Exploring the idea that death is the end, specifically in MMOs.
For the sake of narrowing the scope a little I plan to talk mostly about framing and balancing permadeath in terms of where it has the highest stakes: MMOs. I may address permadeath in different genres over some different entries but for now I'd like to keep it focused.
I know that the of all the genres that could potentially have permadeath that the MMO in any form (most generally the RPG) is the one that suffers from the most logistical problems. I was talking with my friend just last night and I asked him some basic questions like "Would you play an MMO, even an extremely popular one, if it had permadeath or had it implemented?" and his response -- paraphrased a little -- was thus, "No, I wouldn't because I've put a lot of time on my characters and I wouldn't want to lose them due to a mistake or circumstance that might be completely out of my control."
That concern is both the most common and the most valid in terms of why MMOs and permadeath seem so incompatible, especially if it's a pay to play system that's being used. Losing all your progress and having to start over is something that a massive majority of any player-base would find extremely unappealing. In cases where it is implemented it would lead to what few people who actually play going to extreme lengths to keep their characters alive: basically always playing it safe and not really doing anything that could put their character in a threatening situation unless they know that they can win. That kind of thought process would eventually just mean that the game is really boring, because people don't want to risk what they've earned, and why would they?
The flip side that comes from the people who encourage permadeath is a retort to this in some capacity: they argue that when death is cheap and ultimately just a slap on the wrist that heroic moments become dull and nothing carries risk. No permadeath also results in an imbalance of power, as it is argued that those early adopters will always be ahead of the curve in terms of items, experience, and overall character investment. Those that want permadeath argue that it ads tension and actual risk, which makes moments like overthrowing a difficult boss or conquering a hellish area all the more poignant and satisfying.
The question I'm asking is: can that thrill of epic daring-do and the moderation that seems to be demanded be reconciled? I don't know, but I'm going to outline some idea that give it a shot at least.
The general first step is establishing a boundary: I personally don't believe that permadeath right out of the gate is a good idea. In fact I think that it would be better served being a high-level, endgame feature. There has to be justification for this of course; perhaps for the first X number of levels (this can be any number from ten to twenty, or even as high as fifty or seventy, as long as there is some new game content available after reaching that level and beyond) you are stated to have powerful backers who won't let you die, or even a destiny that demands you fulfill it, so whenever you would "die" in game instead you're spared but perhaps suffer hardship like losing items or XP. After you hit that magic level though the safety net falls away, suddenly you're on your own, but that's alright because of the next factor I'm including.
This might somewhat blunt the idea of a permadeath system, but I think that after you get to a certain level plateau -- for the sake of this experiment let's assume that it's level fifty and the cap is seventy or eighty -- that if your character dies you can build a new character that is roughly the same class at level fifty and consider that character to be a relative or a protege of your main character. This character would get bonuses depending on how heroically your previous character died: did they die defending the land from a giant dragon, did they fall in the line of protecting a comrade? Then you get bonuses like say, better armour or more HP because they left an inspiring legacy. Now, if a player wants to switch alignment or go a radically different class they'd probably have to start back up at the beginning, but in cases like those it only makes sense, permadeath or no permadeath.
I do realize that permadeath is something that appeals to an extremely niche audience; it's likely that it will never be particularly popular and it's not very difficult to see why: it puts a lot of time investment (and yes, even emotional investment) at risk. At the same time it isn't necessarily completely irreconcilable, rather it just needs to have different considerations than the more usual system would.