Open worlds keep getting bigger, not to mention more beautiful, and there are fewer greater pleasures in gaming then being dropped into a vast world with the promise of adventure in every direction. Often coupled with this, however, is the annoyance of only being able to run across this vast world for ten seconds before having to stop to catch your breath. It’s that damn ever-present sprint meter, constantly putting the kibosh on swift, leg-powered travel. Open world games invite us to explore massive worlds, so why are so many of them hell-bent on slowing us down?
I imagine sprint meters are intended to create an element of strategy. “Golly, I better keep my sprint meter filled now in case I need it later,” players are perhaps supposed to mutter to themselves. Or, to create moments of tension: “Oh no! I need to escape whatever dangerous situation is, but my sprint meter is drained! Not being able to run at top speed means this exciting situation has become even more exciting!”
I really don’t ever encounter those situations, though—nor do I engage in that sort of highly unrealistic internal monologue—and I’m guessing few ever do. I never conserve my sprint meter for use later. I may wait for it to recharge before entering combat, but “waiting a few seconds for a meter to fill up” hardly feels like strategy, just downtime. I never “tactically walk” around instead of sprinting because I want to remain fresh for a fight. I sprint everywhere, all the time. We all do, we’re busy people, or at least impatient ones.
In some games the meter is invisible, in other games it's tied into systems like stamina, endurance, and so on. The effect is the same: slowing you down for no good reason. Stalker, Skyrim, Fallout 4, No Man’s Sky, and lots of Early Access games like Ark and Grav, I’m looking at you.
Here are some proposals for fixing sprint meters, starting with the best and most obvious:
Eliminate the sprint meter completely
Consider deep-sixing the sprint meter altogether. I know it’s not realistic that my character can run at top speed for hours and jump up the sides of mountains, but it’s not realistic that I can carry fourteen spare sets of armor and heal open wounds by eating a wheel of cheese, either. Games can be more compelling when they veer closer to reality, but when they get too close, to the point where simply getting from the place I am to the place I want to be becomes an irritating hassle, they can lose a lot of their enjoyment.
Sprinting for fifteen seconds, then slowing to let the meter refill, then sprinting again, then slowing again just isn’t an enjoyable way to explore a huge open world. Not to mention, it puts a strain on your pinkie with all the shift-toggling (or shift-holding, if the game’s designers weren’t even considerate enough to make it a toggle). Will the game be a trifle less realistic by letting you run at top speed endlessly? Sure. That slight loss of realism won’t hurt it, though. I can’t imagine anyone actually complaining to developers that their character can sprint unchecked, and a mod called “Now You Can’t Sprint Forever!” probably isn’t going to get a heck of a lot of downloads.
If you must include a sprint meter, here are some ideas on how it could work better:
Make the sprint meter match my (in-game) physique
Immersion is important, and a great way to draw players into the lives of their characters is by making their characters not so different than the players themselves. Many open world games that focus on survival and role-playing want to avoid making you feel superhuman, at least at the start. Being weak and slow provides vulnerability, and that’s important, whether the game always wants you to feel that way or plans to level you up into a living god. In that respect, limiting a player’s ability to sprint makes perfect sense.
But if you look at most player character models, they’re pretty damn buff even if they’re level 1 nobodies. In Ark: Survival Evolved, my starter character looks like this:
Does that look like a guy who can’t run for a minute without getting winded? Far Cry 2 (a game I deeply love) is one of the worst offenders, only letting me run for a few steps without having to slow down. And yeah, my character had malaria, and yeah one of the symptoms of malaria is fatigue, but come on. Far Cry Guy with malaria would still be able to run longer than Real Me without malaria could. If you want to immerse me into a character with a fit body, at least make him or her feel fitter than I am in real life.
Separate sprinting from stamina
Games like Fallout 4 and Ark have sprint meters, but they’re tied to stamina or endurance, which governs other things besides simply running. When your stamina is low, for example, not only can you not sprint, you can’t complete power attacks. You’re too tired to put much into your swing or too weak to focus with your bow or chop wood or whatever it is you’re doing with your arms. That makes sense. But having a long, slow, slog of a fight due to a lack of stamina can be exciting, or draining, or make you feel like you’re really involved in a struggle. Having a long, slow, slog of a run across the world because your legs and lungs are garbage isn’t satisfying at all. It's tedious.
I know it sounds weird to untie your sprinting ability from your stamina pool, when pumping your legs is basically the same thing as swinging your arms. But travel and combat are two different systems, and they shouldn’t be roommates. Separate ‘em (and think about losing the sprint meter altogether when you do).
Let sprint ability increase naturally
When you do something a lot, you tend to get better at it, which is why I’m extremely skilled at lying awake at 3:00 am mindlessly refreshing Twitter. Presumably all the running I’m going to be doing night and day in this open world game will, over time, make me a better runner. Don’t make me spend experience points, or use precious skill points, to increase my sprinting ability (or my stamina, for that matter), just let it improve gradually and naturally.
Not only is this fair and realistic, it’s more fun, or at least less unfun. There’s nothing enjoyable about finally leveling up and having to spend hard-earned points on something boring like increasing your ability to run fast for a little longer when there’s (often) far more interesting talents and abilities on the menu, ones that can truly shape your character and their personality. Asked to describe their favorite character, people might talk about how much charisma they have, how powerful their spells are, how good they are with weapons, how stealthy they are. Nobody will proudly say “he can run for a long time without stopping.” And, in the case of a game like No Man’s Sky, with inventory slots at a premium, it sucks to have to take up one of those slots with a sprint module just so you can run a little further without getting winded.
Creatively penalize players for sprinting
It’s been a long while since I played DayZ, but I fondly recall that it let me run at top speed across the map for as long as I liked. At the same time, it didn’t treat me as superhuman. After a long run, it would take some time to have steady aim because my character was out of breath. This system allowed me to get where I wanted to go as fast as I could, but when I got there I’d have to deal with the consequences of my marathon.
There are other ways to put players who sprint endlessly at a disadvantage. They could make more noise (huffing and puffing) which would alert enemies or monsters or other players. In an RPG, lower my charisma for the next half-hour: I’m probably much less charming if I’m a gasping, stinky, sweaty mess. Items that are used to improve health could be rended less effective until I’ve rested a bit. Hell, you could have me hunch over and vomit for all I care—if I’ve just run for thirty minutes through a fantasy realm, I’m probably not going to be able to instantly scarf down a fried rat cutlet or baked wolf haunch without barfing it right back up.
As long as I get where I’m going without having to keep toggling the sprint key on and off, you can punish me however you like.