DXHR: Or, How I Learned to Hate Regenerative Health! Part 2

No sir, I don’t like it!

Well, let’s see if I can get this second part wrapped up by the end of the year, even if a bit rough around the edges. So, where was I… Yes, the new blight upon gaming called regenerative health. I’ve said it before and if it didn’t come across strongly enough, I’m not a fan of this kind of system as I think it ends up making the game far too easy for anyone who isn’t a retarded lobotomised monkey. This is best left for those players picking the EASY difficulty option to play.

Now, I said at the start of the first part that it was due to laziness, short-sightedness and greed. That’s quite a statement to make that needs some kind of justification on my part.

A while back I noticed that Wolfenstein (2009) had finally been marked down in price. It had remained high for a long time. I had not bought the game when it had originally come out as I had been a student on a budget with a low-spec notebook. When I finally had a rig to play it, there were newer titles out and I had read a few reviews that made me think twice. I recalled Return to Castle Wolfenstein which I enjoyed but did not think it was all it could have been both in gameplay and story; luckily I bought it second hand and felt I got my money’s worth. So, I decided to wait until Wolfenstein came down in price before playing it so that I would not feel like I had paid too much for an older game.

A few years later someone somewhere finally decided that asking a high price for an old title wasn’t such a great idea, and finally, it game down to less than half the original price. I bought it deciding that even with the flaws I heard about, at least it would be a solid shooter experience that will give me a satisfying challenge.

Fifteen minutes in I realised that I was wrong.

What should have been a satisfyingly hardcore old-school first-person shooter, was a walk in the park no-brainer on even the more difficult settings. I thought it would be the other poorly implemented “mechanics” – like the gimmicky veil – that would finally have me put it aside for a while after clocking up several hours of play. That perhaps it was the lack of research done into Nazi fact and mythology that could have made the story and therefore gameplay richer in a grey sense, or, the quality of the dialogue and voice acting that finally had me move on and leave the game to collect dust for a better part of a year before I finally decided to go back and complete it. No, it was the regenerative health that made me me ditch the game 45 minutes in.

You see, no “challenge” means that these weaknesses are awfully hard to ignore or justify the presence of; especially when you are more analytically inclined.

What really puzzles me is why these games even bother at all with health kits and the like. Not that there aren’t times when you might need to use them, however, these are the few times where the game is offering a challenge. One which might require more than one play to overcome. Yet thanks to the abundance of health kits you have you can be assured it will remain a one play affair.

With regenerative health, you can be very lazy about balancing game progression and difficulty. Essentially, as long as the player can get behind cover and not get attacked for a second or two, they can then get all their health back. Sure, you can put health kits around if you like but they are a redundant crutch unnecessary to balancing gameplay and end up mainly being used in “boss” battle situations if at all.

Where did it come from?

I think if you asked enough people, they would lament that it was due to console shooter traits being utilised in regardless of the title being PC, console, or both. Traits such as checkpoint saves, cover-systems and overbearing auto-aim.

I think like regenerative health, cover systems have their place. It depends upon the context (and implementation) for the most part. For a third-person shooter and/or adventure game, I think cover-systems are appropriate – PC or console – especially if it is something like a stealth shooter or if the platform warrants it — like iOS which needs a degree of gameplay “automation”.

But if you take a first-person shooter franchise like Brothers in Arms where the first two games didn’t have a cover-system – both of which I played on Xbox – but Hell’s Highway (2008) introduced one. I fail to see how the game was improved by this addition, even for console players. For me there were already enough mechanics in place to play the game effectively (“easily”) whilst still providing a challenge, and a cover-system, just made the gameplay too easy in a narrowed and automated way. I think especially that a cover-system here wasn’t just unnecessary, but not supported directly by the gameplay – it’s not a stealth shooter. To top it off, they also added in the more extreme version of regenerative health — screen turns red, you get behind cover before you die, wait a couple of seconds, good as new!

The cover-system I can let slide, as I can see the reasoning for it even if it makes the skirmish squad gameplay too easy to complete or more on rails. You’d think with a game trying to create a “realistic” military experience, that this kind of regenerative health system would be the exact opposite thing to do. I can also accept it in the case of a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The gameplay supports its presence as a cover-system – along with other mechanics introduced by augmentations – is very much in keeping with the stealthy agent premise of the game.

But honestly though, if you have one, you really don’t need the other. It’s like Mass Effect 2 (2010) that gives you one (or more) regenerating shields along with regenerative health. Having both just made the Hell’s Highway far too easy in my opinion and therefore quite boring. I finished the other BIA games, this one I stopped playing after 2 hours and haven’t returned to it since as not only did it not offer anything new in way of a challenge, it failed to deliver the challenge of old for me to persist with it.

But, when did regenerative health come about?

Doing some extensive and exhaustive research in the form of a quick Google search, came up with one interesting opinion on this. That it all started – if you don’t bother going back farther – with Halo (2001). Now Halo didn’t have regenerative health, what it had was far more annoying, the exact same sections of levels with scripted encounters and all, reappearing over and over again, one after the other, until you just got feed up with it. Or at least I did. But no regenerative health. What it did have was a regenerative shield system that would deplete down to zero before you finally took health damage. If I recall right, this damage was permanent unless you used a health-kit, however, the shield would replenish on its own back to full.

The sci-fi premise of the game meant that such a system not only was valid but also effective as it was complementary to health which you still had to manage and be mindful of. But other console games couldn’t make the same “justification.” So what they did was not bother with the shield system but rather simply made health regenerate.

There are various “flavours” of regenerative health systems. Some are slow regenerative health systems, taking minutes for you to recover your health – the example that comes to mind is the RPG Morrowind (2002). Others are fast, only requiring you to take cover for a few moments before regenerating back to full health – I’ll refer to this as extreme regenerative health. But there are more I am sure of, one of which for lack of a better description I call incremental regenerative health – more on that later.

Now apparently the first (console) game to introduce to the extreme system was Call of Duty 2 (2005). I’m not sure what the justification for this was, the one that is sighted for DXHR is that they didn’t want anyone getting stuck and not being able to find or need to have to hunt around for a health kit. Perhaps this is a valid reason, however, I find it a weak argument when you go to the trouble of placing health kits about your levels anyway.

I could be dismissive and say that Call of Duty perhaps attracts quite a number of juvenile players due to the subject and style of the game. That because of these 12 year olds that play the game, always picking the most hardest difficulty setting if offered because they have to prove how “hardcore” a player they are. That the game needs such an extreme regenerative health system so as to give them a fighting chance so that they won’t complain on the forums and get their mommy to return the game to the store out of frustration.

Or is it the manchild players who have a lot of disposable income but not a lot of time on their hands, who have difficulty with controllers and coordination in general that are the reason for this trend. Players that need game environments to be linear, on rails – which some early shooters with cover-systems were – so that they don’t get confused as to what to do next or how, with as much help as possible to complete the game – cover systems (the good) and regenerative health (the bad).

Though, I’m better off just saying it is partly due to consoles and the growth of the market beyond the young(ish) male “hardcore” gamers.

The kind of gamers that push themselves to get better at a game, to learn more than just the basics of it. Widening the market to a larger demographic, many not necessarily as adapt to gaming or willing to put up with “hardcore” gaming mechanics and conventions; the “steep” learning curve. Meaning that things had to change. Especially as a console thought less daunting as learning to play a game with a mouse and keyboard, is not necessarily any easier as the controller though compact and flexible in schema and genres it can be used for, doesn’t offer the degree of “finesse” and fine control that perhaps a mouse would for something like viewing the world and shooting at an enemy.

Why GTA games introduced the pull the left trigger to find and lock onto the closest target or how auto-aim is a standard feature for shooters. And why cover-systems and regenerative health, even if it irritates more experienced gamers who can do without it, is probably here to stay as the manchild market is a lucrative one for publishers in particular.

Is there a place for regenerative health?

A game like GTA for example may benefit from regenerative health. So might other forms of adventure games and some RPGs – such as fantasy RPGs – however in my opinion, not, action RPGs. Regenerative health when done right and used within the right context, can actually work well. It really depends upon the game, such as Red Dead Redemption (2010) where I would be more inclined in exploring and experiencing the atmosphere of the open-world Rockstar created over getting bent out of shape because the health might regenerate slowly with time. However when it comes to a shooter, I don’t necessarily want regenerative health as it may undermine the shooter gameplay, and it is the gameplay, I am foremost concerned about.

Of course, it also depends upon how it has been used if at all. The more common examples, of the player simply needing not to take any damage in order to trigger their miraculous healing to full health in no time at all. This extreme regenerative health, to me, is utter shit for a shooter. The less common examples of incremental regenerative health systems, such as in Resistance: Fall of Man (2006) and the older The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay (2004). Aren’t that bad and work surprisingly well, even helping, to make the game a bit more fair and balanced for all.

To explain, an incremental regenerative health system is the best of both, as it segments your health into blocks, the number of which perhaps determined by some RPG mechanic. These blocks if not fully depleted regen back to full in time – not instantaneously unless you for example pick easy if difficulty is an option that can be set. If they are depleted, then they don’t regen but you need to instead use some game object to get them back. This makes it more balanced, in that a good player can pull back to relative safety, get back a bit of health without being able to go back to full and therefore undermine the challenge at hand. This bit of regained health then gives them a bit of an edge in this challenge making it achievable to complete without making it mind-numbingly easy for an experienced player who bought your game because the genre of game inherently promised a challenge for the money they spent on it.

There is also something else that can be done here in regards to player health in that you can vary how these mechanics behave, what system the player is using, based upon chosen difficult as per the following simplified examples:

  • Easy: a non-incremented health system that either regenerates slowly or quickly depending upon the appropriateness for that game. A single body category for the damage model, head- and heart-shots have no special effect.
  • Normal: an incremental health system where if one block is not reduced to zero, it will slowly or quickly regenerate back to full health. When reduced to zero, needs a health kit to get that block back. Regen speed really depends upon the game but it can potentially be “both,” fast when most blocks are full, slower when you have less. Married to a multi-category damage model – head, heart, body – with differing effects such as damage multiplier depending upon the category.
  • Hard: again an incremental health system based on blocks, however, they do not regenerate but slowly deplete down to zero. Health kits stop this loss and return the block back to regeneration mode – more kits used means quicker heal rate. However, once a block is lost, it is lost until the game deems you to have recuperated or a special object/mechanic is used – for example, an automated med-bot. The damage model would have some additional categories – arms, legs, head, heart, body – and effects, such as crippled limbs which effect aim and movement. This could be made to use health-kits or some other more rare object/mechanic – eg painkillers / bandage – to “repair” the damage; they would need to have a differing effect for the other difficulty modes if included.

There’s more you could do here, in that you could make the auto-aim for example tied into difficulty as well – what these are really depends upon the game. You could also provide a custom difficulty option where players pick a mix of contextual difficulty features that they thought would be a better fit for themselves.

And using DXHR as an example, you don’t just have to focus upon health and damage models here. To explain, the game has a cover-system (of mechanics) along with augments that provide various mechanics. These together allow a player to learn the layout of a level, spot and watch enemies and then plan a strategy. However the game by default has a mini-map that informs you not just about the layout but also what is within the buildings. The usefulness and interest in using those other mechanics, is then undermined by this map.

This is a feature that could have been tied into difficulty, with it being implemented in full for easy and only a simple/basic layout map for normal and hard – you could also turn it off completely for hard, however, it may make navigating your way around the map a bit more problematic when having to find specific locations and objects. You could then make the more advanced features of this map an optional augment via the normal and hard options of play. If players really want it, they can then expend the points on getting it in lieu of spending it on something more interesting.

Regardless, having difficulty tied more to the player mechanics over world, moves the focus away from balancing the game via the objects and NPCs found within the game’s levels and puts it back on the player. As it is the systems used to assist the player that then defines the perceived “difficulty” of the game.

Essentially, you would balance the game for “normal” play, with an appropriate level of items like health-kits found for the average player to find and use without it becoming too difficult or easy – however, a constant “balance” of difficulty does get boring, so this can’t entirely be eradicated. A player who then selects easy will be less reliant upon such items to complete the game or on the effective usage of player mechanics and strategies to complete the game with. As contextually the game is more forgiving for them. The player choosing hard, will find the game more challenging as the same number of items will be less decisive to play compared to their mastery of the player (and world) mechanics and strategies available.

Of course, players picking hard may find that they were better off with normal or even easy. Personally I’m a bit split on this, in that if you picked hard, well, you’ve only got yourself to blame if you come to realise that it’s not your idea of fun. However, many games provide the player with the option of changing difficulty mid-game if they so choose. It’s a bit like cheating to me but there are a lot worse things developers could do here – like using extreme regenerative health for all.

Increasing profits or diminishing them?

Incremental regenerative health or providing different systems and mechanics based on what difficulty a player chooses, is not the norm. I think it is because this approach still requires more work in way of balancing the game for different players. Far easier to have a much simpler mechanic that regenerates the player back to full health in a blink of an eye. That way even the most inexperienced of gamers can play and finish your game and you get to keep those dollars they spent on it. This way no one is “offended” in any way as those that find it irritating are still going to pay, play, and put up with it even if they are potentially the silent (and growing) majority – the funny thing with silent majorities is that they don’t tell you when they don’t or do like something, they just move on to something they do like ;).

I liken it to watching a “competitive” – or inclusive – event for children where every kid that participates gets a medal so that none of them feel like losers. Except, we’re all supposed to be these kids (consumers) that the grown up publishers (and developers) don’t want to make feel bad but rather they want to make us all feel special. I guess that’s the name of the game, isn’t it? Part of the experience of gaming.

You can be the army-of-one bad-ass soldier killing-machine knowing that you will never die, that those bullets and explosions will never hurt you. That really, there are no consequences to your actions. That in the end, you will get the girl and be the hero that saves the world. That you really are special and buying this game was worth the price you paid to feel this. However before there were other mechanics to rely upon to achieve this along with an actual challenge to overcome in getting there. Part of creating an effective illusion for the player to buy into, is making them feel like they earned it. Even if it took them 20 maddening attempts to get the satisfaction of finally besting your game.

You see, kids don’t know any better. Grown ups do. And gaming is no longer the (expensive) pastime of kids paid for by their naïve parents.

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