Resources and Cooldowns
Though they can be subtle, every video game has some sort of resource that the player must manage. Resources are designed to constrain the player, to limit what they can do. Anyone that has spent any time in Minecraft’s creative mode, then got bored of it can attest to how important it is to not have god-like powers. Being omniscient and omnipotent is boring if you play a game for a challenge — which is the source of enjoyment for the vast majority of games.
I don’t like a challenge
When I say that games are fun because they present a challenge, some people may balk at the idea. I know more than a few people that own Call of Duty just to shoot some zombies after work, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Even if you always play games on the easiest setting, there is still some facet of challenge. It may not be a huge hurdle or wall in your way. It may be a slight resistance, like wading through ankle-high water. Not hard, but just enough to feel like you’re doing something.
What are resources?
Some resources are obvious, and some not so much. The obvious ones are those that are almost universal.
Health, a symbol of vitality, is the most common resource in any game. Only puzzle games come to mind (and not even all of those) that will frequently not have a health or life meter.
Money is also a fairly common resource, and is the easiest to understand as it mirrors our real life. Health is taken away as a punishment, gained as a reward, but money is the inverse. More money is almost always better, as it is a universal reward in games that feature it. Rarely are you punished for having more, and if you are punished it is probably to service a political message by the designers.
Fable 3 comes to mind, wherein you become King of a land and must balance the royal coffers with your citizen’s happiness. The struggle comes in knowing that without the money you will not be able to fund a coming war. You are put in an intentionally impossible situation.
A time limit to an objective is such an easy way to increase difficulty, it’s amazing to me we don’t see it more often. I’ve never been a fan of time limits myself, but I understand why they’re included. Puzzle games, strategy games, action adventure romps through fantastical lands and other worlds, the temporal resource is one baked into every game.
Defeating enemies as quickly as possible, racing to an objective faster than your opponents, or balancing time-restricted tasks. Given how ever-present time is as a resource, the difference in games here is how much the developer chooses to punish the player. How quickly must you act on your other resources? If resources are gained quickly and spent quickly then I have precious little time to make use of them.
Besides these universal resources there are others that are either genre-specific or game-specific. For example, chess pieces can be considered a resource. In first-person shooters ammunition is the obvious resource besides health, but also you may have an objective as a resource. Even more in-depth than that you could have your position on the battlefield, or cover from enemy fire as a resource. Trading these resources for one another may be sacrificing ammunition with covering fire to grant your ally a strong position on higher ground.
MMORPG games, especially those with a fantasy setting (and there are too many to list here) feature resource management quite prominently. How much magical energy you have usually defines how much usefulness you bring to a group. Even if that resource isn’t magical, and is meant to represent and be used some other way (like energy, rage, focus, arcana, souls, runes, so on and so forth) the behavior of that resource defines the behavior of the character.
Gameplay that features health as a resource to be expended to activate abilities has a very high-risk high-reward feeling to it. Also, the speed at which the resource is gathered, and the methods used to get more of it both go hand-in-hand at crafting the feel of gameplay.
How much of a challenge is presented to the player for a given game can be as easy as tweaking some numbers. However, which numbers there are to tweak, and to what degree to get the desired effect, depends largely on the resources built into the game.
Like I mentioned before, it is easy to have a time limit, and demand the game be completed faster to increase difficulty. Shooters may require more ammunition be spent (or that ammunition used more optimally with better aim) by giving enemies more health. This strategy runs the risk of the baddies turning into “bullet sponges” — monsters that seem to only be difficult because of how much time it takes to expend the ammunition required to defeat them. This isn’t a very engaging type of difficulty.
Take one player’s chess pieces away to impede them, making their game harder. Modify the player’s health so that if they risk their health points in-game the sacrifice is potentially larger. Decrease the prevalence of items in an adventure game. Adjust in-game merchants so that they pay less for sold items and demand more to buy items. All resources constrain the player, it is the degree of constraint that measures difficulty.
Realism vs Fun
One hallmark of a quality game developer is when they figure out the line between what needs to be managed and what does not.
The best example of this is Blizzard’s Overwatch. If you play it, or watch someone else play it, you’ll notice that every character has something they shoot with. As such, part of the UI is how much ammunition remains for them. Oddly enough you may find that players never seen to run out. They may have to reload, but there’s always more.
The developers at Blizzard commented on this, apparently it wasn’t fun having to get more ammunition. The game was more enjoyable if that was a resource you didn’t have to manage. Though it’s not the focus of this blog post, it shines a light on how important it is for game developers not to demand resource management just for the sake of itself.
Special abilities, powers, or strengths can turn a boring or desperate fight for your character’s life into a fantastical struggle between good and evil. Maybe it’s a fantasy world’s spell to shoot a fireball. In a racing game your vehicle might get a boost every now and again, which can secure that hard-earned victory. Your futuristic shoot-em-up game could employ a technologically advanced suit to blur the lines between science and fantasy to speed you across the enemy stronghold at breakneck speeds.
These are some of the most enjoyable parts of games, but are rarely the entire game. The spice on top of the dish, the sprinkles on the dessert, abilities enhance a world to empower us. These too are manageable resources, as most abilities will either directly require its fuel, or be usable only after a timer has expired since its last use. We call these ‘cooldowns’ as though they are parts of an engine that have overheated, and need to be allowed to cool off before use again.
One of the resources mentioned was the temporal one, the resource of time. There’s not enough time in the day, and there’s too much time between when I used my last ability before I can use it again.
Abilities and their cooldowns have to strike a balance between effectiveness and fun. Like any resource that needs managed, if you have too much of it the player will have an easier time. Cooldowns that are very short or nonexistent allow the player to make use of the abilities more frequently, and since abilities are a great source of fun that seems like a no-brainer at first. The crux comes when the abilities are powerful and the cooldowns low.
The player, as a result, becomes an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. What challenge is there with that? What fun is there in playing a game that plays itself? World of Warcraft has suffered from the kick-back from this. In order to keep players level set and not too overpowered, abilities which can be used quite often are less impactful. This makes them feel less fun, and turns what should be a mighty hammer of righteousness into a hammer-shaped squeaky-toy.
Games require a balance of the resources provided to us. If we are given ample amount of one we must be starved of another. Too many of every resource and the game only hurts itself. At that point it wouldn’t be “I beat the game” but rather “I watched the game,” because that’s what you have at that point, a movie.
How should abilities be fun to use, but not so rare you never get to use them? How many resources should an individual player have to balance? What is the punishment for not balancing them perfectly? Is the punishment different if I mismanage one resource or the other?
These are all questions I would implore you to ask yourself the next time you’re playing a game.