Calling a Hit Point a Smeerp

“A good-enough [post] violently written now is better than a perfect [post] meticulously written never.” – Elizabeth Gilbert on novels, modified

Psychochild recently discussed doing away with hit points. To my armchair game developer’s eyes, at first glance this would seem to me to be the product of wishful thinking; however, Mr. Green is an experienced game developer and this therefore merits closer inspection. Reigning World Commenting Champion Bhagpuss suggested that this is semantics. While I am personally not interested in the epistemology behind this, I would agree that semantics play a large role in such a discussion insofar as the attempt to design away hit points is very prone to the trope of Calling a Hit Point a Smeerp due to the enormously useful role they play.

Toughness, resilience, fatigue, vitality: any of these may be substituted for “hit points” or “health” without fundamentally altering the basic notion of numbers as a convenient form of shorthand readily understood by humans for determining win/lose, failure/success, or victory/defeat conditions, whatever you like to call them. (Semantics, indeed.) Reduce them to zero and you are done. By comparison, using numbers to represent levels is rather less scalar than one might be led to believe: they may represent an amalgam of things such as they do in stock Oblivion, where gaining five of anything results in a level up; or they may function as a temporary placeholder for levels by another name, e.g. item levels, such as in post-level cap Final Fantasy 14. Designing away levels is therefore not terribly problematic because they can represent a variety of notions with regard to how powerful a character is presumed to be and thus have a large pool of notional equivalents or approximations.

Hit points, on the other hand, are an objective measure of how dead you are. They are the beating of your heart. For those of us who are not pursuing a degree in cardiology, moving beyond one’s pulse opens up a world of possibilities that implicitly assume continued blood supply to the body without having to constantly reference it. Correspondingly, there are a myriad of systems which have been designed that downplay the fundamental primacy of hit points. There are two that immediately come to my mind: Hearthstone and Achaea. Hearthstone is a well-known trading card game; Achaea is a long-lived MUD which uses afflictions, pipes, salves and so forth in a complex system of play and counterplay (to the point that a client and prepackaged script library are recommended to be able to keep up defensively).

Neither of these games has innovated in the domain of player health and yet both offer a play experience that is substantially different from that found in Eorzea, a crushingly beautiful world overpopulated by hit point sponges. It was not necessary in these cases to redesign the fundamentally binary status indicator that hit points represent; acknowledging that health bar whittling may not be enjoyable for the non-woodworking enthusiasts among us is sufficient as a first step.