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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