Innovations: Ability Cooldown

Do you remember this game? It was amazing wasn’t it? You get to choose your favorite X-Person (THEY CAN BE WOMEN TOO!) and go fight against Magneto and his evil forces. But who do you choose!? Storm the controller of the weather? Wolverine with his indestructible claws? Dazzler … ? Well let’s say you choose Cyclops and at the first sign of a fight you do what any good Cyclops would do. You blast them with your eye-beam.

The Problem

What happened? They died obviously, but you took took damage too. See back in the old days, especially on arcade machine you paid in hit points for using your special powers. It is a despicable practice used strictly to suck money out of poor children who want nothing else but to play Cyclops the way God intended, shooting his eye-beams. Turtles In Time, another very popular and excellent beat-em up, had the same system. I can probably count the number of times I did Leonardo’s trademarked sword spin on the fingers of one of my hands. Sure it is his coolest move by far, but why would I take damage to do it, when I could just kill the bad guys manually and not take damage? Hell, even if I did take damage from them it would likely be less than what I would spend doing the move! So arcades did it to suck money out of us, fine. But its surprising to me how long it took to come up with a better way of handling special powers. Remember SNES and Genesis games like Streets of Rage and Final Fight? There are four Final Fight’s on SNES (at least last time I counted) and in ALL of them Haggard’s clothesline-spin took away life.

The alternative, was a some kind of energy system. Mostly stemming from the RPG world, it used a separate measure of energy, mana, or chi that would deplete when you used your special moves, and would need refilling with potions. I definitely prefer this system, I like to actually USE the abilities of my characters when playing games. But in games like these I found myself hoarding my energy. I still avoided using my powers because I was saving them for “when I needed them” usually I would end up dying with a full energy bar. Diablo had this down pretty well, your mana regenerated over time and you could assign points in energy to grow your energy pool even more. It was a fine system, and you can even attribute a level of skill to energy management and character building.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the mechanic of taking damage to do an ability. Actually I think it is a perfectly legit element of game design. It is a risk/reward choice the player has to make, and I am all about player choices. But sometimes those choices get in the way of gameplay, I certainly feel they did in the X-Men arcade game. Some games are just better when you are encouraged, or at least not punished, for using your abilities.

The Solution

Finally it happened. Ability cooldowns. Take Mass Effect as an example. You character has an ability like overload, which overload’s electronic devices. If this ability did damage to my character then I would never use it, I would just use my gun to solve all problems, it’s free. If overload needed energy, then I would save my overloads for times when I felt I really needed them, but where is the fun in that? In Mass Effect you can use overload as often as you like! The only prohibiting factor is you need to wait a set amount of time before you can using it again. This is completely genius. It lets characters spam the abilities that make them who they are and leaves plenty of design space to balance them. Imagine how fun it would be to be Cyclops in a game where you can spam your eye-beam in every battle? Well it would actually feel like you are playing as Cyclops. More powerful abilities can take longer to cooldown than basic abilities and that is perfectly fine. Sometimes cooldowns are combined with an energy system, as it is in most MMO’s but usually you have ample energy to use your abilities many times in a battle and it isn’t an issue.

I don’t know where this came from, or what game was first to do it. I really “understood’ how wonderful it is when I played Mass Effect. First I was in the mindset of conserving my powers for big encounters because I was still in a “Fable” state of mind. But then when I realized that I will always be able to cast my spell later, no matter how much I used it now, the game became twice as fun for me. You can build your character in several different ways and actually count on your skills to effect the gameplay. Not a single battle went by in Mass Effect when I didn’t use every one of my skills and it was amazing fun.

Since Mass Effect I am really struggling to name a single game that has special powers and doesn’t incorporate cool down as the limiting factor. I honestly cannot think of any off the top of my head on recent consoles. That is because everyone has caught on. This system is brilliant.

Mana, energy and even self-inflicted harm are still fine and usable gameplay mechanics, and they definitely can work but in many cases it only makes the game less fun and gameplay monotonous. I am surprised it took such a long time to come up with the cooldown system. But who am I to talk? It’s not like I was screaming it off the roof of my house in 1998. I salute whoever was, because this is probably the best thing to happen to games since trigger buttons.

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