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Health: Burst vs Sustained

How health systems inform game play and level design.

This is a cross post from here: http://guilelessmonk.tumblr.com/

Health in games is how many mistakes the game allows you to make, or at least how many it is okay with you making. There really is two kinds of health in games though, burst and sustained. Burst is how many consecutive mistakes you are allowed to make where sustained is how many mistakes you are allowed to make in a level.


Castlevania

The best game to explain this difference is the original Castlevania. In it, you had a health bar which was restored at the end of a level or you could get some of your life back from chicken that lived in the walls. The health bar is the control on how many consecutive mistakes you are allowed to make (burst), where the number of chickens is the control on how many mistakes you are allowed to make per level. 

If 6 hits kill you and there is 5 wall chickens each of which make it so you can take 1 more hit (I know this isn’t how it works in the game but I’m simplifying it to explain this) then the game is saying you are allowed to make at most 5 consecutive mistakes, but a total of 10 mistakes per level. If they changed the balance so that 3 hits kill you but there were 20 wall chickens then the game allows for a total of 22 mistakes.

Each of those two balances would create a different amounts of the same kind of tension. If your health gets refreshed more often (wall chicken, sustained) it creates a more light hearted game as you are continually allowed (even encouraged) to make continuous single mistakes. Trying things out is okay, encouraged even, because if you get hit if you are just careful for a small amount of time then that damage will be taken away and you can try outrageous things again. Decreasing sustained sustained health makes each mistake you make hurt more and create more tension because who knows when you will get that life back, if at all.

Castlevania does a great job of using sustained life to create a constant dread and tension in its players. Even if you are only fighting an easy enemy it is scary because if you mess up that is one less mistake you can make when you are fighting something hard. Sure you might be able to get to the next wall chicken to heal off that damage (if you know where it is) but that might not be for a while and so each hit hurt a lot.

Halo

Halo has the opposite model of Castlevania. It has infinite sustained life by way of a shield that regenerates if you are out of combat for a while. It uses this to enable a completely different kind of play from Castlevania, an action packed kind of gameplay that makes you feel invincible. It breeds experimentation with the weapons, enemies, and tactics because you can try things without a long term detriment.

Because the game wants to get players to try new things and take too many chances, the player has to have enough burst health to survive minor mistakes which is why there aren’t really any weapons that can one shot a player in Halo. The only exceptions really are the rocket launcher (which warns the target by making a big distinct sound and is slow moving enough to give them a chance to move out of the way) and the tank (which is a fucking tank).

How much burst health you have in a game is really all about what kind of learning curve you want to be on it. If you come up to a new enemy you haven’t seen before how many times do you want to show the player their attack pattern before you kill them for not avoiding it.

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