Behind the Mask: Pushing buttons is fun

Patrick Mackey
P. Mackey|07.15.10

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Behind the Mask: Pushing buttons is fun

Last week, I teased that this week's column would discuss Champions Online's energy mechanics. That, however, is only half of it. This week, we're going to discuss energy mechanics in general, player perception of resources, and the core central idea key to all video games: pushing buttons is fun.

The actual concept isn't hard to explain. Doing things in a video game is entertaining and not doing things is boring. This is a simple, fundamental concept that anyone can understand. Resource mechanics like mana, energy, or Vespene gas limit the things we can do before those resources have to be replenished. Running out isn't fun, so we reduce our resource use or maximize our resource returns.

The issue of CO's dreaded energy mechanics is only partially the developers' fault. The rest lies with us.
OOM, medding

Last week, I was reading some blogs about StarCraft. This is not too surprising; I like reading about StarCraft. However, the blogs I read weren't the usual fare. They were mostly general gaming sites' reactions to StarCraft and the general hype surrounding StarCraft II. One thing I gathered from the various bloggers about playing SC is that they all hated zerg rushes. However, even more universal than that, was the hate of "spawn more Overlords" and "construct additional pylons."

The fact is, people hate running out of resources. People hate not being able to hit buttons. Being out of mana, minerals, or energy is annoying, because once you are out of those resources, you can't do anything anymore. That element is very important: not being able to do anything. In StarCraft, running out of minerals or supply isn't as bad, because if you've got a lot of supply you probably have a big army to play with. In a MMORPG, running out of mana typically means doing nothing or "effectively nothing."

I'm not the foremost expert on World of Warcraft, but when a caster runs out of mana, it's anything but fun. Even though most casters have a wand to do moderate damage while their mana recovers, it doesn't feel like a fully fleshed-out option. It feels like a filler command that cycles while you wait for mana to do fun things.

It's no surprise that CO energy builders are boring. They're almost exactly the same as wanding in WoW. Instead of "doing something interesting," you're sitting there doing effectively nothing while your energy bar fills. In WoW, I felt like wanding was useful when leveling at least, since it dealt at least noticable damage. Energy builders in CO do not deal noticable damage, which makes them even less fun.

Finger-pointing is in order here

I don't think that all of the blame is on game developers. I'm certainly not criticizing the need for resources in StarCraft, and I don't think an MMORPG should be without a resource system. Opportunity costs for powerful attacks are a good thing. Long activation times and long cooldowns are even less fun than dealing with abilities that cost resources. Running out of energy is a clear and obvious balancing mechanic. Why do people hate on CO's energy mechanics so much?

The answer is pretty simple: we're spoiled.

In particular, we're spoiled by City of Heroes. CoX has terrible downsides for running out of mana (endurance). However, perhaps because of this, the CoX devs made endurance management so easy that any decently tuned hero can fire all of her most expensive powers as fast as cooldowns will allow. While I suppose this is "fun" because people can feel like they have no limitations, I think that removing resource management from the game waters it down. Because a ton of CO players are from CoX (especially the people who tend to post on forums), they expect the same kind of easy gameplay.

Don't think so? Back to World of Warcraft: running out of mana is a pretty significant issue, unless you're one of the few classes with extra mana generation. Later, gear and teammates help these problems a lot, but having to rest or running out of mana in the middle of a fight is a real problem. I rarely saw anyone complain about running out of mana, though -- even if someone's class was one of the mana-hungry ones, like mage. "Mana troubles" were less a sign of a build or game problem and more a sign of the player's precious need to "L2P."

Let's not get off topic

CO has another major problem, and that is a comparatively short mana (energy) bar compared to other games. An average character might have 150-200 energy, with powers that cost in the 50-80 range. It takes only a few meaningful button presses to completely empty a hero's energy. In WoW it might take several battles and at the very least numerous spells to empty a mage's mana bar, but in CO a hero is almost guaranteed to bottom out of juice every fight.

Another major concern is the lack of passive mana gain, like that in other games. There's no way to get energy back during a fight without actually fighting, unless your hero is playing in Sentinel mode. This causes a few problems. For one, a hero doesn't regain energy while activating powers in CO, unlike other games in which a spellcaster's mana recovers even while he is casting spells. The other is that heroes who are avoiding combat to catch a breather can't get energy back.

A strange environment to play in

Way back in April I talked about gear and stats. I mentioned that the most important stats are generally END, REC, and INT. The main reason for this is obviously because energy is extremely important. Many times, when people claim they hate the energy mechanics in CO, I suspect they are not focusing on energy stats. Remember: you can always respec your character. Superstat END and REC in the early game turn the energy frown upside down.

Stats aren't the only way to deal with energy problems in CO. If you need extra energy, there's a few ways to squeeze energy out elsewhere. Here's a huge list:
  • All innate passive powers give energy benefits. All of them have a certain trick needed, such as scoring crits or killing feared enemies. These powers are extremely useful.
  • Defiance gives energy back every time your hero is hit.
  • Force Shield's advantage lets incoming attacks recharge your energy even while you're fighting.
  • Martial arts forms are toggle powers similar to innate passives. They're exclusive, but powerful.
  • Dark Transfusion fills your energy to maximum, but keeps you from healing. If your hero has a large energy bar or a ton of INT, it can be very useful.
  • Circle of Arcane Power recovers energy over time. In practice, it gives nearly limitless energy as long as your hero remains stationary.
  • Quarry gives a cost reduction to all powers every time your hero attacks. It's somewhat weak compared to other slotted passives, but still highly useful.
  • Unstoppable boosts a hero's energy every time he strikes with a knockback power.
  • Molecular Self-Assembly heals your hero and grants some energy every time a power returns off cooldown.
  • Aura of Arcane Clarity is the team-friendly way to deal with energy problems. It practically removes them altogether, and does so for your entire team.
There are a few other ways to handle energy issues, but those are the most useful overall. If you're feeling like the energy mechanics aren't fun, try some of these out.

In many ways, I feel that CO's energy mechanics have some problems -- mostly the short energy bar -- but the vast majority of the energy problems are perceived and not real. Whenever people cry to me about energy issues, I ask them about what powers they've selected, and what stats they've built up. Most of the time, a player's build can be tweaked slightly to have better energy management. The situation is rarely one of "L2P, noob."

Remember, that this is one of the strengths of CO's game engine -- you can create a character who has nearly limitless energy from one of any number of different power interactions. You can create a character who is powerful in any number of ways, but it's also possible to create a very weak character who has little synergy. Now that we've gone over what energy problems are and how to handle them, you can avoid one more hangup on the road to pushing more buttons.

And that's the most important thing.
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