Thursday, May 31, 2012

Diablo III: An Eternal Abusive Relationship

Though the question of fun is often at the core of game design, engineering different emotions is just as important in crafting an experience.  Just as pacing of gameplay is necessary to keep the interest of players, so too is an emotional pacing needed to provide the highs and lows that keep our attention focused.  A monotonous experience simply isn't going to keep someone happy for very long.

Diablo III is an interesting game because of how completely and explicitly it depends upon its feedback loops and its expertly-designed pacing.  While the feeling of defeating a new enemy, unlocking a new achievement, finding a new piece of gear, or leveling up is certainly fantastic, there are many, many parts of the game created exclusively to build tension and even outright annoy us.  In this article, I'll be looking at a few of the ways Diablo III manipulates players into loving it even as they find themselves screaming at their computers.

You're Dead, Sit in the Corner

Diablo III's death penalty is probably the most pure example of creating a mechanic entirely around frustration that it has to offer.  Granted, at first, it seems death is exceptionally cheap compared to many other multiplayer games. Diablo II, for instance, penalized players with a very real drop in experience and gold, such that one death was annoying, but many deaths could result in hours of lost progress - this has largely been dropped for Diablo III.  A aside from a small penalty to current item durability, only one thing is truly at stake: your time.

Initially, death is cheap.  Below level 10, players won't even suffer the durability penalty upon dying, making sure that in the early learning stages of the game, experimentation with the controls is encouraged.  By level 10, it's assumed players will have mastered the interface, and the penalty for failure becomes a bit more severe to match.  Death at lower levels and difficulties is infrequent, but as the game goes on and Nightmare, Hell and Inferno modes roll around, suddenly that modest 10% durability penalty becomes a major gold sink as death becomes an inevitability, and finally a routine occurrence often necessary for victory.

Death in Diablo III comes more frequently the longer the game goes, and serves to infuriate players by keeping gameplay just out of reach, while also motivating them to avoid death in the future
It's here that Diablo III truly begins to make players rage, because with frequent deaths, they will often spend more time in the penalty box, running back to the spot they died at, rather than actually fighting enemies.  The chance to play itself becomes positive reinforcement: do well, and you get to have another pull at the slot machine.  Lose, and you'll wait your turn a little while longer.

Additionally, checkpoints are engineered in the later stages of the game to accentuate and increase the distance traveled upon death, as returning to the battlefield will often require several minutes of boring, eventless running through stages that have previously been cleared out.  A similar tactic was used in World of Warcraft, with long periods of time spent in ghost form after death, allowing players to explore the world, but not interact with it directly.  It's a method that is nearly brutal in how heavy-handed it comes across - but like an idiot, no matter how many times the game made me run back to the spot I died, I never once stopped playing.

In multiplayer, it's possible to instantly teleport to other players from town, which dulls the death penalty somewhat and keeps the game moving forward.  However, a second, and initially hidden penalty, presents itself upon more frequent deaths: an ever-increasing timer that makes you wait just a little longer for every failure.  It's never long enough to actively impede gameplay, but those few lost seconds can often mean the difference between a victory, and the entire party being wiped out.

The Zen of Grind

Many games, both traditional role-playing titles as well as more modern social games, rely heavily on the player aspiring to particular goals that are often only attainable through repetitive processes.  There's often a very fine line between an acceptable amount of grind and too much, and it varies from person to person.  It's easy to cynically dismiss some games as "mindless" grinds, and as a cheap and effective way of inflating the size of a game, and while this is sometimes the case, grinding can be just as finely-crafted an experience.

Blizzard's Diablo series is a prime example of grinding used to provide emotional highs and lows.  Though there are some story objectives for players to accomplish in Diablo III, and the game is certainly fun and enjoyable on a kinesthetic level, the "real" game is actually in the carefully-structured mix of long- and short-term goals, most of them largely devoid of meaning beyond the system itself, but appealing for social and obsessive-compulsive reasons.

Diablo III is littered with achievements, hundreds of them in fact, and they exist to structure gameplay both moment-to-moment and over a period of months or even years.
Achievements are the easiest to put under the microscope, because they really are just a series of goals for players to chase after.  There's a huge mix of them, some designed to encourage players to interact with the game in new ways, others simply to encourage game completion, and others are aspirational, unlocking only after extremely specific and difficult requirements are met.  Some of them even boil down to taking advantage of basic game functions, like inviting friends into a session.  The mix in these goals provides a very natural ebb and flow to gameplay, a series of rewards that start out easy to earn and gradually become more scarce.  They provide motivation just as much as they structure play once the story is long finished, and the feeling of losing out on an achievement at the last minute serves as great motivation to keep trying and replaying the game, without ever forcing the player to do anything.

Other game elements are less explicit, but rely on frustration to drive them all the same.  The loot system is the most obvious example.  As a literal slot machine, it can be infuriating to play over and over, finding endless amounts of equipment, but none of it what we really want - yet we keep playing anyway, because the promise of something better, any minute now, is fulfilled just often enough to maintain our interest.  The slot machine manifests both in a long-term fashion (waiting for that next item to drop) as well as in the short term (a given item dropping to the ground to be claimed, or waiting a few seconds to identify a rare piece), and it is expertly tuned to provide rewards just as our interest begins to wane.  Players go back to kill the same bosses again and again, even if they receive poor-quality items nine out of ten times, because the rush of finding something truly great makes it worthwhile.

The Heat of Battle

The design of combat and placement of encounters is just as strongly manipulated as any other element of gameplay.  Boss encounters occur nearly hourly, almost on the hour, and Diablo III actually takes pains to include boss fights, many of them pointless story-wise, solely to keep the pace of the experience going and break up the standard combat.  Though I've been critical of the game recently, truth be told when examined from this purely functional perspective, some of the more bizarre and pointless story events suddenly take on a new life.

The spawning of elite and champion monsters in the field is just as carefully manipulated, despite random elements being thrown into the mix.  Almost unflinchingly, there are about three or four of these tougher monsters (or groups of them) encountered every 20-odd minutes of gameplay, regardless of difficulty level.  The random modifiers on each, coupled with the prospect of better loot drops, ensures that gameplay is always varied, while also tying in with additional game systems.

The world of Sanctuary is full of boss monsters which have zero story value at all, but are all lined up one-by-one to be slaughtered by players in sequence, all in service of gameplay pacing.
Interestingly, this doesn't change on the harder difficulty levels.  There are more elite and champion monsters to be found all over the game world, but because they take much longer to defeat individually, the same pacing of about three or four every 20 minutes is maintained almost perfectly.  Each encounter is more demanding, and the base level of challenge increases as those enemies get tougher, but the overall pace and flow of combat stays nearly identical.

Though it's interesting to talk about the pacing of encounters, what really strikes me as interesting is the way in which the very mechanics of combat are created around micro-incidents of tension, apprehension, frustration and release.  Though I'm on record as being generally against cooldowns in games, Diablo III is one of the few games I've played where they have felt so natural to the design of the game.

Combat in Diablo III is effectively the most fundamental, distilled form of resource management, requiring a constant balancing act on the part of players as resources are spent and filled in equal measure, and the interplay between health, mana and cooldown timers serves to create a strong repeating cycle of gameplay:
It's an extremely simple relationship, and goes both ways between each resource - skills require mana, and are needed to restore health, while health is also necessary to continue attacking enemies safely, and regenerating mana.  Many characters have skills which are also able to restore health or mana in various ways, sometimes by putting a third resource at risk - such as the Barbarian's "Fury Generator" skills, which are melee attacks that build mana (Fury).  Incidentally, this was a system also employed by Dungeon Siege III, perhaps even a bit more explicitly.

Not only does managing these resources form a very natural pace to the combat, an attack-and-retreat flow that becomes more apparent the longer the game goes on, it also creates a constant feeling of "almost there", such that players will always feel wanting for something, whether that's more health, more mana to use a skill, or for a cooldown to end.  It's an emotional state which is only ever resolved once battle is over and the enemies are dead, but resumes as soon as the player moves on.

Closing Thoughts

More than anything else, Diablo III demonstrates the effectiveness of relatively simple mechanics and systems when used intelligently to fuel one another.  Diablo III is rarely much fun for its own sake - while it is attractive and has a good game feel to it, the mechanics governing play exist almost solely to keep players in a state of suspense.  As a result, there's almost always something more for players to come back to, and creating new things for players to accomplish can be as simple as adding some more achievements or a new modifier for boss monsters.

If there is a downside to this, it's that the lack of true satisfaction with the game can eventually become wearisome.  One reason Diablo-style games haven't captivated me too much in the last few years over the long term is because the systems are too transparently manipulative for my liking, and I know that I'm pretty much never going to "win" the game - success is a function of me putting it back on the shelf or uninstalling it, not mastering its mechanics or completing the story.  While effective for online experiences, as a model I don't think it works well within the single-player space, where closure is key to satisfaction and fulfillment.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Ticking Clock: Understanding Time Limits

There are few things gamers seem to hate more than being rushed.  Although timers have historically been with games since nearly the beginning, and were a staple of arcade and home console titles throughout the 80s, in modern times it's been an element of gameplay that has fallen out of fashion - at least, in any explicit sense.

In this article I'd like to take a moment to examine how timers work in games, why players usually don't enjoy them, and how the fundamental design ideas and mechanics behind timers can be effectively implemented into a game in other ways.

Long Time Past

Timers, as mentioned above, have their roots in arcade games.  Back in the golden age of arcades, timers existed as a second way to make sure players kept plunking quarters into the game machine.  Just as the design of many arcade games was centered specifically on trial-and-error (Dragon's Lair) and sheer perseverance (just about any brawler) to make sure players kept paying, timers were a more brute-force method of achieving the same goals.  If the end boss on level 2 didn't get you, then you could be sure the five-minute limit would force you to deposit more money by level 3.

In the days of arcade games, time limits were less a function of interesting gameplay and more about getting players to cram more quarters into the machine - in many cases the health bar itself was a substitute for a numeric clock.
 On home consoles, time limits persisted for a very long time they were obsolete.  Many of the most iconic platform games of the 80s included time limits, some of them variable with each stage (Super Mario Bros.) and some of them fixed (Sonic the Hedgehog).  The time limit was to a degree a legacy of the arcade world, but it also served a new function - to improve gameplay for its own sake.

The lengthy ten-minute clock in Sonic the Hedgehog existed not for profiteering reasons, but to add a feeling of tension to stages.  It was a game all about speed, and as a result of the timer, Sonic couldn't pick up every last power-up and collectable.  The "feel" of being under pressure was enough to push players onward even if they were almost never in danger of running out of time - environmental hazards and enemies were enough to do put success in jeopardy already.

The Ticking Clock

The problem is that most people hate time limits.  The feeling of a ticking clock counting down constantly is one that borders on torturous in some cases, as anyone who's taken a timed exam will know, and that carries over into the realm of videogames.  In an era of home consoles, time limits are often more frustrating than fun, feeling antiquated next to other relics of the past like limited lives.  

There's a certain Otherness to the timer, a sense of a foreign entity watching over us, monitoring our every move, and casting silent judgment.  The timer isn't just about what we're doing, but what we're missing as a result.  Every action loses valuable time that could be spent elsewhere... and only the ticking clock knows if we made the right choice.  The game is now about performance, in more ways than one.

Survival horror games don't often have literal timers, but the exact same stress and panic can be created because the underlying mechanics governing player actions are very similar.
It's this discomfort that is the essence of the timer, not the timer itself.  When reduced down to such an emotional response, suddenly there are all sorts of other ways that we can create the mechanical function of a timer, without necessarily creating the same emotional reaction in players.  Moreover, this allows us to better manipulate scenarios to engineer the feelings we actually want players to experience.

One of the best examples of this can be seen in a survival horror title like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.  In this rather unconventional game, much of the tension and fear is a direct result of being forced to run from enemies that are faster than you are.  While not a literal time limit, that feeling of intense distress comes on in full force because every action feels significant, and there's less and less margin for error as the game goes on.  Contrast this with Alan Wake, where a more pervasive feeling of dread is created, rather than any sort of panic - without a strong time management element, the game isn't so much outright scary as it is a page-turner.

Mechanics of Time

Time is one of the most fundamental resources we have to manage in games.  Even games we usually don't think about time in are heavily moderated by it - first-person shooter game systems are usually a function of accuracy and reaction speed vs. damage taken, turn-based strategy games usually have a form of time limit in turn timers, cooldowns before you can use your super ability again, and so on.  There are any number of ways time limits can be expressed, but the main goal is always to create a sense of tension by providing a secondary gameplay consequence to each action.

Understanding that timers are not about time and more about limiting the range of a player's available options before failure is integral to getting why timers work.  Seen through this lens, it's hard to un-see time limits in games whether they're explicit or not.  It often forms much of the depth of an experience, and gives additional structure to what would otherwise be a fairly isolated and limited set of mechanics.

Long-term and short-term time management, and their interplay between other resources, is what defines StarCraft's intense strategic gameplay.
No longer is building an army in StarCraft about simply farming the right amounts of resources and building up forces - now it's about doing so in the most efficient way possible, to ensure that the enemy doesn't do it first.  This strained, tense relationship, the fear that every action could be the wrong one, is what drives the strategy of StarCraft.  All the selection of units, buildings, and so on only gains meaning through the context of time.

From there, it's simple to see how time can offer further gameplay propositions.  Different units can take more or less time to build, balanced out by their relative effectiveness.  Strategies are more or less risky due to how much time they consume (the Zerg Rush being the most classic gamble).  
Changing the shield or health regeneration rates on different units can make them more or less compelling to maintain long-term, and also make players think twice about sending them in on the front lines.  And of course, this is just one example of one game - this applies equally to everything from scrolling shooters, to platform games, to puzzle games.

Handling Time Limits

Of course, if you absolutely just have to have a time limit in a game, then it can still definitely work when given the right context.  There's a few general rules to follow that will ensure time limits stay fun.
  1. Never attach an absolute fail state to a timer.  If the player makes a mistake, gets stuck, etc. and runs out of time, that's frustrating.  Combining that with a game over screen, lost progress, the requirement to replay a section of gameplay?  Even more annoying.  For example, in Diablo III, there's a challenge to reach a hidden vault before it closes again, but this doesn't result in a "rocks fall, everyone dies" scenario.
  2. Telegraph the benefits of beating the clock, or the risks of failure.  If the player doesn't know what's at stake then it's not worth bothering with a timer at all.  This can apply both to gameplay and story - such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution punishing the player for spending too much time smelling flowers during a hostage situation, but only after reinforcing the importance of being quick.
  3. Offer rewards, not punishments.  Timers are already punishing in themselves.  If a player is able to complete a goal before a timer runs out, that's a sign of skill, and should be rewarded.  Losing out isn't always a function of a lack of skill, and while sometimes punishments are fine, usually the punishment should come from what the player is missing out on by losing, not by crippling them further.
  4. Give alternatives.  Especially in the case of long-term timers (such as a food and hunger mechanic), players can always be caught with their pants down in a way that is unpredictable and may not be their fault.  Rather than face the prospect of hours of lost game time for simple forgetfulness, offer the ability to take an alternate punishment (exchange one resource for another, i.e. time for gold), or make up for the mistake (complete an optional challenge to gain more time back).
This isn't to say that time limits should always conform to these guidelines.  Some games benefit immensely from their brutality.  Some of the most fun I've had with games has come from the result of mis-managing time limits, such as in Fallout, when during my first play-through I had to rush to bring the Water Chip back to Vault 13 before a game over scenario.  The STALKER series is immensely satisfying and provides a great deal of challenge in resource management, and failure to prepare properly will get you killed - there's nothing wrong with that so long as players are well-informed of how to survive in the first place, whether through explicit tutorials or a gradual ramp up in difficulty and game depth.

Grand Theft Auto is known for its stringent time limits, but they tend to be more frustrating than fun due to their incredible strictness and mandatory nature.
 The key thing to keep in mind above all else is that timers should never be unfair - I have many memories of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City imposing strict mandatory time limits on extremely difficult challenges before story progress could continue, for instance, and it was no more fun a decade ago than it is today.  Between the squirrely controls and scripted events designed specifically to force mission restarts, time limits of that nature were nearly malevolent on the part of designers, and the novelty soon wore off in the face of sheer repetition.

One last thing I'd like to draw attention to is the "inverse time limit" that some more modern games have begun to sport.  Rather than ticking down, a timer ticks up to document your final score.  Whether that's Bulletstorm's level completion time leaderboards or Super Meat Boy's limited-access bonus stages that require quick reflexes to reach, these timers feel far more fair for players.  Players won't ever die as a result of those time limits, but they might miss out on unlocking optional bonus content or reaching the high scores.  This provides an impetus to keep playing and mastering the game rather than a sense of frustration.

Closing Thoughts

It's been interesting to see such a staple in gaming's early days transition into a much more smartly-utilized, softer mechanic.  While some purists might insist that timers are great to have around as a pretense of challenge, like all game mechanics it's important to recognize the underlying reasons for why time limits exist in the first place, and how they can be repurposed for new situations or even camouflaged to avoid frustrating players needlessly.

I'm also curious to see developers take time limits in more interesting directions in the future.  While many of the games of my childhood depended upon explicit time management, much of that has disappeared or been obfuscated in recent years.  Layered resource management is the core of interesting systems design, and adding just one or two time limits, in both the long or short term, can often completely change the nature of gameplay.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Portal 2 and the Dev Tools Evolution

This past week, Valve unleashed their "Perpetual Testing Initiative" for Portal 2, both a level editor and mod distribution network for their customers to take advantage of.  Already, thousands upon thousands of levels have been contributed, and while content varies dramatically in quality as with anything user-created, it's fair to say that players will be creating new levels for Portal 2 for months to come, and there is a near-unlimited amount of game content Valve is effectively providing to their fans "for free" (and I admit, I've been making quite a few myself as well).

As much as I'm thrilled by this prospect as a gamer, I'm even more intrigued as a content creator by what the tools are able to offer not just amateurs, but even professional designers.  While development tools have become much more readily available and easy to learn over the last console generation, the Portal 2 editor is the first one I've been able to pick up and start producing what I'd call good, playable content within just a few minutes.

Disclaimer: I am not a programmer, and the things I say here might come across as short-sighted, ignorant or patently incorrect.  I apologize if this is the case.  My goal here is only to illustrate and make arguments from the perspective of a designer.

Tools Should Be Easy

Unfortunately, even today one of the biggest obstacles for a designer to get into the games industry is the general impenetrability of the tools.  Someone might have one of the best creative minds out there, but even creating basic game content can be a big challenge, even with the most accessible tools around.  It certainly would not surprise me to hear that there are many veterans with SDKs like Unreal and Unity that still have no idea at all how to do certain things, or how to take advantage of certain shortcuts.

These dev tools can still ultimately resemble 3D modeling programs and other complicated software, despite the vast majority of functions simply not being necessary for 90% of the work involved in creating games.  Multiple viewports, dedicated toolbar buttons for each and every action, arcane and obscure keyboard shortcuts to speed things up... it's all great to know, but the barrier to entry is exceptionally high, and any time something new needs to be done, there's a whole new learning curve thrown in.  Sometimes it can take a week or more of practice just to get to grips with a single piece of an SDK, and that's not efficient.

UDK's Content Browser is still overly complicated and cumbersome.  I can't count the number of times I've made duplicate versions of files, saved them to the wrong databases, and even had entire levels go to waste because of its unintuitive UI and workflow.
 I love using SDKs, regardless of what I'm making.  It's a lot of fun to put things together and the sense of satisfaction upon creating a level that looks good and plays well is immense, even if it's extremely small and simple.  But, even so, basic tasks can often take too long, and sometimes more time is spent just wrestling with the interface or waiting for numbers to crunch behind the scenes.  Blocking out a scene in CSG using Unreal for basic gameplay prototyping can take only a few minutes, but making changes might require re-rendering the lightmaps, pathing, compiling scripts, and any other number of activities, many of which might all require separate inputs.  If something goes wrong, it's often not clear what, why, or how to fix it.

For all the power available, sometimes I just want to move an object a few feet and re-test gameplay, or add a few objects to pretty a scene up... and doing so can require several minutes of waiting or longer in the worst cases.  There has to be a better way of handling things without giving up that power.

Tools Should Be Design-Driven

Portal 2's level editor goes one step farther than Unity, Unreal and others.  Whereas even some of the best tools around are often created from the mindset of "how can we put as many features together as possible?", with little care for intuitiveness, Portal 2's editor is firmly focused on intelligent organization, quick and easy shortcuts for the most common actions, and is generally build to enable designers to create content as quickly and easily as possible, with as little learning curve as possible.

Although it only works in a simple grid and allows for the manipulation of fixed blocks, and thus has a lot of limitations, actually using it could not be simpler.  Adding walls is as simple as clicking and dragging, or selecting faces and pressing the + or - keys.  Gameplay objects can be added to a scene from a simple palette in a matter of seconds, and rather than using scripting, simple relationships can be plotted out using right-click context menus.

Portal 2's tools might be extremely simple, but the speed and ease at which quality gameplay can be created cannot be understated.  For designers who are fed up with fighting buggy UIs and spending a week to learn how to make an elevator, this is the holy grail.
The benefits are immediate and obvious.  Whereas a level in Unreal might take a few minutes to put together and then test out, Portal 2's tools allow designers to literally create entirely function game levels within seconds.  The learning curve is exceptionally easy, and the limiting factor on creating good content comes down to design, not tools, within jut a few minutes.

What this mostly comes down to is a sensitivity towards what designers actually want to do with the tools they're given.  Let's face it, if you're just building a level and aren't involved in scripting, creating game assets, programming, and so on, the most common thing you'll be doing is building base geometry and adding detail on top, tweaking, tweaking and tweaking some more, testing as often as possible, until something looks right.  Then, you'll probably tear down half of it when you realize something's broken or doesn't work well.  Most SDKs I've used have made this cumbersome and awkward to do, even with all the grid-snapping, multiple viewports, etc. available. Most of the time, less is more.

When it comes to building gameplay, it's also fair to say that the vast majority of the time designers will be placing oft-used objects and entities with fixed functionality - placing enemies, trigger zones to create those enemies, creating buttons that open doors, and so on.  It's one of the most time-consuming parts of game development, and yet the interfaces of SDKs rarely lend themselves to doing this quickly and effectively.  Yet, to do something as simple as make a sliding door in Unreal, it could take me several minutes.  In Portal 2, even complex logical interactions between objects can be set up in mere seconds, and the emphasis suddenly shifts from creating a game, to designing one.

Obvious Limitations

It goes without saying that Portal 2's tools, as exceptionally easy and fun as they are to use, are also extremely limited.  They only work with one game platform and one engine.  They only let you make one type of game to begin with.  They have a very fixed number of functions and tools available.  It's impossible to do very complicated scripting, cutscenes, etc.  It's tied to Valve's infrastructure.  Obviously, I'm referring to the UI concepts more than I am to the current implementation and feature set.

Looking past that though, there are still some concerns.  How do you reconcile such tools with existing tools and game technology, and are there any barriers to compatibility?  How do you get new assets into it?  How do you script something?  How do you do your keyframe animation?  What if you want to add more detail than what the tools allow, or plug in a new piece of software?  There's an argument to be made that professional tools are as complicated and imposing as they are because they need to be that way.

Despite being quite limited, there's also no reason why levels created in simple Portal 2-like tools couldn't be brought into other, more powerful tools when needed, or why there simply couldn't be a more design-driven UI on existing tools.
I admit, those are fair concerns.  However, I think it's also fair to say there's no reason why so many other development tools are so complicated.  There's no need to have a bloated interface full of functions that are useless most of the time, or to hide important functionality within a menu that can only be opened by an obscure key combination.  There's no need to force designers to define obvious parameters when the default option is almost always going to be the best one anyway.  And there's certainly no reason why development tools have to take on a one-size-fits-all approach to their interfaces.

Sure, there is that 10% of time where a designer won't be able to do something with what's available... but for the remaining 90%, building game content is as simple and effective as can be.  In my opinion, that's a very, very good trade-off if it means that 90% of the time is more productive, and more fun for that matter.

Closing Thoughts

Some designers might scoff at the fact that these tools intended for general consumers, and might even look at such a package as being overly simplified compared to the "real thing," but I think even the most hardened professionals should be able to appreciate just how fast and easy it is to create gameplay that is fun and engaging.  Even if, theoretically, such tools were to somehow reduce what's possible in creating game levels, I'd almost say that's already worthwhile simply due to how much time you'd save otherwise.

I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Valve's own designers use similar technology to build Portal 3 and other subsequent games due to how quickly they'll be able to prototype, before taking it into their full editor in order to build release-quality visuals and implement the finishing touches.  After all, the process isn't at all dissimilar from what other tools already do... it's just much, much quicker and lacks the steep learning curve and interface challenges.

I've written before on the state of tools in the gaming world, and while things are definitely better than they were a few years ago, I think that Portal 2 shows we have a long way to go before game level creation is able to transition from technology-driven to truly design-driven.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Cooldowns: Follow-Up

My article on cooldowns yesterday may have sparked a lot of discussion and debate, especially for its admittedly incisive title.  That's all for the best, though, as the response received brought to light a lot of really excellent points and contributions from readers on Gamasutra that I think should be brought to light.  While I don't agree with all of the points made, I do think there are some additional things to be learned from them, and discussed.

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.
Again, all of this isn't to say that cooldowns can't work or that they are never fun - but that, when all's said and done, I still think that even when taken in context, most of the time cooldowns pale in comparison to other mechanics.

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.

On paper, this again sounds like smart design - an ability that's too powerful to be used all the time has to be limited by some resource other than mana, because the player regains mana too quickly (it's a very cheap resource that comes back within seconds).  Digging a bit deeper, however, reveals a few issues.

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?

Closing Thoughts

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!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Why I Hate Cooldowns

If there is one design convention that you can count on being included in almost every modern game (and especially modern RPGs), it's the cooldown.  Conceptually, cooldowns sound great - they allow for easy regulation of a player's abilities through the use of a second meta-game resource, time.  Perhaps it's no surprise that cooldowns have summarily been worked into just about every single type of game out there, both real-time and turn-based.  In fact, cooldowns have become pretty much the de-facto standard for balancing games and designing combat interactions.

I have to be up-front about this: I think cooldowns are, as they are implemented in most titles, bad design.  While they allow for a few upsides, not the least of which is quick and relatively easy balancing, they also have some major drawbacks, often which end up hurting the rest of the game mechanics they interact with.  In this article, I'll be discussing why I think cooldowns aren't compelling as a mechanic, and why they are in most cases simply unnecessary in the first place.

Understanding Cooldowns

Cooldowns are pretty simple to understand - they're effectively a time limit on an activated ability or game function that prevent the player from using a given ability "too often."  Almost always, cooldowns are used to preserve game balance, as, if an ability is particularly powerful,  being able to use it over and over again with few to no limits can be game-breaking.  It's pretty clear that being able to use the Spell of Ultimate Doom as fast as you could hit the button would be a problem!

But why, exactly, do cooldowns work?  The simple answer mostly boils down to risk versus reward.  In order for the player to use a special ability of some sort, there needs to be some sort of risk factor involved, largely to ensure the player doesn't use that ability all the time.  If I could turn all my checker pieces into kings whenever I wanted, there would be no risk in placing checkers - but getting a checker piece to the other side of the board safely, that represents a significant risk with what most players would consider a very compelling reward.  The integrity of a special ability as a game mechanic relies upon there being a default state in the game; if a player can surpass that default state without issue, much of the game's challenge is rendered moot.

The time it takes to collect a power-up in Unreal Tournament versus the greater exposure to enemy fire forms a risk-reward dynamic that fuels some of the game's most intense fights.
In most games, risk is expressed in terms of some sort of limited resource.  In checkers, it's the number of times you can move a piece, versus the number of turns until a piece is captured by the opponent.  In Super Mario Bros., there are many limited resources which tie into most risks, such as a bottomless pit which will deplete you one of your limited 1-ups should you fall in.  In Unreal Tournament, running for a power-up will usually expose you to attack for a period of time.  In Baldur's Gate, it's the prospect of your spell failing and not being usable until you rest and restore it.

All of these are limiting factors that make you think twice about doing something; if a game is well-balanced, these will usually be compelling choices all the way throughout the game.  In fact, many games actually get their fun from risk management - most strategy games are less about building big armies and more about compensating for the inevitable hitches and snags in your master plan, which are often difficult or impossible to prepare for.  The question of fun doesn't hinge so much on "doing X" as it does on "doing Y when X fails" and entire games set up scenarios specifically to force players to deal with limits and make the best use of what they have, knowing full well that in preparing for outcome 1, they sacrifice preparedness for outcome 2.

Cooldowns aren't really fundamentally different than any other type of resource management - time is something that you can't usually speed up, so you have to consider when and where to use an ability.  Pick the wrong time, and that powerful special attack might well go to waste, and you'll be at a disadvantage for a set period.  Whereas time-oriented resource management often operates in the short term - say, the amount of time an ability takes to "charge up" - cooldowns usually operate in the long term, i.e. "60 seconds until you can use Rain of Arrows again."  Something like mana regeneration isn't all that different from a cooldown, aside from presentation.

Cooldowns Aren't Fun

With that out of the way, let's get to the number one complaint I have with cooldowns - put simply, they are a bad mechanic.  There is nothing inherently "fun" about cooldowns, because they are almost bankrupt of any value when disconnected from a larger game system, to the point where a cooldown has almost no resemblance to a game at all.  Whereas most game mechanics can be separated from context and still be enjoyable, albeit often on a smaller scale, waiting for cooldowns isn't in any way compelling.

Two minutes of waiting?  Wow, look at that clock count down!  I'll never need to bother watching paint dry again!
Of particular concern is that cooldowns are entirely non-interactive - in almost every case, there is nothing the player can do to influence a cooldown.  Mashing the hotkey won't make it recharge faster.  Playing the game better won't make it recharge faster. The closest I've ever seen to a game having "interactive cooldowns" is on other abilities that cut cooldown times.  What does it say about cooldowns as a mechanic that the most fun thing about them is that you can get rid of them?

In fact, there are many game mechanics that are significantly more interactive and interesting than cooldowns, yet they still come under constant attack from gamers and designers alike.  Consider quick time events - minimal button input in order to witness a sequence that is disconnected from standard gameplay, and which in many cases can effectively be described as an "interactive cutscene."  All the workings of a bad mechanic are there - binary pass/fail, potentially unpredictable (random button combinations or timing), huge visual rewards for an almost inconsequential task, etc.  Yet cooldowns, cooldowns get off the hook despite having much less to them.

Cooldowns Are a Band-Aid

You might be thinking, "so what, cooldowns aren't a compelling mechanic, but it's how they tie into a larger game system that matters."  After all, that makes sense - managing a mana bar, drinking potions when you run out isn't particularly fun either.  And it's certainly true that almost every game relies on some sort of non-interactive finite resource - limited stamina, a completion timer, and so on.  These sorts of resources are often compelling to manage not because of any inherently fun qualities, but because they're things that players have to work within.  The fun of a game isn't just winning, it's winning under pressure, either real or perceived.

At the same time, cooldowns, as implemented in the majority of games, aren't very interesting even taking all this into account.  This is usually because rather than being included as the sole limiting resource in using special abilities, they're actually a secondary or even tertiary resource.  Many titles, especially role-playing games, couple cooldowns with a limited pool of mana.  Both of them serve effectively the same function - only allow the player to use abilities at certain intervals, which may or may not be open to influence (i.e. drinking potions) - but this only begs the question, "why have both when one would suffice?"

Whether called mana, fury, hatred, or something else, it's there to limit ability-spam.  Despite having characters built around managing these resources, Diablo III still employs cooldowns - why, I can't fathom.
After all, we already have limits on abilities in just about every game.  In Call of Duty, you need to kill a certain number of players in a row in order to receive a killstreak reward.  In Arcanum you have to make sure you don't exhaust yourself casting spells or attacking enemies, or else you'll fall unconscious and become easy pickings.  Bastion tempers the player's special attacks by having each one consume a Black Tonic.

These systems do not have cooldowns because they are already balanced.  Call of Duty can let you run away with the game by using powerful killstreaks quickly, but in a competitive environment usually the best should be able to rise to the top.  Arcanum's mana and fatigue encourages the player to save powerful spells for the right situations, as well as smart character building.  Bastion lets you blow all your special abilities at once, but that is almost never a good plan.  The existing mechanics in these games are enough to make the decision to use an ability compelling, and even for the master planner, there's usually still going to be that lingering thought of "maybe I should have saved that for later" that makes exploring alternate strategies so much fun.

Every time I see a cooldown in a game, it feels like shorthand for "we couldn't really figure out how to make these abilities balanced relative to each other and the resources governing them, so we introduced another resource that we can tweak to our heart's content independent of the others."  While it might work for some games, it's a brute-force solution to a problem that can usually be fixed with improved systems design.  Resorting to cooldowns is, in most cases, the easy way out.

Cooldowns Reduce Depth

In practice, my biggest complaint against cooldown-oriented design is that it tends to take a way a lot of the tactical depth in a situation.  As a brute-force stopgap to "solve" poor game balance and make up for problems in other mechanics, many such games feature abilities that are extremely powerful unless mediated, and often in very large quantities.  This usually raises the question: "if my abilities are all so powerful, why am I not just using them all the time?"

A game like Dragon Age II, for example, can see the player activating upwards of ten different abilities throughout the course of a single battle, and even the same ones multiple times over if the fight goes on long enough.  Actually using them thoughtfully isn't just completely unnecessary, it can actually be a liability.  As most of the abilities in Dragon Age II are instant-use and either have some sort of stun or damaging effect, they quickly become near-indistinguishable from each other; what's more, the tougher enemies can be heavily resistant or immune to the effects of these abilities, meaning that using them in a way that the situation might call for them simply isn't very effective.

Mastery over Dragon Age II's combat doesn't depend on smart use of abilities so much as it does on pressing hotkeys as quickly as the game allows.
 Dragon Age II does have mana and stamina as additional limiting resources, but they are far less important than the cooldowns themselves.  Quaffing potions is usually more than enough to get through, and potions are both plentiful and fairly cheap, so most players will never run out of them.  Of course, even the potions have cooldowns on them, to prevent them from being used over and over.  Once again, the question comes up: "if potions are so powerful as to require cooldowns, why aren't they made more expensive, or why can't there be another game mechanic governing their use?"

The Witcher's toxicity mechanic prevented the player from drinking potion after potion, for instance; not only did it work well to balance them, it also fit the game's lore like a glove.  Dragon Age II has none of this tact or finesse - rather than turning weaknesses into strengths through smart game mechanics, it slaps more timers on the player until the exploits disappear.

The Witcher 2 uses a toxicity meter to limit how many potions the player can drink; the first game made drinking an excess of potions lethal, making the choice to down one in combat compelling.
Cooldowns also reduce the value of long-term planning.  As discussed above, many games are built around the question of using abilities at the right times, and as contingencies for failures.  While cooldowns can retain some of the value in planning (for instance, some high-level MMO play relies on calculating perfect ratios of damage input/output/healing), these dynamics are not intrinsic to cooldowns - you can do the exact same thing with a mana bar, or with limited uses of abilities, or providing harsher risks for misusing abilities. 

The end result of all this hard limiting is a system that isn't just rigid and limiting, reducing the sense of control and interactivity the player has, it also ends up largely reducing combat from making smart and tactically valuable choices to a series of quick time events: press the hotkeys as they light up to win.  At absolute worst, this can create a feeling of "false interactivity", where the player isn't so much making smart decisions within the rules as he/she is playing a pattern-matching game.  Instead of "what abilities should I use, and when?" the questions posed to the player are "press all your buttons as soon as you can."  The resemblance to quick time events, and their pattern-matching mechanics quickly becomes apparent.

Closing Thoughts

It's unfortunate that cooldown-centric design has become so prominent, because I think the sacrifices that come to the overall depth of a game's systems are not worth the trade-offs of easy game balance.  There are so many ways to effectively build soft limits into game systems that encourage players to experiment and play smart, and even make mistakes, that resorting to the hardest of limits can actually discourage effective design in other parts of the game.  Imagine a Zelda game where you could only throw bombs once every twenty seconds - it would discourage much of the discovery and exploration that comes from blowing up walls, rocks and so on. 

I do want to clarify that cooldowns are not inherently bad ideas.  In games where a limiting resource like mana or inventory items might not be appropriate, expressing things in terms of cooldowns can actually make sense.  For instance, perhaps using a special attack tires out the player's character and requires a resting period.  This is implemented in a reasonably effective way by Avadon: The Black Fortress in a turn-based context, where certain types of abilities have different cooldowns, and the role of mana switches from a short-term resource to a long-term one that encourages players to think about the long haul when using an ability.  It's not my favorite way to do things, but it can certainly be done well enough.

I'm sure much of this trend can be blamed on the success of MMOs like World of Warcraft, and that's a real shame.  I can't actually say I'm overly familiar with World of Warcraft as I never played it for too long, but what works for one game, especially an MMO, isn't necessarily suited for other games.  To a degree, adopting the conventions of Warcraft is important for presentation and aesthetic reasons (it might attract players who are familiar with cooldown-oriented games), similar to the proliferation of XP and leveling systems instead of more traditional videogame progression systems, but that's a weak argument for poor design in my opinion.