Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

14 May, 2016

Why it’s not all semantics because game design matters
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:14 PM

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?


  1. I think the longer explanation emphasizes exactly why this is primarily a semantic argument. Semantics is defined as the “branch of linguistics and logic concerned with meaning…with matters such as sense and reference and presupposition and implication, and … with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them.” Your WoW example is apposite in that there is no question other than that the two versions of the design have functionally identical outcomes, but the impression they leave on the person who experiences them is very different. The difference between them is measured in how they are perceived and that is precisely a semantic perception.

    Replacing hit points with another system is a messier example because as you begin to examine it involves a whole tangle of other, nested procedures and perceptions, but pared down to absolute basics, in an MMO hit points exist to decide a final win/lose condition. You could certainly design an MMO that didn’t revolve around, or include, a combat-designated win/lose condition. It’s been done, often, and successfully. You could even design an MMO that had no predicated win/lose conditions at all, although players would almost inevitably create those for themselves.

    Once you decide to have combat that ends in win/lose, however, every choice you make on the journey to reaching that goal is a semantic one. I wasn’t kidding when I said I believed everything is semantics. Semantics is meaning as described in language, including, of course, the languages of signs and symbols, and everything you include in your description is both expressed in language and describes a form of language.

    We can’t play any MMO, any video game, without first learning the language of that game. When we talk about a “learning curve” it’s learning the game’s language that we mean. The big advantage the hit points system has over others is that its a language most players will already have learned. The secondary advantage is that for those true newbies who have literally never played a video game before, hit points is about the simplest possible win/lose condition to explain, describe and understand. Even the smallest child understands how to hit a china piggy bank with a hammer until it breaks and the coins spill out.

    What you’re proposing is the use of more complex language to describe the same ultimate meaning. My character is here. The monster is there. We compete. One wins. One loses. That’s the semantics of the process.

    The thing semantics can’t help with, though, is fun. Fun is the slippery, nebulous, impossible to define concept that dogs all gaming and which of late has become both a buzzword and the last (or possibly first) resort of every game developer faced with a concept or project that looks like it won’t bring a sufficient return on investment. No amount of semantic analysis is going to tell anyone whether your alternate measuring system is going to feel “fun” or not. Even playtesting won’t really tell you much because no test environment can be devised that will adequately replicate the experience of players engaging with the systems in a real-time, live setting. Countless betas attest to that disparity.

    My personal feeling, reading your suggested alternative combat resolution mechanics, is that they don’t sound like they’d be much fun for me. There are a lot of MMOs and over the years I’ve tried to play as many as I could, but I can’t even try out all of them so I have a winnowing process. The very first pass at which I reject the idea of even downloading an MMO to take a look is a read-through of the combat system as described on the game’s website or shown in videos. Anything that looks like it requires precise positioning, high manual dexterity or more player skill than I feel I am likely to be able to provide gets crossed off the list of possibles. Other players, of course, will select using entirely different personal criteria, putting the games I discard on their “must play” list.

    That, at root, is why this is a semantic issue and why game design itself is a branch of semantics. You can’t have communication without semantics and you can’t have an MMO, even at the most basic level, win/lose combat, without communication.

    Bit early on a Sunday morning for all this!

    Comment by bhagpuss — 15 May, 2016 @ 12:26 AM

  2. Semantics is important because not properly understanding how each person interprets the meaning of the words they are reading causes miscommunication. ;)

    For example, I don’t actually disagree with you that changing the hit point system might result in a substantially different system. My argument is entirely different from bhagpuss’. I’m saying you can still have a hit point system and completely change the feel of combat by adjusting the numbers or the time-to-kill or by layering additional systems on top of it.

    My point is that by labeling the problem as specifically “hit points,” you might not be defining the problem space broadly enough to see more innovative solutions. Instead you might get hung up on trying to rename it endurance or stamina or wound levels or by hiding the numbers entirely or what have you.

    What is the real problem one is trying to solve? For example, “displaying a large amount of hit points for each mob makes the game feel like a mathematical equation to be solved” impying we want to change the feel of combat to something different, or “having too many hitpoints per mob makes combat too slow and each mob feels like a raid boss or each hit feels unimpactful” or “hitpoint combat is boring because it results in a binary state of mob is alive, mob is dead, can combat feel less binary?” unsoweiter.

    Comment by Jeromai — 15 May, 2016 @ 7:57 AM

  3. bhagpuss wrote:
    I think the longer explanation emphasizes exactly why this is primarily a semantic argument.

    Yes, you are correct in that if you look at it from a certain perspective, game design is semantics. But, I think this is about as meaningful as arguing that computer game design is all about mathematics because computers are fundamentally very fast math machines. Both statements are true, but don’t necessarily help in a discussion on game design. Plus, when we look at the colloquial argument “It’s all semantics,” this usually means that the person finds no meaningful distinction between arguments. I think I’ve demonstrated that there is significant difference between the two designs. As you said, it gets messy because small changes in the foundation can have sizable consequences.

    Even the relatively simple “rested experience” example has some consequences I didn’t touch upon. For example, the fact that rested experience builds up faster in safe areas than in wilderness areas; this has the consequence of encouraging players to “plan out” their session so that they can log out in a safe area to maximize the bonus. So, even a simple system like this that changes can have consequences for player behavior. I would argue that in game design the player reaction and behavior is the real “meaning” we want to examine in game design, not the mechanical game elements that you analyze when stripping away presentation. And, since this meaning of player behavior treads close to “fun”, perhaps we both agree that semantics may not be the best tool here.

    If we want to talk about semantics in the classical sense, then we can talk about word meaning. For example, you write, “…in an MMO hit points exist to decide a final win/lose condition.” This is incorrect, as win/lose have specific meanings in game design, and more correct terms would be “success/failure”. This precision in meaning is important when discussing a technical concept; in fact, I’d say about a third of game design discussions is probably coming up with terminology or dealing with confusion from not having established precise terminology. In this case, win/lose indicates the state of a game when it is completed, whereas success/failure indicate the result of one part of the game. As MMO are never really completed as other games are, win/lose doesn’t really apply.

    As for the fun of my proposed mechanics, yes, they weren’t fun. As I said, I made a prototype and it wasn’t quite as interesting as I had hoped. Although, I think revisiting the idea may give me some insight on how to change it to add more fun. The goal wasn’t to promote my idea, but to get people thinking about some other system besides traditional hit points for discussion.

    Anyway, don’t mean to pick on you, but I think this is an interesting topic to cover. I always do appreciate your insightful comments, bhagpuss.

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 May, 2016 @ 8:02 AM

  4. Jeromai wrote:
    My point is that by labeling the problem as specifically “hit points,” you might not be defining the problem space broadly enough to see more innovative solutions.

    There is a difference between a design discussion on a blog and a brainstorming session with professional game designers. You are correct that a less open-ended question is more appropriate in a brainstorming session. For a blog discussion, though, I suspect more directed questioning would get less responses on here. I wasn’t really trying to solve any specific problem, just start a discussion to get people thinking about other types of combat systems. Honestly, it would take A LOT more work than we’re going to do in blog comments to really work out a feasible alternative to hit points.

    Perhaps in the near future I’ll do a series of posts about hit points and I’ll go into more detail and will pose questions to solve specific issues. Seems at least one person is interested in going deep on this topic. ;)

    Comment by Psychochild — 15 May, 2016 @ 8:11 AM

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