One Life Or Many? How Long Should Players Survive In Your Game?
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” American spy Nathan Hale famously said in 1776, just before his execution by the British after being captured while on an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City. Old Nate obviously wasn’t a video game character, or he might have had more than one life to lose. In fact, if he were a character in Super Mario Bros., he might have been able to finagle himself an infinite number of lives.
As anyone who has played Super Mario Bros. or just about any other video game knows, lives are a resource determining the number of times a player may catastrophically fail before a game session is terminated. Players can lose lives in games variously by losing in combat with an enemy, being the victim of a deadly trap, or running out of time. The player may keep on playing the game as long as he or she has a least one live left, providing the player with the continuous goal of surviving.
It can be said that all video games provide the player with at least one life, but game designers may choose to allow the players to have more, based on the experience they are trying to create for players.
One factor designers take into account when determining the number of lives to give to players is the game’s threat level. Threat is one of the domains described by Jason VandenBerghe in his landmark article The Five Domains Of Play: Mapping Psychology’s Five Factor Model to Game Design. Threat is the negative tone of the game that can evoke negative emotions in the player, such as addiction, anxiety, anger, or sadness. The fewer lives a game has, the greater the threat of the game. And when players believe that one of their lives, especially the last one, is at risk, the greater the feeling of anxiety for those players. Such feelings can make a player become more emotionally immersed in a game.
The number of lives granted to players can impact another of VandenBerghe’s domains: challenge. Challenge is the part of the game that requires the player to use self-discipline: overcoming obstacles, work, avoiding danger, and (literally) collecting achievements. When players have multiple lives, they can repeatedly attempt tackling a particular deadly situation in a game, eventually developing the skill and/or information necessary to overcome that challenge. A game with only one life available would require the player to start over again and progress all the way through the game until encountering that challenge and having the opportunity to try another tactic.
Another factor that a game designer takes into consideration when determining the number of lives to give to a player is how long he or she wants the game session length to be, providing there is no way to gain more lives during the game session. If the average game session is intended to be short (say, for a quarter-eating arcade game), the designer will give the player fewer lives than perhaps for a game intended to be played for a lengthy session at home.
By varying the number of lives given to players, the game designer can make significant changes to the overall game experience. However, there are other game elements that the designer can alter to modulate threat, challenge or game session length. The designer can lower the game’s difficulty by allowing the player’s avatar to accumulate damage before losing a life. Or, the designer can place pick-ups for the player to collect in the game level to replenish lost lives. Both of these elements also increase the game’s complexity, while a damage attribute additionally increases a game’s tension as players watch the damage level reach the point where their avatars are in danger of losing their lives.
A game designer can alternately make a game more difficult without adjusting the number of lives by adding more enemies or deadly traps, or by shortening time limits, which increases the game’s tension level as well.
So, one life or many? It all depends on the type of experience you want to create for your player.