In the late 80s and early 90s, most games had an extra life mechanic. The player started with limited lives (often three) and dying depleted one of them. If they still had some remaining, they would respawn at the last savepoint. The game would end once all lives had been used and they had to start from the beginning. Players could obtain additional lives during the game.

This mechanic was so widely used that it was rather the exception when games didn't use it. It was and still is one of the most recognized video game clichés (the above image has been printed on countless shirts).

Nowadays, this mechanic seems to have been forgotten.

Almost every modern game gives the player infinite retries from the last save. Many even let the player make their own savepoints with a quicksave mechanic. Those few that try to be different tend to go for the other extreme: The "roguelike" mechanic gives the player no retries.

What happened to the middle-ground of having extra lives? What game design revolution caused the game industry to abandon this feature?

When proposing an answer to this question, please try to back up your answer with citations and factual, objective evidence as much as possible so as to avoid dragging this post into the territory of being "too opinion-based." Focus on "what" happened and "when," which specific examples.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I know you want to close this as "primarily opinion-based", but remember that there must be an objective reason why everyone had this mechanic 20 years ago and nobody uses it now, even through the retro-gaming craze of the past few years. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unfortunately I think that the reasons are commercial. Differences between now and those days are just the people, the new generations of players educated with different criteria. For instance now in all those infinite-tries games the policy is just to avoid player frustration. This is why, actually, I think this question may be off-topic here \$\endgroup\$
    – Leggy7
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Leggy7 You might be on the right track with player frustration avoidance being more important nowadays. I think you should post this as an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 8:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do think this is too opinion based, or at least dangerously so, but I won't unilaterally close it. Yet. It's too late now, since you have too many answers to make it viable, but I would have suggested editing it to focus more on identifying the what and when of the shift away from this mechanic, since that would encourage answers based more in research and objective fact. (I have edited the question itself to highlight that, and bannered it as well). \$\endgroup\$
    – user1430
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 15:33
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Okay, with two concurring moderators plus a flag for closure, I've decided to go ahead and close this. \$\endgroup\$
    – user1430
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 17:20

5 Answers 5


Finite amount of lives in video games was a design element inherent to coin operated arcade gaming machines. In order to limit a player's play time so he would be forced to spend more coins or make room for the next player, a finite lives system, coupled with high difficulty, proved successful, so it became the standard for all of arcade gaming.

As home gaming consoles grew more popular, their games were of course made by the people already in the industry, so game design just stuck to what they know - high difficulty, limited number of lives, which led to the popular "nintendo-hard" label, referring to NES games.

As arcade machines declined in popularity and video game design matured, the concept of limited lives slowly fell out of favor. It typically made way for quick saves and instant, infinite restarts with short levels (think Super Meat Boy), in order to preserve the flow of a game, as opposed to setting back the player to the beginning of a level or checkpoint as a punishment for failure.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yep, and the 'press start' text that still appears on today's games is a surviving artefact from the coin operated arcade days. It's purpose is so the machine knows someone is trying to use it! Utterly useless in home-games, but it's cool how things like that have survived, even if the finite life system has all but vanished... \$\endgroup\$
    – Starkers
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 14:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have to say though, certain players love a finite lives system. We like the sense of overcoming a challenge based on skill. The problem is that catering to us alienates the majority, so far less money is to be made. We do appreciate it when someone tries, though. \$\endgroup\$
    – Magus
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 18:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Starkers actually it's very useful, since you want to be able to go away during loading without coming back to find you dead because the game already started. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 12:04

tl;dr: There was a saving mechanic in many older games: See Sega's SMS: Phantasy Star, Y's, Golvellius and WonderBoyIII. Also see Nintendo's ES: Metroid, Rygar and Zelda. Sometimes saves were based on (long) passwords. So the shift is not as strong as you would suggest. The main reason for the shift was replay value.

Long answer: In the old days there was no web access. If you check to see when the statistical shift happened between having three live and sometimes "continues" to having a quick-save or simply having the game remember the last level or checkpoint you visited, it was around the time that web access became more widely spread. Web access encourages the player to shift her attention rapidly. If a game is too hard and the player has to start over from scratch it's likely that player will abandon the game at that point and possibly never try it again.

In the old days a game could not afford to give you infinite lives? That would be a fallacy to state that without mentioning games like Y's, Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy and some others that had a saving mechanism built in already. Also in games like SMB3 you practically had access infinite lives (you could use the skeleton turtles to get them).

The reason many games could not afford to provide you with infinite lives was that it would make the game-play experience (of getting from start to finish) too short and therefore (in the eyes of some players) nearly exhausting the enjoyment that could be had with that game too soon. That was considered a fault back then because there was no web to let you hop directly to the next game; Games were often bought by parents and played by kids and if the kids whined that they needed / wanted a new game too soon, the game would probably not be considered a sound investment. Gamers and their parents wanted to get the most out of their money so a game had to be long, highly challenging and maze-like (See Phantasy Star and to some extent Y's, Golvellius and WonderBoy III) or artificially increase challenge by having a limited number of tries to get from start to finish (so you practically never see the ending or only after a long effort) and requiring the player to master and possibly memorize many aspects of the game.

Nowadays a player will simply move on to a different game if he failed several times and could not continue from the last checkpoint (see web access) so giving the reigns to the player has become the norm.


tl;dr: Games are getting easier (and casual) and designing games where the player is rewarded (sometimes games where you can't even lose) makes the player more addicted and inclined to reach a wider audience.

One answer that I believe we also have to take into consideration, even though the coin issue of arcade platform makes a lot of sense, was that games used to be much harder.

As Hackworth explained, high difficulty would make player spend more money in the game. For example, Time Crisis or Tekken were designed to make you think you were close to finishing the game, so sometimes one would pay 4 or 5 times to go further into the game.

From a gaming point of view, however, this doesn't make that much sense. What's the point of bringing a "game-over" screen if the player can reload the game for free and try the level again?

Now, the democratization of video gaming also has a role in this issue. Games have gained new target, for instance the older people are an important target of the Wii console. I know I'm not giving any source here, but it is a commonly accepted cliché and a fact that video games are becoming easier. The idea of making a game more rewarding has been a current trend for many years; thus, many flash games included a system of badges or requirements to show the player that he was making advance in the game (and that he should continue playing it whereas old games would perhaps have frustrated him).

Many RPG are constructed so that the longer the player is in the game, the better he becomes. I think this might be because of the internet: like TV series, it is a goal to make players stay as long as possible in an online game because of advertisement, which wouldn't be the case with arcade games.

  • \$\begingroup\$ "the longer the player is in the game, the better he becomes" - not "he" or "her" specifically but the player characters in terms of power as it's defined in the game world. \$\endgroup\$
    – AturSams
    Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 13:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ True, that's the whole point of this rewarding idea. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 13:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have seen many studies about why some players were failing at school because of video games. Because on the contrary to school (you can study hard and still fail), video games are rewarding and feel a safe to invest time (because it will never be for nothing). \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 14, 2014 at 13:08

Other answers have already covered the history aspect, e.g, how home gaming learning the wrong thing about the arcades.

In modern games, you generally either give the player a challenge, or you're trying to tell a story. In the 'challenge' category, when you fail, you fail. In the 'story' category, you will want to let the player keep retrying, however badly he plays.

Whenever you get to a situation where multiple lives might be applicable, you have to wonder why you're making them limited.

If you're telling a story, you don't want to have limited lives.. and if you're not and the player is, basically, playing for a high score, something very few games aim for anymore, there are more entertaining ways to practically give the player "more lives". Such as limited amount of shields, plain hit points, etc.

One game I played recently that actually does have limited "lives" is shatter, which is a breakwall game (but the best of that genre I've seen so far); you get a limited number of balls. Once you run out of those, the game does let you continue, but your score resets; so the concept is still out there. I haven't played a lot of shmups lately but I wouldn't be surprised if they still had limited lives.

In the end, it all pretty much boils down to "which option is more fun".


The deprecation of the "many lives" dynamic was based on what was going on in the arcades. Games of the late 70s and early 80s, as you mention, typically had three lives along with the ability to gain extra lives either through scoring a certain number of points or power ups.

For a single quarter, if a player was good enough, he or she could play the arcade game for a very long period of time. I once played the game Cheyenne for two hours at a Nathan's game room out on long island. Similarly, people I know could play "Dig Dug" or "Pacman" for quite a long time as well. - on just one quarter.

Arcade games moved away from this in order to generate more revenue per hour as they lost market share to consoles. A single try followed but "insert another 50 cents to continue" with a counter of 9 seconds became a standard for many arcade games in the late 80s.



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