Things MMOs Could Do Without – Part1: Health
By Ben Lamb (BGLamb), OnRPG Journalist
The Health Bar
Every gamer would recognize it in an instant. That red bar sitting somewhere nice and visible showing how much ‘health’ we have left, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. It has become such a staple of gaming that the only noticeable thing about it would be it’s absence. Try and think of an MMO (or, for that matter, any RPG) without a health-bar. It has become ubiquitous in this genre, as in several others, and it drives me mad!
The concept doesn’t even make sense! You would never describe someone in real life as having more or less health. “Sorry, I can’t work today I don’t have much health”. Health bars seem to simply be a figure counting how many times I can have an axe embedded in my skull, or a sword thrust through my chest without showing any noticeable signs of injury. After which, of course, I promptly drop dead.
The Classic Health Bar
No matter how real and visceral developers try and make combat feel, there seems to be no escaping the visual pantomime where combatants mortally wound each other, over and over again, until one of them finally runs out of numbers. Surely there must be alternatives.
The most apparent alternative to this farcical ‘dance of death’ is to simply declare that the player can only have his skull smashed in with a mace once. While this would add a nice element of realism to the proceedings, it would make most players’ lives rather short. Something more needs to be added.
“What about armor?” I hear you cry! Players could wear armor that takes a certain amount of damage before it’s worn out, and then the next blow kills the player. Genius! Then you could have a bar with your armor’s ‘health’ on it and paint it red and stick it somewhere nice and visible and you’ve got ABSOLUTELY NOWHERE!
Believe me I had thought about the concept of armor before you (rather rudely) shouted it out. While it does have a tad more realism in concept, it does nothing to change the tedious chore of slowly grinding down somebody’s numbers and it is still going to look ridiculous on screen. Anyway, unless you happen to be wearing mega-full-plate or some kind of personal energy shield, there are always gaps in armor for a well placed dagger.
Ok, well if we’re after realism, let’s take reality as our guide. Take two blokes, put them in some armor, give them some swords and tell them that the last one standing can have the pretty damsel. How could you take the ensuing scrap and turn that into a stat based MMO fight? There’s going to be lots of pushing and shoving, some parrying and dodging, and (if they have any sense) probably a kick to the groin for good measure.
So how about this? The combat is driven by the usual key figures: Str, Dex, etc but players don’t have a health bar, they have a stamina bar. As long as their stamina holds out then they can dodge or parry their opponents blows. Of course against a stronger or faster enemy the player’s stamina will be worn away all the more quickly, as more energy is needed to avoid injury. Then, when a players stamina is completely depleted, they cannot hold off their opponents attacks any longer and the final, fatal blow is administered. Fantastic.
Not only would this feel more realistic, it would look amazing! Very few games have implemented this kind of fighting into their animation or mechanics, despite the fact that it’s how fights really work. “But you’ve just replaced the health bar with another identical bar!” I hear you complain! Well firstly, don’t interrupt; I’ve told you before. Secondly, you’re right, but I haven’t finished yet.
So we’ve got the stamina bar, but it’s still looking an awful lot like the dreaded health bar except it’d probably be yellow or something. On the surface things might look much more exciting, but underneath it all is just a health bar wearing a funny hat, hoping you won’t notice. Well the interesting bit comes when you fight another player (as opposed to a critter).
Stat driven combat has the disadvantage that fights can often feel like they have a foregone conclusion. Not only is this not realistic, it is also not exciting. An element of randomness needs to be added and the stamina bar gives the perfect means to do so. Every attack should have a chance to hit home, but that chance should be relative to the amount of stamina remaining.
With this model, players would have no trouble blocking and dodging at the start of a fight, but as they lost their strength they would find it harder and harder. You would never know when the killing blow would land. All you could do is watch with growing nervousness as your character becomes more and more tired, hoping that you are the one to get that lucky hit in first.
This way, players of slightly different levels could still have a decent fight. Strong players could continue to be very confident against weaker ones, due to the very different speeds at which the stamina bars would be worn down, but could never be guaranteed a victory against even the lowliest foe.
While this idea of combat appeals to me greatly, I think it would feel like death could come a bit too suddenly for most people’s liking. In real fights, death often comes by degrees. How about recreating this? Players could take a light hit without it really slowing them down. The next wound would be more serious. The next might leave them severely maimed, maybe limping or unable to hold their shield. Only then could they be dispatched.
These different states could be shown visually in the animations themselves and would affect the character’s ability to fight or defend himself. This would serve to lessen the randomness of battles and also heighten the tension. Imagine the fights that could take place! You, the plucky underdog; Outmatched but getting in a couple of early hits, suddenly with a fighting chance as your enemy, stronger than you but now with your dagger plunged into his thigh, slowly limps after you. Or maybe it is your opponent who manages to get that crippling blow in early, leaving your shield arm useless, as you bravely fend off his attacks one-handed before finally getting a lucky decapitation.
In the end, maybe this idea isn’t a million miles away from where we started, with the humble health-bar, but doesn’t that make it all the more depressing that it’s never been tried before? The idea of replacing health points with armor points surfaced way back in 1985 with Ghosts N Goblins, and seems to be as adventurous as game designers ever got.
So this is my plea, not only to developers, but to gamers too. We can spend so much time in a box that we don’t realize it’s even there, let alone wonder what might be outside it. When something does come along that is truly different, it is very often ignored and unappreciated by players who don’t want to learn something new. These little gems, though often flawed, should be supported and appreciated, because if all you ever play is Blandcraft, then that is all you are ever going to get.