There are many video game related arguments out there: Console vs. PC, CRPG vs. JRPG, and Old-School vs. New-School to name a few. Tonight, it’s about regenerating health and its affect on game design. Thinking back, the first game that popularized this mechanic was Halo. Since then, the mechanic has become a major staple in First Person Shooters. However, many gamers argue that by removing the need to find health items that it has hurt game design.
There is a now famous screenshot showing FPS map design back in the 90s and today that gets mentioned every time someone brings up this discussion. The point that gamers bring up, is that FPS map design has become simplified due to not needing to find health items anymore. When I talked about old-school difficulty, I mentioned that we need to examine why the games were hard in the first place. That same kind of examination I’m going to apply to this matter. If the only point to explore the world was to find errant first aid kits, that doesn’t sound like good design to me. You can still offer players hidden areas and secrets without the need to heal. In the Condemned series, every level has collectibles for the player to find, or objects to break that contribute to game completion.
Personally, I’m for regenerative health, especially in action titles. The reason is that it frees up the designer to create insane situations without worrying about the player not having enough health from a previous battle. However, I can see why many gamers don’t like it.
The problem with regenerative health in most games is that it feels like the odd man out; a mechanic that is just plopped into the game without being thoroughly integrated into the design. For instance, is it ever explained why in the Call of Duty games, that someone can take twenty lethal shots to the chest, and is fine after sitting behind a wall for ten seconds?
Most games that feature regenerative health leave it completely out of the player’s hands. The player knows how long it takes to heal and how long before they are in danger. When regenerative health works best, is when it is a part of the game design.
The first good example in my opinion comes from the Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay. Here, the player’s health bar is represented by several squares at the top of the screen. Each time the player takes damage, a square will begin to drain out, when it completely runs out; the next square in the line begins to drain. Once the player is out of danger, the square that still has filling will regenerate. For those that were emptied, the player has to find a healing station to recover.
What makes this work is that it offers the best of both worlds. The player can regenerate health, but it is capped requiring the player to still play well to succeed. For games that want full regenerative, integrating it into the game mechanics can make it more rewarding.
In Infamous, the player will recover health slowly when not in combat. When the player recharges Cole’s energy supply by draining electricity, it also rapidly heals him. This sets up the dynamic of fighting enemies near sources of power to have emergency healing on standby.
Recently with Bulletstorm, I was surprised that the designers couldn’t find a way to link restoring health to making skill-shots, and instead went for the “hide behind the wall” style. If the designers went as far to explain how making skill-shots fit into the reality of the game, why couldn’t they take it a step further and use that as a form of healing?
When I did my analysis on Bulletstorm, I started talking about an idea I had for an open world version of it. For that idea I thought up how regenerating health could work better tied to skill-shots. I even went a step further and figured that the player could “over-load” their health be constantly performing skill-shots to take their health bar over 100%.
The more control you can give the player over regenerating their health the better, and there are so many more clever ways of implementing it that we haven’t explored thoroughly yet, for instance, a game in which the player can take painkillers to restore their health, but if they constantly take it, they’ll become weaker due to damaging their body.
If the game has the player choosing from different classes/powers to build their character, why not have different models of regeneration based on that? Such as, if the player is imbued with fire, allow the player to recover health by standing in flames, such as ones caused by grenade explosions from your enemies. Or if the player uses water, they can jump into bodies of water to heal, or carry inexpensive water bottles that they can drink to rapidly recover their health.
Regenerating health is like any game mechanic, when used properly it can add depth and make the game better, but used improperly, and it can drag the game down. Besides, it makes just as much as sense as being able to eat fruit or use a first aid kit to patch up hits from rocket launchers or having a fireball hit you in the head.