Game Design: Armours and Resistances

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The moba genre has largely settled on an equilibrium with two armour types: Physical Armour and Magical Armour. Why is this the case, and could expanding the use of armours or resistances lead to greater complexity and depth?

In this discussion we’re focusing on armour types and resistances that players interact with. The rules that decide how much damage a ranged troop deals to a catapult are “environmental tuning”, and aren’t the focus of this article.


Fixed Factors

To begin our search for answers, let’s first review what armour types and resistances contribute to the genre, and establish why the current trend exists.

At any point in time, players face a constant fluctuation of variables which provide advantages and disadvantages over each of their opponents. Maybe one enemy is close to a wall and is advantageous to engage, but they’ve also just levelled up or got a new item that puts them ahead of the curve. We can visualise this abstractly as some kind of 2D surface, which I call an advantage map:

 

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Here, perhaps the enemy is vulnerable to our magic damage, but we are vulnerable to their physical damage. Adding more armour types and resistances would increase the dimensions of the chart, allowing more room for different contours of matchup:

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Armour types have a role to play in providing long-term strategic texture. As the damage type of an ability or attack is fixed and does not change during a match, the same is true of the relevance that damage types have in the game. Their permanence makes them an important tool in the designers kit for adding long-term dynamics to hero matchups. Many factors in decision-making are constantly changing (such as proximity to a wall, or current health); fixed factors are more stable, and create opportunity for strategy.

The presence or absence of fixed factors affects the weight of long-term choices, such as drafting or a player’s overall build plans. Generally, we want a certain ratio where both short and long-term choices matter, and fixed factors are key to managing that ratio. Too little emphasis on fixed factors, and smart short-term choices won’t tie into anything and become unrewarding; too much emphasis on fixed factors and we get long-term disadvantages that are very hard to turn around, such as complete outdrafts.

With armour types, we can manage the availability of items to control the timing curves for certain heroes/damage types. Physical damage might take a lot of items to become effective, while magical damage can taper off in the late-game due to a lack of steroids. Thus, a team which picks lots of magic damage has a fixed factor in their plan (they don’t have good options late-game), and both teams can manoeuvre around that.


Rock, Paper, Resistance

If you want fixed factors, resistances are about as fixed as it gets. Unlike armours where the strength of the defensive stat can be modified in-game, a resistance system uses predetermined values.

In such a system, each hero gets an “affinity” which alters any damage they take, depending on the affinity of the incoming damage. A familiar example is the pokémon resistances chart:

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Image from pokemondb.net

Here we would say that Fire-affinity attacks deal increased damage to units with a Grass or Ice affinity, and reduced damage to units with a Rock affinity. Players can’t modify the resistances table at all; it is part of the landscape on which they battle.

Flexibility is necessary for a resistance table to be fun! Players need opportunities to leverage the resistances table better than their opponents, proving their skill and providing satisfaction. Pokémon understands this: battles involve at least twelve combatants, and swapping or using off-affinity moves is core to its gameplay. Each player gets lots of opportunities to use different affinities, and there are even dual-affinity pokémon to increase the complexity.

In a moba context, we would aim match those properties: by making lane rotations easy/frequent, multiple-hero engagements common, or letting players alter what affinity they or their damage has, so they can actively adapt to bad matchups.

On the macro level affinities might work, but on a micro level they tend towards producing solved situations where one hero’s affinity advantage leaves little room for outplays. Getting into situations like this isn’t fun for either party, and there is constantly pressure on the weaker party to seek a more favourable engagement.

Let’s consider some possible implementation details. Damage is a fundamental mechanic, and making it more complex is like making movement more complex: it potentially affects almost everything about the game. Players need to understand affinities to play properly.

Hence, we would like the system to be as simple as possible.

The smallest affinity table has three affinities: enough to make a rock-paper-scissors pattern. Adding more is an option, but we’d need to support that additional complexity with very clear aesthetics: like pokémon does by making all its Fire-affinity moves look like fire. That places restrictions on the game’s aesthetic: entangling visuals with balance, and is not an ideal choice when the genre’s business model relies on letting players use a variety of cosmetics.

For existing examples of how affinities can work:

  • In Age of Myths, hero attacks are subject to a resistances table, but abilities are not. This is done with the purpose of balancing attack range and the items available to each hero class, and it works great!
  • Master X Master implements a rock-paper-scissors affinity system, which applies to all damage to/from heroes (and some neutral units too). The system works because, like perSonas, players in MXM pick two heroes and can swap between them. When faced with a bad matchup, swapping should ensure at least a neutral matchup (unless the player picked two heroes with the same affinity, which this system distinctly discourages).
    • The text showing damage dealt to units becomes more emphasised when an affinity advantage is being leveraged, which helps build familiarity with the system.
  • Elemental Wars made affinities and resistances its central premise, offered nice ways to interact with them, and was quite savvy to the potential issues.

My verdict is that resistances are potentially a good thing, but they come with a lot of responsibilities: for balancing, making them intuitive for players, delivering on flexible gameplay, and ensuring they contribute meaningful depth.


Weaknesses and Rules

Another important role for armour types and resistances is giving weaknesses to damage.

As the primary means of clearing creeps, taking towers, and killing enemy players: damage is universally useful. In order to give other mechanics a chance to shine, we want there to be some situations in which raw damage isn’t as effective.

One way to create those situations is write rules that say “X takes less damage from Y”. A simple example would be “buildings take less damage from heroes”, which forms the beginning of a resistance table as described above.

However, there are many more rules we could write to describe when damage will be less effective. Some rules will be general game rules, while others will be attached to a specific passive or active ability on a hero or item. Some will be categorical in nature, while others will depend on some numerical values like positioning or current health.

The chart below plots four classifications of rule for damage modification:

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  1. General & Categorical: A general game rule which reduces damage based on fixed types like “is the damage from an ability” or “is the damage tagged with affinity fire“. This is largely equivalent to having a resistance system!
  2. General & Numerical: A general game rule which modifies damage based on some current numbers. A simple example would be “damaging an enemy who is facing away from you always deals +50%”.
  3. Specific & Categorical: A rule specific to an ability or item, that modifies damage from a certain category of damage source. For example, an item which blocks an incoming single-target ability every 20 seconds.
  4. Specific & Numerical: A rule specific to an ability or item, which modifies damage based on some current numbers. Example: reduce damage from enemies who are more than a certain distance away from the hero.

As we know, categorical properties don’t change and they form part of the long-term strategic texture of the game. Numerical properties do, and hence they are open to tactical manipulation.

All players must abide by general game rules, making them formative of the game experience. Ninjas on Battle.net has a rule where heroes are slowed upon taking damage, and this alters the gameplay considerably.

Conversely, any rules which are specific to certain heroes or items can receive varying emphasis depending on how much players interact with them, hence their being marked on the chart as interactive rules.


Armours

Of course, there is always the possibility of overlap between the rule classifications. We could have a rule that says “buildings under 50% life take less damage from heroes”; this is both numerical and categorical.

In fact, there is one specific damage modification rule that overlaps with all the categories:

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Armours are an adjustable stat that modifies damage flagged with a certain ‘type’. This makes them both categorical and numerical. Armours are formative because they apply to everything in the game, but also interactive because their influence can vary on a per-unit basis. This makes them a very versatile mechanic for introducing weaknesses in damage.

To take it slowly, lets examine a game with no armours whatsoever, and introduce an armour for the first time. Having a single armour type is possible: we end up with damage that ignores armour (“pure” damage), and damage which doesn’t.

This isn’t a good arrangement, because either:

  • Pure damage is uncommon and armour protects against most things (armour becomes too valuable).
  • Pure damage is common and there’s no instrument to interact with or counter it.

This may have been the case for some old AoS maps which didn’t use magic armour. In those games, abilities would deal a fixed amount of damage, which was countered by building max health to reduce the proportional impact. Not ideal for the designer: max health has so many other uses that it can’t be tuned for countering pure damage in isolation, and players have to deal with fuzzy/overlapping choices.

Having two armour types like physical and magical is enough flexibility to allow high-damage heroes like nukers to exist without breaking the game, because while their damage is high, it has an inherent weakness: either it’s all of the same type and can be countered efficiently, or it’s of split types and becomes difficult to build for.


Tropes and Variations

The most common forms of armour resolve to a percentage modifier on damage. However, we defined armour as “adjustable stat that modifies damage flagged with a certain type”, and we could apply that stat in other ways. For example,

  • ‘Physical armour’ could offer a flat reduction on incoming physical damage.
  • ‘Magical armour’ could determine the health/duration/cooldown of an anti-magic shield that can be temporarily activated (as an active ability that all heroes have).

These have some quirks (how does physical damage over time overcome a flat reduction?), but there’s nothing wrong with doing it this way.

We’re accustomed to strong correlation between damage types and damage sources: “physical attacks” and “magical spells”. This arrangement means that heroes usually have access to both damage types, even if one is weak. These correlations aren’t a bad thing, as they establish trends, and exceptions which break a trend make things interesting.

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Should stats like Evasion and Block count as armour types? Well, they can if you shift your perspective! One way to look at it is that evasion (as a counter) “defines” attacks, in the same way that physical armour (as a counter) “defines” physical damage. The equivalent for evading spells is spell immunity, which is an armour type that operates on a temporary activation basis, like we described above. (In DotA, the duration of spell immunity is a variable value!)

So if you have evasion and spell immunity as two varying stats, that’s effectively an armour system and it covers most incoming forms of damage. Anything that neither evasion nor spell immunity can block is the equivalent of pure damage. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a moba where this was the primary perspective!


The Third Shield

armour-types-2In most lane-pushing games, the physical/magical split has a huge influence on how players draft, choose items, and use their abilities. Imagine the complexity if a third armour type and corresponding damage was introduced…

Let’s call it Runic Armour.

I’m going to pick some correlations that I think would integrate relatively seamlessly into the existing moba format. Namely, we’ll say buildings and boss objectives have minimal Runic armour, so heroes with Runic damage have an easy time taking objectives, and said objectives get back some physical armour to compensate. This fixes an unhealthy side-effect of having only two armours (which is appropriate for PvP), where heroes with physical dps or which reduce physical armour get to be effective against buildings as a freebie.

We’ll also declare that Runic damage is usually delivered in melee or close range, so heroes need to directly engage objectives to get the most of it (but maybe some hero gets to be the exception to that), and that it’s uncommon, with maybe 15-20% of heroes having native access to it. Catapults probably deal and are weak to Runic as well.

For hero combat, Runic damage would be relatively low (it deals almost full to buildings), but it doesn’t have to be worthless. We can supply items/abilities that apply negative Runic armour to heroes only, or give a high percentage of mana leech on Runic damage: giving Runic abilities the opportunity to fill niches that others don’t.

These are undeveloped thoughts, but I think they demonstrate some of the room that armours have to potentially increase depth, if they’re assigned a purpose and properly integrated.

On a smaller scale, we could define narrow-interest armours: such as a support armour which protects against supportive nukes and reduces the duration of crowd control, or a creature armour which protects against damage from summoned units. Consider a nuke which reduces a hero’s creature armour, or choosing to give towers an on-hit passive that reduces an enemy’s support armour, making them more vulnerable to usually-harmless supports.


Conclusions

At this point we should have a clear understanding of why the two-armour system has been the standard for so long: it adds a fixed factor that the designer can easily tune, and gives damage some much-needed weaknesses. Resistances and affinities are a high-maintenance addition, which most games have understandably chosen to avoid (for hero vs hero interactions).

Introducing new armour stats, or more generally, variable hero stats (which might not correspond directly to damage) helps to to formalise interactions, and improve players’ understanding of modifiers that are currently fixed percentages, and don’t stack intuitively. These stats typically aren’t formalised yet because they’re used infrequently, but as a game expands, having a system in place becomes more valuable. For example, Heroes of the Storm recently reached a point where using percentage-modifier buffs to apply damage modifiers was proving cumbersome, and the game has now moved to a more standard armour system.

We are in a genre where deep mechanical interaction is so important, that exposing or introducing more stats for manipulation feels like a natural progression as games expand. Whether it will be new armour types or otherwise remains to be seen!

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Game Design: Three paths to victory

As a follow-up to the victory conditions article, I thought I’d briefly share an arcade game which has a few parallels to mobas, as food for thought regarding victory conditions. It’s called Killer Queen, and it’s played 5v5 on a 2D platformer-style battleground, with short 1-3 minute rounds.

The game loosely models two beehives at war. One player on each team plays as the powerful queen, while the rest play as workers. There are a number of ‘gates’ around the screen which workers can use to upgrade themselves to soldiers, gaining wings and an attack, but losing the ability to help complete objectives. Teams must find a balance between military presence, gate control, and progressing towards one of the three victory conditions:

  • Economic Victory: Fill your hive with berries.
  • Military Victory: Kill the enemy Queen three times.
  • Snail Victory: Ride the snail into your own goalposts.


Blue is way behind on berries, but Gold’s queen is on her last life.

Having three ways to win is the core of the gameplay, and the result is very dynamic, with a variety of rush strategies, slower positioning games, and sudden upsets. All three victory conditions are viable individually, and can also be used as distractions or threats while working towards a different victory. Knowing when to pivot, and when to go all-in is part of the strategy and fun.

The challenge of having three unrelated victory conditions is trying to assemble some sort of narrative that players will understand, otherwise they won’t know why they lost. This proves tricky, and Killer Queen employs a few different ideas.

Firstly, at the start of each round the game flashes the three victory conditions to all players:

killer queen victory condition splash

military victoryThis is a good starting point, to make sure players know that there are multiple victory conditions

Secondly, once a team wins, the game will zoom in on the finishing blow (in whichever form it took), and say exactly who won and how. This is effective because rounds are short, and players can learn quickly from the directed feedback.

Finally, the game borrows familiar symbolism from other games. The goalposts for the snail victory are depicted by a soccer net, while the queen’s remaining lives are represented by a row of eggs from which she hatches to revive. Neither of the above is consistent with the “bees and beehives” setting, but they make the mechanics easier for players to grasp.

Uniting 3+ victory conditions into a singular cohesive narrative would be a struggle for any game, and it’s easy to see why Killer Queen chooses to rely on external reinforcement and familiar cues when getting its message across. An arena game taking inspiration from Killer Queen might find success with a similar approach.

I would be less confident trying to have multiple victory conditions work in a lane-pushing game. With longer match durations, a clear narrative is important to keep players focused, and each additional victory condition starts to fragment that. We don’t want players to feel that their progression throughout the match was worthless, because now the team is moving towards a different goal. Trying to find a balance where pivoting is viable but not necessary would also be a challenge. Having multiple paths to the same victory condition is the “tried and true” approach in the genre at the moment, and I don’t expect to see that change any time soon.

If you’d like to observe the game in action, check out some of the links below.

Further reading: Killer Queen official website, Competitive gameplay footage

Game Design: Alternate Victory Conditions

This article was prompted by a discussion among the FantasyStrike.com community, which was aimed at exploring alternative victory conditions in MOBAs .

Just about every commercial MOBA shares the same victory condition of “destroy the enemy base”. Isn’t there anything that could be done to introduce some variety?

Before we begin, the word MOBA is used more inclusively by some people than others, so for clarification we need to divide the answer into two cases: lane-pushing games, and arenas.


Lane-pushing games:

The “obvious” way to describe a lane-pushing game is to describe the lanes: they are paths connecting each team’s main base, troops spawn periodically and march along them, there are towers placed along the way, and so on. But, these details are implementation-specific. What we’re really looking for is whether the game has abstract “lanes”, which satisfy the following three properties:

  1. They provide a heartbeat of information about enemy movements.
  2. They motivate constant PvP tension.
  3. They create a consistent narrative around the victory condition.

To understand why these properties are important, we first need to establish what principles will serve as the foundations of the game we want to make, and build up from those. The first principle (or requirement) I’m going to propose is that we want a game where players are able to make informed strategic decisions. Not every game wants to emphasise that property, but here, we do.

To make informed decisions, players need information. Not necessarily complete information, but they need “enough” that they can infer what the enemy’s plans might be. We need this information to be reliable and updated frequently, or it fails to be stable enough that players can make meaningful inferences from it. Hence, I call it a heartbeat.

The particular information that’s important is the position of enemy heroes on the map. To know an enemy’s position, we (usually) need vision of them. But since information is so valuable, heroes really don’t want to give away their position. We need them to do it anyway, otherwise there’s no heartbeat for the enemy team to work off. Hence, we need an incentive for heroes to show themselves. If an enemy hero is ignoring the incentive, then we can still infer something from that behaviour.

The incentive needs to be always-desirable, because we need the heartbeat to be steady. If sometimes there’s no incentive show up, then we’d learn nothing from their absence.

It turns out that having a source of income on-lane is perfect as an always-desirable incentive: everyone could always use more resources! I am going to assume that all valid incentives are sources of income (for some resource) for simplicity.

Despite seeming like a valid contender, pushing doesn’t count as an always-desirable incentive. In most games, a single hero can’t make significant progress against an enemy tower, and it’s safer and more efficient to wait until later when towers can be tackled as a team. Thus, the hero isn’t going to try pushing now, so the incentive doesn’t work.

To recap, our abstract “lanes” must be:

  • Consistent
  • Visible to one team
  • A source of income for the other team

Now, the above doesn’t require that the “lanes” meet. A minimal implementation of a game which has a heartbeat might look like this:


A concept game with permanent “income zones”.

The red circles are visible to the red team, and give income to the blue team (and vice versa). That’s enough to supply a heartbeat of information, but still sounds like a pretty terrible game: since players are actively encouraged to be nowhere near each other.

To make the game fun, we need to bring in a second requirement: we want constant PvP tension. Introducing this is easy: give players on both teams an incentive to be in the same place, and they’ll start fighting! If the incentive/reward is constant, then the PvP should be relatively constant too.

If the PvP reward is ultimately awarded to only one team, we’ll start to see a problem. Players will sometimes conclude that they won’t be able to contest the location enough to get the incentive, and withdraw, resulting in less PvP. Hence, we need to at least partially reward participation.

So far, there should be some persistent places on the map which supply the heartbeat of information by being visible and a source of income, and some (other) areas on the map which motivate PvP by offering a reward to both teams for being there. Lets draw those PvP areas in purple:


The purple PvP zones aren’t persistently visible to either team.

We can go one step further: the natural union of these two game design requirements is to have places which are equally visible for both teams, and income sources for both teams. Such a location will then qualify to have PvP tension as well, and we can draw it below:


Income and PvP together.

Our abstract “lanes” are now:

  • Consistent
  • Visible to both teams
  • A source of income for both teams

There are far more qualified people than I to discuss the importance and function of narrative in games, but I’ll run through the basics. Essentially, the narrative is “framing” the player’s experience of the game, and just like a story, it encapsulates the beginning, the middle, and the end, and makes them fit together and flow smoothly. The player should intuitively know where they are along the journey, and what they need to accomplish next. Pragmatically, the narrative provides players with a sense of structure and direction, and a well-implemented narrative will also improve the readability of the game state. Having a narrative is our third game-design requirement.

The particular narrative we implement is necessarily going to depend on the game’s victory condition. We can’t construct a cohesive narrative which suddenly has a different ending.

One meaningful victory condition for a PvP game is achieving 100% map control. If the enemy controls the entire map: you lose!

None of our game-design requirements so far have specified that our abstract “lane” locations need to stay in one place. We could actually have them move around if we like, and in particular, we could slide them around to represent progress towards the victory condition (how much map control each team has). It makes lot of sense that something about the “lanes” represents progress, since being “on-lane” is what players are doing for a large part of the game.


Oh… this looks familiar…

At this point, what happens next is obvious, and we might as well bring in the RTS terminology. “100% map control” is a parallel for “destroying the main base”. Our abstract “lanes” are actually the points on-lane where troops clash, and they move back and forth depending on each team’s map control. When the troops converge on the enemy main base, that represents 0% map control, and eventual defeat.

The “lanes” are now fulfilling all three of our game-design requirements, and the union of these three principles in a single mechanic is what for me, defines a “lane”, and forms the foundation of the genre of “lane-pushing games”.


Arenas:

Gosh, that was a long section! I’m glad the arenas one is short: they’re just anything that doesn’t have lanes (as defined above).

That is not to say that arenas can’t try to meet the same requirements, of informed strategic decision-making, constant PvP tension, and narrative structure, but that they don’t rely on a single mechanic which unifies the three. I believe there is plenty of room for exciting arenas which are pretty close to lane-pushing games in spirit, just with slightly different mechanics.

But in general, most arenas don’t even come close. They don’t have the broader resource management necessary to be strategic games (I would consider them to be games of tactics instead), and use short narratives like “capture this flag” or “fight to the death” to create variations in their PvP tension.


Alternate Victory Conditions:

It almost seems like time for an afterword at this point, but actually all of the above was necessary for us to even discuss victory conditions! I am going to focus on lane-pushing games here, since arenas are pretty trivial.

Earlier, I claimed that victory conditions like “100% map control”, or its less abstract parallel “destroying the main base” were meaningful, but that doesn’t exclude other victory conditions from being meaningful. Nintendo’s recent game Splatoon has a mode where majority map control at the end of a countdown is the victory condition. A new game could experiment with almost anything.

Once we’ve settled on a new victory condition, we need to adjust the “lanes” so that they fit into the new narrative. There are plenty of ways the lanes could change to represent progress; perhaps they move in a different pattern, or teleport around. They might not move at all, and instead certain lanes start having bigger or smaller incentives depending on what’s happening. What’s important is that they remain consistent with the narrative, and players can visibly see their progress towards victory or defeat as part of what they spend most of their time doing.

With this done, we have a new “lane-pushing game” which satisfies our game-design requirements, and probably plenty of fresh new mechanics and corollaries to consider. I would like to believe that there’ll be plenty of twists and innovations of this type popping up in the next few years, and I’ll be excited to see them when they do!

Further reading: The original thread

Game Design: MTQ

I have recently been reading a book called How Life Imitates Chess by former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, in which he describes strategic analysis and decision-making as he has learned them in chess, and relates how the same techniques are applicable to decision-making in other areas of life.

In this informal article, I’m going to discuss how Kasparov’s model for decision-making can help us to analyse lane-pushing games. Warcraft III actually gets a mention in the book as “a distillation of the MTQ concept”, so I find this a particularly exciting and appropriate exercise!

MTQ stands for Material, Time, Quality. In the book, the factors affecting a decision are divided among these headings, and I will be applying the same categorisation to lane-pushing games. By analysing general approaches to decision-making, we can learn how to make decisions more interesting.

I am not focusing this discussion on any particular title, but I will draw on examples from various games (and chess) where relevant. I hope it might offer some fresh perspective on the genre.


Material:

“The fundamental building block of evaluation is material. Assets, stock, cash, goods, pieces and pawns, it’s all material. We look at the board and the first thing we do is count the pieces. How many pawns, how many knights and rooks? Do I have more or less material than my opponent?”

In chess, Material equates to pieces. The game begins with a fixed number and distribution of pieces in play, and they are gradually removed from the board.

In an RTS like Warcraft III, a match begins with almost nothing on the battlefield and players must build up their material over time: choosing soldiers and technologies according to their needs. Much of this material will be lost in fights, but essentials like upgrades and factories are usually there to stay.

Let’s examine how material appears in a lane-pushing game:

  1. Like chess, we have material which will leave the board, never to return. Towers and other buildings exist from the start of the match, and are gradually demolished.
  2. Like an RTS, there is material which will enter the board and is there to stay. As players gain gold/experience, they form wealth which will materialise as items or talents. In general, players don’t have established wealth taken from them, as this is snowbally and feels bad.
  3. Unlike chess or classic RTS games, some material will (re)enter the board at a fixed rate. Troops are a perfect example: no matter how many troops are lost, the fact that a team “has troops” won’t change, even though in the short-term their quantity can vary. I refer to this as dynamic material.

Lane-pushing games use a lot of dynamic material, and that makes it an important subcategory for us to understand. Other common examples of it include:

  • Jungle camps and bosses are valuable assets which can be defeated, but will respawn at a fixed rate.
  • Wards and smokes in DotA restock at a fixed rate.
  • Heroes flow back into the game after being killed, at a predetermined rate.

In the short-term, we can gain an advantage in dynamic material by eliminating enemy material. Killing enemy troops will result in having relatively more of our own; killing enemy heroes allows us to outnumber the survivors and get things done. The fixed rate of re-entry is important, as it determines the window of time for which one team will hold advantage.

While dynamic material flows onto the board at a fixed rate, the rate at which it leaves is variable and controlled by the players to create temporary localised advantages.

Often, dynamic material has some soft limit on how much will flow into the game. For example, troops tend to collide and annihilate, jungle camps do not spawn if there is an existing camp, and there is a limit on how many wards will be in the shop at once. Players need to make a conscious effort to circumvent these limits. If this wasn’t the case, the map would end up swamped with units!

Non-dynamic material, which is permanently gained and lost, is known as long-term material, or just Material. Surprisingly, most lane-pushing games have only the two types mentioned earlier: wealth and towers. DotA additionally has super-creeps or mega-creeps, whichare a permanent advantage once achieved. Contrast with League’s super-minions, which are dynamic because they only last for a limited time.

It is valid to consider the rate of a dynamic material as a long-term material. For example: consider that a jungle camp could be “destroyed” by reducing its spawn rate to zero. Simply reading that sentence is a bit jarring, because of how pivotal such a mechanic would be.

That’s enough about dynamic material. For the rest of this article, we are primarily interested in long-term material.


Time:

ChessSetIn chess, both armies start out in tight formation, with the more powerful pieces boxed in behind a row of pawns. As the game progresses, players develop their pieces: getting them off the back lines and into the field where they can pose a threat.

Kasparov brings up the notion of board time: how many moves it takes to get a piece from A to B, or to get several pieces in position. Since players take turns to move, it would seem that both players should be moving or developing at the same rate, but in practice this isn’t the case.

For example, suppose there is a white pawn with no pieces defending it. A black knight could capture this pawn on one turn, white might develop a piece which threatens the knight, and then black’s knight retreats to its previous square. This would have no net change for black’s position, and hence contributes nothing to black’s development.

White might be happy to let the enemy knight run, knowing that the ‘extra’ turn bought time to move pieces into a better position, or eke out some other advantage. This is an example where the white is exchanging Material for Time.

In the right hands, board time is a very valuable commodity. Being a move ahead allows one player to set the pace of the game, forcing the other player to react. The seemingly tiny asymmetry in chess of white moving first has great statistical significance:

“At the Grandmaster level, white wins 29% of the time, black 18%, and 53% of games are drawn.”

In a lane-pushing game, a time advantage must be quantified in seconds, since the game happens in real-time. Every action, like pushing down a tower, or running across the map to defend it, takes a certain number of seconds. When one team can accomplish an objective before the other team can arrive to stop them, that’s a time advantage in action.

The simplest case of a time advantage is the enemy being too far away from an objective to intervene, but a more damning case is when the enemy is simply dead and unable to act until they revive. It doesn’t matter how much material a team has, if they can’t put it to use where it counts.

We can draw a link between time and mobility, particularly on the global scale. If heroes could teleport freely around the map, no-one would ever be late for an engagement!


DotA is an interesting case study. It’s standard practice to invest gold (material) in teleport scrolls, a consumable which allows players to save time when moving around the map. The item is cheap enough to almost always be worthwhile, since the resources gained while out in the field will almost immediately recover the cost. Only very late into the game will players consider exchanging time back for carrying more material; dropping their teleport item in favour of more damage.

What if teleporting in DotA didn’t cost gold, but instead drew from the other long-term material on the map: tower life? It would be a harsher exchange and likely less fun, but there is something clinical about it that would make people think.

A weightier mechanic than teleports is the buyback (pay gold to revive immediately), which can buy a lot more time, but at considerable material cost and severe limits on its usage. In the 6.83 patch, buyback availability proved to be the major consideration in high-level DotA tactics.


Since the maximum time lead in a lane-pushing game is rather short, using and maintaining a time advantage is difficult. The onus is on the players not to dawdle, but instead to milk every second they’ve got, particularly when material has or is being exchanged to keep the enemy players at a distance. “Space created!”, yells the dead player who has kept the enemy team occupied with hunting them down; leaving it to the rest of their team to make use of the extra time that has been bought.

Indeed, “space” and positioning are intertwined with the Time heading. Outpacing the opponent in chess is more comparable to outmanoeuvring in a lane-pushing game than anything else.


Quality:

“We often talk about having a ‘good’ bishop and a ‘bad’ bishop, and this jargon provides insight into the qualitative differences of material things. The bishop can travel as many squares as it likes in any diagonal direction, but only on one colour of the board.”

“If many of the squares of the bishop’s colour are occupied, its mobility is extremely limited. Such a bishop is called ‘bad’, but its intrinsic nature is no different from when the game started. Its quality has been diminished by the circumstances around it.”

Quality is defined by usefulness, given the situation. Players should always be looking to improve the quality of the material they have. Of course, there are an enormous number of factors that affect the any given unit’s usefulness, all of which must be evaluated in real-time. The difficulty of this calculation is one of the greatest challenges of the genre, and also one of its great attractions.

MTQ_1In chess, the intrinsic quality of each piece is fixed: a Queen is strictly better than a Rook. But chess is a very positional game: a Knight might be trapped uselessly at the side of the board for most of the game, and then suddenly become relevant later on. Even the humble pawn can rise to the power of a Queen if the board is right.

Fundamentally, quality is always defined relative to the board state.

How does this manifest in lane-pushing games? We know that a carry will find greater relevance in the late-game, because its intrinsic value increases exponentially with each item due to multipliers. The increasing game clock is one way in which the board state is changing, but what about others? Towers fall, the number of troops might increase, and certain niches like split-pushing or defending base entrances become more valuable… but the change in game structure is relatively minor compared to chess, and I wonder if more could be done to explore heroes becoming relevant in new situations.

In most lane-pushing games, board state is largely determined within menus. Character selection/drafting sets out the initial pieces, with choice of items/talents adding variations throughout the game. Having these choices wrapped up in the UI, which are mostly made relative to other choices that were made in the UI, means that Quality is a much less tangible category than material or time.

If we want to change this, there would need to be a way to influence the board state in a meaningful way. Being able to affect the element of League of Legends’ elemental dragons, or a means to permanently modify the terrain could be potent examples that affect further item choices.

Lane equilibrium and warding/vision count as part of the board state. These are generally short-term concerns, but are certainly important.


Interchange:

Intrinsic to the MTQ system is the idea that material, time, and quality can be interchanged, and practical decision-making involves evaluating what we have, what we need, and where we’re willing to make trade-offs to exchange one for another to achieve better utility.

To theorise, the ideal “most interesting” game might support a system in which all three categories are constantly being weighed against each other, with players making calculated trades and compromises between them to defeat their opponents. It is important that trading be inefficient and rationed, otherwise having an abundance of one category would give teams the flexibility to convert to exactly what they need on-demand. But, is allowing interchange between all three really the best approach? Let’s break things down by considering each of the possible exchanges:

Material for Time

Revisiting the example of Buybacks in DotA: they are a mechanic to exchange material for time. It generally counts as an “inefficient” trade, since players can’t recoup the full cost during the time they bought unless they manage to net several kills. Buying back at a material loss can still be the right decision, to defend an objective or otherwise, which is what makes it add depth to the game. It is important that buyback availability be limited, both to avoid large material leads negating time advantages, and to ensure deaths still matter as the game’s narrative implies they should. It is also worth noting that reserving the gold for a buyback usually means not having bought an item, which means the hero has less material value.

In chess, threatening checkmate allows a player with a time advantage to force defensive reactions from their opponent, disallowing them from using their full army and even using their material against them as they struggle to manoeuvre around their own pieces. Sacrificing some material can be worth it to mount an attack on the enemy king, because once in check, their army is only as good as the pieces that can usefully defend.

Time for Material

What about the reverse, exchanging Time for Material? In theory, this is happening whenever a player is in an unhelpful, poor, or immobile position, but gaining material as a result. In a well-designed game, the more out of position a player is (the worse their Time), the more risk they are taking, and the more they should be rewarded for it (with Material).

Sometimes this takes shape in the form of invading the enemy jungle to tap into an otherwise risky resource, or diving a tower at great risk to finish off an enemy hero. Split-pushing also fits this definition, and often split-pushers are heroes with escape mechanisms to overcome the disadvantage and risk of poor positioning.

The presence of teleports in many games reduces the Time cost in this exchange, as you’re not running late until there’s somewhere you need to be, and teleporting lets heroes arrive on time to respond, regardless of where they were. Are teleports a healthy mechanic, if they make this type of trade too forgiving?

Material for Quality

Here, we’d need to let players pay material to enact changes to the board state. The simplest example is “buying wards”, though vision is so precious that the material cost is rarely considered.

To imagine a more serious exchange of material for quality, suppose we could spend gold on terrain deformation, permanently altering the troops on a lane, or upgrading a tower to be immune to heroes but extra-vulnerable to troops. Any of the above would change the way the remainder of the game would be played, though we must be conscious that players will look to optimise their use of these features and none should be able to reliably defang the enemy draft.

While this is relatively unexplored territory among the commercial games, many of Warcraft III’s AoS maps allow players to spend their material on reinforcements (a dynamic material), repairing towers, or many other ‘Quality’ options (such as buying True Sight for their towers).

Time for Quality

Time equals positioning, so here we’re inspecting bad positioning that produces a more favourable board state. Split-pushing again serves as an example here, as split-pushers often aim to force a favourable lane equilibrium at the risk of their safety.

Another benign example would be the ability for a hero to sit in stasis for 2 minutes, to seal off a lane for 2 minutes. That definitely puts the team in a bad position, but the change in board state might be a qualitative improvement as there’s less lanes to defend.

Quality for Material, Quality for Time

It’s a bit tricky to discuss “trading away quality”, since that sounds bad by definition! It’s also difficult to decouple a less favourable board state from a loss in material, since so often the board state is determined by which buildings are still alive.

To give at least one example, suppose players could choose to burn their ward items for a sum of gold: reducing their team’s potential for vision (which forms part of the board state) but allowing them to amass more material.

Other

We mentioned earlier in the article that there is both dynamic and non-dynamic Material, and we’ve seen examples of how these can be prioritised. The axis of short-term versus long-term also applies to Time and Quality. If a player could not teleport for 10 seconds after dealing damage, then clearing an enemy troop wave would create an advantage in dynamic Material, but a short-term disadvantage in Time.


Conclusion:

Ultimately, our goal is to provide players with a volume of options that is manageable, and to make sure that deciding among them is non-trivial. Viewing the game through the MTQ framework helps us to describe the nature of each option as an exchange between two of the categories, and makes it easier to evaluate the results of that exchange, and how to tune its efficiency and limitations.

For me, one of the more interesting observations from writing this article is how towers have relatively little involvement with decision-making. It’s quite rare that players can improve the quality of their towers, or “spend” them to gain advantages in other areas. Considering they are the one case where we really are losing material (gold gain is often correlated with other choices, or recoverable), I feel they deserve to be experimented with more.

Game Design: Drafting Without Bans

This article was motivated by a discussion among the FantasyStrike.com community, which laid out most of the points in the first half of this article.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with the concept of drafting, the pre-match ritual in which players negotiate the characters that will be in-play during a match. Typical drafting phases consist of an alternating sequence of picks and bans. I’ve listed the drafting sequence for several commercial games below. There’s some variation, but they’re all pretty similar:

These complicated sequences with picks and bans are usually considered the most balanced mode available, and as such is used for tournaments or matches with pre-arranged teams.

I’d like to point out some (trivially observed) mechanical properties of the format:

  • Bans are offered before the first pick. Teams can choose to avoid playing against certain heroes, if they deem them too strong in the meta, or want to limit their opponents’ access to counter-picks. This also serves as an automatic balance-correction mechanism to keep the game playable between patches.
  • Initiative changes frequently. Each team has the opportunity to see an increasing portion of their opponent’s team composition before increasing their commitment to their own strategy. As a result, it’s difficult to run all-in strategies (such as a zergling rush), since the opponent can see it coming and has a chance to prepare. In this way, the formalities of drafting reduce the potential impact of drafting.
  • Picks are unique. Once a character has been picked, it cannot be picked again. This encourages each match to have a diverse selection of heroes, and that each team will have an unequal set of advantages and disadvantages on which to capitalise. The resulting gameplay is more dynamic.

We can also make some observations about the impact drafting has on the game:

  • Personalises the game. Using bans, teams can steer the picks in a direction that favours their preferred strategy or style of play, which allows different players and personalities to flourish.
  • Keeps the meta fresh. Without dynamically removing some options, the meta might devolve too quickly.
  • Rewards valuation. The drafting phase is celebrated because it allows players to demonstrate and be rewarded for their deep knowledge of the game at a macro level. The timings for certain picks and bans is also a skill in itself.
  • Builds tension. Not to be underestimated, negotiations under time-pressure can build anticipation for the game to come.

So there are some great advantages to drafting in general. However, there is one aspect which has some downsides: the bans. It doesn’t feel good to have the hero you wanted to play taken from you. The only way to avoid getting caught is to play a mode that doesn’t have bans, but such modes are less balanced, and aren’t an option in a competitive setting. Bans also have some subtler negative repercussions:

  • Competitions should be an opportunity for players to demonstrate their skills when they’re at their best. Bans produce the exact opposite: if you get good at something, you don’t get to play it. It might free up other options for your team, but it doesn’t produce or reward the best play.
  • Similarly, if a team comes up with an innovative strategy and proves that it’s effective, their opponents can thoughtlessly and immediately respond by banning the heroes that were used and force the game back into a more familiar meta. At best, some usually banned heroes can be picked, and each team will get an equal shot at picking those. The strategist doesn’t see much reward for their innovation.

Most players, and particularly competitive players have come to accept that learning and playing multiple heroes is unavoidable. It’s easily rationalised by claiming that any skilled player would need to be diverse to avoid counter-picks anyway. Which is generally true, but something that we’d rather see emerge, than be enforced. Is there any way we could remove bans, without taking away from the things which make drafting good?

To address the above fully, we should also be removing unique picks; allowing both teams to have the same hero. This can be done, but risks producing degenerate gameplay (both sides pick mostly the same heroes and have less advantages to exploit). There’s also the risk of conflicting audio/visual cues since the same hero appears twice (unless, as in Bloodline Champions or Prime World, there are two copies of every hero).

I’d like to propose a new drafting mode to address bans. You’ve seen All pick, you’ve seen Captain’s pick. Introducing: Cherry_Pick Cherry Pick is a drafting mode which has no bans, and optionally supports mirrored picks on each team. Its premise is founded on the negotiation element of regular drafting: that part is a definite keeper. But if by assumption our opponents can always pick any heroes they want, how can we possibly exhibit control over their choices?

Simple. We influence the order in which they make picks. It’s common in drafting that we don’t want to give away our strategy too easily: we try to conceal information for as long as possible to avoid being counter-picked. How about placing that information war centre-stage? Rather than bans, I’m introducing a new step called an offer. An offer takes place in three steps:

  • Firstly, one team highlights a hero, and offers it to the enemy team.
  • The enemy team can either pick that hero immediately, or decline the offer.
  • No matter what they chose, the highlighted hero is then removed from the hero pool and can no longer be picked by either team.

This creates a “now or never” situation, where if a team really wants a certain hero, their opponents can force them to take it early in the draft, where it will reveal more information about their overall strategy.

The sample sequence below can terminate in 10 steps, or if every offer is declined, takes 20 (same as the current Captain’s Pick in DotA).

When a team accepts an offer, they skip their next ‘pick’ to ensure that initiative keeps changing. The first set of 12 steps will ensure each team has 3 heroes, before progressing into the next set of 8. There is plenty of room to adjust the specifics.

What can we say about Cherry Pick?

  • If a team wants to pick a hero, they are guaranteed to have a chance to get it, simply by not offering it away. This also makes the mode serviceable for casual play, since it accommodates players who want a specific hero.
  • Without enforcing unique picks, we tend to end up with picks that are unique anyway due to offers. This is great for diversity.
  • If there exists an overpowered hero in the pool, it’s unlikely to be offered away, and hence both teams will be able to pick it up during regular picks. This is also an automatic balance-correction mechanism, though games will tend towards always including overpowered heroes, rather than never.
    • A possible amendment is to have an initial step in which both teams blindly nominate up to 5 heroes, and any heroes nominated by both parties are ruled out. This helps players self-regulate to keep overpowered heroes out of their matches, and since it’s opt-in, doesn’t interfere with our goals.
    • Without the protective layer of bans, the game’s balance is under direct scrutiny, and must be managed properly.
  • There’s still a good negotiation process, keeping many of the positive features of regular drafting. The system builds on the existing complexity of counter-picks.
  • If we know for certain that the enemy team will pick a specific hero, we can target our offers on the less certain “supporting cast” and still gain valuable information about the enemy draft.
  • Even if every offer is refused because teams are terrified of commitment, we still have a fairly dynamic drafting phase (the offers were functionally “bans”).

This mode hasn’t been subject to competitive scrutiny, so perhaps there are holes. It might be optimal to offer easily-countered heroes first so your opponents never accept, or it might depend entirely on the particular moba and its heroes. Adjusting the sequence of offers/picks might be one way to take weight off the earliest offers if there’s a problem.

The name is derived from the nature of the mode: of the offers available, you only accept the ones that you really want (enough to commit to them early in the draft).

I don’t mean to give the impression that bans are the devil; in practice drafting with bans is still a workable system. It is because they are so accepted, that when the idea of removing bans from drafting came to my attention, I really wanted to try tackling it. I’m pleased with Cherry Pick, and would definitely like to iterate on it further.

Further reading: Sirlin on Game Design: Character Bans

Game Design: Equipments

In this article, I’d like to introduce a broad classification of gameplay elements which I find useful when describing a lane-pushing game.

As players progress through a match, they have the option of outfitting their hero with various long-term bonuses. I collectively refer to these bonuses as equipment. Each type of equipment has a maximum number of slots, and a variety of things which can be equipped to these slots.

I use a simple notation when describing equipments. An equipment with 5 slots and 100 options will be referred to as a 100c5 equipment (read this as: 100 choose 5). This might represent a team with 5 player slots picking from a pool of 100 heroes.

Having equipment is definitely a positive feature: players can enjoy innovating new builds and personalising their heroes, while teams are given a chance to adapt to enemy picks during the game.

Items:

The classic form of equipment is items, which ranges from 50c6 to 150c6 (six item slots with 50-150 available items to fill them). Items are the only form of equipment used in DotA, because they were natively supported by the Warcraft engine, and over the years the game built up around them.

As a result, just about everything that a DotA hero might need during a match is available in item form. This includes finite-use “consumable” items which can be used to heal or place wards, activated items which grant a variety of utility effects, and items which grant passive or supportive bonuses.

Summoner Spells:

A recent trend in the genre has been to divide the item pool into new types of equipment. League was the first to do this, introducing runes, masteries, and summoner spells; the most interesting of which is summoner spells. Why did League’s designers take certain actives off items and make a new equipment for them?

  1. Failsafes: The majority of League’s summoner spells have some defensive application (even if tangentially, like Clairvoyance detecting incoming ganks). This means that no matter what new offensive tactic emerges, champions have a way to adapt to it, hopefully eliminating the most serious imbalances. Further reading: Sirlin explains this mechanism really well.
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  2. Diversity: New equipments vastly increase the number of builds available to players. Suppose items are currently 100c6 (and make a few broad assumptions). Offering players a new 13c2 equipment in the form of summoner spells would add the same number of options to the system as adding 129 new items!
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  3. Item Rushing: In DotA, it is common for certain heroes to focus on getting a particular item as quickly as possible, because that item changes how the hero is played. Several heroes are balanced around the fact that they will almost certainly pick up Blink Dagger; it’s simply a matter of when.
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    Heroes which need a gold investment like this aren’t a bad thing, but once they’re balanced around the possibility of Blink Dagger, it becomes more difficult to give them any other build options. By giving those heroes the relevant spells from the beginning of the game, they are now free to be diverse and adaptive with the rest of their items.
    .
    Smite offers its ‘summoner spells’ as purchasable items in three tiers, with the first tier being affordable with starting gold so there is never a huge delay before being able to play a hero the way you want to.

So we can see there’s a pretty good set of arguments for setting summoner spells aside from items. What other reasons might we have for defining new equipments?

Understanding, Communication, and Validation:

Dawngate introduced yet another equipment type called roles. Each player picks one of the available four at the start of the game, determining the most efficient way for their hero to gain gold throughout the match. The roles roughly correspond to carry (bonus gold on-lane), support (bonus gold for helping out on lane), jungler (bonus gold while jungling), and ganker (bonus gold for kills). This equipment deals with economy.

Roles allow players to take any hero and play them as a jungler, or as a ganker, etc. Other lane-pushing games have indirect ways to choose a role, such as the Hand of Midas item in DotA, or the Smite spell in League of Legends. Smite (the game) has a small subset of items called “starting” items like Bumba’s Mask and Watcher’s Gift which also clearly correspond to particular resource streams, though these are lumped in with items.

Roles being a separate equipment has a number of advantages. By choosing a role, players are committing to playing the game in a certain way, which gives a sense of direction for new players, and makes for better communication and understanding among even experienced team-mates. This is great in terms of player psychology, but might be restrictive at higher levels of play where players may want to break out of pre-defined roles.

A few months ago, League introduced an equipment of their own called Trinkets, which allow every hero to interact with their team’s vision control in a specific way. As well as making communication easier, I felt this validated vision as a gameplay element in its own right. It was no longer competing with items for attention, and as a result it has become a more stable and well-integrated part of the game.

Decisions, Decisions…

In practice, lane-pushing games tend not to be games of exploration and experimentation. Above a certain level of play, players tend to allocate their equipments to maximise their stats, or to finish a “build“. One approach to defining equipments is to introduce them where they would streamline the decisions a player makes about their build.

Typically, after picking a hero but before the match begins, players can allocate some of their equipments. In DotA this would be starting items, but in Dawnage a player will have chosen their role, sparks, spiritstones, and the first of their spells before heroes have even spawned.

Each of these equipments represents a different decision in a player’s overall build. For example, sparks allow players to focus their stats on early-game or late-game by picking the appropriate sparks: perhaps choosing between getting a flat +1 armour, or +0.7% armour which becomes stronger late-game. Spells are generally geared towards adapting to the enemy team (they function as failsafes, as mentioned above), while items tend to be the meat of the build, but depend on gold income. So we can see that decision of “do I aim for early or late?”, or “how do I adapt?” is (at least partly) separated into different equipments.

Optimising Diversity:

So should moba designers create a new equipment to represent every decision, with the noble goal of making choices clearer and easier to communicate as we’ve discussed above? It’s possible, but we might not want to go too far. There is another important thing equipments bring to the table, which is diversity. To understand where I’m coming from, I highly recommend you take a moment to skim through my favourite article on the internet. It won’t take long.

The depth achievable from the interaction of simple rules is astounding. I think moba players intuitively understand this, because the genre has thrived on it. As designers, we want to use diversity to give players depth. To do this, we want to maximise the total number of unique final builds. Many of these builds will be bogus and never get used, but the total number is still a good measure of diversity.

We can calculate the number of ways to allocate an equipment quite easily. Summoner spells in League are a 13c2 equipment, which gives 78 possible configurations (try this at Wolfram|Alpha). Now, there’s a couple of things we are trying to balance:

  • The total number of unique final builds. This is our measure of diversity, and we want to maximise it.
  • The number of things a player has to learn. We want to minimise this, so we aim to have as few equipments and as few options per equipment as possible.
  • We also want the choices a player makes to be as meaningful as possible.

To maximise diversity, League’s designers could have made summoner spells a 13c6 equipment. This presents 1716 unique builds, which is huge! However, it would completely contradict our goal of making a player’s choices meaningful. There would be almost no cases where a player would be forced to pass up the Flash spell, for example. Being able to choose 6 spells would have lots of possibilities, but very little decision making. For this reason, we must be careful about how accurate our measure of diversity is in practice.

I mentioned earlier that if we have a 100c6 item equipment, adding a couple more items does very little to increase diversity, particularly compared to the number of things we’re asking a player to learn. We don’t want to give players more slots though, because while slots increase diversity, they trivialise decision-making. So what’s can we do?

The solution is to add more equipments. Summoner spells offer 78 possibilities, while Roles offer 4. If a hero had both, we can multiply their totals together to see that there are 78×4=312 ways to build for that hero. As we include more equipments, the number of unique builds shoots up very quickly. That said, we may want to use equipments sparingly, because each extra equipment is a significant extra thing new players must learn, and a gameplay element they must interact with forever-more.

An example of a game which uses few equipments but achieves an exceptional amount of depth is perSonas. While it only has 2 equipments (heroes and items), they’re (approximately) 50c6 and a 50c2, the product of which immediately gives 19 billion options, and very few bogus builds. I really like this approach of having few equipments, but well-populated ones. It seems to strike the right balance given our goals listed above.

A different approach is used in RPGs, which typically have many single-slot equipments. For example, a there might be 40 different helmets in the game, but a player can only choose one, making “helmets” a 40c1 equipment. Combining this with the various other item types like gloves, armour, and belts produces a lot of possible builds, though they tend to have a lot of correlation.

Making equipments represent different decisions is one way to avoid that correlation. For example, just because a hero takes the ‘jungler’ role in Dawngate, doesn’t mean they will necessarily take the Vanquish spell that helps with jungling, because spells are usually chosen to adapt to the enemy team. This means that more of the possible final builds are reached in actual games, though it’s hard to say how important adaptability is to the player’s perception of their completed “build”.

Final Notes:

Depending on how broadly you’re looking at the game, equipments can be expanded beyond items or summoner spells, such as considering the team to be an entity which chooses five heroes. In random-abilities type modes, such as those in Dota2 and HoN, abilities become an equipment where heroes have 4 slots and a pool of abilities to choose from.

There is a Warcraft map called “DotA CHAOS” which gathered a substantial following in Asia, eventually becoming a standalone game called Chaos Online. One of the new features in the standalone version was the introduction of a pair of item slots exclusively for consumable items, because consumables are so crucial in that game. Maybe some day we’ll see DotA 2 put teleport scrolls, regen, wards, smoke, and aegis in their own separate slots too!

Game Design: Ability Resources

This article is about ability resources: a type of mechanic which a moba designer can use to direct when a player should use their hero’s abilities.

If an ability is free, a player will use it in every situation where it is beneficial (or at least, more beneficial than attacking, which is also free). It is usually more elegant to make this kind of ability passive or toggled.

Active abilities on the other hand should have some kind of cost. Cooldowns create what’s called an opportunity cost: the cost of using an ability now is that it can’t be used later. Cooldowns are widespread and with good reason; they introduce a choice element to ability usage.

Another kind of cost is the spending of a limited resource, which I call an ability resource. The most common ability resource is mana, which the genre inherited from Warcraft. Mana has a couple of problems:

  • Downtime: Being out of mana is very crippling, and lasts for a long time due to its slow regeneration.
  • Restricts designs: Mana follows the attack pattern of a burst damage hero. It’s difficult for mana to make sense on a hero which is intended to gain power as a fight progresses.
  • Numerical distortion: Resource management becomes less important as the game progresses, as mana pools rise while mana costs are static.

There are however, some advantages to mana when we’re using it as a universal mechanic:

  • Greater variety of abilities: Examples include stealing mana from enemy players, dealing damage based on missing mana (a trump card for late in a teamfight), or absorbing incoming damage using mana.
  • Promotes teamwork: Players can help each other with their resource management by giving each other mana.
  • Coping strategies: Heroes have a wider variety of options for improving their ability resource management, because the same items work for every hero. In DotA, players can pick up Soul Ring (sacrifice life for mana), Magic Stick (generates mana as enemies use abilities), or many more.

Mana as a universal mechanic adds a great deal of depth to the game, but its problems are also serious. In particular, one of the sentiments echoed by League of Legend’s “design anti-patterns” is that mana burn, an effect which depletes an enemy’s mana, is unsatisfying to play against because of the out-of-mana problem.TGS_Preview

League has experimented with alternatives to mana for specific champions where mana just wasn’t the right resource for those champ designs. However, these new resources like Energy and Fury don’t interact with or benefit from the significant portion of items intended for heroes with mana.

Dawngate has adopted the approach of making all ability resources shaper-specific and private. Many shapers don’t have an ability resource, and just use cooldowns. The resources which do exist can’t be meddled with by items or other players; they solely exist so the designer can influence when abilities get used.

This affords a great deal of control, but I feel the loss of depth isn’t a good exchange.

A continuation of this article will be published at a later date.