The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.
After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.
First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.
The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.
Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.
Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).
Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.
At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.
Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.
I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.
¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.