December 6, 2019

Extra lives in gaming is a thing of the past

Gaming has evolved significantly since the arcade era but one thing that hasn’t changed since then is the “lives” system. Extra “lives” in videos games is a mechanic of the past and should have been thrown out long ago.

Extra “lives” are one of the most ubiquitous traditions in any video game, even though they should’ve been discarded ages ago. Why has the game industry kept this outdated mechanic alive?

Life systems were popularized during the arcade era, though that isn’t necessarily when the mechanic was introduced. Since arcade games require payment each time they’re played, classic arcade titles were designed to be excruciatingly difficult so players would shell out more quarters. If arcades forced payment every time players “died,” though, very few people would be willing to pay, so they typically give multiple lives per payment. 

Lives stuck around when consoles overtook arcades, but the mechanic wasn’t designed for homes. Freemium games and micro-transactions hadn’t been popularized yet, so console games were premium purchases: paying once for full access in the comfort of one’s home. Beating a game was previously limited by a player’s amount of free time, skill and quarters, meaning home consoles removed the one requirement lives were designed around.

Seeing as older arcade games were stationed in public places like restaurants where people don’t stay all day, they were typically short but challenging. Skilled players could beat them in under an hour, but newcomers would struggle, giving these games replay value. This doesn’t translate to console games, which are longer experiences where players lose more progress upon death, but the tradition of extra lives remains today.

Console games can save progress and give checkpoints for players to return to, but too many games use extra lives in tandem with large overworlds, sparse checkpoints, and slow movement, all of which combine to waste time. Given how much free time the average person has, poorly implemented lives systems can turn a hobby into a second job, making certain games unappealing and inaccessible to newcomers.

Hardcore fans of classic games often favor life systems, claiming they provide a sense of challenge, but this argument ignores that nobody is saying games can’t be difficult. The problem is that life systems don’t add difficulty; they add tedium, which is often mistaken for difficulty. Games need lose conditions, such as death, but don’t need game over conditions, which waste time and progress.

One common alternative to life systems is incorporating risk versus reward, like how “Rayman Legends” gives players infinite lives at the cost of one-hit deaths. “Shovel Knight: Shovel of Hope” drops a portion of the player’s money that they can recollect if they can safely return to where they died, but players can also demolish and disable checkpoints for extra rewards if they’re confident in their skills.

Even re-releases and remakes of classic games that used traditional lives systems now provide optional workarounds or easy modes. Nintendo’s NES Online service offers save states for all games included, as well as a rewind feature to fix mistakes on the fly. None of this detracts from the experience classic fans want, it just gives accessibility options so newcomers can enjoy these beloved titles.

For everything negative about life systems, certain unconventional games can justify extra lives, provided they complement other mechanics and still provide some sense of progression. It’s clear that extra lives are superfluous in games with linear progression, but what about nonlinear games? One classic series has managed to use life systems in a way that compliments its nonlinear progression and excuses the outdated mechanic: Mega Man.

Mega Man games are famous for offering several stages that players can visit in any order, and beating each level’s boss grants players that boss’s weapon, which is another boss’s weakness. This mechanic drastically raises the franchise’s replayability, as players can experiment with stage order. A game over in one stage encourages players to try other levels, then return with the right tools for the job.

While life systems can be done properly, the way we consume linear games doesn’t match the archaic mechanics that many developers use. A challenge has to be fun and fair to hook a player, but developers have already created better challenges that don’t waste players’ time. Seeing as the games industry is starting to move away from life systems, it appears this mechanic is at the end of its lifespan.

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