Friday, September 21, 2012

FTL: It's Fun to Play an Actual Game for a Change

FTL: Faster Than Light released just a few days ago after one of the earlier successful Kickstarter campaigns, and after winning several awards at various independent game festivals.  As a space-simulation roguelike, the ideas that it explores are not entirely original - however, its stripped-down presentation sets it apart from other space-themed games, with full 3D simulation and empire colonization removed in favour of intense ship-to-ship combat and crew management as the player evades the ever-encroaching dominion of the rebel fleet.

FTL is an excellent game, though I think that goes without saying given that it's received so much positive feedback.  But the more I've played it, the more I've got to wondering why exactly why that is the case.  There are bigger, prettier, more complicated games out there, and ones with much more content.  Somehow, FTL just "works" and manages to remain fun game after game.

The more I turned the idea over, the more I realized that FTL's success stems from limitations, not ambition.  It's not that it provides freedom, but the right kind of freedom.  It's not that it has complex gameplay, but rather that the gameplay demands that I make decisions rather than reactions.  And, perhaps more than any other title I have played in some time, it is truly a videogame.  After having gone through some of the mainstream game industry's biggest titles this year, this is extremely refreshing.

Star Trek: The Roguelike

Roguelikes are not exactly a new or even a particularly obscure genre anymore.  After successes over the last few years like Dwarf Fortress, Dungeons of Dredmor, Minecraft, Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, roguelikes have been introduced to, relatively speaking, more mainstream gamers than in the past.  What's more, the traditional roguelike model of literally being Rogue-like has sort of disappeared in favor of the term referring to games with permanent player death, randomly-generated content, and usually simple presentation that lets the gameplay take full command of the experience.

Why do roguelikes work so well?  One particular reason that players are so drawn to them is the immense challenge most of them present.  By presenting gameplay which can appear, at times, nearly insurmountable, the difficulty is not so much in enduring a lengthy campaign or completing difficult scenarios, but rather mastering the raw mechanics of the gameplay itself.  What starts out as impenetrable becomes more and more predictable and tame as players continue to play over and over again - basic learning gives way to tactical and strategic decisions, which continue to become more and more complicated as the game is replayed over and over and more nuance becomes apparent.

Roguelikes: the ultimate example of gameplay over graphics.
At the core of a roguelike is choice.  In fact, that's pretty much all roguelikes are built upon.  Do I drink the potion and see what happens, or sell it for some gold?  Do I fight these enemies and take their treasure, or are they too powerful for me?  Do I go left or right?  Do I skip backtracking to get supplies or press onward?  The actual gameplay of a roguelike has less to do with reflexes and skills, and much more to do with making the right decisions.  Success in a roguelike is typically a matter both of good planning and good immediate decision-making - mechanics like limited food, currency, etc. ensure that players constantly have to make trade-offs between the short and long term.

This central choice element is what sets rougelikes apart and what gives them their staying power.  Even if the player has mastered every single mechanic that a roguelike has to offer, knows all the random components, knows what all the items and monsters are capable of, the randomness of the configuration of all these individual elements means that the player is never, ever relieved of the need to make a decision.  Whereas many games become automatic over time through rote memory work or the simple lack of expression the player has within the game systems, roguelikes positively excel in this respect.

In Space, There Are No Corridors

We tend to criticize a lot of titles, usually action-oriented ones, shooters, and so on, for not providing players with freedom in gameplay.  Often we place the blame on level design: the corridor is the symbol of a lack of freedom, and we tend to assume that the problems in many titles boil down to a lack of openness in the level design.  Conversely, we tend to praise games which provide us with lots of freedom, and currently open-ended, limitless titles are the ones which tend to get the highest Metacritic scores and often sell millions upon millions of copies.

Of course, this is a fallacy.  Gears of War would not necessarily be made a better game if the level design changed and the corridors were dispensed with.  Dead Space's primary gameplay hook, tense action in dimly-lit corridors, may not be to everyone's taste, but suddenly transforming the game into an open-ended affair would not improve things.  More broadly, this critique speaks to linearity in games, wherein certain objectives are predefined and must be completed in a particular order.  Similarly, linearity, as we tend to understand it, is not really a problem in game design either.  Not having the option to pick which story objective to go after does not make for a worse game.

What should be put under the magnifying glass more often is freedom with respect to the systems the player operates within.  A game like Gears features a hundred different guns and the action is fast and intense - the player is rarely standing still and has to make split-second reactions.  Except, these are not really choices.  While superficially the player has the option of either ducking behind cover or aiming and shooting, the systems that regulate this behaviour are nearly binary: do you have health?  If no, hide.  If yes, shoot.  Do you have ammo?  If no, reload.  If yes, shoot.  In almost every instance there is only one correct response, and this response has a lot less to do with the player's ability to devise strategies and think critically as it does with the ability to recognize patterns and provide the correct response.  This is the real problem with the pervasive lack of freedom in many modern titles, not the linearity in story and level design in and of itself.

FTL is nothing but corridors and menus, and aside from cosmetic backgrounds the game screen never changes.  Yet I feel I have more interesting and significant decisions to make in this environment than many bigger, more expansive games.
This is where FTL really shines and gets its staying power.  The game revolves around a central conflict - the player must balance the short-term needs of personnel and resources in combat, medium-term needs like upgrades and repairs, and long-term needs like the ability to beat tough enemies much later on.  Planning is essential, but adaptability is also crucial, and success depends upon making a combination of the right decisions at the right times.  The random element to gameplay (scenarios visited on a minute-by-minute basis, supplies and missions available, etc.) constantly forces players to reconsider and revise decisions, and all of these elements themselves tend to have interesting choices contained with.  Do you board a derelict vessel to search for supplies, knowing there may be pirates ready to ambush you aboard?  Do you help a civilian ship in hopes of reward, or take a bribe from the brutes harassing it to look the other way?  And more broadly, decisions on where to travel are augmented both by the available destinations and by the ever-creeping time limit.

Like the roguelikes discussed above, FTL is predicated on choice.  The game mechanics interact with each other in enough ways that decisions are both constant and constantly interesting.  There is never one "right" decision to make, only shades of grey with different upsides and downsides as the rest of the gameplay situation changes.  When a fire breaks out on-board the player's ship, is it a better idea to send crew to deal with it, abandoning their stations, or does it make sense to open the outer doors and suck the fire out of the ship, but also deprive the area of oxygen for a time?  As the game goes on, the player gains more and more ways to augment the decisions being made.  With the Blast Doors upgrade, fire aboard the ship is incapable of spreading far, which means that the player can make other decisions differently.  There is immense freedom in navigating the gameplay FTL offers, even though the game never actually leaves the corridors of the player's own vessel.

Yet it's equally important that this freedom is not too great.  Some titles offer huge open worlds to explore and such as wealth of content and gameplay at the player's disposal that it can be downright paralyzing.  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim gives the player an endless theme park to explore every nook and cranny of, yet this freedom to do anything, any time comes at the expense of compelling decision-making, because every decision is ultimately the same: since the game never pushes back at the player, the answer to the player's questions is always "yes."  Without any chance of failure, any barriers to overcome, any risk of denial, there can be no struggle, no rules to follow, no victory - no gameplay.

Closing Thoughts

This is why FTL, for me, has been such a refreshing experience.  After playing so many titles which discourage experimentation and which simply treat the player as a passive observer to the mayhem and majesty playing out, it gives me an opportunity to inhabit tightly-controlled systems and do my best to regulate them.  Without the binary win/lose mechanics of so many other titles, FTL has been a crucial reminder that the most compelling games are those which are built upon the choices players make, and construct their goals, scenarios and rules not to limit what the player can do, but to provide more of those choices within the systems.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Inquisitor: The Sins of Old-School Design

Cinemax's Inquisitor is a game that kind of snuck up on me.  I didn't really read any previews, watch any trailers, or know much about the game at all, right up until its release.  Despite originally being launched in 2009 after an extremely lengthy development history (nearly a decade), and spending three years in translation to English, there was very little hype or media attention.

Once I learned of it, though, I was instantly ecstatic.  Isometric, 2D pre-rendered visuals?  Diablo-style combat?  Massive, pitch-dark labyrinths swarming with monsters?  A story based around investigation, subterfuge and conspiracy?  Adult subject matter?  A world based on actual European religious history?  It was almost too good to be true.

Unfortunately, that love affair died pretty quickly once I started playing the game.  The problem with Inquisitor is that while it is indeed an old-school game right down to its core, it also suffers from many of the flaws that old-school games did, either out of a devotion to those titles, or simple design oversights by the developer.  Divorced from the nostalgia that sometimes allows us to overlook these problems in earlier titles, Inquisitor can often be a frustrating, monotonous experience, and needlessly so.  In this article, this ostensibly old-school RPG fan would like to take a moment to discuss where the old-school approach to design in Inquisitor falls apart. 

A Matter of Direction

If there is one problem that permeates just about all of Inquisitor, it's direction.  The game is simply not very good at telling the player what to do, where to go, and when.  When you're given a quest, most of the time you're on your own in figuring things out... which is both rewarding, and occasionally extremely frustrating. 

Inquisitor starts out with your character standing alone in a forest, on a dirt road.  Although some vague instructions are given during the introduction, it's not one second into the game and already things are a little unclear.  Exactly where am I?  Where am I supposed to go?  How do I know how to get there?  Following the road north soon reveals the gate to the town of Hillbrandt, which is barred shut by the guards, who insist that I go fight some giant bats pestering the town walls before I'm let in.  Not more than a few seconds into the game and already I have my first side-quest.

This quest isn't difficult, or especially time-consuming.  It's not even mandatory, if you're rude to the guard and demand to be let in.  But, what it is is distracting.  At the very beginning of the game, the player expects some direction.  This is literally his or her first step into the world, and instead of a thorough introduction that acquaints the player with all he or she needs to know, instead, it's combat to the death right from the beginning.  Again, this can be bypassed, but many players won't bother, either because they don't want to be rude to the gate guard, or because they don't want to miss out on experience points and loot.

Hillbrandt is a not-so-charming place, but it's full of quests and characters - so much so that the story or main objective often become lost in the proceedings.
Even once the bats are dead and the player is let into the town, which becomes the main quest hub for the first quarter or so of the game, it's still not entirely clear where the player should go.  The goal is to meet up with a bishop, but the church is clear on the other side of town from the front gate, and along the way the player will likely explore and speak to (or be accosted by) several other characters, even receiving lengthy and involved quests before even the basics of the world and the story are communicated.   I actually performed several side-quests before ever learning about exactly why I was in Hillbrandt what was expected of me there.

This lack of direction is a problem throughout almost the entire game.  There are many, many cases in Inquisitor where it is unclear where to go, what to do or who to talk to, not because I'm an especially thick-headed person who can't get obvious hints, but rather because oftentimes the sequence of events to complete a relatively simple task is very, very specific, but the player could easily and logically skip one of those steps.  Often it's as simple as needing to talk to a given NPC before getting a dialogue option to open up, even though there's no indication that the player needs to talk with that NPC at all.  Much of my time in Inquisitor was spent wandering from X to Y, checking and re-checking conversations to make sure that I hadn't missed anything... not out of compulsion to complete every single piece of content, but because it's usually the only way to proceed.

Additionally, due to the game's focus on drilling every NPC for as much information as possible in order to advance its plot threads, eventually it's possible to just run out of things to do.  Once you've spoken to all the NPCs in a town, explored all the areas of the game world, and so on, where else do you go?  Sometimes the game expects a very specific and sometimes non-ideal sequence of events to play out, which are portrayed as optional but are in fact mandatory (such as accusing someone of hersey - even if you aren't sure of their guilt, you'll have to interrogate them to get the evidence you need to continue the game).  Other times, the solution to advancing the plot will be difficult to find - such as a broken bridge in the Iron Mine dungeon at the end of act 1 requiring either the Levitate spell or finding a very well-hidden secret door - and suddenly the game grinds to a halt until you've completed that requirement, even if that means you are stuck with grinding respawning enemies for five hours to level up enough to get a spell you need.

It's a common complaint about modern games that they don't trust players to figure out how to proceed properly - that the quest compass or objective marker is the lazy developer's way of telling the player how to proceed in the game.  But it's also worth remembering that sometimes not including hints on where to go and what to do can lead to a needlessly frustrating play experience.  Guiding players is an art - a quest compass might be a brute-force, lowest common denominator method, but at least it works.  Without such aids, if the rest of the game's design can't direct the player properly, then that's a failure, old-school or not.

Sink or Swim

Inquisitor's second defining old-school trait is that it likes to throw the player into the deep end right from the very beginning.  Immediately upon starting the game, you get a class selection (which also changes a few story details and dialogue options), and a fairly extensive character sheet containing multiple character attributes, about two-dozen skills to choose from, and a few schools of magic.  In other words, it looks just like a classic RPG.

Of course, like other classic RPGs, this practice of shoving the character sheet in the player's face right from the beginning also makes it difficult to get a feel for what's important in the game.  Do I want to take Pagan Magic or Divine Magic?  Will I need to revive followers myself or are there priests that do it for me?  Is strength important for a magic-oriented class?  These sorts of fundamental gameplay questions are impossible to know the answer to without extensive reading, both of the instruction manual and meta-game advice, i.e. on message boards.
Is there anything nicer in the world than a pretty, stat-filled character sheet?
 This isn't really much different from some of my favorite games of all time.  Fallout and Arcanum are my two most-loved isometric RPGs, and both of those games are known for their poor game balance (especially Arcanum) and the ability for a player to make an exceptionally ineffective character through little direct fault of his or her own.  A lot of this boils down to the fact that it's impossible to know in advance how useful an ability or skill is relative to other elements of the game.  Arcanum, for instance, is set in a neo-Victorian steampunk world, and due to the aesthetic I'd assume that social skills are of the utmost priority... but building a character who focuses on persuasion, charisma and beauty generally is not going to be anywhere near as capable as a straight-up fighter, thanks to the game's large amounts of combat and lengthy dungeon crawls.

Inquisitor suffers from the exact same issue, but to a greater degree.  Without knowing in advance how the game plays, it's impossible to make informed decisions.  Many players I've spoken with, for instance, found themselves disappointed in the magic system when they realized that spells were extremely ineffective against enemies until halfway through the game.  I was annoyed when I discovered my paladin character couldn't complete a quest because he couldn't use the Levitate spell, or when I learned there was a fool-proof spell used to identify items, rendering the Identify skill completely redundant (as well as the points I invested in it).  There's no way to change the difficulty level after you've started the game, and there's no way to rebind your keys, because... well, okay, there's really just no justifiable reason for those.

Some of these issues are very difficult to avoid in an RPG with a fair degree of freedom, but many of these could have been avoided with more intuitive controls, more obvious clues in dialogue, books to read explaining game mechanics, or even simple tutorial pop-ups.  For example, it is mandatory, if you can't pick locks or use spells to open them, to bash down doors in order to proceed in the game.  Unfortunately, without reading through the manual you would never, ever know how to do this.  I also spent several hours of the game dragging-and-dropping potions one-by-one, because I didn't realize there was a faster way to buy things - a problem that others I knew also had, thanks to unintuitive user interface design.

There are all sorts of little things Inquisitor doesn't communicate well.  For instance, unique weapons all have random stats, so save scumming is necessary to get the best, or most valuable, gear.
In other cases, the way information is presented obscures the game mechanics in a way that makes it hard to understand how to play in an ideal fashion without extensive experimentation and re-playing.  For instance, there are dialogue checks in Inquisitor, with different outcomes to quests dependent on whether the player can persuade an NPC... but the game never tells you when these checks occur, what skills or stats are used to check them, what the chances of success are, and it rarely communicates what the alternative outcome is.  While this might increase immersion and leave Inquisitor feel less "gamey", it can also be confusing to players, and makes it hard to determine how much their choices actually matter to the storyline, or how to better optimize their character build.

Yet more of these problems pertain to game balance.  Some sections of the game are extraordinarily easy, featuring enemies which do very little damage... but others, such as ghosts, spirits and various mages, are literally capable of wiping out your juiced-to-the-eyeballs, fully-armored and HP-buffed tank of a character in a few seconds.  Priests... well, priests just die.  Some of the game's bosses are so difficult that they will almost instantly kill even over-leveled characters, and they rely heavily on "cheese tactics" to defeat, like exploiting AI issues.  Without knowing in advance whether an enemy will be a breeze or a hair-pulling nightmare, the only way to really get by is to quicksave constantly and hope for the best.

There's always something satisfying about being able to overcome a difficult challenge, or in figuring out a novel solution to a problem based on your own logic and reasoning, or in simply clearing out an area on the world map... but the flip side of that is that, when you don't feel like a genius, often you feel like either a moron or like the game has broken on you.  Inquisitor often feels far more like the latter than it really ought to, and because of that it is often frustrating in the extreme.

Nintendo Hard

One of the hallmarks of classic games is that they're hard.  We recall the second level of Battletoads and its demand for cat-like reflexes and savant-like memory, or beating the final boss of Contra without using the Konami Code.  Many gamers look at challenge as an end in itself, especially those who grew up playing games which depended a lot on difficulty to extend their play-time and demanded complete mastery of their mechanics and individual levels in order to win.

Inquisitor's developers appear to have thought lots of challenge was a great idea, as well.  The game starts out reasonably tough (the most basic enemies can handily kill you right at the start of the game if you aren't prepared), and only becomes more difficult from there.  Bosses, as mentioned above, are sometimes so powerful as to be nearly impossible to beat without resorting to exploits.  Many sections of the game are only winnable by quaffing dozens of potions within the span of a few seconds, because monsters have spells that can inflict debilitating status effects, stun you, destroy your armor, permanently drain your attributes... and they can spam those spells faster than you can.  Even if you beat them, chances are you'll want to reload because one of your followers died, or you lost critical skills.

What's more, sometimes the game doesn't play by the rules.  Some fights are made difficult because enemies literally spawn out of thin air right around you, and pummel you to death in an instant if you can't get away from them in time (usually just luck).  Environmental hazards like pits of acid or lava pretty much never affect enemies, but of course they can kill you in two seconds flat.  Sometimes the rules broken are implicit - such as fire-based enemies that aren't weak to ice attacks, as you'd expect them to be.
Traps are a constant annoyance, and are pretty much unavoidable without pouring many points into special skills.  Almost every door, chest and barrel is trapped, but without knowing how to handle those traps in advance, it's impossible to create a character that can deal with them effectively until dozens of hours into the game.
Inquisitor features optional followers, but in truth they're pretty much mandatory because of the extreme level of challenge involved.  Followers don't just deal more damage, they also distribute the damage you take across themselves, which is essential for anyone but a melee class (and still pretty helpful for a typical fighter).  They also receive the same bonuses that enemies do, so on harder difficulty settings they have more hit points and damage, making them proportionately more powerful than the player him/herself (the inverse is true on easy mode).

What's more, followers also tie into another big part of Inquisitor's challenge.  The game's dirty little secret is basically that combat has very little depth and, frankly, plays like the most unpolished of Diablo clones out there, with cluttered visuals, awkward pacing and timing that make targeting enemies or using spells and skills precisely difficult.  The only effective way to win, without rendering every battle needlessly complicated, is to fill your inventory 75% full with potions and chug them down, constantly, while trying to exploit the poor AI by luring out enemies one by one to their deaths.

Of course, followers themselves also have health, stamina and mana bars too... and they consume the same potions from your inventory.  Even after you've bought fifty or more potions of each type, prepare for those to disappear extremely quickly as you and your party members burn through them.  Once you have no more potions, suddenly the game becomes extremely difficult because the only way to reliably defeat the stronger enemies is to chug, chug, chug.  It's pretty much entirely binary - either you have potions and you win without a sweat, or you don't have potions and you die.
Inquisitor loves to pile on status effects - poison, slow, stun, insanity, fear, etc. - but there are few defenses against them, reducing what could be a dynamic and interesting combat system to "kite and spam the potion hotkey."
This means that attrition is the real challenge in Inquisitor, other than the boss monsters that can wipe your party with a look.  Unfortunately, there are few convenient ways to get new supplies.  Inquisitor has no town portal spell, and the only item of a similar nature is the Magical Box - an object that, when destroyed, releases a genie who grants a wish, ranging from healing, to assistance in combat, to opening a special shop.  Unfortunately, these Magical Boxes are also extremely expensive and fairly rare to come across, and what's more, releasing the genie without making a wish has a chance of granting bonus skill or attribute points - which means that effectively, every genie you don't release is a wasted opportunity to make your character stronger.  Suffice to say, unless you fancy forgoing free level-ups, you'll be spending a lot of extra time walking back to town, slowly, through respawning enemies, in dark, confusing labyrinths.  Of course, if you run out of potions and don't have a Magical Box, you're basically forced to waste an extra 15-30 minutes of your time hiking back and forth.

Challenge is one of those things that only really works when it accomplishes something.  Challenge as a means to an end can be compelling, but usually only for a fairly small subset of gamers, and even then, many of them overstate their desire for insanity-inducing difficulty.  When challenge becomes equated with tedium, or is simply a complete lack of fairness, or extremely skewed balance, the fun inherent in overcoming a difficult battle tends to disappear very quickly.  Inquisitor features old-school challenge, but that challenge is often of the most frustrating, ill-conceived sort, and it only serves to pad out its already overlong dungeon levels.

Closing Thoughts

It's strange how, even after railing against a game like Inquisitor for all of its, frankly, pretty bad design choices, I can still come back to it and look on it fondly.  Perhaps people enjoy to dislike things, or perhaps they appreciate that which they hate, but for whatever reason, all of these problems still aren't enough to make me put the game down.  Just like old-school titles that I still play today, it's got all the same appeal that is so often lost in an era where the player's hand is always firmly tethered to the designer's.  But, it's also an excellent case study in how games have evolved for the better over the last decade, and worth playing just for that experience alone.

I'll be turning to Inquisitor's positives in an upcoming article - old-school design can be maddening, but the game certainly has its strengths as well, and many of them are a direct result of those same "antiquated" elements.  I'd like to cover the virtues as well as the sins.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Seeing Red: The Pitfalls of Regenerating Health

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