Gaming Your Way

May contain nuts.

Lives. They're really not evil you know.

Our mate Ali has had his Mechanaught game reviewed over at Jay's. We really like the game.


It's not perfect, but what it does it does really well. It is what a good Flash game should be, a nice time waster, not a life changing experience.

Something in the review about it though really caught my eye,

"My biggest gripe with Mechanaught is actually the implementation of lives. I thought we'd covered this was an unnecessary and annoying idea for a browser game. I sent out flyers and everything. This is a flash game, not an arcade hall with a sticky floor. You're not going to get quarters out of me, just an enraged baboon-like hooting.
If you run out of lives, that's it. Game over. You can go back to your most recent save, but it's still frustrating. Maybe some people will like the added difficulty, but the rest of us are going to be annoyed that dying carries such a stiff penalty instead of simply popping you back to the beginning of a stage. Maybe if health kits were a more frequent find, it wouldn't be as much of an issue.

I must have missed the memo. It's one thing that a games difficulty may be out slightly for some players ( No one will ever get it perfect for everyone ), but a game with lives and a game over mechanic is far from a dated notion.
An end of level boss was originally a spike in the difficulty to increase the length of a game. These soon became the norm to the point that most players expect a boss battle and feel cheated if they don't get one. And yet, they are there for the very same reason that lives are. It's to increase the longevity of a game and introduce a pronounced risk / reward, in the case of lives something which is clearly tangible from the offset.

I just finished Arkham Asylum the other day. Fantastic game, believe the hype. All the reviews said it's about 10 hours gameplay, but I've been off the xbox for a while so I'm a bit rusty, it must have taken me more like 12/14 ( I've still got to go back and max those achievements out. I'm a gamer score whore ). That didn't have lives, and just as well as it would be in the bin by now if I got a Game Over after dying 3 times and then sent back a fair way.
That's a 10+ hour game, not a 30min Flash game. A lives mechanic only really works if you can complete the game with the base number of lives, or you can either collect extra ones or have continues ( Or it's pure score attack, Geometry Wars being the perfect example of a popular console shoot'em up with a nasty ol' Game Over ) so you can actually complete it.

I think it's fair to say that there isn't a progressive Flash game with 10 hours playability before the job is done. Yeah you may have played DTD for 10 hours in total ( Which has lives in the form of energy ) but nothing that I know of that's 10 hours from the start of the tale to the conclusion ( Does Dofus count ? Feel free to correct me if it does ).

Lives are a valid mechanic for small Flash games. I'm not saying every game in Flash should use them ( Untold games shouldn't ), but a lot of games suit them, need them in fact. Just to repeat myself, they lengthen the game play ( The game play we can't lengthen with more real content due to budgets ). It may be a slightly artificial and forced way to do it, but in adding a clear risk and reward to the game it works well.
The alternative being ? Grinding out a victory ? I'm old enough to have used infinite lives pokes in games, and no matter how hard you try you soon succumb to the safety / apathy that offers and with no risk you miss out on that all important money shot that is reward.


Comments (8) -

  • Richard Davey

    9/11/2009 4:35:44 PM |

    I agree that lives are an age-old concept, but if you don't have any sense of risk / reward then you simply blast through the game, not really caring about how skilfully you played it.

    Remove the skill element from the game and you also remove any sense of competitiveness in playing it, removing a sense of importance hitting the top of a leader board for example, or collecting an achievement.

    There are exceptions to this rule of course, but Mechanaught wasn't one of them. It rewarded you very clearly for playing the game carefully, and not rushing around like a goon with a stick. Part of the problem is that a lot of people playing browser games will literally only play your game once, so if you don't let them get very far then are you doing yourself, as the games designer justice?

    Would you rather they did actually complete it by sacrificing a sense of real accomplishment in the process.

    Every game is different. Some can get away with this, some cannot. But the review shouldn't have pulled the game up short just because it insisted you play with a degree of skill.

  • Squize

    9/11/2009 6:47:04 PM |

    Couldn't agree more.

    It's one thing in say a physics based game where every level is it's own challenge, but for a progressive game like Ali's lives are more than legitimate.

  • Scarybug

    9/11/2009 8:52:12 PM |

    I haven't tried Mechanauts yet, so I don't have an opinion on whether lives were bad for that particular game or not, but I really dislike lives in general. Playing Megaman as a ROM with save/load state is a lot more fun than having to play Megaman perfectly. You still have to overcome any individual challenge, you just don't have to start over from the beginning and overcome a challenge you've already overcome just because you failed a lot at a later challenge. I don't think it detracts from a sense of real accomplishment at all! I can't stand having to play and beat level 1 100 times before I can beat level 8. I've proven I can beat level 1! If I fail at level 8, just let me try level 8 again!

    There was a video commentary that compared video games like that to being teleported home every time you missed a shot in basketball, and having to walk all the way back to the park to try again. Yeah, it's harder because it detracts from your ability to practice making the shot, but it's also monotonous. I can't find the video right now.

    I don't dislike them more than I do arbitrary time constraints. That totally discourages exploration and experimentation. (Looking at you, Blurst)

    Lives make a lot of sense for arcade style games that are essentially the same except they just get harder, but I think they detract from the fun of games that are about exploring a space or progressing through levels.

  • Scarybug

    9/11/2009 9:06:37 PM |

    Well I got a game over during the tutorial. The jump board didn't spring me when I thought it would and when I used it I wasn't pressing left enough because I thought that's what was screwing the board up.

    I think *maybe* the game would be more fun without lives, but the save stations function as continues, and as long as they're frequent enough the life system probably isn't huge detriment to the game. Maybe I'll see if I can beat it over the weekend.

  • Porter

    9/12/2009 4:19:23 AM |

    Lives are outdated? Ouch, I smell a statement that will be regretted or reworded in the near future. That aside, I couldn't disagree more. I do understand that we're not trying to get quarters out of people here, but it could be argued that the user will stay longer on our site longer, perhaps coming back days later to try and finally beat the game, thus increase chances for ad clicks. That aside as well, it's just part of a game. Without a sense of accomplishment, a game is just a bit weaker. There are some aspects of the flash game industry that I'm willing to embrace. Increasing CTR by trying to use mouse only controls, easing the difficulty because the majority of players are casual, not throwing too much in because it's too complicated for most players, that's fine, but there comes a time when I draw the line, and taking lives out of a game is something that I'm not about to do. If I ever do decide to takes lives away, It'll be done in a very clever way that adds to the value of the game, but it certainly won't be because I'm trying to please the players more. On that note, I sometimes stick to keyboard controls because lets face it, the mouse can't do everything. Even though I may lose out on a few grand because sponsors are less interested, at least I know I made the game I envisioned, the game I made for fun.

    Again though, from a defensive point of view for the author of that comment, it will make the players happy, it is a smart move (in some cases), but it's simply watering down a game too much in my opinion and you'll never catch me doing it.

  • Squize

    9/12/2009 8:53:27 PM |

    Scarybug I'm not a huge lover of time limits in games, I really disliked it in Lost Planet for example even though it was skewed as something different. Time limits have their place in puzzle games, and for ( Again ) forcing a sense of urgency in a game, but as a constant mechanic I'm not that into them ( Driving games excluded of course :) )

    The example you give, Megaman as a Rom, goes some way to proving what I'm trying to say funnily enough. If I'm playing something under emulation it's just throw away time. It's so I can relive the past, get past the levels in R-Type I could never beat in the arcade, or just for inspiration.
    It's not a genuine new gaming experience. I don't want to especially jump through hoops, so if I'm using Mame then yes I'm going to keep pumping imaginary credits into it.

    If I'm coming to a Flash game then it's a new experience. If it holds my interest for more than 2 mins then it's got me for at least another 10. I want to be challenged so I get the benefit of feeling like I've improved, that's my reward for playing, fun and honing a skill in a new environment.
    If the developer uses lives to increase the games longevity then for me that's more than legitimate. As I've said it is an artificial way to do it, that's why the vast majority of full priced console games ( As opposed to arcade games on consoles ) have ditched that notion.
    If I could make a game with even 3 hours play time then I would use checkpoints rather than lives, but that's really not going to happen.

    I think the main thing about the comment which got my back up was it's such a sweeping statement, and to "mark down" a game because it uses an approach the reviewer doesn't like just burns me ( Enough to write the blog post :) ).
    It's like me saying I don't like Italian plumbers, so any game featuring one would be better if it didn't.

    Porter yeah I agree with you, although I didn't even think of it terms of generating a higher ctr or ad revenue, it's not something which ever enters my head when it comes to making a game. That's something which comes at the end for me, something to be tacked on when the game is done.
    I guess it means I'll never be rich :)

    Thanks for the insightful thought out comments here guys. A good debate about game mechanics is always a good debate :)

  • Pul

    10/13/2009 9:40:27 AM |

    There's something to be said for mitigating loss while preserving the frustration of failure. Overcoming a challenge is one way of adding value to your success but so is perseverance. But I think it is the coarse granularity of lives that overly annoys some players, and the reviewer it seems. A health bar is a much better mechanic than 3 lives imo =)

  • Squize

    10/13/2009 10:33:08 AM |

    Hey Paul, thanks for the insightful comment. I have to try and remember now why I was defending lives :)

    Again it's on a per game basis, that's why the reviews sweeping statement bugged me so much. Take an old school shoot'em up, R-Type as that's a good example most people know.
    That's skewed in terms of difficulty as it's an arcade game, so the whole gameplay is based almost on grinding, in that unless you've played it an insane number of times you're going to have to put more credits in there.
    If that had been released on a home system first then it would have ( Possibly ) benefited from both an energy bar and lives, as the energy bar is a license for the player to take risks, which after spending £x ( As opposed to 10p. Yeah, I'm that old ) on a game you want to do, to have the freedom to make mistakes as your skill improves.
    Unlimited continues are another way around this, as are checkpoints, both of which can be used really well in conjunction with the good ol' 3 lives.

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