lmsd ~ Small, Discrete Numbers

lmsd: Now stands for Late “Morning Sunday Design” instead of “Late Morning” Sunday Design!

There’s something to be said about the use of small, discrete numbers. Certainly, large numbers are good for a lot of things — but it’s when the numbers go no bigger than the number of fingers you have on one hand that things really become… different.

How much health do you give your player? 100, or 5? Or 3, or 2?

I’ve thought about these things, and I’ll expose what feels so extremely special about the tiny numbers. I’ll try to tell you why you should use little numbers instead of big ones, and how to use them to your advantage in making things feel awesome. Special. Okay? Okay.

Let’s continue with ‘Health’, or ‘HP’. There’s a sort of hierarchy in how this number can be displayed, and we’ll start right at the top, with the biggest numbers:

100-1000: The Uncountables
Health in FPS or late-game RPGs.
Ammunition counts in quite a few games.
Experience points, usually.
Boss health values, often.

These values are almost always represented as a pool, a bar, or just a really big number — if they’re represented at all. These values are so large as to be uncountable; there are no individual bits. This is truly a pool of something and will probably never be different.

20-100: The Sub-100
Health in Pokemon.
Low-level HP/MP values. Often mid-level as well, depending on genre.
Ammunition count.

Values maxing out (or averaging around) this less-than-100-but-more-than-10-or-20 area are not quite ‘uncountable’ but are certainly very numerous. These can represent valuable things, but oftentimes are simply another large pool from which you can draw.

4-20: Stackables
Link’s Bombs and Link’s Arrows and Link’s Hearts.
D&D Levels.
Spelunky Ropes & Bombs.
But seriously, Link’s Hearts and also Megaman’s Energy.

Here we’re getting into the realm of the countable, where even 1 can feel like it matters (but it doesn’t quite always). In addition, this value often only changes 1 at a time — a first, so far! Sometimes, values of this nature can be represented by a number of icons (esp. when representing health) but they can still be represented by a mere number or bar.

At this point, especially towards the lower end being more common (here’s looking at you, Spelunky), every single action that involves changing one of these values is brought into focus. Clarity ensues. Paying 24 MP out of 100 MP is not quite the same as a spell costing 1 of 5 of your magical orbs, even if they really do mean pretty much the same thing, when self-contained.

The feeling is different, and it’s this feeling that I implore you to take to heart.

1-3: The Small, The Discrete, The Unique
Health of Mario and of Robot Ninja Haggleman.

This is the best example I could come up with, so I won’t bother with anything else.

Once you get to values this small, you can in fact display no number, no bar, and still directly represent the value through unique states. Mario with 2 health is big. Mario with 1 health is small. Robot Ninja Haggleman with 2 health looks normal and health. With 1 health, his(?) eyes bug out and that robot ninja isn’t looking so pleased.

Values cease to even be values; they can become states all on their own to be taken at face value. Numbers and percentages need not rule here!

Why lose one of three magical orbs when you can drain yourself of energy and make yourself appear older, until your white-haired self can no longer expel magic (until of course you recharge)?

A little game called Little King’s Story has the young king of 3 health grow older with every point of damage he takes. Stars represent his health (as do they represent the health of his villagers). It’s a lovely little touch.

Conclusion, At Last

Sometimes a bar, a pool, a big fucking number, is appropriate. If you’re drawing from something inanimate, uncountable, or which needs to be divided too much, or which needs to go down (or go up) smoothly, then go ahead!

However, never forget to ask yourself: Could this be a beautiful, small, discrete number instead? Could I represent it in a bar instead of a number? Icons instead of a bar? By two or three or four unique sprites, unique states, that could carry volumes more charm and meaning?

I don’t profess to be expressing the right opinion to have, with which you must agree. Maybe I’m just one of few who likes this sort of thing. If you’re like me, though, then don’t be afraid! Do it!

That’s not, of course, to say that small, discrete numbers is the only way to add a special touch to games…



About Droqen

Droqen is a game designer/developer/creator/etc. from Toronto, Ontario. View all posts by Droqen

3 responses to “lmsd ~ Small, Discrete Numbers

  • Dan Lower

    This is good food for thought.

  • Dan Lower

    On a more substantive note, can you give an example of a game where the big huge numbers (excepting things like boss health, where there’s the more obvious explanation of not wanting the player to know the boss health) aren’t represented as numbers or at all?

  • Droqen

    It’s odd how the biggest numbers seem to be the most often given to the player precisely, in perfect numerical form, when they are the numbers that least often require precision.

    Example 1: Temporary health systems. See Halo and CoD, which do certainly deal with a gradient (which is effectively a large number) but never use numbers. In CoD’s case, damage is represented purely by redness of the screen (as opposed to Halo which uses a somewhat less ambiguous bar).

    I’ll refrain here from including timers or anything of an extremely temporary nature. While, for example, charging your gun in Megaman definitely uses a large number displayed in stages (little charge, medium charge, big charge), it’s not really within the bounds of the things we’re talking about here: somewhat more permanent and substantial stored values.

    It seems that whenever any important value needs to be represented, regardless of how simply it is given to the player, there is a way to dig it out of the system. Experience points are sometimes not displayed up-front anywhere but without exception show their numbers somewhere, even if buried in the interface. Diablo 2’s HP/MP orbs represent health in this sort of ‘pool’, but simply hovering over instantly gives you the exact numbers.

    Oh, wait a minute.

    Example 2: Hunger. How Happy Your Diety Is With You. There are a number of values in roguelikes that are very clearly NUMBERS, and kept away from the player (with the exception of some times when, through some difficulty, the player finds an item or some means by which to view these numbers).

    I would puzzle this some more but I have to get going. Maybe I’ll think of more.

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