Regenerating Health (Rant)

Some people classify me as an old school gamer. My first console I ever played was the ColecoVision. I don't remember playing it that well, but it obviously had an impact on me as a child. The one thing I remember from that era of Video games (Nes, Genesis, Atari) was that games were very tough (especially some of the NES games). One miss step and you were back at the very beginning. That is an example of games being to hard and people lose interest very quickly if they need to go through that nonsense over and over again. The one redeeming factor of those games was the tension you felt playing them. Because one miss step could send you back, it was like walking a tight rope during an earthquake and some people loved that. I love tension in video games but that kind of tension is meaningless to me because if I have to start at the very beginning I begin to lose interest.

As gaming progressed through the years and as developers were starting to take advantage of the new hardware that was being released, games began taking on a more atmospheric level, where the visuals were good enough to stir emotions in people regardless of the difficulty. Graphics became the top selling point of games for a while. After the developers and the gaming community settled down after the introduction of better graphics, that's where developers started to make the best games I have ever played (1993-2004). These games were so great because they were well balanced, atmospheric pleasantries that challenged you without it being incredibly hard or repetitive. Some of these games were Starcraft, Thief, Doom, Doom 2, Metal Gear Solid, Halo 1 and others. The pacing also factored in to the games where it gradually up'd the atmosphere and tension instead of throwing you in the frying pan. These games were also difficult to a certain extent. You always needed to watch your health, look out for medkits and other things that might help along your way to getting through a difficult level. Tactics also played an important roll. For example, if you were low on health and there were no medkits around, at that moment you need to force yourself to change tactics or die. When you completed a relatively difficult section of the game, you felt like you accomplished something. Speaking for myself, I remember many times playing these games I got great satisfaction from completing a difficult level in a game through using different tactics in different circumstances. The tension during those situation made the game even more satisfactory and immersive.

Today though (in my opinion) it's quite a different experience with a small group of exceptions. It's funny how one small change to games can take away so much. That change is the introduction of regenerating health. If your relatively new to gaming you could have a hard time understanding how big of change regenerating health makes to games. No longer do you need to worry about finding things to survive, no longer do you need to change your tactics. Just hide and heal and move on. No longer is there any real tension. Can you imagine if you were playing a game like Dark Souls, and all you needed to do to get your health back is to stay away from enemies for a few seconds, would that kill all tension in the game? I would like to think so. Instead of using tactics to defeat enemies in Dark Souls, just stand there and get your health back. The game would be meaningless with no challenge, no feeling of accomplishment.

What is the developer standpoint or regenerating health? The developers that do use it say it's there to keep the action going without any slow down. My question would be, what's the point of having all action and no substance? Sure it's nice to see everything around me explode, but if I can come out of that unscathed without needing to do much of anything, where is the experience? Where is the balance between action and survival? Any sense of tension and accomplishment is lost when I know if I just avoid enemies for a few seconds, I'm back to full strength. I would rather have a game that challenges myself and rewards me for getting through those challenges instead of hand-holding me through the experience.

Am I saying that games today are too easy? No. What I'm trying to explain is that, I remember a time when video games were an experience, when getting through a difficult situation felt rewarding, when changing tactics meant changing the gameplay experience. Can regenerating health be a good thing? Yes, if used properly. For example, you only get regenerating health when you equip a certain item, but at the same time, that item should have some negative effects for instance, you get regenerating health, but you lose points in other attributes. You now have turned regenerating health into a tactical choice rather than build your game around it.

These are just some of my thoughts on regenerating health. Thanks for reading.

11 Comments
12 Comments
Posted by dream431ca

Some people classify me as an old school gamer. My first console I ever played was the ColecoVision. I don't remember playing it that well, but it obviously had an impact on me as a child. The one thing I remember from that era of Video games (Nes, Genesis, Atari) was that games were very tough (especially some of the NES games). One miss step and you were back at the very beginning. That is an example of games being to hard and people lose interest very quickly if they need to go through that nonsense over and over again. The one redeeming factor of those games was the tension you felt playing them. Because one miss step could send you back, it was like walking a tight rope during an earthquake and some people loved that. I love tension in video games but that kind of tension is meaningless to me because if I have to start at the very beginning I begin to lose interest.

As gaming progressed through the years and as developers were starting to take advantage of the new hardware that was being released, games began taking on a more atmospheric level, where the visuals were good enough to stir emotions in people regardless of the difficulty. Graphics became the top selling point of games for a while. After the developers and the gaming community settled down after the introduction of better graphics, that's where developers started to make the best games I have ever played (1993-2004). These games were so great because they were well balanced, atmospheric pleasantries that challenged you without it being incredibly hard or repetitive. Some of these games were Starcraft, Thief, Doom, Doom 2, Metal Gear Solid, Halo 1 and others. The pacing also factored in to the games where it gradually up'd the atmosphere and tension instead of throwing you in the frying pan. These games were also difficult to a certain extent. You always needed to watch your health, look out for medkits and other things that might help along your way to getting through a difficult level. Tactics also played an important roll. For example, if you were low on health and there were no medkits around, at that moment you need to force yourself to change tactics or die. When you completed a relatively difficult section of the game, you felt like you accomplished something. Speaking for myself, I remember many times playing these games I got great satisfaction from completing a difficult level in a game through using different tactics in different circumstances. The tension during those situation made the game even more satisfactory and immersive.

Today though (in my opinion) it's quite a different experience with a small group of exceptions. It's funny how one small change to games can take away so much. That change is the introduction of regenerating health. If your relatively new to gaming you could have a hard time understanding how big of change regenerating health makes to games. No longer do you need to worry about finding things to survive, no longer do you need to change your tactics. Just hide and heal and move on. No longer is there any real tension. Can you imagine if you were playing a game like Dark Souls, and all you needed to do to get your health back is to stay away from enemies for a few seconds, would that kill all tension in the game? I would like to think so. Instead of using tactics to defeat enemies in Dark Souls, just stand there and get your health back. The game would be meaningless with no challenge, no feeling of accomplishment.

What is the developer standpoint or regenerating health? The developers that do use it say it's there to keep the action going without any slow down. My question would be, what's the point of having all action and no substance? Sure it's nice to see everything around me explode, but if I can come out of that unscathed without needing to do much of anything, where is the experience? Where is the balance between action and survival? Any sense of tension and accomplishment is lost when I know if I just avoid enemies for a few seconds, I'm back to full strength. I would rather have a game that challenges myself and rewards me for getting through those challenges instead of hand-holding me through the experience.

Am I saying that games today are too easy? No. What I'm trying to explain is that, I remember a time when video games were an experience, when getting through a difficult situation felt rewarding, when changing tactics meant changing the gameplay experience. Can regenerating health be a good thing? Yes, if used properly. For example, you only get regenerating health when you equip a certain item, but at the same time, that item should have some negative effects for instance, you get regenerating health, but you lose points in other attributes. You now have turned regenerating health into a tactical choice rather than build your game around it.

These are just some of my thoughts on regenerating health. Thanks for reading.

Posted by believer258

Two things:

1) Crysis 1 had regenerating health and there was definitely a lot of tension, tactics, and thinking in that game. Don't believe me? Go replay it, and not on Easy either.

2) I fully understand the merits of having health, but what if I fuck up but still manage to make it through a situation with one health and two shotgun shells, and the game then expects me to take on thirty guys with my pinky finger and harsh language? When that sort of things happens, games with health systems become a real annoyance to me. This doesn't mean that health has to regenerate all the way, but I think that every battle should make absolute sure that you're not trying to kill a million Pinky demons with your left nut because everything else is shot to hell.

A third thing: Just Cause 2 is a game that I would say could really use regenerating health. Every single time I play that game, I come across a section where I wish I could hide and get all of my health pack. Maybe medpacks with a very high inventory limit (like 100) would do better, but I just don't think that having health does anything for that game when so much of it is about doing awesome stuff that you suddenly can't do because the first awesome thing involved taking too many bullets to the knee.

Posted by GERALTITUDE

I too think the advent of Regenerating Health totally upended the way games were played. I appreciate that you shied away from damning the concept entirely and I agree it can be used in many ways that are still fun. I like that example of using a double-edged item for health regen.

One element that I want to introduce to this topic, as I don't believe Regen Health is an island, is the Checkpoint.

In many cases it's really the balancing of the checkpoint system that either sinks or swims the regenerating health issue. A good example is Halo: certain encounters, on certain difficulties, regardless of your regenerating shield, are still difficult and elicit a feeling of "Yes!" when you get through them. Why? Because the checkpoint is far enough a way.

But checkpoint balancing is a grey thing. For example, on the PC, in many games you can save-at-will. Should these games even have checkpoints outside of auto-saves? And what is the value of regenerating health in this sort of game? What is the value of "permanent" health in a game with free save/reload?

I'll come back to answer some of my own questions but I guess I'll get back to work for now...

Posted by dream431ca

@believer258: I agree with Crysis. In my blog I did say there were some exceptions in regards to regenerating health. Now why was Crysis so good even with regen health? game design. Your other 2 points point to game design flaws and not necessarily to regenerating health. Crysis does prove that games can be great with regenerating health. Remember, a game needs be designed around what systems it uses. With regenerating health, you can have tens of thousands of guys shooting at you as long as you have a place hide. Games with no regenerating health, you can't have that unless you want gamers to become frustrated with your game.

Posted by dream431ca

@GERALTITUDE: The checkpoint system is a hard one to get down right, just like regenerating health. What really matters is the experience to the player, regardless of regenerating health or not. That is essentially my whole point of the blog: regenerating health does take away the experience unless it is done a certain way and with respect to the games design. Crysis does prove you can have a game with regenerating health and still have a tactical experience, but other FPS's and TPS's use regenerating health in a way that diminishes the quality of the game.

Now, when you ask what is value of non-regenerating health and a free save/load function, I think what changes is how you approach the situation a second time. It forces you to change tactics to get through it. This forces the question: Does Call of Duty employ the use of tactics even with regenerating health? Yes. But Call of Duty is designed around the fact you have regenerating health, so the developer can throw massive armies at you as long as you can hide somewhere. That being said, there really is only one tactic you have in Call of Duty and that is to hide.

On the topic of PC games, the checkpoint system is bundled with an auto-save/quick save system to be less frustrating to the player when he/she dies in the game. I know for a fact, I quick save a lot in my PC games so if I have trouble, I can start relatively close to where I died, otherwise I would become frustrated and stop playing if I had to start a long ways away from where I was. The balance between these is key to a good experience in a game, and some do manage to pull it off.

Posted by Devise22

I see your point about regenerating health and in some aspects I can agree with you. Depending on the style of game you are playing regenerating health can work magically or fall flat on it's face in making a game feel completely hollow.

However it wasn't just a design choice to allow games to be a bit easier or more action heavy that causes regenerating health to come about. From what I've heard from various developers the biggest reason was immersion. Regenerating health eliminates the need for a health bar. Any HUD items at all generally break immersion, specifically in a game that prides itself on atmosphere and taking you away from reality. There have been times where I have experienced regenerating health at it's highest peak, very little HUD elements caught in the action and the moment and the story and getting attacked and taking cover. You hear your characters heart pounding as he gasps for breath as he slowly regains his composure. It CAN be quite an engrossing experience.

However it isn't always the case, and as games continue to go forward everyone seems to just steal the regenerating health gimmick as something that belongs on all modern games. Slowly but surely the allure of that immersion has been killed save for a few games that still manage it and we are back to where we started. What is next. That is where I think you lost on your point. You imply that if some games simply didn't have regenerating health we would get back to some of the grand moments and times in various games you referenced. But I don't think that would happen. While I don't think base regenerating health is the answer, at least not for all games, I do think we need something more. For the most part things like health bars and how they are used in games seems like a thing of the past. Which really it should be. Nostalgia games are all fine to use that stuff but when it comes to something trying to be portrayed as realistic as possible you need something else. What it is though I couldn't tell you.

Posted by mordukai

@believer258 said:

Two things:

1) Crysis 1 had regenerating health and there was definitely a lot of tension, tactics, and thinking in that game. Don't believe me? Go replay it, and not on Easy either.

If I can skip the zero G' part I would buy it right now for my PC. The Jungle parts were great. The later levels...noooot so much.

Basically anything after you kill Kyong is poop.
Edited by living4theday258

I partly agree with you. yea regenerating health takes something away, but at the same time some games would be better off with regenerating health. To be honest I think resistance 1 and possibly 3 did regenerating health perfectly( if you don't know its a health bar divided into 4 sections. If you lose some of the health in a section that section regenerates fully, but if you lose all that section it doesn't regenerate and you gotta hunt for medkits)

and someone please breakup these blocks of text!

Posted by believer258

@mordukai said:

@believer258 said:

Two things:

1) Crysis 1 had regenerating health and there was definitely a lot of tension, tactics, and thinking in that game. Don't believe me? Go replay it, and not on Easy either.

If I can skip the zero G' part I would buy it right now for my PC. The Jungle parts were great. The later levels...noooot so much.

Basically anything after you kill Kyong is poop.

I agree that they're far less interesting but I still liked them.

In the meantime, what about, say, the later levels of the first Far Cry? Those are tough.

Posted by tourgen

Yeah they say it's in there "to keep the action moving" but I suspect it's really caught on because it makes encounters sooooo much easier for the dev team to design. It allows for a wider range of slop on the player's side and also means much less care has to be taken in encounter design: enemy placement, cover, choke points, weapon availability, etc. Just get stuff kind of right , scatter some waist-high coward-walls around and forget about it. It also makes enormously dumb things like Infinite Spawns make some kind of sense to the newbie level designers. "Hey they have infinite health, so, you know, whatever man."

Posted by whatisdelicious

Last year, I was going to write an article on this. I was going to get different developers' takes on it, but just didn't have the time to pursue it as much as I'd like. I did get a quote from Jenova Chen that sums up a lot of what you guys have been saying. Figured I'd post it since it's relevant:

Regenerating health is one of the ways to create flow in games. You can look at my thesis paper. It's about dynamic difficult adjustment. Letting player rest a lot or a little essentially opens up the rubber banding, allowing player with different skills to get through the same part of the game at different pace. Thus the game will be more enjoyable by a bigger audience.
Posted by YOU_DIED

I think it depends on the other rules in the game. Individual elements are important, but how they all fit together and form the experience is what matters the most. Regenerating health has been used to good effect in some games while being a detriment to others. For instance, I think adding health packs back in to Halo for ODST was the right choice. There was a persistent tension whenever your health got low, which added to the sense of being alone. You had to scavenge for whatever you could find in the city.

@believer258 said:

A third thing: Just Cause 2 is a game that I would say could really use regenerating health. Every single time I play that game, I come across a section where I wish I could hide and get all of my health pack. Maybe medpacks with a very high inventory limit (like 100) would do better, but I just don't think that having health does anything for that game when so much of it is about doing awesome stuff that you suddenly can't do because the first awesome thing involved taking too many bullets to the knee.

That plus cheaper weapons and a less cumbersome merchant system (sort of fixed by mods). That game is fucking fun when you have loads of ammo and health.