Good or Bad: Life Systems in Games

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Recently, I have been thinking about what losing in video games mean, and what it should mean for the player. I then remembered some old thoughts on the extra life systems used in many (but not all) video games. Years ago, I had the thought that they are somewhat meaningless in modern games, but now, I really want to go in-depth and try to figure out if this is true. Keep in mind that this article is an opinion piece and may not reflect all experiences that each gamer (or game) has. I will try to be as objective and analytical as I can be, but all conclusions made here are essentially opinion based. So let’s take a look.

Before we go too deep on this subject, I will define an extra life system. When a player has a set number of tries to attempt a game or level in a video game in order to complete it, you have an extra life system. Usually, these extra tries are called lives, and running out of them punishes the player in some way. In early video games, running out of lives meant restarting the game from the very beginning. Often, the player will start with three or five lives at the start of the game, and can earn more by achieving some goal, usually by gathering 100 “coins” or gaining enough points or the like.

mariolife
Sometimes an extra life is an item in a game.

 

In more modern games, losing one life will set you back to a “checkpoint”, while losing all of them sets you back to the beginning of the stage, or to your last save point, depending on how the game was designed. Some games also have “continues” which allow you to retry the beginning of a level with the starting number of lives, without the game over punishment of restarting or going back to the last save point. The real question here is, is this a good idea? Does this system work well, and keep a game fun but fair?

A good place to start is to ask why do life systems exist in the first place? Many old arcade games were built to encourage quarter consumption, and so these games were anywhere from quite hard to extremely difficult. In case the player lost a life too early, they could try again before having to feed the machine more quarters. This encouraged more play time, and the difficulty ensured that no one completed the game too quickly without spending more money first.

This isn’t the only reason that extra lives exist in games, though. The lack of a save system to record progress was another reason lives existed. It was to ensure that not too much progress was lost when the player couldn’t complete a game. The early takes on this was very brutal, as the player had to start over if they ran out. Prior to save systems were passwords, but these games still had lives to fall back on to punish the player for losing. In many of these games, you were sent back to the beginning of the level instead of a full restart of the game.

megamanpassword
Early games like Mega Man used a password system to record progress.

What is tricky here is when save systems were introduced. Being able to save your progress meant that you had limitless retries. If the game could be saved at any point, the amount the player had to replay was limited to where they last saved. Thanks to this innovation, games could be much longer, but the punishment for losing is much smaller. Some games only have save points, to limit save file “abuse” to make passing any challenge a relative breeze. Some games that allowed you to save anywhere still set you back to a certain point in the game, even if it wasn’t where the player saved the game. The Legend of Zelda games do this a lot. Most RPG’s send players to their last save (or healing location) after losing a battle, and do not have any extra lives to speak of. In fact, many other games do this too!

With all this in mind, it is easy to conclude that extra lives don’t work well in most modern games. If you can retry any challenge from your last save, what is the point of losing a life, or all lives collected up to this point? I suppose the penalty is larger for losing all lives, and losing one life allows you to restart at a checkpoint, but why not have the game save at checkpoints too?

I suppose punishing the player for losing in a game is a matter of what the punishment is. With a life system, it is usually progress. Without lives, it can be the following:

  • Cash (in-game currency, not real money).
  • Items (designers need to be careful with this. Items required to complete the game should never be lost due to a game over, unless they can be obtained again without too much trouble).
  • Again, got back to your last save point.
  • Or perhaps story-based consequences. You don’t lose, but something unfortunate happens in the game’s story (This doesn’t happen often, as players just restart from their last save if losing changes the ending).

So with all this talk, do any games get the extra lives system right? The only one I can think of is The Super Smash Bros. games. Here, the game doesn’t stop with every life lost, it keeps going as the losing player reappears. In fact, this is similar to the best 2 out of 3 rounds that most other fighting games have, but with more flexibility in terms of how long a game could be. This form of an extra life system is probably the best way to use lives in a game. The player, when he loses a life, takes a moment to reappear, and starts with full health.

The only other consideration is if the game is balanced for the player having a certain number of lives. One could wonder if it would just make sense to increase the player’s total health instead. Say for example, the player enters the game with three lives, and is expected to go through the stage and lose on average 2 lives before completing the challenge. Might it make more sense to just to triple the player’s health?

Overall, I would say the way Smash Bros. handles lives is the best way. Give the player a quick retry by sending them to certain checkpoints. If they lose all their lives, they go back to where they can save instead. It isn’t elegant, but it is better than delaying the player’s fun, or forcing a complete restart. With less action-oriented games, just sending them back to the last save is all you need.


So that was all I could figure out about extra lives in video games. When writing this article, I struggled to find games that handled the system really well. This is where you, the reader comes in. I would like to know if you found any games that handle an extra life system really well, and it doesn’t clash with the save system. If I get enough responses and enough variety of games are mentioned in the comments below, I may write a new article to include why these games work so well! Let me know so I can look into it more!

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