Countless games offer the player upgrades in one form or another, usually as a reward for overcoming a challenge. Mario gets a magic mushroom that shoots fireballs, Kratos rips off somebody’s wings so he can fly around for a while, that sort of thing. Well just recently I replayed Batman: Arkham City as a sort of middle finger to Warner Bros for releasing Arkham Knight in an unfinished state on PC, and I noticed that while Arkham City lets the player choose from a variety of fun little tools to unlock, there were also some health upgrades. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this annoyed me at first but now that I’ve figured it out you lot get to enjoy an article where I prattle about an incredibly specific issue that won’t even occur to most people. You’re welcome.
So consider Arkham City’s glide boost attack. It gives the player a new tool to use to their advantage and can be very helpful, but still requires them to learn how it works and employ it strategically. So while having the upgrade is an advantage, it doesn’t automatically make your life easier. A health upgrade, on the other hand, is added permanently to your life bar and serves only to give you a larger margin for error before you get a game over. So basically it makes the game slightly easier without any demand for skill.
Now not everybody cares about satisfying challenge when they play a game. If you do, though, then it’s pretty undeniable that the health upgrade is the less interesting choice compared to a gadget that unlocks new combat options while still requiring you to master it. Still, a simple stat increase like a health upgrade can be made more palatable if it comes with some disadvantage; at least that would make it a tactical choice whether or not to use it, like how equipping heavy armour in Skyrim will limit your ability to dodge, or the fact that most weapons in Borderlands will have some downside like smaller clips or poor accuracy.
Raw stat increases are likely easier for a developer to implement than whole new tools that would require bug-testing and open up balance concerns, so the temptation to rely on them must be strong. The Arkham series should be commended for offering such versatile weapons with various hidden uses a player could easily not think of, and probably wouldn’t be so widely adored if your only upgrade options were +5% damage to Batman’s fists or +13.37% better sulking when he’s reminded of his dead parents.
Batman: Arkham City image rights: Warner Brothers