Let's talk about player death

Or: what does your game do when the player fails? Unless you're making a zen game (or your game is just ridiculously easy) it's going to happen at some point. If you're making a masocore platformer, it's going to happen a lot. So what are some design decisions re: player death that you've encountered that infuriated you...or that you thought were really cool?

I'll share a couple:

I quit playing EverQuest back in the day because not only was grinding xp for levels extremely tedious, but you actually lost xp (and possibly levels) when you died. I think WoW fixed this rather elegantly by giving you an experience debt when you died instead, so instead of losing hours of progress, you just wouldn't gain more levels until you paid it off. The difference being that hard earned levels and abilities are not removed from your character in WoW.

In Hotline Miami, one hit from anything kills you. The levels therefore require quite a lot of practice (and a bit of luck) to get through. And sometimes, it feels really frustrating. When you die, however, the game places you back at the beginning of the section you were on pretty much instantly. This really worked IMO to reduce rage quitting by not giving the player a break to think about. Yeah, that guy shooting you might have been cheap, but you're already playing again so you might as well have another go.

I was playing some Super Mario 3D Land the other night. I had the TV on in the background, and only half paying attention, yet I had a pool of 60+ lives that wasn't shrinking very much. A far cry from playing old school Mario games where scavenging for lives was a thing. And if you die five times in a row on a level, it spawns an item box that makes you invincible and lets you fly. Yawn. Why even bother to have lives? Just for the illusion of difficulty?


Don't play them, don't care, don't see the appeal in having a second job I have to pay for.

Hotline Mami:
It's a fast-paced game where you die A LOT. Since it's fast-paced, the key is to minimize the time between dying and retrying. No slow, dramatic animations, fading the screen out and playing a sad score on the violin. Just let the player retry instantaneously.
If HLM would have a dying screen that you couldn't skip quickly, I would have probably spend half my playtime watching it, waiting for it to go away. Not good.

The illusion of difficulty?
I'd say you're right. If you have a game where you need to deliberately try to get a Game Over, a live system is unnecessary.
Is it a bad thing? This depends on your target-audience. Casual gamers? No problem. Baby's first game? No problem. Dark Souls fans? Big problem.
If you want to make more people happy, add difficulty levels.

Perma-death: Yay or Nay?
That's a tough one and I don't think there's an answer other than 'Depends on your game'. The biggest problem with perma-death is that there's no middle-ground. It's either infuriating or bringing tension to a whole new level.

Imagine perma-death in HLM. You die once, you have to start the whole game all over. That wouldn't be fun at all.
Project Zomboid did it right. It's a survival game (and a really good one on top of that) and the premise of perma-death makes you so much more cautious. It makes leaving your house genuinely terrifying if you're poorly equipped, but in need to get loot.

Well, depending on your game, a death without any consequences might as well not have happened at all. If the player is afraid of dying, your're doing something right. ;)

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I agree it definitely depends on the game type. Some genres (such as an RTS) I think it would be very appropriate to make a big deal out of losing the game and take some time to "end the campaign". For action-oriented games definitely just kill the player and re-spawn within a few seconds. If restarting from a checkpoint then just drop them back and let them go. If re-spawning at the point of death then do the ghost "safety" thing for a couple seconds to give them a chance. At least that is the way I am doing it in my platform game.

I think you hit the nail on the head though. Too many games make too big of a deal over dying and show a little animated movie thing or whatever and it just creates a disconnect. Get the player back into the game-play asap. Makes good sense.


Yeah, I have mixed feelings about permadeath games. I played a lot of Nethack (and related rougelikes) back in the day, where permadeath is a central design tenet of the game. I never actually beat them, though I heard rumors of folks who did.

On the one hand, it definitely increased the tension. On the other hand, nothing sucked more than losing a game that was going well in some stupid way, especially if it felt like it wasn't my fault.

So I would say permadeath works only if (1) your game is designed to be replayed many, many times, and (2) death doesn't come from stupid random stuff, but from actual failure of some sort on the part of the player. And the first part implies (1a) a game lasts no more than a few hours, even if you make it all the way through; and (1b) you probably want to use procedural generation so there's sensible variety on each play.

Of course there's an in-between take on this... Rogue Legacy has permadeath, but each time you die, your next character inherits some of the abilities (and loot, I think) of the last one. So it's not completely starting over. I haven't actually played this one yet, but it seems like a clever solution to me.


I'd say if lives don't do anything, just get rid of them. I guess 100 coins = 1 life is so deadly engrained in Mario that it would be tough to get rid of.

I've seen perma death used mostly in separate "hardcore" modes, and that's fine with me. I'm not a huge fan though, and I'm really bad at roguelikes. I don't even think I would try permadeath HLM, that would be insane. Actually, I say that, but the idea of a survival mode would be interesting. Maybe it just depends on the context.

Otherwise, I'd say that the rule I've between trying to follow is that the player should never lose more than 10 minutes of progress.

If a game has an epic battle that takes 3 hours, and I have to start over if I die, chances are good that I'm not coming back.

One mechanic (perma) I do like is where maybe you lose your current character, but there is some sort of retained progress for your next one.


One thing that drives me nuts is when checkpoints aren't obvious. Deciding between continuing on our backtracking for 5 minutes so you don't lose an item you just got is, well...boring =P

Absolutely. Ever play ZHP: Unlosing Ranger VS. Deathdark Evilman?

I worked on a game that was supposed to have permadeath. We had a huge number of followers and they were huge fans of the permadeath feature. This was an MMO and the players were able to transfer all items to an heir after they died. The game actually gave the players three strikes and then they were dead, so two near deaths first.

After the game failed, we picked it up some of the pieces, namely the lore, and are making a smaller, tighter version. I had decided to drop permadeath. Little did I know what impact this would have on the remaining fans. Now we are considering reinstating permadeath with a few extra caveats.

Personally, I would be okay with a permadeath game. I play one every other month or so, a tabletop game, with permadeath. So far, my character hasn't died but she has come close. But then, I try not to do stupid things that would get her killed. Occasionally, we have a player stop in and play one time, just because nothing else is going on or he wants to play the game. Inevitably, that character dies because, well, they don't care. They don't plan to come back and so they take stupid risks, often putting the rest of us at risk.

What would be the rewards of permadeath, especially in an MMO or multiplayer game? Death becomes meaningful and therefore the fight to stay alive becomes important. One approaches problems differently. Do we have to barge into the dragon's lair and steal his eggs or can we wait for a bit and see if we can sneak in there while he is out feeding? The annoying dude in the game that keeps harassing people? Well, typically you can kill him but he comes right back and continues his behavior. Wouldn't it be nice to get rid of him and force him to once again experience "newbieness" like those he harasses? And wouldn't battles be more exciting if one side actually wins something?

I do agree that permadeath doesn't work for all games, and probably not worth it for most single player games. Nor does it work for all players but it sure would be nice to have the option to try one! Instead it seems to be the taboo in most games these days. Players want to kill everything in site but only if they have magical protections. ;)

BTW, I am a hard core role player, so that might make a big difference in my opinions of permadeath. :) I can certainly see why many people would find it frustrating. Just thought I would add a different view.


The best deaths are the ones you learn from.

I'll regale you with a more recent death I've had in nethack. I'm probably around the seventh level of the dungeon and out pops a yeti. Needless to say, I'm low on health and mana, so the only course of action is to GTFO and pelt the thing with anything I've got in the inventory. I scrounge through my inventory, where the only thing I find is a wand of cold. Even more needless to say, a wand of cold against a yeti is real fucking useful. I decide to use it anyway, so I head for the corridor, dart around a corner, and wait a turn or two. The yeti comes into view, I zap the wand, and here is were I elaborate on some technical details of the wand of cold. The wand of cold fires a beam, and beams in nethack have the unique ability to bounce. So I zap wand, beam passes through the yeti who gives no fucks, beam bounces off the wall, beam passes again through the yeti who still gives no fucks, and hits me in the face, killing me instantly. I love nethack.

Back to the conversation. Hotline Miami has a pretty high turnaround because that encourages experimentation. What has to be thought through is right there. It's very comfortable with using trial and error as an analysis tool, so it doesn't make any sense to punish the player by sending them further back then the puzzle they are on.


Very interesting. So we also have death as an influence for social interactions. Quite like the psychological aspect of death in real life. Out of curiosity, what made you decide to remove perma death before putting it back in?

Man, stories like these are what make me keep trying rogue likes, despite not being very good at them. The constant fear of starvation really stresses me out, and when I'm not playing the game makes it hard to want to come back. I had the same issue with Don't Starve. I love everything about the game, it's just too stressful!

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I chose to remove it because honestly, I was afraid people wouldn't play our game and that grieving would be a nightmare. Permadeath seems far too final and too hard core for a game aimed at role players and social interactions. But then I received a lot of flack from fans who really wanted the permadeath. They wanted it back in the game. And these are not the PKers who just want to grief other players, getting high on seeing others suffer.

So we are putting it back in. Our game is about so much more than combat so death will not be as common in other games. We figured that would balance the equation a bit. We also have plans to make killing as meaningful as dying. It will all have to be tested before I can say it will work but I am hopeful.

That's cool. I've been wishing lately that more games would move past combat as the focal point. Then again, all of my game designs start with weapons and enemies, so I shouldn't be one to complain.

Sounds like you may have found a niche with your particular game mechanics. Hope it works out!

Any given episode of AVGN is full of deaths that aren't his fault, I think that's 90% of what defines a "game that sucks ass".

In PSO for Dreamcast, the original version, there wasn't permadeath. However, there was something better/worse. When you died, whatever weapon you had currently equipped dropped and anyone could pick it up. And they did. If you died in a room with a monster you couldn't defeat, it could be gone forever.

This spawned debates about if it was wrong to take the items since it was in the rules...

As long as the death is clearly your fault, anything goes. There's also an interesting thing where people enjoy causing their characters to suffer, for example a boss fight where you go down 3 times is much more fun than a fight where you finish without even having to heal.

Also, I don't agree with losing ten minutes of progress max... I am the kind who likes losing in a dungeon, and I usually don't connect to a game until it hands me my ass when I was trying my best to survive.

Cool topic.

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Wow, we're very different gamers. I find myself drifting more to the casual side as I get older. And my reflexes aren't getting any better =P I think with so many cheap games these days, my willingness to stick things out has gone down a lot. I end to save obsessively in open world games.

PSO sounds rough. I definitely wouldn't have lasted. But yeah, that's how they made it so nothing wrong with doing what they let you.

I think in the TOS it states that to become Community Wizard, one must sacrifice an Aurore fang to the altar of Carmack, then spin around while reciting an Iron Maiden song backwards. Just FYI.

One thing I've always wanted to see is something where death isn't the end, but just a transition. Quite literally. So, suppose once you're dead you become a ghost. A ghost can't do much, and is pretty dull, but you can go around and spook people when the conditions are right, which maybe earns you XP. And if you earn enough XP, you can become a specter, which can do a bit more than a ghost. And so on.

So basically once you're dead, your life as you knew it is over, but if you're really attached to that character, you can continue to play it, just in a very different form with different goals. And hey, there should even be a way for to work your way back to eventually getting resurrected, though this should be very, very difficult. Most players will probably give up and just make a new (live) character. But I'd like having the option.

Heck, I'd play that.

Haunting - Starring Polterguy

In my house, we had something called Sega Channel. I grew up in North Town which basically is one of the country's highest rated crime areas. We did not go outside much, so my parents compensated by giving us ample video games... I have either played or obsessively watched be played so many effing games. This was one that I will always remember. You're a ghost, you haunt the crap out of this poor family. You can "die" though, as a ghost... which takes you to the underworld. Then, you can find your way back. This game was so refined that it actually will give you the creeps.

Why not make death part of the game? If you were a ghost you could get to the other side of the door. Problem is, you have to die... no worries though, if you can get back to your body before a certain amount of time passes, you'll be fiiine. Ghosts wouldn't be able to carry objects through walls or doors, but they could interact with things... etc. Fun times would indeed ensue. Then, as a ghost, you will be chased by some kind of "reaper" enemies which will drag you to hell... that would be the only true game over.

Only problem: I can't make it. Lol.

I always thought it would be cool to have a game where you can possess different bodies. They would rot and fall apart over time, leaving you to find a new one. Maybe have a possession level or other mechanic that lets you inhabit more powerful forms.

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You must be channeling me because my programmer and I had this discussion last night. LOL I think we are going to try adding ghosts. I played a text game years ago which had permadeath. Once the character died, they had three days to "wander the world" as a ghost. It was intended to give them closure, allow them to see the reaction of people and to say goodbye. In multiplayer games, people get very attached to their characters and others get attached to them as well. I am embarrassed to say I remember crying when a friend "died" in a game and feeling pretty stupid about it. :)

Anyway, a ghost could be a pretty neat reward and I can already see ways of tying it to our game lore as well. It certainly adds a new dimension to the game.

Hey, don't feel stupid about that; I'm pretty sure I did the same back in the day. MUDs were substantially more powerful than anything I've played since... I don't know if it's because I just had more time to get sucked in then, or if the text medium forced me to create more imagery in my head, which somehow resonated more strongly with me than pictures on a screen. Or maybe because players back then were generally better behaved, and actually did some frickin' role playing now and then.

But at any rate, yeah, when a character died in those games it was a big deal for everyone. The ones I played didn't have the three days as a ghost to get closure, but it's a brilliant idea.

But I like the ideas @RJ-MacReady and @BeefSupreme are tossing around even better. Let someone stay a ghost as long as they like, unless they're caught by the reaper or dispelled by a powerful cleric or some such. In the meantime, let them try their hand at ghostly skills — manifestation, communication, possession (at high levels), etc.

Of course you don't want legions of ghosts ruining the game for everyone else. Here are some ideas to limit that:

  • Ghosts are tied to the place where they died, or better yet, to wherever their body is, and can't stray too far from that (unless summoned somehow). Higher level ghosts can of course stray further. But this could naturally lead to a practice of burying bodies at some cemetery, which players who want to avoid ghosts would simply avoid.
  • Ghosts are substantially weaker in daylight than in darkness. Even manifesting a spooky moan should be beyond a low-level ghost during the day.
  • Low-level ghosts can't even see each other. (But I think it might be fun for higher-level ghosts to see and communicate.)
  • This one may be harder, but good: perhaps ghosts can communicate more easily with people they often spoke to when alive.

Then of course you could have people who do see dead people, seance rituals which can summon and communicate with any ghost who's online, etc.

Oh, and while dying should be a serious setback for anybody, I think it makes sense that high-level characters should start out as somewhat higher-level ghosts. If you just join the game and walk off a cliff the first day, your ghost should be pretty much completely useless. But if you've been playing one character for two years and have a bad day, the ghost should already have some half-decent ghost powers.