06 April 2013

Regenerating Health and What it Means for Games

Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid and The Witness, posted a number of Tweets this week on the subject of recharging health within games and particularly shooters, his comments being prompted by his playthrough of BioShock Infinte.

In all, there were ten Tweets and you can read them all on his timeline, they've also been collected below as a whole.

"Playing Infinite, I realize that Halo-style recharging shields are actually a huge mistake in shooter design. But all shooters use them now. Since people are going to ask: There are two problems; one is about emotional pacing, one is about gameplay crispness and fairness," he wrote.

"With shields, you are always doing okay in the medium and long term. They low-pass filter the emotional high of surviving a tight situation. You can have a tight situation on the order of 10 seconds, but not on the order of 5 minutes, which matters more.

"The crispness problem is: In order to provide difficulty, designers now have to overwhelm your shields all the time, which means designing situations that are spammy (get hit from all directions so you can't process what is going on).These are confusing and not fun.

"These feel messy to play but they happen all the time because they have to. Or, like Infinite does, have super attacks that take away all your shields at once *and* 1/3 of your health, which feels steeply unfair.

"Also, shields train the player to ignore getting hit most of the time, which becomes grating at the end when guys start hitting hard. (You trained the players for one thing but then gave them another!) I think shooters are much stronger experiences when it matters if you got hit. In shield games you get hit all the time, like flies buzzing," Blow concluded.

Even if you don't agree with his overall thoughts he provides some valuable insights into the process, even Adrien Chmielarz, the former creative director of Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgement creator PeopleCanFly accepted Blow's points as entirely valid.

It's notable that one of the most tense and atmospheric shooters of recent years is Insomniac's Resistance 3 in part because it saw the return of health packs to the series. With this feature also game a more tactical game, you couldn't run into combat knowing a few seconds behind cover would fix you right up.

And let's face it, hiding against a wall having been shot in the head a few seconds before magically is absurd, even by the usual standards of game logic. Some games at least account for this, MJOLNIR armour accounts for Master Chief's recharging shields. Nanites account for this miraculous self-healing in Deus Ex.

Yet in Call of Duty or Battlefield you're just a soldier, you're very much human and there's no explanation given as to why you have this miraculous capacity to regenerate (naturally, it's not something one thinks about when picking up a controller to play one of these game though perhaps it should be).

Of course, health packs are hardly any better, at the very least they provide a mechanism at least superficially similar to medicine.

There is also a degree of backtracking where medkits are concerned, especially on a first playthrough when gamers are unsure if any lie ahead in a particular area. 

In an industry as big and diverse as this, there has to be a developer with a solution and if they have one then perhaps they can look to boss fights - one element of gaming which has much altered in 30 years at the very least recharging health is a relatively recent innovation.

Chmielarz suggests a 'hope' system where by health is drained away due to injury but restored with the deaths' of enemies. Perhaps not what Blow had in mind, but there's surely a meaningful way of making injuries and the prospect of death within games well, meaningful.

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