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Where is My Health Pack?

Quick-replenish health has become a prevalent feature in gaming recently. It’s the mechanic used by game such as Halo, Crysis, or Battlefield by which the player is able to take cover briefly from enemy fire and miraculously regain all his health back. What ever happened to the days of the life-meter? Where are my hi-potions, health packs, bandages, food, green herbs and the “Oh thank you!” moment when those items finally showed up? The quick-replenish health gauge is supposed to increase the intensity and the pace of gameplay, but does it actually do the opposite?

I remember playing Halo: Combat Evolved for the first time, and watching my shields fill back up after bracing a hail of gunfire. “It just comes back?” I thought. “That’s awesome!” And after years of playing games that punish the player for being hit, here I had one that forgave me. Many games, mostly FPS, have adopted the system including Gears of War, the Call of Duty series, and Mass Effect. Fast health regeneration means the player can make bolder maneuvers while in combat, dashing across enemy lines because you know you can heal if you just make it to the other side. This alleviates the frustrations of having to play a near perfect game to complete a level. It also creates frequent pulse-pounding intensity. As anyone who’s played Black Ops can tell you, seeing the screen turn red after a few bullet hits can really heighten the urgency of the situation—at least until you get back to cover.

But what about Health Packs? I picked up X-Men Mutant Apocalypse for the SNES again last week and was suddenly reminded of how much it means to complete a mini-boss flawlessly when you might need full health to defeat the final boss of a stage. Having to rely on health packs encourages the player to master the game, and to play with perfection. It also makes each hit you take matter more. If you don’t know when your next health pack is coming, it becomes more important to not get hit at all. It’s incredibly exciting to be beaten down to your last sliver of health, only to come back and complete the stage. It’s like it’s the bottom of the ninth and you’re down by three, only to hit the grand slam. Fighting games have been bringing us these incredible moments for years. Playing Mortal Kombat, or Street Fighter, there’s a great amount of satisfaction in beating your opponent with just that last bit of health left. Or, if you’re on the other end of it, you feel a great need to be the victor. “If you don’t win this, it’ll be sad” says my friend and I begin to mash the controller furiously to get in that one last punch I need.

Street Fighter 4 Screenshot

The frequency and intensity of these compelling gaming moments is really what separates the two health systems. Quick-replenish health generates a great deal of “near-death” escapes, but by their sheer rarity in health pack games, the near-death escape is all the more exciting. In addition, the fast health regeneration game treats each obstacle as its own individual event. A level becomes episodic (all the more-so because this is often paired with low maximum health and frequent check-points). While playing Halo 2, all I care about is: can I get through the next section of enemies, or even the next few seconds of gameplay. Can I make it to the next check point? Whereas, in Megaman, it’s more about making it through the entire stage. You begin to see the level as a whole obstacle course and you focus on the end-goal.

Slow-replenish health strikes somewhat of a balance between the two, giving the player a meter that regenerates over longer periods of time, often with the option to upgrade the rate of regeneration. World of Warcraft uses this (although there are faster methods to restore health in that game) and many Flash games do as well. Slow-replenish health makes the player engaged in his/her health as a commodity, but also forgives him/her for taking a few hits now and again. The biggest draw-back is that it encourages the player to sit idly in a safe spot and go get a snack—unless he’s being barraged with enemies like in Death vs. Monstars or Pixel Purge.

Quick-replenish health and health-packs are both valid game mechanics. One is not decidedly better than the other. However, until we come up with something better, it is important for game designers to understand their advantages and disadvantages with respect to player experience. Game designers must make an informed choice and use the method that fits their game. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go fill up my e-tanks.