Every shooter in the history of the genre has had some form of health system. As you get hurt, your health decreases, and you die when it hits zero. This is very cut-and-dry throughout most games. Of course, there must be some way of recovering that health though. There are some variations, though it’s one area that I think some good mechanics can still be created for. Many games have had different ways of recovering health, but the form we’ve seen the most often is that it regenerates automatically with no action from the player. It’s become very popular in most shooters and other genres and I’ve seen it implemented in several mods for Doom, Quake and other games. However, many don’t seem to realize all the different effects this has on different aspects of gameplay. Now, there are a few misconceptions regarding what regenerating health actually does because it’s so often paired with a few other mechanics: namely cover mechanics, slow movement speed, dominantly hitscan attacks, checkpoints and reloading weapons. There are several games that feature some or even all of the mechanics at the same time, and each one brings their own set of considerations. Because they’re so often featured with regenerating health, it’s very easy to associate the effects of one with the other mechanics. In this article, I’ll write about health recovery systems specifically, and will try to avoid consequences that these other systems introduce.
I’ll start with a definition of common ways players acquire health. Way back in Wolfenstein and Doom and through the first Halo, you got healed by picking up an item lying around. This pickup-based healing is characteristic of many older games. The most common method used today is automatic regeneration, or regen, where you don’t do anything, and your health just comes back over time. Usually it’s delayed regeneration, a form in which you don’t start regenerating until you’ve gone a few seconds without taking any further damage. More recently, we’ve seen these systems mixed with partial regeneration (Halo: Reach and Wolfenstein: New Order are good examples) where health automatically regenerates up to certain milestones, such as 20% increments, and pickups are required to heal the rest of the way. Partial regeneration can give the player a bit of margin for error if he’s really low on health, for example, but besides that there really isn’t much of a difference between that and a normal pickup-based system. Wolf: New Order was still pickup-based, it just heals minor pecks that aren’t worth wasting a pickup on. I define these as such so there’s no confusion in what I’m referring to, exactly.
The biggest difference between regenerating health and pickup-based health is the total health the player has available throughout an entire level. With regeneration-based systems, the amount of health the player has available is infinite. He could potentially take an infinite amount of damage, so long as he has some time to regenerate between bursts. In Quake, for example, the amount of health the player has in any particular map is equal to the amount of health he enters into the map with, plus the amount in all of the health pickups on the map itself. While this does sound like a lot of health, it’s still a very finite amount. Especially when you consider that the player has to go get it. Moreover, much of that health might be locked away from where the player currently is because he might need to beat an encounter to get there. Some games don’t strike the right balance, and make some encounters incredibly difficult without leaving enough health available. Regenerating health is only limited by the time it takes to regenerate back to full. You also always have that pool available; you don’t have to hunt around for health packs and you don’t have health locked away from you.
Now, what is the effect of that? When you’re placing monsters for an older game like Doom or Quake, you have to consider how much health the player has and how much is available to him. When you design encounters for the player, you have to consider he might be low on health and tweak the design accordingly. With regen, you just place what you want because given a short amount of time, the player will always be back at full health. Additionally, in designing maps for Quake or Doom, for example, you have to allow for the player to backtrack to pick up health items. Wolfenstein: The New Order had this issue; the maps were usually somewhat linear, but it did allow for a lot of backtracking to pick up health. Unfortunately, this was potentially a lot of time spent doing nothing but backtracking, as those pickups that were left behind could have been fairly far away. In contrast, Quake’s maps were designed in such a way that backtracking was very easy and very fast. These maps were often interconnected in such a way that in many cases going back for a health or ammo pickup only took a few seconds. Regenerating health would allow you to make your map as linear as you want, without any regard for health placement.
Another main difference between the two is the effect it has on pacing. Regeneration (especially delayed regeneration) almost forces the gameplay to operate in set encounters with downtime in between. This is necessary because the player must have time between fights in order to heal up. Even games that are supposed to be fast-paced, like Bulletstorm, have to have that downtime where no combat takes place. I see a lot of games try to use regenerating health to allow the game to be more action-packed, so the player doesn’t have to spend time hunting for health packs, but it usually has the opposite effect because of that. Setting a very fast-paced, hectic map with regenerating health is actually pretty difficult. It has to be a heavy endurance match for the player; he has an infinite pool of health, so the trick is to keep him from regenerating too much. For this pace to work, you have to keep the player in constant danger, and that is a very fine line for a developer to walk, as the slightest point of damage could reset the timer delay and get the player killed. At the same time, you have to make sure the player can’t just dodge everything and doesn’t have too many safe spots to regenerate back to full, or the whole effect is lost anyway. The effect is the same without delayed regeneration. Constant regen must necessarily be slower than delayed regen in order for there to be some danger, so the player has to find safe spots in order to survive at all, forcing the player to play defensively and slowing down the game’s pace. This is easier to do with a pickup-based system, as you can scatter health around and the player can keep his own health up high enough to survive without managing timers. A good example is Doom 2 Map15, a map with a lot of weaker, hard-to-dodge monsters scattered everywhere. They constantly pick at your health and you’re in constant danger until you clear out a decent-sized section of the outside regions of the map. To keep your health up, though, there are small health packs scattered everywhere; not enough to keep you at full health, but enough to keep you alive until a major area is clear while still being under constant pressure until then.
Additionally, with a purely regenerating health system, fodder-type monsters have a much smaller impact and are much harder to design. Because of the downtime that regenerating health requires, you can’t use fodder to keep pace between set encounters. The player needs time to regenerate back up to full health between fights, and if fodder was used like this, it would only take more time to regenerate. Another of fodder’s main roles is to keep the player’s attention in the game or risk losing some resources like health. They still accomplish this under regenerating health, but rather than draining overall health, they’re more about resetting timers on regeneration with minor pecks here and there. The basic Grunts from Halo were a great example of this: They did almost nothing on their own, but their constant pecks with quick plasma pistol and homing needler shots worked well to reset the delay before your shields regenerate. Depending on the game, there are other resources that could be drained, so you aren’t limited to just making bodies that can damage the player. Mass Effect 3, for example, has Husks, Cannibals and Assault Troopers; somewhat weak monsters that can flush you out of cover by rushing you or by throwing grenades, limiting a very-needed resource: cover. I did say I wasn’t going to confuse issues brought up by other systems like cover mechanics or things like that, but in this case I mean that cover is just another resource in Mass Effect, and fodder can limit it. The last major role of fodder is adding health and average damage to an encounter, and this is basically unchanged with the various systems of recovery. They still assist the threats in the encounter the same way regardless.
The last real difference between the two is the way the player’s attention is directed. With a pickup-based system, at least part of your player’s attention has to be focused on looking around for health. He doesn’t get it automatically, he needs to look for it. This can be both good and bad, though. On the one hand, the player has an actual gameplay reason to be looking around at the level that you’ve built. On the other, if your game gives them even more to worry about, then making the player keep track of his recovery could be completely unnecessary and could just distract him from something that could be more important. Mass Effect 2 and 3, for example, health might not have been as important as managing cover for an Infiltrator or killing enemies in the right order for a Vanguard. The goal is still staying alive in an encounter, but health recovery sometimes takes a back seat to ways of mitigating damage the right way. As I mentioned earlier with fodder, health isn’t the only resource you can drain in an encounter. Cover, ammunition, control of the battlefield, time in a timed mission and even other, more abstract things could also be traded away from the player. In a purely regeneration-based system, you can’t drain the player’s health like you can with a pickup-based system, so more effort should be put on draining these other resources. These two systems also have a different emphasis when the player is very low in health: while both systems allow the player to remove threats to mitigate damage, a regenerating player is encouraged to remove himself from the action, get to a safe place, and wait for the game to return his health. A player who can pick up health packs is encouraged to be proactive, to do something to recover. Like regenerating health, this could mean retreating back to a safer area to pick up things that haven’t been consumed yet but the player could also be bold and run into a hostile area to pick up health more quickly. It’s the player’s choice, though, how he wants to proceed.
There are some other ways players can recover health, used in a few games. I’ll do a few quick case studies to show them. Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine features three methods of recovery; the first is a standard over-shield with delayed-regeneration. This over-shield took damage initially, preventing health damage until it was gone. Your health bar itself had delayed-regeneration up to 20% milestones. So far, it sounds like the standard shooter from these days; regenerating health and an over-shield, a la Halo. The major difference is that only reliable way of recovering your health bar was by performing executions on stunned enemies where it played a quick animation, the stunned enemy is then instantly killed regardless of how much health it had, and the game restored some of your health depending on what kind of monster it was (weaker monsters restored less, of course). These execution systems tend to set a very fast pace where the player can charge into combat without missing a beat and that aggressive play-style is rewarded, but tend to punish players for playing cautiously. Despite regenerating health, it also allowed fodder to have their usual impact on pacing between large encounters, and basically turned them to be health pickups the player has to earn. There’s also a large problem that can arise: if the player is low on health for a major encounter, he needs to charge into melee range and get locked into a set animation in order to recover. If he’s low enough, he could outright die before he ever has a chance to recover. Space Marine got around this issue with the fury system. As you killed various enemies, a meter got filled up, and fury mode could be activated once it was filled. Among other benefits, fury mode regenerated your health very quickly and without any delays from damage, allowing the player to charge straight into combat with abandon. It was still possible to die from overwhelming numbers or massive damage if the player got too reckless, but it effectively solved that aforementioned issue. The problem with those near-invincibility recovery abilities is that they are incredibly difficult to balance right, as they could either be useless or they necessarily make the game very easy. Even the most difficult encounter could become trivial if fury mode was used correctly, as every encounter had to be possible to beat if the player had an empty fury meter. The meter does have to recharge through kills, but fury mode wasn’t necessary to use for most fights and was almost always available when it was needed.
The second case study is Dead Space. Dead Space had no regenerating health at all; for a horror-action game, it wanted to make the player feel helpless and weak as much as possible and automatically regenerating health would undermine that as every individual wound would become meaningless after a short time. It had the usual pickup-based health with a twist: each pickup was stored in your limited inventory space, along with ammo and other useful items. The player has to make a choice whether to store extra health pickups in his inventory or other items he might need. The flip-side of a stored-inventory-based system is that it adds a huge amount to the player’s health pool for any given encounter. It worked perfectly fine in Dead Space and other games like Resident Evil because of how limited these health items were and how limited your inventory space was. Then there were games like Strife: Quest for the Sigil, where the player could store dozens of health pickups and it didn’t cut into storage space for any other items. This made the player almost invulnerable, so all the late-game enemies necessarily have to do massive amounts of damage in order to try to instantly kill the player before he could use any of them, and it made most weaker monsters worthless because they couldn’t kill him. In many shooters, inventory-based health pickups can fail miserably because of this. In Dead Space and Resident Evil, though, the player has to make a decision between different weapons, ammo and health; if the player tries to be invulnerable through a sheer amount of available health like in Strife, then he could have a hard time actually killing anything. Games that are more focused on limited resources tend to accomplish this much better because the player himself has to balance out how much of any particular resource is available, suiting his own play-style and making him scavenge for what he needs.
I have seen several discussions in a few modding communities about regenerating health. Of course, people usually argue which system is better. In reality, it just depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, the style of game you want to make and where you want to focus your design. Each method requires a lot of thought in their implementation. I have seen games with pickup-based health that didn’t really let the player backtrack for health very easily, and/or never struck the right balance with how much health should be available for an encounter. I’ve seen regeneration-based games that were incredibly easy and quite boring because you were never really in any danger and/or don’t really require your attention on other things. I’ve seen stored-inventory-based games make the player almost invulnerable because of how much health the player is allowed to carry. Conversely, I’ve seen games with these various systems play to their strengths perfectly well and were very fun because of it. Every system has their pitfalls and benefits. Really, though, each system works perfectly fine as long as enough thought was put in to make the game fun.