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Seeing Red: The Pitfalls of Regenerating Health
by Eric Schwarz on 09/02/12 10:04:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


The release of Halo on the original Xbox brought many, many things to the games industry.  It was, apart from Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64, one of the first truly successful console-developed first-person shooters, and took full advantage of Microsoft's hardware, both the controller and the processing power itself, to deliver an experience unlike any other.  While its own innovations outside of controls were few, Halo popularized open-ended single-player levels, vehicle sequences, the two-weapon switching mechanic, the "throw grenade" button, and more.  By understanding the limitations of the console hardware and controller, Bungie were able to build a game whose mechanics and controls compensated for many of the flaws inherent in less precise gamepad input and turned them into strengths.

One of Halo's most-debated design choices was to include regenerating shields.  Up until then, the idea of any health or armor regeneration in a first-person game was nearly unheard of.  Bungie's decision, no doubt, was made in order both to appeal to wider audiences, and to make up for the slower movement, aiming and turning speed inherent in analogue stick control.  Many gamers at the time, however, claimed that the game was made too easy for its regeneration - usually the old guard of PC gamers who were still riding high on games like Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, the original Call of Duty, Half-Life, and others.

Though not the first game to feature health regeneration, Halo birthed a trend that would define action games for over a decade longer.

With Halo 2, Bungie chose to take things one step farther, and implemented not just regenerating shields, but regenerating health as well.  With this decision, the dynamic of the game changed in a fundamental way.  Halo 2 was no longer based so much on long-term attrition and perseverance, but on mastery of the combat mechanics within specific encounters and challenges.  The pace of the game changed, and much of the exploration inherent in the original title was stripped away in favor of a more focused and linear experience; the developers no longer had to think about the player's health levels one room to the next, thus hunting around for health and shields became less important.

By Activision's Call of Duty 2, health regeneration became entrenched in first-person shooters, where it has remained as standard to this day.  Call of Duty 2 was even more tightly focused and straightforward than the first game, and while a fine shooter, at the time there was, like with Halo, some outcry amongst hardcore gamers, who felt that the decision to include regenerating health had been made to appeal to more casual console audiences.  Whatever the reasons, though, health regeneration was here to stay, and has since appeared in everything from platformers, to action-adventures, to "old-school" RPGs.

I was one of those gamers who was upset at the rise of regenerating health years ago.  While I have certainly played and enjoyed many games featuring the mechanic, it's never something I've been happy with, but the real answer for that has always eluded me.  After all, I've played Call of Duty 4, Gears of War, and more, all titles which are based entirely around their regenerating health mechanics, and I enjoyed them plenty at the time.  It was only after going back to earlier games again, that I found myself realizing what modern games were missing.  In this piece, I'd like to get to the heart of the matter, and discuss why the added convenience of regenerating health doesn't always make for a better game.

Why Regenerating Health?

I already touched on this in the introduction, but it's worth discussing in more detail: why do developers include regenerating health in games?  What are its advantages?  Since it has become so popular, surely there must be some kind of consensus as to what makes it superior to traditional health systems.

The reasons for including regenerating health in a game are actually manifold, and extend beyond just the obvious ones.  The implications are far-reaching and have a profound effect not just on the dynamic of combat, but on nearly every facet of the gameplay experience.

  1. Regenerating health simplifies resource management.  One of the biggest "problems" in shooters before regenerating health was that the player had to keep a close eye on the health bar, and had to constantly consider how to play not just in a way that would defeat the enemies, but would also minimize damage taken.  This issue is completely absent when regenerating health is present.
  2. Regenerating health simplifies encounter design.  If the player's health regenerates, then the player will always be at a set level of health when he/she gets to any given battle.  A challenging boss enemy?  Full health.  A group of standard mooks?  Square one.  Some strange, never-before-seen creature?  Don't worry, you're good to go.  No matter what, there's no danger of the player being too injured to fight (and defeat) the cool X or Y you have designed.
  3. Regenerating health simplifies level design.  One of the trademarks of older games like Doom was in hunting down weapons, ammo, health kits, secrets, and so on.  Some of the game’s most-desired power-ups gave the player a huge boost of armor and health, well past the "maximum" of 100, that would gradually decrease, giving incentive to then complete the level quickly.  Without regenerating health, there is no real gameplay need for secrets, for open-ended levels, for exploration, etc., and as such levels can be made in a much smaller and more directed, predictable way.
  4. Regenerating health increases the pace of the game.  It's well-known that today's aging gamers have less time for videogames as they grow up, raise families, and have jobs and other responsibilities to attend to.  Without health management, there's more time spent in the action shooting enemies up, and less time spent exploring the nooks and crannies of the game world.  "Downtime" is considered a four-letter word by some developers, and is more time where the player could be fighting enemies or witnessing some cool scripted sequence.
  5. Regenerating health changes weapon balance.  In today's industry, the quest for "realism" in modern shooters is still ongoing.  One of the biggest draws of today's shooters is in the gun porn they provide, and in allowing players to use extremely high-powered weaponry.  The problem is that these realistic weapons also carry expectations of lethality, and players complain when their grizzled marine can take 1,000 bullets to the face and still live.  Thus, regenerating health allows for a lower tolerance for damage in the short term, but a higher tolerance in the long term - getting rid of the "how did I survive five rockets?" question.
  6. Regenerating health allows for cover-based mechanics.  When your health bar is smaller, and your character can be killed with only a few shots, the need to use cover to avoid being attacked entirely becomes even more critical.  In other words, regenerating health is effectively the mechanical enabler behind the mole-popping cover-based shooters that have become popular in recent years.  Generally speaking, though, it also slows the pace of individual combat encounters, even if the overall flow of the level itself is quicker.
  7. Regenerating health gives players a second chance.  While not quite as important in a single-player context, today's focus on multiplayer gameplay benefits quite a bit from regenerating health.  It's common in multiplayer games, especially now that the power-up is dying out on account of "realism", that when players fight each other, one is left severely wounded, effectively meaning that once the other respawns, he/she will be easy prey.  With regenerating health, this is no longer a concern.
  8. Regenerating health is easy.  This might be obvious, but it's true.  Without attrition to worry about, the concerns of the player only ever have to extend into the immediate few seconds a typical encounter takes place in.  Without health management, there is no chance of putting the game down, coming back later, and getting stuck because the player can't remember where the health kits are stored.  Regenerating health (combined with checkpointing) means that players will rarely die unless they do something very, very wrong, and usually when they do, they will only be slightly inconvenienced by it.  All told, it's simpler and requires less effort to understand and deal with on the whole.

Look alive, soldier!  Regenerating health makes it easier for developers to build scenarios and ensure game balance - but at what cost?

It is worth pointing out, that out of all of these justifications, none of them really work to the advantage of the player, in terms of actually providing them with more interesting, complicated, or engaging experiences.  Virtually every single point on this list is a way of saying "regenerating health makes games shorter, easier, and simpler" - both for players and, more importantly, developers.  While the intent isn't necessarily malicious, and I'd argue the rise of health regeneration can be pinned more on trend-hopping than anything else, the fact is: not having to take this layer of resource management into account beyond the simple 30-second gameplay loop that makes up every single combat encounter in the game takes a substantial load off of a developer's shoulders.

But is it Right for Gamers?

I admit that this part of the article is going to get into some things which depend a lot more on personal experience and opinion.  I realize that this is just my own perspective on gaming, and the particular reason why I choose to play certain types of games over others.  In the same format, I'd now like to offer refutations of every one of the justifications for regenerating health that I listed above.

  1. Simplified resource management isn't always a bad thing, but it often makes games less interesting to play.  Many, many shooters that I have played over the last few years contain interesting mechanics and gameplay - however, they also usually run out of ideas only an hour or two in, despite the fact that many shooters today are between four and eight hours long on average.  The lack of resource management, which theoretically makes games easier to get into, also ironically may be responsible for so few players finishing them - and those players that it attracts, i.e. the most casual of fans, might not even be the types to typically finish any of their games in the first place.
  2. The tension and suspense of fighting an enemy with just a few points of health left has formed the backbone of some of my favorite shooters ever.  My most vivid memories of shooters all come down not to impressive visuals and scripted sequences, but to the emotional resonance the gameplay had in me.  Nothing about Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has stuck in my mind as strongly as creeping through a warehouse full of assassins in Half-Life, just narrowly avoiding death, or expertly dodging Skaarj warriors in Unreal as I constantly dodged out of danger.  That tension attaches me to the games, and makes them play better.
  3. Admittedly, regenerating health does not rule out open-ended level design - but I don't think it's a coincidence that the simplification of game mechanics in newer shooters has also led to a simplification of level design.  The original Doom and Quake let you explore levels at your own pace, either exploring and hoarding power-ups to turtle your way through, or searching for the absolute fastest route to get you through alive.  And the ability to explore and find things for yourself, without an NPC and a button prompt screaming at you to LOOK THIS WAY, SOLDIER, is far more satisfying than any scripted sequence put together over a month by a team of 20 designers.
  4. On the one hand, I have less time for gaming than I used to, so I can certainly understand the benefit of quicker games that are easier to jump into.  At the same time, for people who actually enjoy games, usually a lengthy, mechanically rich and well-paced experience is far easier to appreciate, even if not all of those gamers do finish it.  Moreover, it's in the interests of publishers to put out longer, more engrossing games - the more time your players spend attached to the world, characters and gameplay of your own game, the more likely they are to buy sequels and expansions, and the less likely they are to run to the competition's games as soon as that five-hour experience is over.
  5. Realism should not be treated as an end goal by designers.  Realism, like anything else, is only a tool in a designer's kit to create interesting gameplay.  While I cannot fault the lethal, "two shots and you're dead" gameplay found in many modern shooters, the quest for realism in weapon types and damage also saps creativity and variety.  For its dozens upon dozens of guns, Call of Duty's all tend to look, feel and sound the same outside of very small differences.  What's more, tiny health meters also tend to reduce combat not to a matter of skill, but reaction times, or camping the right spots in a map - as such, competitive potential of these sorts of shooters is not as high (as much as some people do enjoy playing them that way).
  6. I don't like cover systems - never have.  That's personal preference, but the streamlining of leaning, crouching, jumping etc. into a set of pre-defined commands mapped to a single button feels like it reduces the control players have over the battlefield, and typically also slows the pace of combat and makes every encounter feel the same - duck behind a wall and shoot the targets as they appear.  This is easy, and it is simple, and it also tends to get boring fast.  Player agency is the ultimate creator of good gameplay, and cover systems reduce that in the name of accessibility and aesthetics.
  7. In a multiplayer context, balance is key - which is why regenerating health tends to enable more skilled (or exploitative) players to control the entire game.  I know I've played my share of multiplayer matches where one person was head and shoulders above everyone else, and it was rarely a result of pure skill alone, but rather the fact that they had picked some especially deadly or imbalanced combination of weapons and perks.  Without regenerating health, no problem - a couple of players can take that player out and knock him/her down a peg.  When that player can recover from any wound, however, in just a few seconds, it tends to upset the balance of the game and leads to that player running away with a massive lead.  This can be especially an issue in team-based modes, where collective, not individual achievements, should be rewarded.
  8. Easy games are more accessible and sell more copies.  Players don't like losing too much, they don't like getting frustrated, and they don't like being made to feel like they suck.  But regenerating health is also a broad, one-size-fits all solution to the problem - rather than working on pacing, balance and fine-tuning challenges and scenarios, regenerating health effectively reduces every player to the exact same playing field.  Not everyone wants an easy experience, and not everyone wants to be held by the hand - yet this is what regenerating health tends to do.  What's more, the additional challenge imposed in games with regenerating health - even lower hit points, more enemies, etc. - tends to be unconvincing, and adds challenge through tedium and a requirement for ever-higher reaction times, rather than complexity of gameplay.

The most realistic games of all tend to stay far, far away from regenerating health.  Managing finite resources is, in fact, what make a simulation game like ArmA as compelling as it is.

It's worth qualifying all of this by saying that I understand why many games are built the way they are.  I realize players want and expect a certain kind of gameplay these days, and it is more than legitimate for developers to chase that very large and profitable market.

At the same time, I fear for the ever-lowering standards of gameplay, and have to wonder if in the long run, giving the crowd exactly what it wants will eventually harm the industry by raising an audience that no longer craves novelty or challenge.  I know many younger players, and it can be alarming how many of them are lost when they play games without health regeneration, without quest compasses, without completely linear levels.  The gravy train may still be running along, but how long is it until those gamers, who have limited themselves and been limited by developers, lose interest in gaming entirely when the same old stuff no longer appeals to them?

In Defense of Regenerating Health

All that said, I'd like to take some time to argue that regenerating health can work well, in certain contexts.  As is often the case, the problem with regenerating health is not that it exists, but rather the way in which it is used in the majority of games it appears in.

First off, I think that Halo's regenerating shield was a master stroke by Bungie.  With the game's semi-open-ended levels, the desire to explore is strong for many players.  Providing regenerating shields, but not health, still gives the incentive for players to look for power-ups, but also invites a degree of caution that simple regenerating health does not.  It also compensates for the slower and more limited input that gamepads tend to allow versus a keyboard and mouse, and ensures players won't feel they aren't whittled down by cheap shots.

With this in mind, I think that limited regenerating health is preferable to a standard non-regenerating health, perhaps not in every single game, but the majority.  Games are made to be finished, and enjoyed, and being stuck with 1 health point left right before fighting a room full of powerful monsters can be incredibly frustrating - this always was and still is the downfall of some of those classic shooters.

As such, providing a 15 or 20 percent regeneration effect on the current amount of health is preferable.  Players no longer feel whittled down by the occasional stray bullet or feel the need to save scum their way through combat situations, while players who just barely scrape by will always have enough health to see them to the next health pack.  Several games already do this, including Just Cause 2, whose open world nature encourages exploration and experimentation, but also makes finding health supplies more difficult - leaving a combat encounter to find a supply point is a "softer" penalty than simple death, but still serves the same effect.

The insane stunts and madcap action of Just Cause 2 arguably wouldn't be possible without at least a little health regeneration - but its limited nature ensures that players still have reason to play well.

One alternative that poses some interesting implications is the idea of "overcharging" health.  This was seen last year in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where the player's health always recharged to 100%, but could be boosted up to 200% using consumable items.  While I don't think this mechanic was used to full effect, as the game was balanced around the player having 100% health, it functions similarly to Just Cause 2's mechanic - except that the default health level gives the player a bit more leeway.

That said, I am absolutely opposed to health regeneration in certain games.  Resource management is a critical component of many role-playing games, and in my opinion, the shifting of that resource management over to cooldowns in many of them (especially those inspired by MMOs) leads to mechanical simplicity and a lack of any long-term risk and reward, which traditionally has been a major hallmark of the RPG genre (especially games inspired by the Dungeons & Dragons model).

Similarly, horror games do not benefit much from health regeneration, because the intense feeling of tension that comes from just clinging on by a thread, and the relief in finding health supplies just in the nick of time is one of the key things that keeps the experience engaging.  It's been said before that the suspense and fear of death is the most compelling aspect of horror, and my experience with horror games certainly agrees with that statement.

Closing Thoughts

As I've tried to stress, I don't think regenerating health is enough to "ruin" any game, and I don't think that using it in the manner that is currently popular is a bad thing in every single instance, especially when your goal in designing a game is to create something for as wide an audience as possible.  At the same time, health management is one of the most fundamental components of videogame design, and casting away the long-term component of it also saps a lot of interesting gameplay potential, not to mention also tends to sap the brand identity behind gameplay.

More and more developers have begun to deviate from the usual health regeneration over the last few years, so there's hope that by next generation the trend will have ended, but more than anything I'd simply like developers (and publishers) to keep in mind the benefits of more complex mechanics, and not to simply brush something off because it isn't the easiest, quickest way.

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