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I think in game design it is incredibly important to ask the question why about everything, especially something that has become so standard as lives. So I am asking, what is the purpose of a game having the concept of lives? Why have lives?

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+1 very nice question –  Maik Semder Jul 16 '11 at 18:29
    
@Maik Nobody called Jack here ;-) –  The Communist Duck Jul 16 '11 at 20:59
    
touché @Duck :D –  Maik Semder Jul 16 '11 at 21:22
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Just because nobody has mentioned the elephant in the room yet: Modern games don't have "lives" any more, and haven't for almost a decade. I'd really like to see an answer which also talks about the purpose of NOT having lives. –  Trevor Powell Jul 17 '11 at 11:52
    
A good question, another question is why have a "cheat codes" also? –  Jalal Aldeen Saa'd Jul 17 '11 at 14:59
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9 Answers

up vote 47 down vote accepted

Other than the arcade/profitability/limiting play factor, quite simply lives add tension.

If falling off a cliff doesn't mean anything (namely, there's no punishment), then you won't feel bad when you do it. But if you fall off too many times and can't proceed, then you want to make damn sure that you don't fall off the cliff. Harder games make you feel better when you beat them, it provides bragging rights, etc.

Of course, that kind of compulsion loop player punishment has gone by the wayside recently. Taking up the player's time is punishment enough. When most research shows that people don't finish games as it is, game designers are trying to find ways to make it less frustrating to go through the game but providing enough of a challenge that it's enjoyable. Basically, it's less about the game and more about the experience. Lives would be inappropriate in a game like Uncharted, for example.

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+1 for mentioning some research (references would be awesome, but not needed because what you wrote makes sense), and for pointing out that lives aren't appropriate in all games. –  Randolf Richardson Jul 16 '11 at 18:24
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I use the word "research" in a pretty loose term. With the advent of achievements a lot of companies have added trivial progress-based markers. You can use that data to see what number of online-enabled players have completed an early level and compare that to the number who have completed the end of the game. As a public example, only slightly more than half of players beat HL2:Episode 1 steampowered.com/status/ep1/?gamesHelp#HighestMapPlayed –  Tetrad Jul 16 '11 at 21:47
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I think this answer only explains why there is “death” within games. But under “lives”, I understand a number-limitation of how often one can die without losing a lot process in the game. –  poke Jul 17 '11 at 12:57
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@poke I think you're misunderstanding the point. Without getting too philosophical, what is death without lives? There are a lot of games with deaths that don't have the concepts of lives. The point I was making is that without limiting how often you can die, death becomes meaningless. If you want death to mean something (not to imply that death should always mean something), you need to have ramifications for dying. Hence, lives as a resource. –  Tetrad Jul 17 '11 at 18:08
    
"[L]ives add tension. If falling off a cliff doesn't mean anything (namely, there's no punishment), then you won't feel bad when you do it." So you see "invulnerability" as the opposite of having lives? I thought the opposite of lives would be a life. Try NetHack if you want tension. ;) –  ZeroOne May 11 '12 at 21:38
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Profitability...

Extra lives provides the player with additional "chances" to "try again." Particularly with traditional arcade games back in the 1980s, a player would insert a quarter (25 cents) to play the game, and with this payment they'd get a number of lives (usually 3 or 5).

With these extra lives, the gameplay is longer, and the player gets more "value" out of the game since they extra lives allowed them to automatically continue the gameplay. If the game provided only one life, they player might not enjoy the game as much (because the game would be a shorter duration), and consequently may not insert as many quarters to play again later (which would make it less profitable).

When enjoying video arcades in my younger years back in the 1980s, I noticed that the games that provided more lives tended to be more popular. I'm sure the arcade game vendors and operators all understood this well as some operators with the less popular arcades tended to set dip-switches on the games [that supported this sort of customization] to provide more lives for the payment.

Of course, the consumer almost always likes to have the benefit of "extra lives" as this equates to more entertainment. But, for games that are in very high demand (e.g., "Outrun," which imposes time-limits instead of number of lives, when it was new, was a big arcade machine that featured a seat shaped like a car that actually shook and tilted {if I recall correctly} and vibrated in concert with in-game events, for which I've included a few images below), many arcade operators set the dip-switches to severely limit the numbers of lives under the guise of "giving more people a chance to play" (although I suspect that this decision was more likely motivated by profit).

Pinball machines had exactly the same concept, except instead of lives the player got balls. Typically 3-5 balls per quarter.

One common factor as well was that once all the lives (or cars, or balls, etc.) where lost, the game provided an option to the player to insert another quarter to continue (and get another 3 or 5 lives, cars, balls, etc.).

Measuring skill...

As I alluded to in the comments, having lives can also aid the player in measuring their skill:

  • What score did I achieve with 1 (or 3, or 5) lives?
  • How much gold did I get before the evil dragon killed me?
  • How many times did I play multi-ball mode on that pinball machine in one go?
  • How many races was I win with just one car?

These can become "bragging rights" amongst a player's friends, especially if there were witnesses. I can remember back in the 1980s seeing people crowd around player who's been playing a particular game for a long time, and playing it well. Comments from onlookers would sometimes include "she [that player] is still on her first life and she's already completed seven levels" followed by "damn, I always have trouble with the umber-troll on level three, how did she do that?"

Such measurements can be an important tie into word-of-mouth marketing too.

Player motivation...

The "losing a character's life" factor also adds yet another quality to the gameplay that causes the player to put a little bit more effort into taking care of their character (e.g., feeding it so it doesn't starve to death, avoiding getting hit by weapons, circumventing dangerous traps, etc.). With the possibility of losing lives, the player will get more emotionally involved in the gameplay sessions which, in turn, makes the game more interesting.

If a character never dies, the game may never end and could become quite boring, at least in the case of an action game. For games like Chess, Ma-Jiang (incorrectly spelled by most authors as "Mah Jongg" or "Mahjjong" and so on), etc., there obviously is no need to have a concept of "lives," but for most action games where your character is at risk of dying it's beneficial. Ditto for pinball and other such games too.

Also, if the player makes some serious mistake in the first 10 seconds of gameplay, the additional lives are a wonderful feature. Not having this feature can be very discouraging, especially for new players.

The player knows that there is a limited number of lives available, and will work toward an unspoken goal to improve their gameplay abilities. Of course, this will require practice, and so the extra lives are also helpful here too.

Pictures of Outrun...

I've included a few pictures of the Outrun game I mentioned earlier. For those who remember playing this game in an arcade, I hope this will also bring back some fond memories.

enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

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Financially this makes sense for arcade games. But what about games you don't pay to play, say console games you own? What is the purpose of the life? –  Jeff Jul 16 '11 at 17:54
    
The player gets a way to measure their performance -- "how many lives did you achieve before dying?" Also, there may be a bit of a traditional factor there, or even a hope by the vendor to see the game in a future video arcade. (I'm adding a little bit more to my answer about motivating players.) –  Randolf Richardson Jul 16 '11 at 17:57
    
@Jeff Initially they were carryover from arcade ports and then they were kind of like grandfathered in. Recently though, more and more games are doing away with the concept of lives (like in fable 2+ where you don't die) –  Noctrine Jul 17 '11 at 2:20
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+1 Outrun but call me a tedious bore, however, Outrun is my favourite game (after Elite on BBC B, disk edition) and I do know for a fact that it does not have lives. You have 75 seconds to complete the first stage and you can crash as often as you like, however, crashes take time and you need that time to get to the next stage. The dip switch in the back enabled this initial time period to be set to 90 seconds. Naturally the operator could charge a different amount per game, e.g. 50p a go, 50p for 3 goes with 20p per go in the next slot. With each go you would start at the start with 0 points. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Jul 17 '11 at 7:54
    
@Jeff I think its more "following convention" with the first consoles. –  bobobobo Jul 17 '11 at 13:54
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Games are for playing purpose. Player play the game to win something, to have fun. Every time they fail to do that, they just ask for another chance. They think, this time, this time for sure I am gonna make it. That's the purpose of having life.

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...and then they get addicted (and insert more quarters...), +1. =D –  Randolf Richardson Jul 16 '11 at 18:22
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Lives are a way of tuning the feedback loop that players engage with the game through (reward/punishment for actions taken toward goals). A crucial part of gameplay is learning; a game design where punishments of lesser degree than termination of the game are available gives more opportunities for players to learn which behaviors earn rewards and which earn punishments, and so promotes engagement. Of course there are many ways to accomplish that, but since "death" is a common metaphor for game termination, a natural modification of that metaphor becomes "multiple lives".

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Finite lives are a form of resource management for the player.

If you notice, most games that have a finite count of lives tend to be very binary about being alive or dead. Maybe the player gets a couple of HP, but if you get hit more than 3 times or so, you lose a life. And there will generally be a healthy supply of "insta-death" lurking around, whether it is pits, spikes, etc.

Because of that, lives function as resources in the same way that healing potions do in RPGs. The more you have, the more likely you are to be able to progress further. You don't have to push as hard, since you have more lives to try again. This is also why RPGs, even historically, almost never used multiple lives. There was no point, since they already had plenty of resource management.

One of the reasons why finite lives is going out of fashion for games these days is that running out of lives generally isn't fun for most players. While the tension created by having low lives is nice, if you ever actually run out, the game becomes a lot less fun. You lose a lot of progress.

One of the other reasons why finite lives aren't used often is because game developers tend to allow you to save anywhere. Or at least, at reasonably-space designated locations. Because of that, the only progress you can lose is back to the last save point. So, unless save points are significantly different from checkpoints, there's really no purpose to it. And if they are significantly different, players may not like that very much.

So the only way to make finite lives worthwhile is to punish the player significantly more for running out of lives than for simply losing a life.

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Humans are very risk-averse in terms of death. When a game designer adds the concept of lives to a game where the character in the game might die, they are essentially encouraging the player to take risks they wouldn't otherwise take.

Further, it helps draw players into the game, where the first time they play they might die with minutes of starting. Once they start the game, however, they feel the need to continue trying while they still have remaining game time, or lives, left. Ideally they will learn enough during this time period that they will desire to play the game again, even though they may have to start from the beginning again, having lost all their lives.

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"they are essentially encouraging the player to take risks they wouldn't otherwise take." Wouldn't it be the other way around? If you add the concept of lives being removed when you die, wouldn't that mean that you're discouraging risk taking? "Dying is bad, I might die if I do this, therefore I won't." –  Tetrad Jul 17 '11 at 18:24
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+1 for this answer because it starts to get into psychological factors. There is a benefit to "not dying" that is hard-wired into our brains which is key to our survival (especially back in the days when we were cavemen, as strongly suspected by scientists working in this field lately), as there is a "reward" we feel from overcoming something that would otherwise be dangerous. This doesn't necessarily cause us to take risks, but it does require us to take risks more seriously and contributes to problem-solving intelligence development (another important aspect of gaming often overlooked). –  Randolf Richardson Jul 18 '11 at 1:58
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@Tetrad There's two ways of interpretting the question. I started by looking at it the way you are considering it, but it got too lengthy, and quite frankly this way is more interesting. Games which have no "death" need no lives. Of games that have death, you either get one chance (no lives) or you get multiple chances (lives). So I'm already assuming that we're discussing games where player mistakes may lead the player to restarting the game and/or a given level. Therefore adding lives means extending gameplay beyond the first mistake. –  Adam Davis Jul 18 '11 at 4:31
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In short. If you are giving player a challenge to get from Point (or objective) A to B and its somewhat long. You may not want to force the player to start over if he makes a mistake but you may want to limit the amount of mistakes he can make by using lives which spawn you at last checkpoint.

In a game like zelda (ocarina of time) if you die you start at the beginning of the level which isnt too much of a big deal. However if you accidentally fall in a hole you wouldn't want to start over again so instead of 'lives' (which you dont get) you get deducted hearts/health points instead which is a fair alternative.

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Its an additional difficulty control. In addition, it forces replay of the first few levels, which both builds skills and essentially gives the game more play.

Consider a game that was easily beatable in one 3 hour sitting, without "dying" or having to start again. Probably you would then shelve the game and never play it again.

Or consider also a game that is incredibly difficult and only lets you die once ( vid: Double Dragon III ). You would likely shelve the game and never play it again.

never got past level 1

Games that mix the right amount of challenge with the right number of lives produce a lot of fun replay. One of my favorite games was Battletoads. Replaying the first few levels in 2-player mode is still a lot of fun.

battletoads fun replay

Basically the trade-off between life-meter and now-you-have-to-start-again. Its nice to not have to start again from the very beginning, which would be too challenging/discouraging and would play-out the first few levels faster.

Besides life you also have to consider continue/_password_. Password was an early alternative to savegame, but again, all of these are just means by which to control the difficulty of the game and make it winnable, without making the game too dry to keep starting over from world 1-1.

Its interesting to see how different games handled this though. Take TMNT I, where each turtle only had one life ("getting caught"), but you had 4 turtles, so effectively 4 lives. (They could be rescued as well, but that was really rare/difficult).

tmnt 1

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+1 after reading only the first sentence "it's an additional difficulty control," although I think this entire answer is quite good because it expands logically on that first sentence very nicely. –  Randolf Richardson Jul 17 '11 at 22:18
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It is simple, the purpose of having lives is to allow the player to fail multiple times before total failure or having to restart the game. While games like traditional Arcade games give lives as a means of profit (1 coin, 1 life), the same Arcade games on consoles use lives as a means of trying to get the player to play carefully without having the higher difficulty of permadeath.

In other words: lives are there to help others despite their failures, and as an alternative to permadeath, given that feature's negative aspects. Yet it still retains a form of permadeath (after X lives are lost, you are gone for good!) which retains some of the POSITIVE aspects of that feature.

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