Design of Meaningful Actions

Sid Meier is often quoted as saying that a game is a series of interesting choices. I think we can all agree with this in the foundational aspects. Slay the Spire is a supremely good example of this. Where I think the good and the great spread out is the design of meaningful actions.

Games are full of actions, some of which stem from choice, some of which are from being forced down a path. In a game of golf, you need to hit the ball with a club – that action is required. The choice is related to which club you select, and the method of the swing. You need to take into consideration the distance, wind, pitch, obstacles, your next shot, and the money you have bet that you’re going to win the hole! If you play golf and at 175yrd you always pull out a 6 iron, then that’s not a choice. You’re not there for the game of golf, you’re there for other reasons.

Video games are similar. There’s the presentation of choice, and then the act of a meaningful decision. Today, failure states are nearly non-existent in game design. Battletoads had a failure state. Fortnite has another match. Even in the MMO space, failure is simply a time factor (take longer to take down a boss). That impacts the choice, in that its either the “better choice” or the “status quo” choice. The value between these two is meaning.

I’ll use WoW as an example here since it covers such a wide swath of MMO design choices, but the concept is found elsewhere. Combat in WoW is mechanically bound to three concepts.

  • The damage/healing ouput
  • The resource cost
  • The time before re-use

The damage output is both simple and complex. Simple in that the numbers displayed can be easily compared between various choices. Complex in that designers throw in synergies that make a specific flow of skills more powerful than if randomly selected, of if there is more of a specific resource to use.

The resource cost is important because it is limited. Otherwise it would simply be “use the strongest ability all the time”. Design choices favor resource exhausting choices vs. resource building choices (e.g. mana > combo points) as there are more choices in that model. If I can pick from 10 skills and have full mana, there’s a choice. If I have no combo points, I only have 2 options, until I get to max points, then reset.

Time before reuse is cooldown related. This slows down the pace of combat. FF14 is a slower game than WoW because of the inherent global cooldowns. Designers often put the most powerful of skills (damage or resource generating) behind long cooldowns. In that sense, the skill has less choice, because it’s often so powerful you want to use it on cooldown. There are exceptions, such as progression raiding and burn phases (You don’t want Bloodlust on the first trash pull.)

Meaningful Actions

My definition here is that the action itself has a meaning that is larger than a single purpose. An action either has significant damage, significant resource impacts, or significant cooldown impacts. It is not possible to design a game with only meaningful actions. You only know they are meaningful because there are slower moments in between – the contrast is important.

So let’s look at a Fire Mage. Almost all their skills are locked behind cooldowns, and the priority is to use the one with the biggest number when available. You then fill in with Fireball (when stable) or Scorch (when moving). Fireball builds Heat Up, which boosts another skill. Critical strikes drive a lot of this build and make other options show up. Same with keeping enemies Ignited. This class is mostly reactive to situations, and the there is a flow of 1-2 actions between meaningful ones. I don’t think it’s possible for them to ever be resource exhausted. There was a time where this happened!

Healer next, and a Mistweaver Monk is up. They are a mix of HoT and direct healing, and also use a priority. You keep the HoTs up on the tank, throw a Vivify if there’s a spike, and keep Soothing Mists active so that you can throw an Enveloping Mists cast quickly. The HoTs are used to conserve mana, since chaining Vivify will drain you super fast. There are some cooldowns, but the majority of choices are about mana efficiency. The most healing, without overhealing, for the least amount of mana.

Rogue now. They are a feast or famine class where your most effective skills are either locked behind cooldowns or require you to be at 80/100% of combo points (resources). In order to build resources there is only 1 skill, which may trigger a reactive skill that can boost it further. The resource consumption skill uses all resources, and you need to rebuild. You end up with 1 meaningful action, followed by 2-5 meaningless actions. The kicker in this is that the meaningful actions are typically the most meaningful over time (Slice and Dice, Poison, Roll the Bones). Your most damaging direct abilities are actually bottom of barrel in comparison to other classes. Oh, and the class is resource restricted with Energy, which actually prevents you from building resources. Feral Druids (who have 4 specs) and Windwalker Monks are similar design choices (WW skills do not drain all combo points). DH and Warriors are also energy building classes, but they only have 1 resource to manage. Warlocks appear to be dual resource, but they never have mana issues.

Simplified View

The meaningful action is gated by 3 main factors. When more than 1 of those gates are present, then it’s not meaningful (e.g. double resource penalty, and low damage). It isn’t a question about being effective, that can be tweaked with numbers. It’s a question of rewarding. Is it fun to play a class that’s slow as molasses, continually restricted in choices, and has “dead time”? I recall a fundamental redesign of DKs as originally all their actions were rune-limited, with slow generation.

I am not saying that Rogues & Feral are broken. I am saying that their fundamental combat design seems archaic compared to every other. For damage classes, Blizzard has removed the mana restrictions almost entirely and replaced it with cooldowns. If the button is there, click it. For resource building classes, the “fun classes” have skills that consume a portion of resources and then are cooldown locked (short periods). The job of that class is not to continually rebuild, it’s simply to maintain (Hunters are mana maintenance).

Again, this isn’t a numbers issue. If they boost the resource consuming skills, then you get massive bursts of damage and periods of nothing – that actually makes it worse. Re-scaling of all skills to raise the filler damage and reducing the consumer doesn’t help either, since it muddles the actions to 2 buttons that do the same thing. Adding a cooldown skill that does similar effects to a resource consuming skill feels like a bonus, but both are already dependent on cooldowns to accelerate resource generation. Removing the energy mechanic completely would get rid of all “dead time”, but require some re-scaling of skill damage. It would still be feast/famine mode, but the duration of famine would be dramatically reduced. The final option is to rebalance the consuming skills to only use a portion of resources, so that you could potentially chain consumers.

I’m sure this is a watercooler conversation in Blizzard. Curious if there’s ever any action on it, as the focus seems to be on the “numbers” rather than the “fun”. And there are plenty of other “fun” things in WoW. It’s just too bad that that Rogues get the short end of that dagger.

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