14 May, 2016
In my recent design challenge on doing away with hit points, the prolific bhagpuss left a comment saying, “I think this is semantics (although it has to be said that I’m a semiologist at heart so I believe everything is semantics).”
The argument, also shared by Jeromai, was that trying to replace hit points with some other game mechanic would still result in a substantially similar system. But, this is not the case, because game design is important. Let me go into why changing hit points into another system would fundamentally change the gameplay.
Same design, different interaction
A lot of game design is about anticipating how players will interact with a system. People will interact with different systems differently, even if mechanically they are identical. One might generate a positive response, while another might give a negative response.
The classic example here is WoW’s rested experience bonus. The current system allows you to build up rested experience which increases experienced gained up to a certain amount. When you earn enough experience to burn through the rested bonus, you gain a normal amount of experience. Rested experience builds back up when you’re logged out, and will build up faster if you’re logged out in a safe location than if you’re in the wild. Other games have duplicated this system, including FFXIV.
But, the system was originally designed as a penalty pre-launch. After playing for a certain amount of time, you started taking an increasing experience penalty. Stories say that the Beta testers disliked this system, so the designers changed it to be a bonus instead. Base experience earned dropped, but now you could build up a bonus to get to the same old baseline experience. Theoretically the exact same numbers, just the perspective changed.
Since the system changed from a perceived penalty to a perceived bonus, people accepted the system, even though the experience amounts didn’t change. I think this shows why the game design matters even if the meaning remains teh same, as it changes how people interact with the system.
The meaning of changing hit points
In the design challenge I talked about a proposed system that intended to measure advantage or disadvantage in combat instead of hit points. Moves and maneuvers were intended to give you advantage and put your opponent at a disadvantage. With enough advantage, you could score an actual blow against your opponent and wound or kill them. Jeromai and bhagpuss argued that this was just hit points under another guise, with hit points reduced to a small number instead of being a big number to be whittled down. Perhaps, but like rested experience example, people would interact with this differently.
IN my proposed system, the goal is to better simulate actual combat with the back-and-forth that happens between two combatants. This system tries to model the starts, feints, misdirection, and all out attacks that make up a typical combat while moving away from the “keep swinging your sword at this enemy that that takes literally hundreds of weapon strikes and spells to take down.” And this focus would give combat a different feeling, thus giving players a different perspective on combat.
And this different perspective is what we are really looking for. Even if combats on average lasted about as long, this type of combat could be a lot more interactive as players pay more attention to potential openings in an opponent’s defenses in order to strike. Instead of trying to perfect a specific rotation to perform maximum theoretical DPS, combat could become a lot more tactical and less of an endurance contest. So, the game design matters.
The second-order consequences of changing hit points
But, this type of system would also have pretty significant changes to the game outside of the second-to-second mechanics of fighting. For example, giant boss monsters might become less common. Having a dozen or so people gather around a giant dragon might be a lot harder to orchestrate if the combat was more about trying to put your opponent at a disadvantage. I’m not sure how a large fight against a boss like a dragon would even work in a system like this; usually a dragon is an impossible foe, so you would probably need some other form of tactics besides everyone going in swinging. Perhaps a greater focus on mechanics that are unique to each fight?
Let’s look at a more involved example: what happens to the healer role in a system like this? If combat becomes about scoring a limited number of hits then having healing as it exists in MMOs today would simply not work. If scoring a wound after a significant back-and-forth f combat could be erased with a simple spell, the fight would feel trivially easy. So, you would need to change healing as a role; let me discuss two options.
The first option would be to see the healer as more of a combat medic. Instead of casting a spells and refilling a wound gauge, a healing might become a small fight in its own right where the healer fights against a wound. This would likely be impossible to do while the target is engaged in the fight, so you would probably need to do some sort of “tank swap” to let a wounded target back away from the active fight to receive care.
The other option I can think of off the top of my head is to completely rework the healer concept. Instead of healing damage done, the healer role would become more of a support role. A healer would join a fight and would give support to people, letting them put enemies at disadvantage easier. The support character may not be quite so strong in direct combat, but when working in coordination with another character would shine. Think of a drummer on a battlefield, or a specialist working to take out threats efficiently to support the rest of the group.
At any rate, this would take some savvy design as I’m sure the healers out there would probably be initially outraged if you took their healing role out of a game. But, we could also start to re-imagine other roles as well. You might not have specialized tanks, rather systems to allow people to be more offensive or more defensive. Gaining an enemy’s attention might require you to quickly adjust to be defensive to ward off attacks rather than current systems of “aggro management” that assume a DPS who got aggro will become a bloody smear because the tank didn’t generate enough threat.
So, yeah, game design matters
Hopefully this shows that game design is more than “just semantics”. How players will interact with a system is important, and anticipating that interaction is a large part of the designer’s job. This is why design challenges about replacing hit points are a lot larger than they might first appear. :)
What do you think? Do you see how the same mechanical system can provoke different reactions from players? Can you think of any other interesting consequences from a system that replaced hit points with a system of advantages and disadvantages?