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This one has been on my mind lately after finishing the New Super Mario Bros. game on the DS. The little icon reminding you how many Marios remain with which to complete the rest of the game remains ever present. I guess it’s there because, well, it’s always been there, and this is a game about pulling some strings of nostalgia.

What happens when you run out of Marios? You get a screen that asks if you want to continue playing from your last save point. If the ‘penalty’ for running out of lives is the exact same thing that would happen if the user just turns the machine off perhaps you should rethink why, exactly, you are going to the trouble and expense of putting it there in the first place. I suppose I can understand what the motivation is. You want to penalize the player for repeatedly dying in the attempt to finish a level. To which I’d ask, why is it important for a videogame to penalize a player at all for just wanting to play the game? The difficulty and reward should lie in executing the mechanics of play. The only thing the ‘restart a little ways back’ penalty does is force the player to replay a level that they have already proven to themselves and the game that they can complete.

The question is perhaps most simply formed as, “How far back should I place the player when their character dies?” How about if there were a minigame or challenge of some sort which determined how far back your character was thrown when they die? What if there were the chance of getting a powerup during this game? Don’t make it clear the game is penalizing the player, make it ~fun~ to have to go back. That’s the whole point of making these diversions in the first place. Fun. Penalties are one of those things we’re turning to these things to get away from.


  1. Christian said on May 29, 2008:

    I’ve seen this argument before, and it is a good one. I feel however, that the problem is not with the lives, but with the level.

    Take our favorite, Super Mario Bros. Dying and restarting a chunk of Mario level doesn’t feel like work or punishment, because the levels are so fun you don’t mind playing them again. In fact, we keep playing them even after we’ve beaten the game. That’s great design.

    Now take Gradius. Much as I love the series, the death’s are brutal. Same restart principle, and it even takes away all of your powerups like in Mario. The difference is that without all your upgrades, some chunks of Gradius are significantly tougher, whereas Mario can get through most scrapes without a fire flower.

    In modern times, lives are a problem because level design isn’t always so sharp. If replaying an area in a level feels like a chore, then was it was only fun the first time around? That doesn’t seem very good. Perhaps this shows that its challenges were arbitrary to begin with. This is why I tell people I don’t like Rayman 2. Somehow I got through the entire game, but I can’t remember most of the stages and I found restarts to be painful. To me that meant shitty level design.

    Lives given out like candy is the other problem. If New Super Mario Bros didn’t make it feasible to have 50+ lives by world 3, and didn’t make the penalty for Game Over another retry, then some of its trickier stages would be that much trickier. At least an option so that Game Over sticks would be nice for us older players.

    Lastly, you have to be careful with instant restarts. They work well enough in most shmups, where the action is so fast paced that you have to get your head right back in the game or fear being immediately killed again(also, shmups are stingy with their lives). If, however, a shmup or an action game never penalized you for dying, it would be like playing a game via emulator where you save state every ten seconds. You can get through eventually, but it feels hollow.

    Short version: I think the fun comes in different ways from different types of games, and in some of those, you need lives.

  2. jay said on May 29, 2008:

    There’s something long and deep to be said about the reward of putting in effort leading to fun and the thrill of finishing a level that kicked your ass a million times, but I am not the person to say it.

    One thing that’s apparent is there are so many kinds of people out there that some things, like being punished and mocked, will appeal to someone somewhere. I can’t type. When I was mocked by Typing of the Dead I felt bad and stopped playing. But in games I am good at, or that are supposed to be brutal, I welcome it. Being punished by a shmup is ok for me because it’s like a master challenging his student. I want to rise to the challenge. Losing in something I suck at is just depressing and frustrating.

    I come to this conclusion that different people simply want different games constantly from all angles and apologize if it seems rather obvious. More relevant though is that these ideas suggested by Bruce haven’t really been explored. All games don’t need to ditch the free guy perhaps, but it is odd and disheartening that so many cling desperately to it.

  3. Stefan said on May 29, 2008:

    I’ve been thinking about this, and even in games where I know I’ll just restart, having that fixed number of lives and a countdown of the ones remaining does alter the way I play games.

    Most recently perhaps, I beat Mario Galaxy without ever losing all my lives. In part, this is because it was really easy to get 1-ups left right and center, and you could just go to an old level and run through a couple times to collect some extra lives. But partway through I noticed that I played very differently when I only had 2 or 3 lives left than when I had 14 or 20. It made almost no difference in terms of what happened when I died, but when that counter was in the lower single digits I suddenly became a really conservative player.

    The question of whether that change is something the designers wanted to happen is another issue entirely, but I doubt I’m the only person who reacts that way to an on-screen countdown of lives. It’s an element that helps shape the way I play, and that makes it important for game designers to carefully consider its use and effect.

  4. Neil said on May 30, 2008:

    I firmly believe in the MMORPG approach to dying. if you die doing something stupid, like charging into a room full of dragons and wizards (or whatever) if you die, you start back at the beginning of the area, but you still have to find a way to get your stuff back. the penalty isn’t fixed for dying, but on what you did to die.
    I also enjoyed the death mechanics of Prey and Bioshock, Prey exhibited a good example of a mini game to determine the penalty of death (starting with less health). However, (being an Xbox Achievement Hunter) I often have to complete games without dieing regardless of the penalty, while going after an achievement. I am currently trying to beat Penny Arcade Ep.1 without losing a single character to combat for an achievement.

  5. pat said on May 30, 2008:

    herc’s adventure on the psx (and possibly other games i dont know about)had a novel approach to death. if i remember correctly, you didnt have a set number of lives, but each time you died you had to start from deeper in hades and try to fight your way out. the first time was easy, but after a few deaths you could get yourself in some serious trouble.

    i think the dying/respawning system in bioshock makes the game a bit too easy. frequently, after triggering an alarm or getting hit too hard by a big daddy, ill just let myself die to preserve items.

  6. Neil said on May 31, 2008:

    Yes, playing that was does make things easier, but when you play for the true feel of the game and try to imurse yourself in the plot, it becomes a richer experience to fight to stay alive, and there is that 100 point achievement for beating the game on hard without using the recovery chambers.

  7. TrueTallus said on June 2, 2008:

    Does the high score reset in NSMB if you continue? That always feels like a good enough divider to me in that kind of game between the achievement driven who want to get every drop out of the game on its own terms, and the fun loving who want to play the game to relax. If you’re playing to maintain a highscore and put limits on yourself, then you wouldn’t want to continue and so a life counter makes sense. If, on the other hand, you just want to relax and jump on some turtles, the game gives what is to you an almost nonexistent penalty by wiping your highscore and letting you pick up where you left off.

    I’d certainly agree with the point that several of you guys are making about dying being a necessary and useful part of many games (also good on you Neil for finding the positive influence of achievements) but I’m really fascinated by the possibilities of a non punitive death system like Bruce talked about. Too often in games (in particular games where the story is important) death simply isn’t a part of what the game has to offer. We’ve been trained by our perfectionist, high score, speedrun tendencies to reload at failure rather than trying to deal with consequences. How much more interesting could game stories be if messing up wasn’t automatically grounds for reloading? I know some games HAVE tried this (Planescape Torment only hade a handful of scenarios where you had to reload to continue after making a mistake, and I’ve been told the Wing Commander series had alternate story paths based on mission failure, though everyone just reloaded anyway) but I’d be excited if more were willing to take that risk.

  8. pat said on June 2, 2008:

    excellent point neil. my ability to break the game and immersion is not really the developers problem. i still dont think achievements are a valid reason to change the way i play but there is definitely something to be said for your “richer experience” argument. and i appreciate that they worked the respawning in bioshock into the plot.

    tt – im not sure about wing commander, but colony wars on the psx had branching storyline paths depending on which missions you completed and failed. im sure its not the only game thats done that.

  9. GnaM said on June 4, 2008:

    I think Christian is right on the money, in fact I made the same argument myself when a “ditch extra lives” thread was made on a forum recently.

    As far as I’m concerned, I like challenging games, so I don’t want lives removed, because I think I should be punished for dieing repeatedly. In classic games where you had to restart upon dieing, the levels were fun enough to be replayed over and over. In modern games where restarts are required, there are often a lot of long, boring stretches and tedious chores involved in the process, so it just becomes a hastle.

    For example modern platformers tend to be more about finding secrets, solving puzzles, and collecting tokens rather than running and jumping around for the fun of it. Even in action games you may have to push a lot of levers or open a lot of locked doors to get through a level. Plus in any modern game there are the ever-present in-game story bits which are no good the second time around either.

    If such features are truly essential to modern games, then I suppose yes, extra lives should be extinguished to compensate. However, it’s my suspicion that if these features are so inconducive to repeat play, maybe that’s precisely what needs to be streamlined out.

  10. TrueTallus said on June 4, 2008:

    Not all of us have the time or compunction to beat most games more than once, GnaM:) For those of us who generally lack old school replay stamina, the mechanics that grow old on a second go around tend to make the first go around more enjoyable.

    I’d forgotten about Colony Wars, Pat. Perhaps there’s some kind of niche in the space dogfighting genre that encourages alternate storylines, though my experience with that kind of game is too limited to be sure.

    Also, to all those involved in the redesign: slick and pretty, and I like how understandable the categories are. I don’t know if the Staff page was updated before this, but that’s nice too (is The Marketeer’s continued presence a sign of things to come?). Is that new search functionality as well?

    Er… now it’s gone. Still if it was a test, it looked good.

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