Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bad Game Design: The Slowly Regenerating Health Bar

One thing I can thank Halo for is popularizing the trend of the quickly rechargeable health bar, even if it isn't the first game to do it. With Gears of War, Rainbow Six Las Vegas, Call of Duty 4, and a myriad of other first person shooters following suit, no longer am I subjected to the agonizing wait of the slowly regenerating health. Other genres should incorporate the quick health recharge, if they're not already using a health potion system.

What brings me to talk about this subject is the first X-Men Legends, which I was playing the other day. Wolverine, whose mutant ability is regeneration, can slowly regain his health, while other characters can equip items that allow them to do the same. Although useful, it ends up being an annoying and ultimately boring feature. Simply stated, it's bad game design and I wish to never see it again. I hope developers take the following two rules in mind when they design their health systems for future games.

1) If it can be abused, it will be abused.

With the right equipment and powers, every character in the party can recharge their health bars like Wolverine. Sure, there are health potions in X-Men Legends, but if my characters can regain their health for free, then I would always go with the free option. The levels are designed with a number of set battles and some quiet pauses in between each group of enemies. Thus, the game affords plenty of opportunities in between battles to use the health and mana regeneration feature. Just stand in one place for a full five minutes as you watch your bars fill up pixel-by-pixel. Since the battles themselves aren't very long, standing around waiting to heal ends up being a large percentage of the playtime. This inevitably makes the game boring and ruins the pacing, which bring me to my second point.

2) It's not the players' responsibility to pace themselves.

If I completely ignore the health regeneration and use health potions regularly, then the pacing of the game would be as intended by the developers. But I shouldn't have to put artificial rules or barriers on my style of play to make the game more fun. I would prefer if the game forces me into contrived scenarios that doesn't let me straddle for too long. For example, if the game detects me trying to abuse regeneration, it can spawn some enemies to keep me in motion. Better yet, replace the regeneration with something else entirely. Two sequels later in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the developers came up with a pretty good solution. Although health regeneration still exists in the game for some characters, you generally regain health and mana by defeating enemies, giving players the incentive to move forward and stay on the offensive. The game ends up being much better paced than its predecessors as a result.


Michael said...

I agree with your suggestions, David, and I hope more developers will too. In general, integrating health regeneration, inventory, HP, etc. fully into gameplay seems the wisest and most immersive way to go. Artificially imposing things on the player in order to control or fence him/her in always frustrates me. I realize we're basically always being manipulated in these ways, but making it feel like it belongs in the world of play, rather than like it's a designer imposing on me, always impresses me and tends to keep me playing. As they say, it's often the little things that make all the difference.

Thanks for mentioning the X-Men games. I think they're unfairly overlooked by many gamers.

The King of Street Fighters said...

Hey Micheal,

I agree, the X-Men Legends games are great, despite my irks with its pacing issues.

drbnwy said...

Hi there,

Firstly, I'd like to say that I've been following this blog for a while and I'm very impressed with the thoughtful and thought-provoking posts you've been making. Keep it up!

Regarding health bars: I think the whole health-bar/life meter is a bit of a tired concept ... Is it time to move on from this staple now? Aren't there other ways to inform a player about his/her state of health other than an explicit, shrinking green rectangle?

I think there are a number of games that have tried to innovate (can't think of any off the top of my head), but the status quo is still very much with the health bar...

The King of Street Fighters said...

Hello drbnwy, thanks for the kind comments!

I think the future of games would be considerably less violent, so health bars aren't going to be as frequent anymore. But there's always going to be a place for action games.

I don't think health bars are antiquated, but seeing fresh ideas is always welcome. There are some games where your avatar limps around when he's at low health (Resident Evil) or loses pieces of armor and weapon upgrades (Ghost n Goblins). But reducing movement or removing abilities is not fun, in my opinion.

I think the best implementation of a no-health-bar system was actually done over 20 years ago with Super Mario Bros. Mario reverted back to his small stature when he's hit. On one hand, he's weaker and cannot break blocks anymore, but at the same time, his small size allowed him to traverse through the levels easier. He can run into small passageways and dodge enemies easier. He gives up one ability for another, which is more interesting than plainly removing options from the player.