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In role-playing games, both for tabletop and computer, permadeath (or permanent death) is a gameplay mechanic in which player characters that die are permanently dead and removed from the game and may no longer be used to play. Less common terms with the same meaning are persona death and player death. Games without permanent death may allow characters who are killed to be resurrected to a playable state, with this action often costing resources or undoing progress the player has made.
Permanent death is commonly a component of roguelike role-playing games and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), although it is sometimes used in discussions of the mechanics of non-electronic role-playing games. Ewen Hosie of IGN states that though action games frequently employ this gameplay element, it carries no emotional weight. Game developer Andrew Douall identifies permanent death as a pillar of roguelike game design. According to Hosie, the roguelike Dwarf Fortress "does [not] even allow the player to win in any traditional sense".
Implementations may vary widely. Casual forms of permanent death may allow players to retain money or items while introducing repercussions for failure. This can reduce the frustration associated with permanent death. More hardcore implementations delete all progress made. In some games, permanent death is an optional mode or feature of higher difficulty levels. Extreme forms of permanent death may further punish players, such as The Castle Doctrine, which has the option of permanently banning users from servers upon death. Gamers may prefer to play games with permanent death 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 permanent death 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 with which they have bonded. Games using permanent death more closely simulate real life. Games with a strong narrative element frequently avoid permanent death.
In single-player video games
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 of these games. While the player can save their state and continue at a later time, the save file is generally erased or overwritten, preventing the player from restarting at that same state. Players can 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. Glenn Wichman and Michael Toy, the developers of the game, initially did not have save capabilities, requiring players to finish the game in one session. When they did add 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—which they "wanted to make it realistic"—so they implemented code to wipe the save file on reloading to prevent this. This feature is retained in nearly all derivatives of Rogue as well as more recent "roguelike-like" titles like Spelunky and FTL: Faster Than Light.
Permadeath of individual characters can be a factor in party-based tactical role-playing games, including the X-COM series, the Fire Emblem series, and Darkest Dungeon. In these games, the player generally manages a roster of characters and controls their actions in turn-based battles while building their attributes and 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 requiring the player to repeat the battle to continue, risking the loss of the same or other characters.
In multiplayer video games
Permanent death in multiplayer video games is controversial. Due to player desires and the resulting market forces involved, MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft) and other multiplayer-focused RPGs rarely feature permanent death. Generally speaking, there is little support in multiplayer culture for permanent death. 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, permanent death may drive players away, creating a financial disincentive to include permanent death.
Terraria, Minecraft, Diablo II, and Diablo III are mainstream exceptions that include support for an optional "hardcore" mode that subjects characters to permanent death. Sacred and Sacred 2 similarly feature or have featured a similar "hardcore" mode. Star Wars Galaxies had permadeath for Jedi characters for a short period, but later eliminated that functionality.
Proponents attribute a number of reasons why others oppose permanent death. Some attribute tainted perceptions to poor early implementations. They also believe that confusion exists between "player killing" and permanent death, when the two do not need to be used together. Proponents also believe that players initially exposed to games without permanent death consider new games from that point of view. Those players are attributed as eventually "maturing," to a level of accepting permanent death, 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 permanent death in an attempt to simulate a more realistic world, but a majority of players preferred not to risk permanent death for their characters. As a result, while MMORPGs are occasionally announced that feature permanent death, most either remove or never ship permanent death so as to increase the game's mass appeal.
Proponents of permanent death claim the risk of permadeath gives additional significance to their in-game actions. While games without permanent death often impose an in-game penalty for restoring a dead PC, the penalty is relatively minor compared to being forced to create a new PC. Therefore, the primary change in experience permanent death creates is that it makes a player's decisions more significant; without permanent death there is less incentive for the player to consider in-game actions seriously. Those players 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 permanent death, 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 called out as 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.
Proponents of permanent death systems in MMORPGs are a relatively small sub-section of the hardcore gaming community. These players are often interested in additional challenges provided by games that attempt greater realism in their simulation. These players will often seek less-restricted social and economic environments catering to a greater range of player-versus-player interaction and risk-versus-reward scenarios.
Those players who prefer not to play with permanent death are unwilling to accept the risk of the large penalties associated with it. Paying the penalty of permanent death often means a great deal of time spent to regain 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 permanent death 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". Of course, the significance of heroism without the risk of permanent death is dramatically reduced. 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 permanent death.
In other games
Few non-electronic role-playing games give players the opportunity to resurrect characters, although older combat-oriented games, including the most popular game, Dungeons & Dragons, sometimes do. Dungeons & Dragons' implementation of death would go on to influence early computer role-playing games, such as The Bard's Tale.
Even within those games in which death is possible, the frequency of permanent death varies greatly, based on the desires of the Gamemaster and the play group as a whole. Similarly, because of the freedom of the Gamemaster to modify rules, some Gamemasters choose to add permanent death to games that normally lack it. Others may subtract it from games where it is normally present.
For most games with character resurrection, PCs typically must pay a price to be restored. The price is often an in-game fee paid to a non-player character with magic or technology capable of restoring the character. Such a fee might be paid by the PC in advance, or by other PCs. In many games, the effort required to create a character is decidedly non-trivial, giving players a significant incentive to avoid permanent death. Unlike MMORPGs, new player characters can be created at a power level equivalent to the remaining party, to allow the new character to meaningfully contribute to a game in progress.
Games of other genres, most notably early arcade-oriented, casual, platformers and others (where the savegame functionality is usually not available) often feature a version of permadeath where the player is given a fixed (but sometimes replenishable) number of avatars (or "lives"). Following the loss of one avatar, the player usually loses progress through the current location; after the loss of the last available avatar, the player loses progress through the entire game (i.e. see the Game Over screen). Examples of such games include Super Mario Bros., Digger, Pac-Man, and various Breakout clones.
A unique variation of this was Square's 1986 fantasy shoot 'em up game King's Knight, which featured four characters, one per stage, where the player must keep them alive before they join to face the final boss. When a character dies prematurely, it's a permanent death, and the game shifts to the next character in their own stage.
- "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)
- Hosie, Ewen (2013-12-30). "YOLO: The Potential of Permanent Death". IGN. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
- Douall, Andrew (2009-07-27). "Analysis: The Game Design Lessons Of Permadeath". Gamasutra. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
- Griffin, Ben (2014-03-07). "Why permadeath is alive and well in video games". GamesRadar. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
- Meer, Alec (2013-06-05). "Die Hardest: Perma-Perma-death in The Castle Doctrine". Rock Paper Shotgun. Retrieved 2014-08-12.
- Craddock, David L (August 5, 2015). "Chapter 2: "Procedural Dungeons of Doom: Building Rogue, Part 1"". In Magrath, Andrew. Dungeon Hacks: How NetHack, Angband, and Other Roguelikes Changed the Course of Video Games. Press Start Press. ISBN 0-692-50186-X.
- Groen, Andrew (November 27, 2012). "In These Games, Death Is Forever, and That's Awesome". Wired. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- Schreler, Jason (February 1, 2016). "The Problem With Permanent Death". Kotaku. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- Cobbett, Richard (February 16, 2015). "Darkest Dungeon might not be fun, but it is fascinating". Eurogamer. Retrieved February 23, 2016.
- "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)
- Senior, Tom (2011-06-16). "Terraria sells 432,000 in one month, hardcore mode revealed". PC Gamer. Retrieved 2015-10-27.
- 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.
- Farrell, Dennis. "Permadeath: The Best Terrible Decision You Can Make". 1up.com. 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)
- "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)
- "By having a strong death penalty, such as permadeath based on life points, then one feels the thrill of battle and exuberance of a battle won." "Drannog". "A Case for a Permadeath Server". Retrieved 2007-05-26.
- "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. 1 (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.
- Gillen, Kieron (2008-08-19). "Retro: Tales Of The Unknown: The Bard's Tale". Rock Paper Shotgun. Retrieved 2014-08-13.
- Gems In The Rough: Yesterday's Concepts Mined For Today, Gamasutra
- Bartle, Richard (2003). Designing Virtual Worlds. New Riders. ISBN 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.