Games inherently have an interesting way of dealing with death since, by its finality, it is largely anathema to good gameplay. Very few games require permanent death, the first coming to mind being the original X-Box game Steel Battalion (2002). If your mechanized armor was destroyed, you could eject before you died and buy a new one to try again. But if you did not eject in time, and you often push missions to the last bit of health since failure meant doing the whole thing over, you died and your saved game was deleted. Games have actually dealt with death in this way for much longer, as seen in the first three Wizardry (1981) games, a party-based RPG that set the standard for all computer and Japanese RPGs to come, including WoW. If one of your characters died, a high level character could resurrect him. If your whole party died, the game was over. The message in these games was clear – failure resulted in death, and death was a strict punishment.
Since then, permanent death has sometimes become an option in games. If we look at the relatively recent X-Com: Enemy Within or Diablo III (both 2012), we see they have ‘ironman’ modes where permanent death takes place, including a single-save so that every choice you make is permanent. These games make it optional, leaving the player to choose what level of risk they want. Anyone who spent over 20 hours in Diablo III leveling an ironman character (hardcore character, in the game’s terminology) can tell you the joy of surviving a hard battle or the frustration of dying because of non-diegetic machine acts.
Why do I bring up these games? In part, to show that there is a tradition for the strictest death penalties in games, including ones played primarily or exclusively online such as Diablo III, produced by Blizzard just like WoW. WoW’s choice for such a light, relatively non-existent death penalty as we have is understandable in a commercial sense. There simply isn’t enough of a market for any game to have that sort of difficulty, especially an expansive and expensive project like an MMORPG. What is interesting, however, is how this effects actual gameplay.
In permanent death games, players obviously play far more cautiously. They are less likely to attack an elite and hope for the best, as you might in WoW, but this means they are also less likely to explore. Exploring into unknown areas is a great threat to your time, as you may lose dozens of hours for your curiosity. In contrast, you will at most lose a few minutes in WoW. This permits a greater curiosity and sense of adventure in a player, though whether or not WoW captures that is debatable.
We also get an unintentional effect, one some of the players less familiar with MMORPGs may not have experienced. I call it the ‘zone-out effect’. Basically, in a game as grindy as WoW, the absence of necessary caution creates an absence of attention. Shortly, combat becomes a rote action and not an intense moment of exhilaration. Contrasted to Diablo III, where seeing your max level character rooted and about to be killed for good if you don’t escape in time is a reasonable expectation, the simple adrenaline level is much lower. Inattention in WoW may cost a few minutes at most, but inattention in Diablo could cost you literal days.
This also creates a different problem that is, I think, roughly unique to MMORPGs. Since you are not permitted dynamic changes to the world in the same way you’d expect in Fallout: New Vegas or Skyrim, the lack of permanent death actually reduces the need for exploration at the same time it increases the opportunity. Fundamentally, in a stat-based RPG, there is no reason to give focus on options for strengthening your character when the greatest rewards lie in following the intended path.
This, I think, has an indirect effect in how the end-game plays. Without the permanent gear loss Ultima Online and EverQuest experimented with, there needs to be a new incentive to encourage repeated runs of end game dungeons and raiding zones. Because of this we get gated tiers based on equipment. Since characters and equipment never go away, there needs to be a reason to get new gear or an attempt to make its availability finite. This, in WoW, effectively creates a treadmill. In EQ and UO, it was always possible to need new gear since perhaps your character died and it was all lost, but it can’t be lost in WoW unless you intentionally destroy it or sell it. So the end game of WoW basically involves you fighting through dungeons or raids to get gear to go through other dungeons or raids to get new gear to… continue on, ad nauseum.
In terms of profit, the easy death system is probably best for an MMORPG. I do not by any means suggest that permanent death should be a staple of games, though I do like it when its an option. I simply use permanent death as what I feel is an opposite extreme to what WoW offers, since the monetary and time penalties are too insignificant to matter. This ignores some of the social complexities of death, especially in end game, but those can be read in our reader under “What Makes World of Warcraft a World? A Note on Death and Dying.“