permadeath are unwilling to accept the risk of the large penalties associated with it. The penalty often means a great deal of time spent to regain lost levels, power, influence, or emotional investment that the previous character possessed. This increased investment of time can dissuade non-hardcore players. Depending on the design of the game, this may involve playing through content that the player has already experienced. Players no longer interested in those aspects of the game will not want to spend time playing through them again in the hope of reaching others to which they previously had access. Players may dislike the way that permadeath causes others to be more wary than they would in regular games, reducing the heroic atmosphere that games seek to provide. Ultimately this can reduce play to slow, repetitive, low-risk play, commonly called "grinding". Most MMORPGs do not allow character creation at an arbitrary experience level, even if the player has already achieved that level with a now-dead character, providing a powerful disincentive for permadeath.
Permadeath guilds may exist in multiplayer games without this feature. Players voluntarily delete their characters based on the honor system.
In tabletop games
Permadeath can be used as a mechanic in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. In these games, players create their own characters and level through campaigns, but these characters can be permanently killed in more difficult encounters, which would force players to recreate a new character. These games typically have rules to stave off this permadeath, such as through resurrection spells, since this would allow players to remain committed to their character.
- "Never-to-return death is called permanent death or PD." (Bartle 2003, p416)
- "Some old-timers prefer the expansion persona death. Exceedingly old-timers might even use player death, but at least we're trying to break the habit." (Bartle 2003, p416)
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- Craddock, David L (August 5, 2015). "Chapter 2: "Procedural Dungeons of Doom: Building Rogue, Part 1"". In Magrath, Andrew (ed.). Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games. Press Start Press. ISBN 978-0-692-50186-3.
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- Gems In The Rough: Yesterday's Concepts Mined For Today, Gamasutra
- "It's [permanent death is] the single most controversial subject in virtual worlds." (Bartle 2003, p415)
- "Existing virtual world culture is anti-PD." (Bartle 2003, p444)
- "Dr. Bartle finally interrupted the conversation by trying to bring the conversation back to a player's perspective: 'Do you want permadeath or pedophilia? Both seem equally attractive to most players.'" Woleslagle, Jeff. "Slaughtering Sacred Cows". Retrieved 2007-05-26. (Quote is on second page)
- Axon, Samuel (2007-11-15). "Dofus embraces permadeath with new hardcore servers". Engadget. Retrieved 2016-02-09.
- "The most frequently cited reason against permadeath is, of course, player investment, which put succinctly says, 'We never want to give players a reason to stop paying us $10 bucks a month.' … Due to the intricate coding complexities and the… unique nature of sharing a space with other players, it’s hard enough to prevent these catastrophic events from occurring. Why on earth would we want to give you a choice as to whether or not to start a new character, or cancel your account altogether?" (Schubert 2005)
- "Not only will they [players] say they'll leave when it [permanent character death] happens, some of them actually will leave." (Bartle 2003, p424)
- Stay, Jesse; Stay, Thomas; Cordeiro, Jacob (2015). Minecraft For Dummies. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 287, Chapter 16: Understanding the Minecraft Game Modes. ISBN 9781118968239.
- Senior, Tom (2011-06-16). "Terraria sells 432,000 in one month, hardcore mode revealed". PC Gamer. Retrieved 2015-10-27.
- Farrell, Dennis. "Permadeath: The Best Terrible Decision You Can Make". 1up.com. Archived from the original on 2015-04-17. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
- "For a few months, one type of "Star Wars" character, the rare and powerful Jedi, could be permanently killed. But when players began singling out Jedi characters for vicious attacks, Jedi players cried out for help, and last month LucasArts abandoned permadeath, a company spokeswoman said." (Glater 2004)
- "World First "No Death" Hardcore Ragnaros Kill Confirmed on WoW Season of Mastery". FictionTalk. 2022-01-23. Retrieved 2022-01-24.
- "This is primarily due to imperfect early implementations and bad customers service decisions; nevertheless, the legacy is there." (Bartle 2003, p444)
- "Many of the benefits that advocates of PKing cite are primarily due to PD; some of the strongest objections to PKing are due to its PvP element, rather than to PD." (Bartle 2003, p416)
- "If they [players] began with a virtual world that had no PD, they'll judge your virtual world from that standpoint." (Bartle 2003, p424)
- "Even if they are 'mature enough' for PD, they're [sic] attitude is analogous to the way that people in the real world view public transport. … So it is with PD: It's fine when it happens to you, but not so fine when it happens to me. (Bartle 2003, p424)
- "Certain high level monsters would also have the ability to perma-kill a player character. [...] In retrospect, though, that one just seems crazy." Ludwig, Joe (2007-05-31). "Whatever Happened to Middle-Earth Online? (Part 2 - The Bellevue Months)".
- "Then, the fact that the whole experience [play without permanent death] is vacuous begins to nag at them." (Bartle 2003, p431)
- "Without PD (it can also mean "permadeath"), there's no sense of achievement in a game." (Bartle, "Column 2")
- "Without PD, 'small actions' are steps on a treadmill and 'done well' means you move slightly faster than people who have 'done badly.' Heroism is no such thing—it's just another example of a 'small action.'" (Bartle 2003, p431)
- "In virtual worlds [without permanent death], this is called sandboxing — the people who are first to positions of power keep them. There is no opportunity for change." (Bartle 2003, p426)
- "In a virtual world with no PD, you only get to experience a body of content once." (Bartle 2003, p427)
- Bartle summarizes these points in Bartle, Richard (December 6–8, 2004). "Newbie Induction: How Poor Design Triumphs in Virtual Worlds" (PDF). Other Players Conference Proceedings.
- Powerful PCs aren't retired because "That [retiring the PC], however, is too much like PD for many players to stomach." To satisfy these players, additional high end content is continuously added. When this is done, "Newbies (and not-so-newbies) feel they can never catch up. The people in front will always be in front, and there's no way to overtake them. The horizon advances at the speed you approach it." (Bartle 2003, p426)
- "It [permanent death] leaves no room for error, and the tension of the game kills the enjoyment for casual gamers." Mortensen, Torill Elvira (October 2006). "WoW is the New MUD: Social Gaming from Text to Video". Games and Culture. Vol. 1, no. 4. pp. 397–413. doi:10.1177/1555412006292622.
- "The more harsh your death penalties are, the less likely that your player base will take risks and interesting chances." (Schubert 2005)
- "And just like that, your game is considered grindalicious, as your players bore themselves to death." (Schubert 2005)
- Olivetti, Justin (2014-08-30). "The Game Archaeologist: Ironman modes and elective permadeath". Engadget. Retrieved 2015-08-10.
- Sidhu, Premeet; Carter, Marcus (2021). "Pivotal Play: Rethinking Meaningful Play in Games Through Death in Dungeons & Dragons". Games and Culture. 16 (8). doi:10.1177/15554120211005231.
- Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. ISBN 978-0-13-101816-7.
- Bartle, Richard. "Column 2". Retrieved 2007-05-26.
- Glater, Jonathan D. (2004-03-04). "50 First Deaths: A Chance to Play (and Pay) Again". New York Times.
- Schubert, Damion (2005-04-12). "Please, Not the Permadeath Debate Again". Archived from the original on October 1, 2011. Retrieved 2014-11-07. Schubert is game designer whose massive multi-player game credits include Lead Designer on Meridian 59, work on Ultima Online, Lead Designer for the sequel to Ultima Online.
- "Damion Schubert". MobyGames. Retrieved 2007-05-26.