Cooldowns: Worth Using?

Today, game design­ers rely on reuse timers as the means to con­trol the moment-to-moment econ­omy. The econ­omy of core game­play such as com­bat — not gold or XP. In essence, game design­ers use cooldowns to cre­ate a lim­ited resource, and thus apply a cost, on abil­ity or item use.  Why have cooldowns become common?

They’re sim­ple and easy to under­stand.  Even more so than the clas­sic energy or mana bar. They have a stan­dard­ized user inter­face, and they have an easy nar­ra­tive to expose to the player. Use this thing, and you can’t use it again for a while. Either you have to rest or it has to recharge. Of course, while the user inter­face may be sim­ple, the stan­dard resp­re­sen­ta­tion invite the player to spend his time star­ing at a row of HUD icons instead of look­ing at the game in action.

In fair­ness to what I’m about to say, I will prob­a­bly con­tinue to use cooldowns in designs. I just won­der if I still should. Cooldowns rep­re­sent an answer the lim­ited resource dilemma I posed long ago. The prob­lem? Cooldown absolutely fail at encour­ag­ing deci­sions that mat­ter. Fix one prob­lem, but invite another. Con­sider: If a cooldown has generic effec­tive­ness, rather than spe­cific or lim­ited effec­tive­ness, the appro­pri­ate response is acti­va­tion at every oppor­tu­nity. That’s not a deci­sion; it’s a rhythm game. Whackamole revisited.

Boil it down, and much of game design can be described as whack­amole. The game designer pro­vides stim­uli and the player responds. Of course, if there is only one response…players can and should acti­vate these cooldown abil­i­ties as often as they can, when­ever vaguely applic­a­ble to the game state. If an inven­tory or menu screen like is required, the designer has cre­ated an (annoy­ing) bar­rier to usage in which play­ers must over­come their own sloth. Great.

So, the prob­lem is that there is no deci­sion tree. Just press it. Sadly, this is true regard­less of the refresh timer’s dura­tion. A fast cooldown means the player is spam­ming, and even­tu­ally exhausted and bored by the monot­ony (or so you would think — Zynga’s busi­ness model still tries to prove me wrong). But a slower cooldown should still be acti­vated at every oppor­tu­nity. The down­sides here are the lim­i­ta­tions of human mem­ory and attention.

In the­ory, the cost of using a cooldown is the oppor­tu­nity cost of using the abil­ity or item dur­ing its refresh time. Of course, there’s no cost in the case of fast cooldowns.  On the other hand, it’s a chal­leng­ing expe­ri­ence for long cooldowns; how can the user pre­dict the future in a game? How can he eve remem­ber? Now, there should be sweet spot inbe­tween: maybe some­thing between a half minute and a five minute cooldown. But what’s the goal here? I can’t say that the cooldown are enhanc­ing the fun for the player. It seems more obvi­ous that we as game design­ers use cooldowns more as ele­ments of game bal­ance for both PvE and PvP expe­ri­ences. But for users both new and expe­ri­enced, the cooldown metagame is far from clear.

One Comment

  • If a cooldown has generic effec­tive­ness, rather than spe­cific or lim­ited effec­tive­ness, the appro­pri­ate response is acti­va­tion at every oppor­tu­nity. That’s not a deci­sion; it’s a rhythm game. Whack­amole revisited.”

    ^ Has never played Dota

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