Last week’s Star Citizen’s “Calling All Devs” video chatted with Richard Tyrer of the core gameplay group and Chris Roberts of Chris Roberts fame about a concept called “Death of a Spaceman“.
Published way back in 2013 — which should show how integral this concept is to the Star Citizen experience that we’re talking about it in 2020 — “Death of a Spaceman” outlines Roberts’ plan for dying, death, and resurrection. Because this project is more of a simulation than a game, dying is planned to be more of a process and to have more consequences than most games do, meaning that picking up where you left off after taking a bullet to the skull or having had your ship explode in a fireball isn’t going to simply be a matter of clicking a button to respawn.
The gist of the system is that in dangerous situations, players will move through different states of damage, from wounds to fractures to breaks to shock, eventually culminating in death if not addressed by a treatment appropriate for the damage. If death occurs, players can activate a clone based on their last DNA record taken at a medical facility. Over time, however, the DNA recorded will degrade, and eventually the player will die. In this case, all property and some reputation will be passed to the next of kin.
On it’s own “DoaS” seems pretty fair. Star Citizen always aims for the more in-depth mechanic and this is absolutely on par with that. It sounds like the first progression of wounds to shock is fairly generous. You won’t get taken out of the fight until you can’t even remain conscious, which means you’ll have to make constant judgement calls as to whether you proceed with a mission or you tap-out, patch up, and live to fight another day before the damage is overwhelming and the medical bills follow suit. If you can’t get away and find yourself waking up in the hospital, you’ll find that you are still your former self, except altered a little bit. As your subsequent clones will be based on your most recent DNA bank, it’s possible that your most recent DNA bank wasn’t as good as the previous entry, so now you’ve got a bit of a slower reaction time, or a limp, or (as mentioned in the video) a need to replace a meat part with a cybernetic part. But at least you’re still around…until you aren’t. Because some people *cough* have a lot of financial investment in this game already, CIG can’t just wipe your character and say “game over”, so the idea of passing your stuff down to a relative — minus an inheritance fee, as Tyrer and Roberts mention a few times in the video — seems like a fair compromise, and a way to get a new, pristine character without the medical baggage our previous character was saddled with.
However, Roberts’ apparent reasoning behind “DoaS” doesn’t really sit well with me specifically because he goes beyond what’s needed to sell it by explaining his “feelings” about the need for such a system.
…in the 80s or the 90s when you’d make games and…dying …had a real consequence. You wanted to finish you level before you died or else you had to do the level again, right?…and consequently when you finish the level or achieve something you really felt…proud and happy…Chris Roberts, “Calling All Devs” 30 Oct 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BeLX0DgRC8)
Games of the 80s and 90s were difficult, especially coin-gobbling arcade games, but that’s also true of many games today in certain genres. Roberts invokes the Demon Souls franchise and it’s descendants, which are legendary for their levels of difficulty and frustration, but also for the feelings of elation that players have when they finally best a really difficult fight. There’s nothing wrong with this style of gameplay for games designed around it, but Star Citizen is not one of those games.
So kind of the idea was like, you know, what kind of consequence can we have in our…persistent universe in terms of…how do we encourage the players to stay alive…how do we encourage the players to keep…their ship…intact? We don’t want people to just go “Oh I got a scratch I’m just going to respawn in a perfectly…pristine state…”Chris Roberts, “Calling All Devs” 30 Oct 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BeLX0DgRC8)
Many games don’t bother players with too much bureaucracy around death and respawning, preferring to err on the side of expediency in order to get the player back into playing. Considering so much about Star Citizen revolves around simulation, I don’t think anyone would expect the game’s death and resurrection system to take the “easy way out”, a la World of Warcraft or other modern MMOs. I admit that during alpha, I have used the ship claim terminal to respawn a ship because a previous iteration had a mechanical issue (like missing an engine or stabilizer), but that’s only because the repair functions are hit or miss right now and filing an insurance claim is fast and cheap.
In the original “Death of a Spaceman” post, Roberts claims that lack of meaningful death (specifically in single player games) made players “lazy” and “sloppy”. “Save scumming” is very real, and is often used to record a point before a potentially bad decision, or even just because we might want to experience a different branch in a narrative. Some people take umbrage to save scumming, as Roberts apparently does in terms of his own products, but for other people it’s an important part to ensuring that they get to enjoy the whole game, and also get to actually play the entire game that they entirely paid for.
So Death of a Spacemen was sort of an idea to give an association with your player character in the game in terms of “this is who you are” and you want to keep yourself alive…as much as possible and identify with your avatar as an actual, real person…you care about and want to keep alive.Chris Roberts, “Calling All Devs” 30 Oct 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6BeLX0DgRC8)
This statement in particular is what bothers me about the whole thought process behind “DoaS”. As a player of online games, and a contemporary of many other players of online games, I know that forming a connection to a character isn’t something that’s forced on people because of a looming consequence of failure, just as human mortality isn’t the basis for self-esteem or the basis for our relationships with other people. When players are able to craft characters that represent themselves, or characters that represent their real-world (or fantasy) goals and aspirations, then players form that attachment that Roberts seems to want for Star Citizen.
Fear of the consequences of failure is OK for games like Demon Souls which use harsh penalties as a selling point, and is even OK on occasion for epic-scale games like Star Citizen. Star Citizen’s claim to fame is it’s intense science fiction simulation (sometimes to a fault) and while the concept of “DoaS” has been explained in a way that fits the setting, it’s the stated reasons why Roberts feels it’s a good fit that makes “DoaS” feel disconnected. I am never a fan of using opposition to someone else’s decisions or designs to explain why another decision exists. Had he simply explained “DoaS” on it’s own merit that disablement, death, and inheritance was just another hallmark of Star Citizen’s dedication to simulation, I wouldn’t feel the need to write about it, but positioning it as a “solution” to “more odious mechanics”, pushing it as a way that supports “risk versus reward”, to add additional punishment on top of the general inconvenience of death itself, and then to frame it as a mechanic that Star Citizen somehow needs in order to players to feel a mortal bond with their characters is just so wrong.
Star Citizen is a sandbox game, and like other sandbox games players get to decide what goals they want to set for themselves. This process, execution, and resolution are really what gives sandbox players a sense of achievement and makes them happy. As someone who enjoys procedural gameplay, finding start and end points, plotting routes, and preparing the ship are all enjoyable aspects of the process for me. But it’s the realization of the goal that makes the process worthwhile. It’s times when things go wrong, or other players interfere with my process that I start to get anxious and upset. The fear of death gets in the way of my enjoyment of seeing a plan through to completion, and even if I manage to succeed despite threats to my character’s life, it’s never the fact that I did escape with my character’s life that made the whole plan worthwhile. It never has been, and never will be.
I don’t expect too much to change in bringing “DoaS” to the game; the original article was written in 2013 and Roberts is as much on-message now as he was back then. I expect the system to be lenient enough in practice that players will embrace it (as I will), and once CIG gets to clean up weird death experiences like falling through geometry or random ship explosions, I also expect it to be fair. What I don’t expect, however, is that this system is going to actually deter people from dying, because studies show (in my mind, at least) that 99.9% of all of our character’s in-game deaths are unplanned and already undesirable.
We don’t need a mechanic to get us to not want to die. It has nothing to do with our attachment to our characters and everything to do with inconvenience. This “one-click respawn” that “DoaS” was apparently designed to counter exists for a reason. Most modern MMOs have done away with corpse-runs and body looting because it was a pain in the ass that prevented players from actually playing the game. It was frustrating and even if designers put the mechanics in the game originally because of thoughts similar to those of Roberts that fear of death and losing gear would entice players to not die, they have obviously back-peddled over the years and understood that dying is never the goal of any player. It happens, but punishing players above and beyond the setback of dying itself is heavy-handed and may turn off more players than it satisfies.
In some (hopefully) small percent cases, however, this opens the door to a new type of griefing. If we never underestimate the lengths some people will go to in order to ruin other people’s fun, we should assume that there will be those multiboxers who have stables of throw-away characters who are only used to take any action deemed necessary to ensure that other players are maimed or killed as often as possible. If an organization of griefers with deep pockets wants to ram Auroras with Hammerheads so as to obliterate the smaller ships with what is basically a giant battering-ram “for the lulz”, then it’s going to happen. Those griefers aren’t going to care that their character died, or was lightly maimed, or that they’ll end up in Klescher Rehab (that’s another post, believe me), because that’s specifically what that character was created to do. Death is never fully or even mostly the fault of the dying character unless that character went into a situation specifically to die. For the rest of us, “DoaS” will probably be acceptable when we die under harsh planetary conditions, get overrun when defending a bunker, are outgunned in a dogfight, or stupidly throw a grenade at a nearby wall instead of over said wall. The shortcoming of “DoaS” is going to be those times when we’ve had it forced upon us by other players who specifically want it forced upon us, because every game has players like that.
In closing, I am not at all opposed to the “Death of a Spaceman” plan. I think that from a roleplaying standpoint this is a masterpiece. As a mechanic in a game that is trying to blow the doors off of what it means to be a sandbox multiplayer game, “DoaS” is going to lend itself towards how players make some decisions. I just don’t like the fact that the impetus behind it seems less to do with making a system that fits within the simulation mandate of the game, and is more about Roberts feelings that only the fear of catastrophic failure can make players care about their representation in the game. Players care about the characters when their characters can be made to represent themselves and their aspirations, and when they can accomplish the goals that they set for themselves. Asserting that applications of fear and failure will push players to care about their character is wrong; it will make players care, but only about potentially subverting their progress in order to game the system as a way achieve their progress.