What Ruined FPS Games? – Regenerating Health

2013-07-11_000032.jpgSince the advent of First Person Shooter games on console systems, there have been a number of design trends that have negatively influenced the development of the FPS genre, some of these changes to first person shooters were necessary to adapt them to a console setting, while others are arguably arbitrary but have nonetheless become design trends. In brief these trends are regenerating health, iron sights, a limited weapon inventory, reduced weapon variety with a greater focus on hitscan weapons, slow pace of movement, low jump height, linear or front-focused level design, enemy homogenization, and reduced weapon accuracy. It is debatable why these trends have come to pass, from production costs to follow the leader styles of marketing, but their negative influence is undeniable.

Regenerating health was popularized by the game Halo: Combat Evolved and since has made its way into nearly all shooting games in one form or another. Regenerating health appears in a number of forms, from a static healthbar with a shield over it that regenerates (like Halo: Combat Evolved, Bioshock Infinite, and Borderlands), to slow regeneration over time (like some shields in Borderlands, and individual bars of health in Far Cry 3), and a health bar which takes damage and will refill in part or completely if allowed to go without taking damage (Call of Duty, Gears of War, Spec Ops, later Halo games, and most other modern first person shooters). This article is primarily concerned with the first and last of these types.

Regenerating health was originally implemented as a design concession. With regenerating health a player could be expected by designers to be at full health at the start of every combat encounter, without the designer needing to worry about giving the player a steady stream of healthpacks or the player potentially missing the health placed or hidden in the level. This meant that encounters could all be designed without having to account for pacing except in a thematic sense. Players no longer had to worry about avoiding fire or rationing health because they would always be provided with more.

s0bQgDH.jpgThis by itself is a negative design trend largely because it meant that players no longer owned their mistakes. Players could safely take damage without worry as long as it did not kill them, removing the need for caution in approaching encounters, and simplifying combat plans because substandard plans were equally effective to better ones, as health would be restored, resetting the player to a neutral situation regardless of how few or many times they were hit. Furthermore it created the tactic of chipping an enemy down then fleeing to reset health and returning to whittle it down repeatedly. In multiplayer both players would regenerate, so if one felt they were losing the duel, they could disengage to reset the encounter and attempt again.

Regenerating health also removes context from a level. Whereas a level in Quake, Painkiller, or Half Life may have a sequence of combat encounters where the damage taken builds up across the level, in a game with regenerating health, each of these may as well be their own level for how much they are related to each other.

Other trends have been reinforced or created by regenerating health as well. One of the side effects of regenerating health is that low damage enemies or one time damage traps in an area become pointless. An enemy that deals a low amount of damage, or damage at infrequent rates such as the headcrabs or headcrab zombies (or many purely melee oriented enemies) do not work in regenerating health systems. Headcrab damage is trivial and heals easily. Headcrab zombie damage is so infrequent that although it takes off a decent chunk of health, it would be no threat in a shooter with regenerating health.

Any location based traps in a regenerating health system need to be a steady stream of damage over time in a location or a death trap in order to successfully threaten the player. Things such as poisoning the player are infeasible in such a system, as either the player is left to die after a certain period or time, or whatever amount of damage the poison does is negligible.

Ultimately what regenerating health does is, it reinforces a trend of exclusively using weapons which either kill instantly or do an average amount of damage over time against the player. This generally translates to assault rifles or other hitscan weapons. while in Half Life every enemy had their own signature attacks with a certain level of damage conferred, the majority of Half Life’s enemies could not exist in a regenerating health game.

mcsP6oA.jpgMid-range medium damage weapons like submachine guns and regenerating health are trends that reinforce each other. As submachine guns and regenerating health came into vogue, shooter games became less about avoiding damage, and more about tanking it while trying to output as much damage as possible before recovering health. Where in other genres taking damage was a sign of the player making a mistake, in shooters it has become a requirement of current encounter design. The player is expected, or even forced, to take damage, so as a result they need a limitless supply of health in order to overcome each level.

Of course, it is possible to retain some semblance of the prior pace of shooters by decreasing the speed of health regeneration, but as health recovery items are still absent this means long periods of waiting are now introduced by players attempting to heal. Additionally, it may be odd in the context of the more realistic shooters to have machine guns be weaker than they would seem to be in real life. If health packs are reintroduced, it means reintroducing the problem regenerating health was originally added to solve.

There are other ways of graduating from a regenerating health system to a more static health system, such as breaking up the health bar into segments and only regenerating up to the top of the segment the player is currently on or only regenerating a small amount from the bottom so the player has a little wiggle room when they are close to death. As health systems become closer to a simple static health bar, they enable more dynamics across the board, so while it can be tempting to solve a number of level design problems by making them irrelevant with regenerating health, it comes at a heavy cost to any game that implements it.

The next article will be covering Iron Sights and their influence on the decline of First Person Shooters.

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