That Oh Shit moment

So I took it upon myself to fool around with the text files, trying to create a blend of settings for the most enjoyable gameplay. I quickly realized that the game is definitely going to need difficulty settings, because what’s fun for me is a very specific level of difficulty, along with general good game design. I find that playing the game was getting fairly dull, probably because I was so good at the previous settings that I was just breezing through the game, never really having to concentrate.

Well that all changed. I set health packs to 1, and the health they heal you for to 4. Then I set health drain to 4. That means the player needs to fly around the map picking up at least 1 health pack per second. I also changed the player character’s starting health from 100/100 to 30/100. Yes, I could have just multiplied all damage dealt but this was easier, and it gave me some story ideas.

Anyway, the above setting was too hard, and I died over and over again. So I made it so that there were 2 health packs, and health drain at 6 per second. I think it’s good game design to have at least 2 health packs, since then we give the player the choice of which one to go for, or to simply dance around damage for a while. At this setting I was really white knuckling it. I died about 5 times, before really settling down and focusing. I died about another 2 times before finally making it the full 60 seconds. Later, I tried again with about a similar amount of deaths (4) before finally succeeding.

A few takeaways here. First of all, it sounds obvious, but the game is more intense, and therefore fun, when the player is about to die, and frantically avoiding death. That means that starting the player at high health and giving them a big cushion was a bit of a mistake. It also means that having fewer enemies that do a lot of damage is more fun than a lot of enemies that do moderate damage. This is because getting hit is more of an “OH SHIT” moment, and avoiding them is more intense. With a lot of enemies, avoiding them is harder, but it also means less when you get hit, and is therefore less intense.

Also, shorter games are better than longer ones, for much the same reason. With the caveat that the last few seconds of a particularly hard fought longer game are the absolute most intense, with myself having 2 particularly emotional last few seconds deaths. For the record, I don’t scream when I lose, I just meant that it was exciting.

This has made me appreciate more the shield/health recharging mechanic in first person shooters more. I always thought that a steadily recharging health made more sense, since then it’s more of a test of skill, take less damage per second than you can recover, or die. Instead, having to wait a few seconds behind cover for your health to begin to recharge seems like a waste of the players time. I still think it’s unnecessary but it has two main benefits.

Firstly, it provides a rhythm to the game. Pop out of cover, deal some damage, get back in cover. It basically is it’s own little plot. Player encounters enemy. Player does damage, takes damage. Player then retreats, while looking forward to doing more damage. Repeat until encounter over. That way the player hopefully doesn’t get fatigued by what they’re doing. In a very small sense, the game is naturally changing up what they’re doing every few seconds.

Secondly, waiting for the shields/health to recharge is itself a tense moment. You’re effectively putting the player close to death very often. I’ve often had enemies aggressively attack me while I was in cover and it makes the player tense, since they know they are close to dying.

Having said all that, having to wait for your health to recharge means that you are making the player wait. Now I understand that balls to the wall action can often get boring extremely quickly, but that’s a far cry from making the player take a timeout every 3 seconds, or even less. I’d argue that avoiding damage, and offense are what define skilled play in a shooter, and that for the duration of the player waiting behind cover, there is very little difference between players of vastly differing skill levels.

I’d also argue that it encourages bad design. First person shooters should have all the damage be avoidable, and I can’t think of any good exceptions, nor can I think of any modern shooter that exemplifies this.. When you give the player an easy opportunity to just wait it out you also make it much easier to put hitscan weapons in your game. For that matter, at least in first person shooters, when you’re truly in cover, you can’t see the battlefield, which sucks from a design perspective, since you’re not feeding the player information that they can use, they’re just staring at a wall. Often you just see players popping out, and doing recon, then waiting for their health to recharge. Then they pop out again and take out one enemy, then wait for their health to recharge. Then they do more recon, then they wait for their health to recharge. This is dreadfully designed gameplay.

Instead, imagine yourself in an arena. There are enemies everywhere, shooting not insta-hit bullets, but avoidable projectiles. Alternatively they’re shooting insta-hit weapons that need to be charged up first, and can be interrupted. There are also some melee enemies that charge at the player and can be sidestepped. Some enemies throw easily spotted grenades, that do area of effect damage. You, the player, are stuck in the middle of all this. All the damage is avoidable. You are recharging health at rate x/second. This means you need to avoid taking at least x/second in damage.

Sounds fun. Lots of OH SHIT moments. Good game design.

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