The evolution in the language of video games: The Extra Life.

In recent times, mobile games have invaded the market and have reached a very diverse and broad audience that a video game of yesteryear couldn’t ever imagine.

A video game maker from just 15 years ago, would never have thought of a 60 year old Arkansas lady as a stereotype of her target audience.

But they existed.

Video games are now a 30 year old industry and, through all this time, they had developed their own visual and metaphoric language.
For those of us who have been playing games since the age of arcade games and early personal computers, many game mechanics are second nature. We take for granted so many things “that have always been there” that those of us who develop video games often find ourselves surprised when casual audiences “don’t understand” this same language.
Many standard ways of represent different game elements or standard mechanics are often misinterpreted.
The reason is as simple as that for many of these people, mobile video games are the first video games of their lives, no matter how old they are. These new players have to learn this language from scratch.

There would be so many elements to illustrate this idea, all of them fascinating …maybe for future post as well, but I want to focus on this article on something as basic and simple as the concept of “extra life”. All of us understand this concept as if it had always been there. But.. where does it come from? and how has it evolved?

Some context:

The idea of “death” or “lose the life” attached to a game is inherent in the moment a player projects himself in a role within a battle game. For example in chess, where your pieces are your army and the oponent “kill” them in order to conquer the board. So, we can say this concept is some how present since the dawn of humanity.

Queen Nefertari very into conquer the board.
Egypt is never enough big.

Despite this, the concept itself of “extra life” in games would not exist until videogame era during the last century.

Birth of the extra life concept:

First video games were mainly a recreational luxury: Extremely expensive complex machines that very few could afford to have.
At the time, people couldn’t play them at home, they had to go to concrete places to enjoy these technological wonders. The machines were used as a claim to attract potential customers to bars and other locales.

Nothing more fancy than Space Race in that luxurious corner.

They used to be simple two-player games in which the game ended when one beat the other. A coin was equivalent to a one match. The game didn’t necessarily have to be related to the concept of “death” (the competitions were generally sports themed) but some games, like Gun Fight (Taito, 1975) consisted of “killing” the opponent’s avatar.

Gun Fight (Taito): Just another example of a “player vs player” 70’s arcade game.

Over time, due to high demand, engineers squeezed their brains to create new mechanics and the first single player games appeared. Just as in pinball machines a coin equals a limited number of balls, the first single player games used this same mechanic: One coin = one try.

Speed Race (Taito): One of the first games with single player mechanics.

Games were gaining complexity also thanks to parallel technological progress.
At some point, some classic games introduced some metaphors in which “one try” could be related with “a life”:
In Space Invaders (Taito, 1978) the Aliens destroy the player’s ship (were we can imagine a pilot died inside) and in Pac-man (Namco, 1980), player control a character who can be eaten by enemies. In both games the credits mechanic was the same: If you lost an attempt you continued with the next one in the exact same point, until you lost three attempts and you had to start from the beginning.
Thanks to the magic of the easy associations in our brains, people and also devs started calling “extra life” to an “extra attempt”.

Space Invader (left) and Pac-man (right) using same extra lives mechanics.

Deconstruction of extra life concept in console games:

When the games jumped to console world, the mechanics inherited from arcade games were maintained at first.

Playing at home, the “one coin = one try” model no longer made sense, so little by little the games evolved:
First, from having a finite number of attempts to the possibility of getting extra attempts during the game as a reward for the player’s skill.

Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985) 1Up

Later, by having only one rechargeable life, but the possibility of reload the game where you left it.
These new mechanics encourage the player to take new strategies and risks in the game.

The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo, 1986), best example of one rechargeable life, and game saved.

Losing a life punishes the player, so players will feel more gratified with rewarding mechanics such as the save point. And at the same time, a game that can remember what the player achieved and what the player did allow much more complexity and deepness.

The Legend of Zelda (left) and Metroid (right) using the same mechanics related with game attempts and save points.

However, the continuous exploration of the developers in new mechanics, created genres like the graphic adventures, which evolved from the inherited approach of losing lives, to games where it is impossible to die and the player progression is based on solving the puzzles throughout the adventure.

A good way to illustrate that evolution is to compare the games of Sierra Entreatment, first developers of graphic adventures genre with their most successful competitors: Lucas Art.
Sierra Games were famous for being hard and quite painful regarded to the possibility to die in an unpredictable way and make you start from the beginning.

Yep, your character followed your mouse direction until the last consequences. Space Quest 3 (1989)

Even when Lucas Arts started making graphic adventures as a competitors of Sierra Games, they inherit dying mechanics too. (Maniac Mansion (1987) one of their first adventures, is a good example) But soon, they abandon these mechanics to focus the gameplay into a progression based in narrative and puzzles.

In The Secret of Monkey Island (1990) they made a joke pretending the character die by emulating Sierra typical popup.
A unique humour that devs at that times allowed themselves to do.

The player can enjoy the game without caring anymore about losing lives.
He can end up stuck without knowing how to advance or solve the puzzle, but he will never be punished by starting the game again. A mind blowing concept for the industry at that time.

What happens in (a bit more) modern games:

In modern games developers experiment with the one life concept in order to make games more approachable and enjoyable. In some cases, they avoid the possibility of death at all.

One interesting curious example is Wario Land 2 (Nintendo, 1998), where typical platform game mechanics are rethinked to combine with an immortal main character.

Wario: The immortal guy.
You can see many examples of how Wario avoid death here.

Another example of how transform average game genres to avoid the concept of losing lives is Prince of Persia (Ubisoft, 2008) the player can not conventionally “die”. Every time the player makes a fatal mistake, a magical companion helps him to survive again and again.

These changes in classical mechanics could avoid punishment to the players but at the same time they may be a risk of losing the meaning of the effort-reward binomial.

However, some games have gone further in originality and exploration of the gaming experience, creating completely innovative mechanics, focusing the game’s interest on aspects far beyond the possibility of “win or lose”/”live or die”.
For example, games like Journey (2012) where the experience of playing is the meaning of the game itself.
Exploring, advance, the pleasure of playing and the emotional experience of sharing it with other players is brilliantly transformed into strong motivations for the player.
It is the perfect example that a game can break the stablished rules to bring something new.

Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012), Maybe you will discover the secret meaning of this game while playing.

Another game where the game experience itself is re-invented, could be Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2001).
There are no real goals in the game other than exploring what the game has to offer and collecting things.
The game’s interest lies in the pleasure of “living” in a virtual small world that seems to continue working even when the game console is turned off. Also spending time on small tasks for small rewards.

Even if it sounds simple, the game is today one of the most successful franchises in the world.

The first Animal Crossing might be ugly…
but just as interesting as the last beautiful game of the franchise.

At the end, the general tendency today, are games in which the player can “lose his life” but is only punished by stopping his advance, since he can automatically continue the game where he failed as many times as he wants. Something we can see in the last big launch of the year: The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog, 2020).

Mobile games!

Today, mobile games reach where arcade games and consoles could not; To practically anyone with a personal device.
This creates a huge market never seen before, and as a consequence, a brutal competition.
It’s due to the immediacy of the medium and the high competition, that mobile games try to be extremely accessible. This is partly the reason for the success of “free to play” games.
The minimum effort for a player (pay for the game) would suppose the rapid flight of this player towards another game.
Games are offered for free even if they have a hight cost of production.

Thanks to that situation, in mobile games, the old meaning of “extra life” is recovered: Tries to play.
As the old arcade machines, gameplay is designed again to offer a wonderful experience, but difficult enough to make you want more tries to keep progressing.
A kind of arcade machine, where “insert coin” would be some extra lives to keep playing without waiting for free lives refill.

Candy Crush (2012) Game Over.
One of the most successful games of all the times.

The most interesting part of this “return to the past” in video game language is that mobile game market is probably hundred million times more big and competitive than arcade machine market never dream of. …So, as a consequence, mobile games are evolving towards something tremendously accessible and tremendously engaging.

Same concept, different evolutions of it. The concept of extra life will continue with us for a long time as an inheritance of the history and evolution of the classic video games. And who knows which new and original forms will it take in the future.

51 Worldwide Games: A walk through the history of games in the palm of you hand.

I remember the fascination I felt when I was a kid, with an old box full of “classics board games” that my grandparents had at their home, from the time when my uncles were young (a large family of 7 siblings).

It was magical to explore that box and discover strange games, even if the rules manual was long lost or even half of the pieces were missing.
They were all classic games, and I have been able to discover most of them through my life. However, some of them kept being a mystery… until June 5, when Nintendo released a delicious selection of classic games of all times.

“Compendium of games”
An example of the game box my grandparents had in the 80s.

What is the game about?

51 Worldwide Games or Clubhouse Games: 51 Worldwide Classics if you live in the US, is a collection of lifelong games. Some of them are hundreds or even thousands of years old. A door to the ancestral game design of the era of the Chinese dynasties, or the Roman empire. Or just from the time of the games of our childhood, when playing with the family around a table was the common.

I must admit that the idea of ​​having this collection of classics to play comfortably with friends and family, attracted me from the beginning. Its simple marketing had an effect on me. Nintendo, apart of excellent game designers, is a company that has been manufacturing board and card games for more than a century with high quality standards. Standards they maintain today in all their products.

Everything indicated that the new game should be at least interesting to explore.

Old plaque in the original headquarters of Nintendo in Kyoto.

After enjoying the game for a couple of weeks, I can say that it has exceeded my expectations. Mainly because the excellence of the finishes and also because the clear and easy incremental tutorials that drive you into some complex mechanics without any effort.
Unlike in a real board game, the rules do not have to be 100% memorised, because the game works as a game assistant (although you can activate or deactivate different types of assistance, in case you are already an expert)
In addition, playing in multiplayer mode with someone real, in these conditions of accessibility, and the tactile screen, make it perfect for chill afternoons with a friend.

Lets talk now about the different aspects of the game, from the game art perspective:

Art Style: The exquisite simplicity.

The game is clean, simple and modern. It is like a breath of fresh air.
It perfectly combines realism on boards and games elements, with the extremely accessible interface. Using harmonised color palettes and rendered with exquisite simplicity.
The game invites relaxation and enjoyment without unnecessary details, direct to what matters.
It reaches the player with simple communication, and delights him with visual sensations, colors and textures of what would be the real experience of each game. A nice visual journey that transports us directly to nostalgia and pleasure.

Details of Backgammon game board.

Tutorials: Accessibility to the complexity.

One of the most remarkable things about this game is undoubtedly the excellence of its tutorials.
Thanks to a simple animated introduction, player learns the minimum necessary to start playing and then, you learn the rest on the go. Everything is very gradual, without effort. You can start playing the complicated Japanese chess in 2-3 minutes.
Then, apart from the introduction tutorial, each game has its rules manual, perfectly structured and accessible at any time.

Screenshoot of the game introduction in Shogi, the Japanese chest.

UI: Just what matters.

Accessibility and simply elegance is what characterize the interface design.
Backgrounds are plain color, the menus a small text list of options on the left side of the screen (the area where the user directs the gaze when relaxes) and the status of selection is a simple oval rectangle. All with modern, balanced, visually appealing colors.
One of the great successes of the game is how simple and intuitive it is to navigate through it. The entire UI invites relaxation and simplicity to focus on what is important (games).
They are certainly a great contribution to the experience.

Sound and touch feeling.

Sounds are not only a very important aspect that creates immersion in a world of sensations. They also work as reinforcing feedback in many actions along the game.

Because it is a game that is about games, it makes an extra effort to play with a huge amount of sound effect in every detail trying to create sensations of pleasure and better communication. Pieces touching the board, or the dice clashing between them, or the cards being lifted…

As well as sound, another special feature is the joycons vibration.
Switch joycons are famous for have a motor specially designed for this purpose. (HD Rumble) But it is not usual that a game really takes advantage of this incredible technology and what you usually find in an average game is some annoying vibrations here and there.
However, in 51 WG, controllers vibrate in a multitude of combinations, sequences and intensities to give a feeling of direct interaction with the gameplay. It makes possible certain “physical” sensations so characteristic of classic games and until very recent times, unthinkable for a video game. For example, the controller will vibrate subtly to remind each player that they are on their turn. Or it will vibrate in different ways to emphasize an important event in the game.
Far from being a monotonous and annoying vibration, joycons vibrate in dozens of different ways and is designed with good taste, elegance and sensibility, at the same quality of the rest of the game.

A world of sensations.

Marketing Art:

In the image used for the marketing and the cover of the game, we can see that the attention of the composition falls on a switch console in which two adults are playing.
The console is the classic version with the joycons in two colors, to emphasize the idea that these people play against each other. Around this scene, there are beautifully arranged multiple examples of the games that you can find within the video game.
Undoubtedly, the intention of the poster is to emphasize the multiplayer game mode, accessibility and ease of use, and how you can cover all that number of games in a portable console that you can comfortably carry with you.

Marketing examples.


Even if my review is mainly about game art and I don’t want to enter in game design analysis, there are some aspect that worth to mention.
At first, you can think this game is the typical game that shortly is dumped in to the offers box in the store, but it is not. As soon as you start playing you discover how much effort and love, developers put in this title.
The game is full of surprises that awaken your desires to explore it thoroughly.
You can unblock collections, achievements, secrets and new ways of gameplay within the single player and multiplayer modes. And the multiplayer experience is different depending if you play with a single console, or a bunch of players with their own.
Also you have the opportunity to play online with worldwide strangers and will be different experience too.
I highly recommend this title to real game lovers. People who love video games not just for one or two genres but enjoy all kind of game experiences and especially the original ones.
You have combined in this title, the very core experience of gameplay from the ancestral games, and the addiction, fun, and originality from the evolution and refinement of video games in the last decades.
This game is a high quality Nintendo experience with all its merits.