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 PlayMapping 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.



Is It Worth Investing In A Video Game Company?

The super-successful publisher Electronic Vision is going to release the latest installment in its Call of Honor franchise next month, and the gaming press is predicting that the game will be a monster hit and break retail sales records. So, you think now would be a great time to purchase stock and earn a quick and easy profit when EV’s stock price shoots up as soon as those sales revenues start pouring in.

Sorry, no, that’s not how stock prices work. Stock prices are not directly related to a company’s sales. Stock prices are based on supply and demand. If more people want to buy a stock (demand) than sell it (supply), then the price moves up. Conversely, if more people wanted to sell a stock than buy it, there would be greater supply than demand, and the price would fall.

What makes people want to buy or sell a stock? A decision like this is based on whether the company has been having good news or bad news. So, wouldn’t record-breaking sales be good news. Well, not really, because it isn’t news. The gaming press has already determined the game would break records, so next month, when the game goes on sales, it is already expected that the game would sell well.  In fact, the game was probably expected to sell well when it was first announced.

But even that isn’t looking at the big picture.  When you buy stock in a game publisher, you are investing in not just one game but the publisher’s entire business — its assets, its liabilities and potential for future earnings.  Stock market investors also take into account the overall health of economy in general and the game industry in particular.  The sales of a single game might have very little impact on how well a publisher is considered a year from now — or for investors who are playing the long game, five or ten years from now.

 The game industry is a risky one, because there are more failures than hits, and anyone interested in actually earning money through their stock market investments should should minimize their risks by diversifying.  If you want to invest in your favorite game company, fine, but spread your investments out across a number of companies in different industries. That way, if some fail to earn you money, others will hopefully compensate for it.  But don’t expect to get rich that way. Day traders who spend all their time researching and investing in companies on the average receive only a 10-15 percent return on their investments.

Okay, what about a wealthy individual who wants to put money into a game company as an angel investor or venture capitalist?  How much money would he or she be willing to put in?  Well, that depends on how much the investor values the game company.  This value is not based on how cool the investor thinks the company’s latest game will be, or even on how well the investor thinks it will sell, because investors invest in the overall business, not an individual game.

There are three basic methods investors usefor determining the value of a business:

  • Subtracting its liabilities from its assets.
  • Dividing its expected earnings by its capitalization rate (net operating income / current market value).
  • Comparing it against what similar businesses have sold for.

Of course, an investor would need access to company’s financials or do some market research to value it using one of these methods.

Now, that doesn’t tell you what an investor would be willing to pay, because it depends on an investor’s assumptions, sensitivity to risk, and how much ownership the investor is going to get for that investment.  Knowledgable investors want control of their investments so that they can use their knowledge to steer the company away from risk and towards profitability.  So, for the small game company that wants to make their mark by making product known for its creativity, giving up any control to an investor is probably not the way to go.

Getting back to the original question, is it worth investing in a video game company. Only if you really know what your doing. As with any investment, do your research and invest only as much as you can afford to lose.