Currencies for Strategic Elements in Computer Games

Posted on July 15, 2012 by richardgoulter
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Now, perhaps if I were to try and maintain a consistent blog, I wouldn’t go about writing such a thing, wouldn’t bother discussing videogames without this being a video games blog. As is clear to see, I’ve not been writing much in this blog. It’s hard to say this blog I write has a consistent character; a consistent nature.
I shouldn’t like to be forever trying to chase deep thoughts in a blog. I wouldn’t hope to be as pretentious as that. But if I were to try and write something important, it would seem strange to consider videogames important. Well, perhaps, but that is a discussion for another time.

A blog could always do with more writing, and here I tend to spend some thought on computer games.

I like computer games, they’re fun to play, or at least should be. The bad games are not so fun. Anyhow, one key thing which separates videogames from books, movies, or other forms of narrative entertainment is it’s interactivity: as a player, I can help control what happens in the game, to either win or lose.
This complicates the narrativity of a videogame; while it can be argued no two people ever read the same book, it’s much clearer that no two people ever play the same game. One player might choose the sword to fight the ogre, while another casts a spell to escape.
The point is, different interactions lead to different consequences. Some interactive decisions lead to victory, but not all choices can win the game. Your player character can die, be burned, shot, stabbed, crushed, or all manner of deaths.

Good decisions lead to good things, and bad decisions to bad things, as in any other narrative, or any other kind of game.
It would be awful if making one bad decision lost the player the ability to win the game (and it’s even worse when the game still carries on, pretending you can still win when in a de-facto defeated state). So, what tends to be the case in games is the player can recover from bad mistakes they make, but usually the player is not as well off as they might have been on the perfect run.
This all ought to make enough sense.

A Way to Think About Videogames

One rather dry way that videogames could be described as is movement in space/time from a beginning state to a success state. It’s not a very good way to define videogames, as the definition is so broad. (Perhaps it might be paraphrased as “winning is being in a right place, at a right time”). But, it does lend itself to stealth games, where being in the wrong place at the wrong time will cost dearly. And, as it is so broad, it does fit shooter games, or even a strategy game like Age of Empires (but multiple units, instead of just one).

But these strategic decisions a player makes in a game aren’t made in terms of space/time; it’s more than just being at the right place at the right time.
In a shooter, you have guns, bullets, and health; you shoot the enemies and try not to die trying.
It would be better, then, if one wanted to try and think abstractly about videogames, as seeing it as an exchange of currencies from an initial state in order to reach a success state. The guns, bullets, and health all act as currencies a player uses and exchanges in order to win a game.
I’ll try and illustrate this better: Consider a shooter game, where the player has a powerful rifle with 5 bullets, and a weaker laser-pistol with 50 shots. In facing weaker opponents which ‘reward’ the player with more laser-pistol ammunition, it is ‘cheaper’ for the player to use the laser-pistol than to use the rifle. That’s because the player can replenish its ammo, whereas with no rifle ammo about, it amounts to a 20% loss of ammunition. (20% loss of that currency).

Health as a Strategic Currency

With this in mind, I’d like to consider how Health is used as a currency in a series of shooter games, and how the game design of this element has changed.
The shooter games I’ll use as an example are CryTek’s FarCry, and Crysis 2.

Health, of course, is perhaps the major currency in videogames. If you have an avatar, or a unit, then in any game which involves conflict, the avatar is either going to be alive or dead. (And if it’s your avatar, and it’s dead, then you lose). Health serves to decide how many more hits a unit can survive. And, in most games, units do survive more than one hit.
When, in playing a shooter game, a player has low health (and thus cannot take as many hits from the enemy before losing), the player must play better in order to avoid further damage; either by shooting the enemy more accurately, or by hiding behind cover so as to not get shot at as much. When the player again has full health, the player has more allowance for taking damage from the enemy.
In most games, it’s possible for the player to recover health for their units if the units have sustained damage. The way in which this is done impacts the strategic elements of a game.

In Far Cry, whenever the player is hit, they lose health. Health can only be lost from taking damage, from the enemy or from falling from a height. (That is, even if a player takes some damage, they do not continue to lose health, nor do they gain any from an idle status).
In order for the player to recover health, the player must ‘pick up’ a Health pack. And to be able to pick up a Health pack, they have to find a Health pack in the environment they’re playing in.

In Crysis, while the player does take damage when the player is hit, the game does not have Health packs. In order for the player to recover health in Crysis, the player must wait for their health to ‘regenerate’, but not being shot at for a period of time.
(The gameplay mechanics are more complicated than this; in both Far Cry and Crysis, the player may also have ‘armour’ which helps reduce damage from bullets; I’ll leave this out of discussion here for simplicity).

So, how do the different methods affect gameplay?
In either game, when a player is low on health, the player must play more carefully in order to compensate for the lack of health.

In Far Cry, because a player has to explore the world to find Health packs, it does mean that when a player is not engaged in fighting enemies, they possibly will take the time to explore about the environment checking for health-packs (and other pickups for other currencies). This means that the narrative of the game might not necessarily continue at a rapid or consistent pace.
In Crysis, because a player can regenerate their health, it does mean that the player doesn’t have to spend time wandering about looking for health-packs. And, ignoring other currencies, this allows for the game to flow better. It is still possible for a player to die in Crysis.

However, since in Far Cry, a player cannot regenerate their health, a player is more likely to be careful when exploring a world. Any damage they take remains, and remains longer than it might if the health could regenerate.
In Crysis, a player might not mind taking a bullet or two, since in a ‘safe’ position behind cover, they probably can recover any health.

The point to note is, as the currency of health is handled differently in each game, it impacts the strategic decisions a player will make when playing the game. Still, at any point in the game, it’s possible for a player with low health to be able to gain more health, and/or to complete the game.

Other Health Dispensing Methods

Far Cry and Crysis present two different ways to control the interaction of health-as-a-currency. But, the reader must surely be aware there are many more ways to deal with this currency than just either health-packs or regenerative health.
Many different games resolve this in different ways.

For example, the concept of health-packs can vary in different games. In ‘Far Cry’, the player can only use a health-pack when they have less than full health, and cannot pick up the item for later use. In the game ‘Tomb Raider’ (and in its series), the player is able to keep any health packs they find in their inventory, and use the health-pack from the inventory when they need to.
An example of a consequence of these changes is that in ‘Tomb Raider’, a player with full health has more incentive to explore if they have full health than a player in ‘Far Cry’ might be. (The common genre ‘Far Cry’ and ‘Tomb Raider’ fall into is ‘action’; since ‘Tomb Raider’ is more of an adventure game driven by exploration than ‘Far Cry’, it is not unusual that it encourages exploration more).
And even with pick-up-able health-packs, the game might limit a player’s inventory with various mechanics. (Inventory systems are a whole element of game design in and of themselves).

One other variation of a non-regenerative health-system is where an avatar is healed by allied units, or by certain objects. For example, in ‘Star Wars: Republic Commando’, a player might regain their health from a health-station. In this case, the health-station allows for regeneration of health an unlimited number of times; one key difference from typical health-packs is that this increases the viability of retreat as a tactic, as it does not necessarily cost the player health to move into a dangerous area, and then retreat to a health-station.
In ‘Star Wars: Republic Commando’, one commando unit can also revive any team-member which has been incapacitated (i.e. taken too much damage). This adds an interesting layer of team-work and strategy to skirmishes, in that a commando is only ‘revivable’ when they are in an area where it would be safe to revive them. Conversely, a commando which ran far ahead of its team-mates and gets incapacitated cannot be revived promptly.
In ‘Age of Empires’, the player can make use of healing units, such as non-combative ‘priest’ units to heal damaged units in its army. The effect healing units have on a game depends on the game mechanics, such as how expendable units are, and how rapidly a unit can be healed by a healer.

Other Currencies in Games

Health is only one example of a currency in computer games, although perhaps it is the most universal and most varied of currencies in games. Any game with even the slightest amount of strategic depth will have other currencies.
In ‘Far Cry’, for example, the ammunition a player has serves as a currency, as does the player’s selection of weaponry. In ‘Far Cry’, the player is limited to four weapons, and each weapon has a certain function and certain properties. A player who has a sniper rifle can shoot enemies from range (and other snipers), and a player who has a silenced weapon can eliminate enemies undetected.
In ‘Age of Empires’, clearly the gathered economic resources (food, wood, etc.) serve as a currency, but the player’s strategy is impacted by their economic or military ability, so things such as the amount of infantry, archers, villagers, or cavalry serve as currencies themselves. (It may be that the latter describes ‘meta-level currencies’ of the game, and the former ‘object-level currency’, but it distinguishing between these may not always be clear or useful).

The notion of regenerative-currency seems much less popular for other currencies in action games than regenerative health. Examples of ‘unlimited ammunition’ are not so uncommon:
In ‘Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood’ a player may ‘regenerate’ their ammo by getting ammo from allied units, and ‘Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway’, the player may find ‘ammo caches’ which will replenish a player’s ammunition.
In ‘BioMenace’, the player’s weapon by-default has unlimited ammunition, and it can be upgraded to, with limited ammunition, more rapid fire, or more powerful shots. When the player runs out of these special ammunition types, the weapon reverts to the standard unlimited ammuntion.
In ‘Crysis’, the player may use a tranquiliser dart, which has unlimited ammunition, but has a long time period before another dart can be fired. Near the end of the game, the player does gain access to certain ‘super weapons’, such as an alien rifle, or a prototype nuclear weapon.
In ‘Tomb Raider’, the default weapon, the pistols, have unlimited ammunition. These, however, are universally the weakest weapons in the game. In ‘Tomb Raider: Legend’, unlimited ammunition can be unlocked for the more powerful weapons, but only by completing Time Trials for levels.
But these examples of ‘unlimited ammunition’ are either very weak weapons, or only unlocked near or at the end of a game. The currencies here are not self-regenerative as regenerative health is, nor are they to be found from the beginning of the game as default.
The closest to ‘regenerative ammo’ I can think of is perhaps machine-gun stands found in some first-person shooter games, which have unlimited ammunition, but will ‘heat up’, and so cannot be fired endlessly.


Of course, though, different methods for handling currencies (regenerative or otherwise) are not necessarily ‘better’ than other methods in general. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and will have different impacts on game and level design, as well as how a player will play through a game. Some may be more suitable for a particular genre or playstyle than others.
Modelling a game as an exchange of currencies that a player controls could be a good way to consider the strategic elements within a particular game.

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