Game Health

Greetings, pandemic-quarantined people!

To give you a glimpse of what my brain thinks about at 3 AM when sleep alludes me, let’s talk about the different kinds of game health. You may add another tool to your belt as I have done to lend a lens towards your own game making 😁

Define Terms

Health in games is one thing: A resource that, when low or without, prevents the player from doing what they want with their character.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m including mechanics that “give you bad things” as health as well, where the absence of the “bad thing” is a measure of health.)

Usually, health is the most important resource to a player. Though it might come back or prevent it’s own loss, any less health is not what the player wants. If health is absent, some common “costs” for allowing the resource to be used up include:

  • Losing progress/time (restarting from a previous point in the game as if the player had done nothing, or requiring time away from accomplishing a goal)
  • Losing abilities (prevention of a few or all actions the player can take, or reducing the efficacy of actions)
  • Losing another resource (something valuable for other things or because it is rare is used up)

Since game designers have been creative over the years, that’s a short list. Whatever the case, something valuable is taken from the player and their efforts to play the game.

Here’s a longer list abbreviated of what “kinds” of health a game has:

  • Number of actors (units, currency, pieces, bits of a required resource, etc.)
  • Cardiovascular and muscular endurance
  • Flesh and blood
  • Metal or chitin armor plates
  • Energy or “shields”
  • Mental strength
  • Time to complete actions

Health is always abstract in its representation, yet always concrete in “if you cross line X, you will receive consequence Y that makes it harder to accomplish your goal”.

Health might be regained in a few ways or not at all. Allow me to skip the latter case to show a few ways health comes back:

  • Automatically with time
  • Using a game item or action
  • Not losing more health for a time

It is important to note that a game may have multiple kinds of health for the player, which may also be different between players.

OK! With those out of the way, I have a proposal:

Shields Armor Personal

The proposal is this: There are only 3 kinds of health in a game. I name these after games of conflict that have the most complexity as it comes to health implementation:

  • Shields
  • Armor
  •  Personal

Shields are a kind of health that automatically recovers over time. In the game, these can be depicted as recurring money income, generated energy, or other temporary-yet-perpetual health. This is the first health to be used. This health may be lost if not used, the game capping the amount being held at a time. The loss of shields isn’t a game-ender as shields will come back, but their loss may prevent other actions or allow more valuable health to be removed.

Armor (I was tempted to call this “plate”, but SAP is a nicer acronym 🙃) includes health that is impervious to a certain amount of reduction. If an action would remove 3 health but armor is at a 4, nothing happens, while a removal of 6 would be reduced to 2. Armor itself can be lessened, or be exchanged as the cost of preventing even more important health from being reduced.

Personal is the most important health. It does not come back on its own and is the direct measure of how poorly positioned a player is to keep playing the game as they have been. Without it, the player may not take actions towards their goal. It’s the last health to be taken from if Shields and Armor are present.

These kinds of health can be combined together or doubled-up with the same kind of health. Take Sanity from Call of Cthulhu as an example: Sanity pairs with Hit Points to balance mental and physical ability to act.

(If it will help your memory, replace SAP with the 3R’s of health: Regenerative, Reductive, Required.)

Why SAP Works

It comes back to the investigation of the definition of health: There is health that comes back or is temporary, there is health that reduces or resists reduction, and there is health that determines the actions available to the player. Plus, SAP is in order of application!

Further yet, be it the shield-armor-health of a Protoss warrior in the game Starcraft, properties and money in Monopoly, or the real-world APS-hull-crew of a tank or carapace-clothes-skin of people, SAP is repeated over and over again in systems dealing with a thing trying to do things.

Lastly, SAP balances player attention. Shields grow on their own so long as the player continues to play. Armor might be permanent and minor or major and replaceable. Personal gets better over time if left alone, but is the most critical to not let run out.

Therefore, SAP is a highly useful tool when considering health in a game and the order by which different kinds of health reduce. Further, it breaks out of abstract games into the real world, providing insight into the levels that protect the functioning of a thing.

What do you think? Share your insights and tools so better games and a more efficient way to look at the world can be unlocked! 👍🏻 Cheers~

Published by

Jimmy Chattin

Processor of data, applier of patterns, maker of games and stories.

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