This article is mostly going to take the form of a blog post rather than my usual writing, if only because I think it'd be unfair to not give credit to a lot of the commentors who took the time to contribute. Forgive me if it's not the most organized or eloquent piece in the world!
Are Complaints Against Cooldowns Aesthetic?
This point, suggested by Geoffrey Kuhns, highlighted the fact that my issue with cooldowns might stem not so much from the time management element, but the presentation of time management itself - namely, that while a mana bar might fit in-universe, a cooldown doesn't necessarily have a real world (or at least game world) analogue in all cases.
This is an interesting question to consider. Despite spending time examining the design of a game or its mechanics, it's also sometimes hard to detach the presentation of a mechanic from the inner workings and effects of the mechanic itself. Something like platforming in Super Mario Bros. might sound boring on paper, but when you've got nice-looking visuals, catchy music and a good sense of kinesthetics behind the controls (that is, weight, responsiveness and tactile feedback), suddenly the game really comes to life and becomes entertaining.
I do think there's some merit to this, but it's ultimately overridden by the fact that there are mechanical distinctions between different times of time-based resources (like regenerating health/mana/stamina). As I mentioned in the original article, most of the time cooldowns can't be interrupted, whereas a mana meter can be filled up by a potion. Could you conceivably use a Potion of Reduce Cooldown in your game? Sure, absolutely, and then your cooldown would function exactly the same way as a mana meter. Perhaps, like a life leeching ability, you could also have a mechanic that causes cooldowns to decrease the more the player uses standard attacks.
This only raises another problem though - the presentation makes absolutely no sense. In trying to solve the cooldown problem, all we've done is damage our game world's verisimilitude. For some games, this really might not matter. MMOs are already ridiculously meta most of the time, with mechanics that aren't well justified in-universe, stories that make no sense, concepts like aggro and control options such as macros that are borrowed from players themselves, and sometimes they even break the fourth wall outright. However, for many games, maintaining a degree of consistency and seriousness to the setting and aesthetic may well be very important - and just like the presentation of Super Mario Bros. draws us in, cooldowns can easily pull us out.
There's No Such Thing as a "Bad" Mechanic
One response made by Mark Venturelli refuted my point that cooldowns are a bad, unfun mechanic because I took them in isolation. He stated that all game mechanics can be fun given the proper context and that singling one out in such a fashion undermined its strengths, and, to a degree, you could micro-analyze just about any mechanic and reach similar conclusions.
This certainly seems to hold water. Most game mechanics, cooldowns included, aren't all that much fun when taken in isolation. Reloading a gun in a shooter, for instance, simply boils down to pressing one key or button - it's the act of doing it in a tense and stressful situation, and its relationship to the acts of shooting and taking cover that make the dynamic of a third-person shooter so thrilling. The question isn't "how much fun is it to reload?" but rather "how much fun is it to reload when you're under fire, down to a few bullets, and could give up a successful kill because of the time spent?" The cover-based shooter genre is founded almost entirely upon this dynamic - the games really don't need to be all that deep or complex because the questions posed by the shooting mechanics are always relevant and interesting.
Following the same logic, cooldowns can be consistently interesting when used in the right context. In a game like World of Warcraft, using an ability isn't just a matter of pressing a button that lights up - it's also a tactical assessment of the enemy's capabilities, the relative state of the entire battlefield and the remaining enemies on it, one's own other resources (health, mana, other spells available, items, etc.) and a question of whether using an ability now or later is worthwhile, knowing that the 20 seconds an ability is unavailable could mean the difference between life and death.
I want to refute this statement, however, because I think cooldowns still have some faults that render them less effective than traditional resource management in (and I stress) most cases.
- Cooldowns are usually ability-independent. While this can be seen as a strength by some, I think it's actually a weakness in most cases. Because the only limiting factor on a given ability is the last time the ability itself was used, the player's abilities rarely feel like they occupy the same space. Without a resource linking both Magic Missile and Sleep with one another, they can't really have relative value save for casting time or their respective merits in a situation. In other words, all things being equal, there is no real choice to use Magic Missile or Sleep - the player might as well be choosing randomly. When things like encounter and enemy design fail to be interesting (a very common issue in MMOs), a unified limiting resource like mana isn't there to pick up the slack. Granted, some games with cooldowns do have such resources, but in my experience they are so plentiful as to almost never matter anyway. In my opinion, making a choice with real gameplay consequence is more fun than making an aesthetic choice without gameplay consequence.
- Cooldowns always happen "after the fact." In other words, a cooldown will only actually be relevant to the player once an ability is used. This isn't so much a problem for games where "spamming" the same abilities over and over might be necessary to complete an encounter, but in other situations and for long-term cooldowns especially, it means that managing the resource limiting Finger of Death - time - isn't actually relevant until it's already been cast. If the player can win an encounter just by using a few very powerful abilities in sequence, their timing relative to each other and the cooldowns themselves are completely irrelevant, and can only be made relevant if the designer either a) gives the player even more enemies to deal with or b) provides some other incentive to move forward to the next encounter, both of which suggest that the initial poor design remains.
Cooldowns Are Better for Designers
This is another refutation I saw on multiple occasions, highlighted quite well by Jonathan Jou, who argued that cooldowns might not be pretty, but they're effective and get the job done. And, really, I can't disagree - cooldowns do indeed allow designers to balance a system quickly and easily, as well as allowing for a lot of nice micro-level tweaks that can get a game playing exactly as they intend.
But in this, I think, is one of the serious flaws of cooldown-centric design, which speaks not so much to cooldowns themselves but to the intentions behind cooldowns. Specifically, I'm talking about a reduction in the role of authorship the player has, and the reign of the designer over the game experience.
That might sound a bit strange at first. After all, all games are designed by someone, and players are always going to be following the designer's rules. That's true to a degree, but I think it's worth bearing in mind that often some of the most fun games are ones with rules that allow for experimentation and creativity. Games like Counter-Strike and StarCraft: Brood War gained a very strong and long-term competitive following, for example, not because they were necessarily perfectly balanced in every way, but because their rules were open enough to allow for creative tactics and strategy; in fact, many of the imbalances in those games were actually what fueled the competition between players. Terran, Zerg and Protoss might not all be on equal footing, but smart players could potentially discover ways to make up the difference, and do so in a way that would surprise other players. This creative freedom formed a sort of point-counterpoint dialogue that kept these games going for over a decade.
I think it's also telling that some of the biggest complaints against Counter-Strike: Source and StarCraft 2 were that they got rid of many of the subtle imbalances and other qualities that fueled and allowed for creativity. Doing something like dropping Siege Tanks into an enemy's base in StarCraft used to be a pretty radical and unexpected strategy that eventually entered the community canon; in StarCraft 2, this strategy was there from day one and nearly built into the game, so much so that maps were designed specifically with it in mind. Although superficially this added more depth to the game and allowed newer players to get a handle of advanced tactics, in actuality this reduced the number of creative choices available to high-level players. StarCraft 2's relative lack of success in the competitive circuit can in part be blamed upon that transfer of authorship from the players to the game designers.
This idea can be seen with respect to cooldowns as well. Here's a quote from Blizzard's long-time community manager, Bashiok, on why they went with cooldowns in Diablo III (brought to my attention on another forum):
Diablo II had a single resource mechanic (mana), and the biggest end game skills in Diablo II are low-to-mid tier skills in Diablo III. The big “end-tier” skills we have are more complex and usually wouldn’t make sense as spammable skills, or would likely outright have to be pulled from the game if it turned out they ever could be spammable. And we have varied resource systems that we can’t just throw a problem-solver at, like Diablo II could with mana potions.
For instance Call of the Ancients literally calls down the four barbarian ancients to fight alongside you. How would that work if it was spammable? Should we make it cost 100% resource to keep you from being able to spam it, and then leave you drained to Cleave back enough Fury to follow it up with anything? That doesn’t sound like something *I* would take. Maybe someone could find a build for it, I don’t know.
For one, this Call of the Ancients ability seems to be out of place with the rest of the abilities in the game. I've played the Diablo III beta extensively, so I can say that it's very much a game about using lots of impressive and varied skills in sequence over and over again - the standard attack, in fact, might as well not even be in the game given the direction that ability use has gone. As a long-term ability that's there as a capstone to the player's leveling progress and presumably exists to help out in the difficult endgame areas, Call of the Ancients really does not gel very well with the rest of the game's abilities. The mana mechanic (especially the Barbarian's Fury meter, which is built up over time by taking and dealing damage) is there to manage abilities in the short term, but it isn't capable of limiting these sorts of abilities. One has to ask, "is this ability really appropriate for the game Blizzard have designed?"
The interesting thing is that another hero seems far more suited to such an ability. The Demon Hunter has two resources, Discipline and Hatred, which more or less are long and short term resources, both of which can influence each other - Hatred is used in short bursts while Discipline is built up and used for powerful abilities. Wouldn't it make much more sense for an ability such as this to be put in the Demon Hunter's repertoire? In my opinion, that would make the Demon Hunter that much more interesting, and would create a lot of really interesting class distinctions that Call of the Ancients might serve to break down. In many ways it seems like Blizzard are trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Additionally, there's this notion of an "awesome" endgame ability that the player gets as a reward for reaching the level cap. Although it sounds great on paper, if this ability is a) intended to be balanced and b) intended to be used for a lot of time well after the player has "maxed out" his or her character, why does this ability even exist? Shouldn't the game remain balanced if the player is conceivably going to keep playing? Maybe I could understand a single cooldown for this one ability as an exception, but cooldowns certainly don't seem appropriate to include for everything else. And anyway, shouldn't the player be doing "awesome" things on his or her own by intelligently using combinations of abilities in creative ways, rather than being given something decreed and built to be "awesome" by a designer before-hand?
A lot of interesting discussion has come out of my first article on cooldowns. I think more than anything, this demonstrated it was a divisive topic, but also a mechanic that is in its relative infancy and needs a lot more consideration and experimentation until designers really get the hang of using it effectively. I still haven't changed my opinion on cooldowns as a design crutch, nor do I think they're still very fun, but I have certainly have thought about them in ways I did not expect to when I wrote the first article. Thanks to all the readers and people who left comments for providing a lot of great food for thought, and some excellent points themselves!