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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.