Featured Articles

Bring Me to Life: Let’s Hear it for Respawn Systems


Pick up any game, from the biggest triple-A blockbuster to the smallest indie project, and chances are they all share one thing in common: a respawn system. One of the most overlooked, underpraised mechanics in gaming, a game’s respawn system can dramatically affect how it plays. Because nearly every game features some sort of respawn system, the mechanic never quite gets its due, but a good respawn system is like a good rock and roll bass line: almost invisible when everything is firing on all cylinders, but leaving the game feeling threadbare if done badly or absent entirely.

An easy, quick respawn system, for instance, can help ease the pain of difficult gameplay. Rayman Origins features tremendously tricky bouts of platforming, especially during later levels when jumps and character-placement require even more precise timing. The penalty for dying is minimal; respawning takes all of three seconds and happens as many times as needed to finish the level, making even the most taxing gameplay situations feel doable with enough rote memorization and elbow grease.

The unforgiving respawn system works hand-in-hand with Dark Souls’ other design decisions like its foreboding art direction and lack of mini-map, making it feel more dangerous – and adventurous – than other fantasy games.

Rayman Origins‘ forgiving respawn system, along with its art direction and soundtrack, also adds to the game’s carefree, cheerful atmosphere. Every vividly-animated character and brightly-painted background helps the game feel like a gleeful romp, and infinite respawns take away much of the pressure to perform “properly,” letting players relax and enjoy their time with Rayman Origins‘ beautiful hand-drawn aesthetic. Rayman starts the game chilling out and having a good time, and the respawn system, along with its feel-good presentation, help keep that sensation going through all of Rayman Origins.

Now, imagine if Rayman Origins used a respawn system similar to the Super Mario Bros. series. Rayman would start over from death at the beginning of the level, or perhaps a mid-mission checkpoint, with one less life than he started with. If he runs out of lives, it’s Game Over and he starts again from the menu screen. With a finite number of retries, Rayman Origins‘ gameplay shifts away from experimentation to life-management. Rayman Origins‘ overclocked difficulty would seem less fair than when players can retry easily and indefinitely – the treasure chest chases in particular, with their split-second jumps and collapsing corridors, would be downright stupid if punishment for failing too many times meant a Game Over screen. Rayman Origins‘ high level of play is only possible because it lets players retry ad infinitum and never punishes them too harshly for trying their best.

Conversely, a deliberately tough, but fair respawn system can also positively enhance a game’s difficulty. Dark Souls, a poster child for “tough but fair” games, features such a system. Dark Souls‘ design already leans towards punishing. Combat is slow, meticulous, and very deadly – even regular enemies can kill if the player isn’t cautious; environmental deathtraps litter certain areas, making careful trepidation and memorization necessary to progress; and boss encounters hopelessly outmatch players with damaging attacks and huge banks of health, presenting a challenge even after discovering a strategy on how to defeat them. Death comes frequently and freely in Dark Souls, and the difficulty is magnified by the game’s high cost for kicking the bucket. After dying, players respawn without any experience collected during the course of play, potentially leaving them without any way to get stronger or improve their characters if they’re in the middle of a tricky part. Checkpoints in Dark Souls are sometimes spaced out by fifteen or twenty minutes of gameplay, and death means slogging through familiar levels and enemies in order to regain progress.

The severe repercussions for dying take Dark Souls‘ already-challenging design and make it even more difficult, giving the player an overwhelming sense of mortality. Death can come quickly when it’s least expected, forcing players to use caution when exploring unknown areas, else they end up skewered on the tusks of an unseen armored boar and are forced to backtrack fifteen minutes through legions of undead skeletons and booby traps. The unforgiving respawn system works hand-in-hand with Dark Souls‘ other design decisions like its foreboding art direction and lack of mini-map, making it feel more dangerous – and adventurous – than other fantasy games. In Dark Souls, players are weak, and its respawn system only weakens them further, enhancing the sense of dread it fosters in players.

Sometimes, challenging the player might not be the primary goal of a game, and the right respawn system can help complement this direction. BioShock‘s main gameplay hook is, arguably, exploring Rapture and experiencing the narrative rather than fighting through intense combat scenarios, and its respawn system allows for a greater ease of progression than other shooters. Upon death, players revive inside a Vita-Chamber, one of many small pods dotting Rapture’s corridors. Unlike other shooters, though, damaged enemies retain their loss of health and dead baddies stay down, letting players chip away at BioShock‘s difficult sections until they are able to move past them. Because BioShock focuses primarily on letting players experience Rapture’s layered, lived-in environments rather than challenging them with difficult bits of shooting, the Vita-Chambers feel less like a compromise in difficulty than a means to help players see BioShock‘s story through the very end.

Arguably, an arcade game’s most important design element is its respawn system-it’s what earns the machine, and the arcade itself, money.

In the case of the Battlefield: Bad Company series, changing the respawn system helps alter how each game plays from entry to entry. The first Bad Company game features a respawn system similar to BioShock‘s Vita-Chambers: Damage inflicted to enemies and buildings in the area remain constant, even after death. This system meshes well with Bad Company‘s light story, laid-back tone and casual attitude towards pyrotechnics, allowing players to indulge in wanton, free-wheeling destruction without worrying too much.

Bad Company 2, on the other hand, is a more serious game than its predecessor. Its story hinges on retrieving a WMD from enemy Russians, rather than stolen mercenary gold, its level layout is much more linear than Bad Company‘s wide open areas and Bad Company‘s Vita-Chamber-style respawn system is dropped in favor of a more traditional reload-upon-death mechanic. Environmental destruction resets after dying and reloading a checkpoint takes ten to fifteen seconds, increasing the penalty for restarting and discouraging reckless maneuvers compared to Bad Company. Many of Bad Company 2‘s gameplay mechanics are similar to its predecessor (rampant destructive capabilities, vehicle use, weapon handling, etc.), but its respawn system feels in line with Bad Company 2‘s other aspirations to seriousness (darker tone, decreased emphasis on destruction, more scripted moments, etc.).

Arguably, an arcade game’s most important design element is its respawn system-it’s what earns the machine, and the arcade itself, money. Most arcade games have a very particular respawn system: if the player dies, they can try again as many times as they like as long as they have enough quarters to continue. Higher difficulty means more player deaths, meaning more quarters spent reviving and continuing play. Today’s maxim that “retro games are hard,” along with mechanics like extra lives and continues, are a direct result of design decisions based around a respawn system from the early days of gaming – a system designed to collect as much money from players as possible.

Even non-action games implement some sort of respawn system, or at least a way to continue playing. Angry Birds, of all games, owes a portion of its enormous success to its respawn system. Part of Angry Birds‘ appeal comes from its compulsive, just-one-more feedback loop. Angry Birds‘ respawn system is completely frictionless, letting players instantly retry botched rounds without load times or other delays. A three- or five-second pause between retries would break the flow of gameplay and possibly frustrate players looking to quickly leap back into the action. Angry Birds features no combat (unless you count bird-on-pig violence as “combat”) and players are never in danger of “dying,” but its respawn system is as integral to gameplay as any other shooter or hack-and-slash.

Despite being a more subtle aspect of game design, a game’s respawn system is as important to its play experience as its graphics or control scheme. More than just bringing players back from the dead, respawn systems help guide a game’s focus and let the best parts rise to the top, and are one of gaming’s unsung heroes.

Andrew Testerman is a Disneyphile and freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana. Feel free to follow him on Twitter: @iamaparade.

About the author