We’re all familiar with the idea of a health bar. You have a bar full of points and every time you get hit you lose some of them. When your points run out it’s game over.
Health bars have been a staple in videogames for decades now, and for good reason. They provide a quick and easy way for the player to see how close they are to losing. They are also granular, meaning different attacks can be fined tuned to deal differing amounts of damage.
A Street Fighter character has dozens of different attacks that all deal slightly different amounts of damage
But they have some drawbacks too. Their health points are homogenous, meaning every point is exactly the same as any other point. So losing 3 points and then 4 points is exactly the same as losing 4 points and then 3 points. It also means that losing 3 points now is the same as losing 1 point per second for 3 seconds (once those 3 seconds are over).
Because of this homogeneity, a lot of games ultimately boil down to calculating DPS (damage per second). If one approach takes away more health points per second than some other approach, it’s objectively better.
In practice, it usually isn’t quite that simple. One option might require more skill or might only be useful in certain situations. Still, if the differences in DPS become large enough then one option will still almost always be better than the other. It would be nice to have some kind of non-homogenous (mixed) health system.
Not All Health Is Equal
Some games have health systems with multiple different types of points. In Overwatch you have basic health points (white), armor points (orange) and shield points (blue). Shields regenerate after a few seconds, and armor absorbs and lessens some of the damage it takes.
They are always stacked in this order: Health, Armor, Shields. It makes a lot of sense to put shields on the end like that; they can regenerate, so you’d always want to lose them first.
Stacking the different types lets you easily see how many points you have of each kind. And to make things a bit clearer, they coarsen the granularity by dividing them into little boxes of 25 points each.
This system means that losing points at the start of your bar often has different consequences to losing the points on the end. That said, lots of characters in Overwatch have entirely white health points so this system is sadly irrelevant in a lot of situations.
New Super Mario Bros is Another game with a mixed health system, but this time the health is represented by Mario’s appearance rather than in a bar. You can have a maximum of only 3 health and each health point changes the actions Mario can perform.
At 1 health, Mario is small and can slip through little cracks. But he can’t break blocks from underneath and he will die if he takes any damage.
If he finds a mushroom he gains another health, becoming Super Mario. Now he can break those overhead blocks and instead of dying he will just turn back into small Mario when he takes damage.
If he can find another powerup he will go to 3 health and gain some cool new abilities. Fire Flowers let him shoot fireballs (as Fire Mario), Super Leaves let him float (as Tanuki Mario) and so on. You could say there are several different types of third hitpoint in this game. After he takes damage he will go back down to 2 health and become regular Super Mario.
In this system the player often has to play quite differently depending on their current health. Unforturnately, each level often has only one type of powerup. And if you don’t get hit at all, you’ll stay at 3 health (where the game is easiest because you have lots of powers) for the whole level. So this game also has a lot of situations where the health system doesn’t matter.
By having only 3 health points they also lose out on granularity. Every obstacle either deals exactly one damage or it instakills you. There are no other options. It would be cool if different obstacle types could harm the player in different ways.
8 Heads are Better than 1
In FTL, health is split between the various subsystems on your spaceship (weapons, shields, oxygen and so on) and also the various people commanding them. You can target specific subsystems on the enemy ship and they can also target specific subsystems on yours. Destroying a specific subsystem will take away some of the ship’s abilities, but it won’t destroy the ship as a whole. This means the player has to think about what subsystems they target first.
That said, the best strategy is almost always to take out the enemy weapons and shields first before moving on to anything else. This way you can shoot them but they can’t shoot you. It would be cool if different ships needed to be taken down in radically different ways.
Tracking Damage Instead of Health
In my own game, Patch Quest, you don’t have a health bar – you have a health jar. A bar starts out full of health points and loses them when you get hit. But a jar starts out empty and fills up with damage points as you get it.
This might seem like a pointless distinction. But since we gain points when we get hit (rather than losing them) we can visually represent the various kinds of damage we have taken.
Here, the player has taken 3 different types of damage: Soaked, Sore and Shocked. Each type of damage was dealt by a different source (water for Soaked, prickly plants for Sore and so on).
If the jar overflows you will lose, so the player needs to keep their damage low. You can cure each type of damage by finding the matching plant. These cures are usually color coded, so you can see at a glance what might cure what.
This opens up a bunch of tactical options. Since each type of damage is cured separately, it really does matter which type you take (the player wants to prioritise damage types that have a nearby cure). And since the cures remove all damage of a particular type, taking the same type of damage twice is preferable to taking two different types.
A Stack of Status Effects
Some types of damage also have bonus effects (indicated by the little lightning bolt) that give the player some kind of handicap. Here are some examples:
- When Shocked you will sometimes be too paralysed to move (you skip your turn).
- When Poisoned the toxins will slowly spread (the poisoned damage will increase every 5 turns). You have to find a cure or it will eventually kill you.
- When Sticky you can’t run (your movement speed is reduced from 2 tiles per turn to 1).
If you have several different types of damage at the same time these effects will stack. So you might be unable to run and also sometimes skip your turn. It may be important to cure some types of damage before others.
Some damage types even have helpful effects! When Slimy you will sometimes move an extra space. This might slide you into danger, but if you’re smart it might also slide you out of danger. It still takes up space in your health jar, so it isn’t all good news, but sometimes this extra step might just be what you need.
Mix it Up
Health systems are central to most games. They’re tied closely to the win condition and the player will regularly need to consider them. So by making our health systems just a little bit more interesting we can have a big impact on the game as a whole.
There are lots of ways to make a mixed health system and the territory is pretty unexplored. Why not give it a try?