Hey all, this is something I've been working on for a while, but it's something that is hard to talk with Keith about at our usual design level because he's simply never played Metroid, Castlevania, or even much Zelda. Just not his sort of games. So I'm going to bounce these ideas off the forum instead, where there's loads of smart people with the right backgrounds in gaming to be able to think about this and what's worked well or poorly in other games.
The current system for health and mana is the same in both cases: you have a certain max numeric amount of each. They also then have large amounts of restoration items that you can carry along with yourself, and which even get auto-used when you are low. So really what we have is health and mana restoration objects as an extension of your base health/mana bars.
This is problematic for several reasons:
1. It means that really to know your "total health" requires knowing your total number of health potions and their various levels. To get that info would either require you to open the inventory, to keep those on your ability bar (wasting space), or for us to develop a new element in the HUD, which I think would just be clutter and confusion.
2. It means that you can essentially carry around near-infinite stores of health and mana. The only limiting factors are how many you are willing to wander around and thus collect, plus the cooldown-that-lasts-twenty-seconds thing that means that you can only absorb so much damage in a short amount of time.
3. Thanks to that cooldown you wind up dying if you're overmatched no matter how many health potions you've got in your inventory, which is a positive thing on some levels and a negative thing on others. On the one hand it means you can't just become invincible by collecting a thousand health potions, but on the other hand it means that your ability to be a damage sponge is pretty limited -- there's not much flexibility in that system.
4. All of this combined means that we really can't give warnings (visual or auditory or both) when you are low on health or mana. In Metroid or Zelda, you get both kinds of warnings and that's really helpful because you know you're about to die. Yes, in Zelda you have fairies in bottles that can bring you back to life automatically, but you still die, go through the animation, and most importantly only have a REALLY finite number of fairies (usually 3-4 max). But in AVWW, you might have the equivalent of 100 "fairies" of various levels in your inventory, with restrictions that you can't use them unless the healing cooldown is free. That is SUPER difficult for the game (or the player) to really be able to intuitively answer the question "am I about to die if I take another few hits?" The answer is often something conditional like "yes if it happens in the next 4 seconds, no if it happens after that."
All of this is striking me as needlessly complex and confusing, basically. A lot of the problems here came about because I implemented lots of streamlining suggestions from players -- such as auto-potioning, etc -- which were all really great suggestions, I might add. But collectively these suggestions plus the original design have combined to expose the weakness in the underlying design. To me, that means it's time for a fundamental shift.
Things We Know
Based on all the player feedback on the existing system, plus looking at other games, a few things seem pretty clear to me. They are:
1. Manually having to take time out to heal yourself in a game that is as action-oriented as this feels lame.
2. Systems of regenerating health generally are thought of as pretty lame, and really wouldn't fit with the nature of this game. (Side note: Arguably, the current cooldown system on healing is sort of an unusual "regenerating health" mechanic, because you HAVE more health that you just can't use until a time limit has passed. The only difference here is that you have to manually collect your potions that do the regenerating, rather than having an infinite supply of regenerators. I just thought that was interesting.)
3. Having to periodically go and collect stashes of health and mana potions is... mixed. Some people really like that, and it certainly does give purpose to the small buildings, but it seems like something else that is more optional-and-exiting would do better to collect there.
4. Health drops from minor enemies have been a particularly universal hit.
5. Players past a certain skill/familiarity with the game definitely seem to want more visibility into what is going on with their total health and mana situation than they can currently get through the HUD alone.
6. Adding lots of extra numbers and bars and icons to the HUD will just clutter things up and make the system that much less intuitive for new players.
What Is The Overall Design Goal Here?
Why even have health and mana at all? What is their actual purpose? I think it's important to define the specific reasons for their inclusion, since there are a lot of varied reasons that any game includes such mechanics (and why regenerating health works for some games but not others). So here's my list:
1. Health is important for making players feel vulnerable and alone in this world. They should have a finite store of health, and when that health runs out they know they are dead meat. (Side note: Ideally they feel really out in the wild and at risk when they are exploring, but the whole mechanic of warp potions kind of kills that, which is ultimately okay since it's preferable to the backtracking nightmare that otherwise exists).
2. Health is important for making mistakes matter. Overall you shouldn't be dying in a single hit from an enemy unless you are playing way up in levels, and in that scenario that's probably the scenario you were looking for (I know I enjoy that). But in terms of standard gameplay at default levels, your character's death should be the accumulated consequences of a number of mistakes, not a single missed twitch reflex (though that missed twitch reflex of course might be the last mistake that pushes your character to death, of course).
3. Health restoration as a concept is, in the context of this game and most platformers, NOT something that players are intended to be able to hoard in order to get past a difficult area they could otherwise not pass. That works in some RPGs because of their turn-based nature and the opportunity costs of using something like an Elixer in Final Fantasy (it takes a turn, and Elixers are limited in the whole game). But for this action game, if you can't get past a difficult section then what you need to do is either level up or turn down the difficulty. If weaker players can spam healing to survive big bosses, then stronger players could do the same thing to "run the tables" so to speak. We ran into that sort of mechanic exploit cycle a lot with AI War in the early days, and have learned to stay away from that now.
4. Mana is important for making there be an opportunity cost to using spells. If a spell is really powerful but also really expensive in mana, then you have to weigh that against weaker-but-cheaper spells. This is hugely important for balance of the player side of this game.
5. Mana is also important, like health, for limiting the length of expeditions and making it so that you have to return to settlements every so often to re-kit and prepare for a new expedition. There's a fine line, though, between returning too often and not often enough. Players should be self-sufficient in the field for a goodly while, but not forever. There's a lot of thematic and gameplay reasons for that, but I don't really wish to enumerate them all right at the moment (this is long enough already!).
My Broad Concept For Fixing The Problem
Overall, what I think needs to happen is that the health and mana bars on the existing HUD need to contain all the information you'll ever need about your health. The original Metroid really did this correctly, I feel. For instance, there you had your energy tanks and your actual energy count, plus your count of things like missiles, etc. Zelda games kind of do this as well, although not as effectively because you do have bottles of various restoration items; the catch is that since there are at most four bottles, you can easily remember what you have in stock most of the time. Not so here at the moment.
So, broadly speaking, I feel like healing and mana items in your inventory need to go away, and their general concept needs to be wrapped into your main health bar and mana bar in some fashion. There are a lot of ways that could be interpreted: the wholesale copying of the energy tank model from Metroid, the health + shield model from a lot of other games, or similar.
My Current Favorite Solution
What I like the best, I think, is just keeping the health and mana to a single numeric bar each like they are now, but having it so that there are basically two "maxes" in there. I'm not sure exactly how to word this or even show it, but basically "full health" would be 100% of your bar at first. Then as you travel around and get health upgrades, you'd wind up with a progressively higher max health.
Getting "restored to full health" would still only restore you to the equivalent of your first maximum, though, at any point in the game. That's like getting just your first energy tank restored in Metroid. It's also like getting restored to full health at present, but not getting your "potions" restored.
The general consequences of this model is that then:
1. "Potions" are carried directly in your health bar, but you only have so many of them depending on how upgraded your character has gotten.
2. "Potions" can be restored by efficiently fighting mobs, since any sort of healing that wasn't "restore all the way to max health" (read: the guardian stones) would be perfectly able to push your health higher than your original max health.
3. Stashes would still have value in terms of mana/healing, because you'd still be able to pick up potions in large quantities there. The difference would be that potions would ONLY be insta-use, applying to your health bar, and would never be able to be carried around in your inventory.
4. "Getting fully healed by the guardian stone" would really get devalued enormously over time, because if your true max is now 8x what your original max was, and you're not lower than 1/8th health then the guardian stones won't help you at all.
5. Oh, and mana would work the same as health.
The terminology and the actual display mechanism isn't the cleanest at the moment, which is the main problem I think. The energy tank model of Metroid really is a lot more clear while doing the EXACT same thing, so possibly I should just stick with that sort of terminology. "Health tanks" and "Mana tanks" or something along those lines, being shown above your current health/mana bars.