I twitted that “restarting a long multi-screen level on death” and “limited lives” are examples of retro mechanics that should stay dead. I thought that I would expand a bit on what I meant.
In part, this is a corollary to my past writings on challenge and punishment. In my definition, challenge is when a task is difficult to accomplish because it requires a high amount of skill, ability, or experience. Punishment is when failing a task imposes a burden on the player, usually in the form of lost time.
In classic Nintendo games, the player typically has a set of 3 or so lives. When the player character dies, the player loses a life and the level restarts. If the player has no lives left, the game ends and the player must start over from the very beginning. Levels in this style are typically rather long, so that if the player character dies, the player must replay thirty seconds, a minute, or perhaps more in order to return to where she last reached.
This is punishment. The player’s failure is punished by having to start over. There’s also a certain amount of challenge that goes along with it; instead of “get through this level,” the player must “get through this level all in one life.” Still, I don’t think this is a good approach to take with regard to difficulty. Excessive punishment is frustrating, especially when it involves repeated playthroughs of the same content.
Limited lives provide the same problem, writ larger. Instead of playing the same level over and over, the player must play the entire game over and over. Some games provide the option to continue, where game over means the player is sent back to an arbitrary checkpoint, rather than the very beginning. This helps a bit, but is still annoying. Some games even have the audacity to limit the number of continues!
My perfect alternative to restarting a level on death: place checkpoints or respawn points frequently throughout the game, or allow the player to quicksave. If part of the challenge of the game is passing several obstacles in a row, place the checkpoints before and after each set of obstacles. Under no circumstances should players have to replay the exact same challenge they’ve already surpassed in order to progress.
Not good enough? Want to stop the dedicated but unskilled player who tries again and again on each challenge until she passes by coincidence? Create implicit checkpoints by using a health system. The player has X hit points, and getting hurt or otherwise failing removes one. Where you would otherwise provide checkpoints, have health-restoring items instead. By restoring Y hit points after each set of challenges, you are effectively giving the player Y attempts at each challenge. Depending on the values of X and Y, skilled players may be able to build up a buffer of hit points by beating challenges “under par,” while less skilled players will feel constantly challenged by their low hit points. If you use this approach, recognize that you’re likely to frustrate borderline players: those players who almost make it to the end of the level before dying, every damn time.
Limited lives are less defensible. They stem from a time when each “continue” required a quarter, and it was in the developer’s best interest to stop players from finishing a game. If you want to encourage players to fail less, attach a more “soft” punishment to failure. Score players’ performance by giving them big red Fs if they use up too many deaths, or loudly declare how many deaths they’ve experienced and allow them to retry segments in order to reduce this number.
Stephen “increpare” Lavelle (half-jokingly?) demanded I offer five counter-examples before he found me credible. That’s a good proof of a law, I think. So, situations in which level-restarting and lives are okay:
- Rogue-likes, and other games with perma-death. If the player only has one life, and knows that going in, then she is prepared for a situation in which death really matters and the stakes are high. The frustration of punishment is tempered by a randomly-generated world, meaning that the player need never endlessly replay the same set of opening levels.
- Games or game modes played for competitive scoring. It’s perfectly fine to include limited lives when players’ primary goal is to set a high score. Games like this usually have a limited amount of different levels, anyway, so a player that gets an early game-over doesn’t miss out on a lot of content.
- Games in which progress persists across plays. Spelunky allows the player to accumulate money to open up shortcuts, and Super Crate Box unlocks new content as a reward for performance. These approaches give a sense of accomplishment and add variety for subsequent play-throughs.
- Games in which frustrating the player is one of the design goals. Are you trying to portray a frustrating, annoying situation? Do you want the player closing and deleting the game in disgust as part of the game’s message? By all means, limit their lives. This is a trick that only works a few times, though.
- Games which subvert these mechanics. What if dying and going to the beginning of the level is a shortcut, not a punishment? What if lives are currency, and the player must wager power against security? What if death is a way of “banking” experience points and upgrading the character, so that the player can replay the level with new abilities? In these cases, make sure to be aware of the annoyance of replaying identical content.
Do you disagree with my hatred of limited lives and level-restarting? Do you have a counterexample that I missed? Leave a comment and let me know.