three lives and insert coin 80s arcade

Three Lives: The Evolution of Survival in Video Games

Gaming today has naturally progressed far beyond what was even considered back in the 80’s arcade heyday.

Dying is now a minor hindrance in most games today, allowing players to pick up from the last save point and have another go with no fear of seeing game over.

It wasn’t like that at all with three lives being the standard for a long time but why three lives instead of four, five or even ten?

Why Three Lives?

In the early days of neon lit arcades, games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong introduced a gaming concept that is still in use today: the player starts with three lives.

Now it may sound like a random choice, however it wasn’t – it was a carefully balanced decision grounded in psychology and good old fashioned economics.

Arcade games were designed to be challenging enough to encourage more coin drops, yet fair enough to keep players wanting more. Three lives provided the perfect learning curve, balancing the thrill of the game with the challenge of survival.

Warm-Up, Progression, Survival

The first life when playing a game for the first time would have been the warm up life, gamers probably lost a life whilst working out the controls and mechanics of the game, the second life would have taken a bit longer to lose as the player starts to understand the game and perhaps be more cautious at the same time lest the life gets lost.

If and inevitably when the second life is lost the third and final life (for their money that is) will be a test of how far they can go and of course how high a score they could get, risk avoidance would be lower and the thrill and pursuit of seeing how far they could go and survival mode would kick in until it was all over.


If the game felt fair and the player had realised it was their mistake not the games, the economic factor would come in with the flashing ‘insert coin to continue’ text being flashed on the screen and a timer typically ten seconds for the player to decide if they want to spend more money and time on it.

You see arcade operators maximised their income via time; the less time a player spent on a game, the more money they would make from the player continuing or other players having their turn.

The player naturally wanted as much game time as possible for their money and three lives was fair for both parties in the transaction of fun.

This let the players increase their skill in the game and eventually (after spending quite a bit of money) they might be good enough to do the game on one credit and have the kudos of having a crowd around them in whooping and hollering in awe of their skill and this crowd would then be eager to experience the same winning glory and pump coins in to the machine to have their moment too.

A savvy arcade operator would no doubt have loved the free advertising even though the player would have skewed the balance in their favour but it was literally well earned and was a pivotal part of the arcade experience, that being of entertainment, skill and having fun.

Three Lives at home

The three lives and your out philosophy continued on home systems, in all likelihood due to the familiarity of the arcade experience which all home systems would try and emulate as best as they could.

However at home the player already owned the game and the introduction of continues and the ability to collect extra lives or get shields created a feeling of value for the player while they got the hang of the game.

Games like Mario Bros. gave players power ups in the form of a mushroom that let them increase in size and give them another chance in game to reach the end of the level without having to start it from the beginning if they got hit by an enemy.

When Sonic came out in 1991, the collecting of rings not only kept the player in the game if they got hit, their skill was rewarded if they didn’t die with extra lives granted at 100 rings collected, bonus levels and even extra continues given for keeping them.

In shoot ’em ups which were extremely popular, the introduction of shields and screen clearing super weapons let players hold on to their three lives in a more strategic way.

Even so with all the extra lives and chances on offer it still took time to perfect these games and get the skills to beat them.

It felt much fairer as the investment in the game was already done by the player and so the game company could offer more as they have the maximum amount of money they could make from the sale instead of the exchange of money for a few minutes in the arcade.

Health Bars

With the arrival of one on one fighting games like Streetfighter 2, the concept of three lives was instead replaced with a health or vitality bar.

This meant that one life was all players got but if they were skilled they would see the bar replenished for the next round and take on a more dangerous opponent.

For those skilled enough, extra points and a loud declaration of ‘Perfect’ would blast across the arcade for all to hear adding endorphins and the nodding respect of other players nearby.

Health bars progressed to the home market too with games like Streets of Rage employing both health bars and three lives for players to utilise.


When it comes to racing games like Outrun or Virtua Racing, having three lives wouldn’t work well but Checkpoints did.

This balanced the time on offer against the skill of the player, hit a Checkpoint and get more time to reach the next one, fail and its game over and time to insert another coin if you want to.

This again is a perfect balance that carried over to the home consoles for quite some time.

Is it the end of the road for three lives and Checkpoints?

With the decline of the arcades and the maturing of the home gaming industry and the increased emphasis on story rather than quick thrills and high scores, games today lack the urgency of holding on to lives as the gradual progression aspect is emphasised over everything.

This is fine in our opinion as its a long way from the transactional balance between the arcades and players and in a lot of games such as Grand Theft Auto and other open world it would be crazy to only offer three lives.

Three lives, health bars and checkpoints will always be a part of gaming and one that should continue forever for the kind of games these are suited for because there will always be players that want the challenge and the kudos of beating a game with lives or time to spare.

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