Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

4 April, 2009

Interesting Mechanics: Non-mana resources
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 1:08 PM

I want to do some analysis of interesting game mechanics. I think often developers don’t really look at game mechanics to really understand them; often it’s, “Hey, that’s cool, let’s copy it!”

For this installment, I want to look at non-mana resources for characters.

Defining Resources

What are non-mana resources? These are resources a player uses to fuel abilities besides mana (or direct mana replacements like “skill” or “power”). In WoW, this would be Rage and Energy; in LotRO, this would be Fervor or Focus.

Resources are something that players have to manage in a game. Mana, put simply, is a way to limit the player from mindlessly pounding on the most destructive power he or she has endlessly; in a traditionally balanced game, a player who did this would run out of mana (or other resource) quickly and be unable to perform other actions. A skillful player will know how to manage the resources for the largest return.

In some games, this has changed. In some games, the more immediate limiting factor is a cooldown for the skill. A skillful player must know how to use character abilities with the right timing to maximize damage. This is the concept of a “casting rotation” common in WoW raiding.

Mana is a pretty straight-forward resource. You have a maximum pool and regenerate mana over time. A player can increase the maximum pool to be able to cast more spells before running on empty; alternatively, a player can look for ways to increase regeneration to regain mana faster. Generally, a larger pool is better for large bursts of activity (like PvP), whereas regeneration helps in an event that takes longer (like a raid boss encounter).

In WoW

Non-mana resources fill the same role, but they work differently. Let’s take a look at WoW’s examples first.

Warrior types in WoW have a stat called Rage. The maximum pool is always 100 and does not scale upward with level. The value starts at 0 but increases in combat by doing and taking damage. Some warrior abilities generate rage, and others require a certain amount of rage to be spent to use the ability. Outside of combat, range will disappear.

Rogue types in WoW have Energy. This also has a maximum pool size set to 100 (although that can be increased slightly in some situations). Energy regenerates fairly quickly, but at a set rate. Abilities require a specific amount of energy.

Death Knights have Runes and Runic Power. Runes are like Energy, and Runic Power is like Rage on a very crude level.

What is the point? The way these stats work is to change the pacing of combat. For a warrior (or druid in bear form), the beginning of a combat tends to be a bit slow, especially if they are attacked unprepared. A warrior must focus on generating rage. Once the warrior gains some rage, they can rip off some of their more powerful abilities.

For a rogue, however, they are almost always ready to go. If they finish one combat and get into a second one quickly, they will not be “mana starved” like a caster would be. During a longer combat, rogues already have a pace set by the constant regeneration of energy, although they have to make a lot more smaller decisions about when to use an ability and when to let energy regenerate for a more costly attack.

The downside is that this creates different, incompatible systems for your players to deal with. A newbie caster may not understand that a warrior has to build up rage to get to their good abilities. Also, things like mana potions and gear that increases Int stat are useless for the classes that don’t use mana.

In LotRO

LotRO is interesting in that every class uses mana (called “power”), but a few classes have additional non-mana resources to manage.

Champions have Fervor points, that work similar to Rage in WoW. A champion’s basic attacks increase fervor, and the advanced attacks require fervor to be spent. Some of the champion’s toggle abilities will generate fervor over time while in battle and they get an ability to instantly generate some fervor, too. The maximum pool is set at 5 points. Fervor goes away if the champion is not in battle. The same abilities that give champions fervor points also give big bonuses to power regeneration, so that the main limiting factor is fervor points, especially in shorter combats.

Hunters have Focus points, which work similar to Fervor points in many ways. The two main differences are that Focus points go away if the hunter moves, and the maximum pool is 9 points.

These two resources change the behavior of the two classes. Champions are encouraged to build up fervor to get to their more costly and more powerful attacks. At the beginning of combat, a Champion has limited choices, but they open up as more fervor points are generated. Hunters, on the other hand, are encouraged to plan ahead. Moving around a lot means that the hunter will not get access to their higher level abilities. Maintaining range and using immobilization traps (or a good tank) is important for a Hunter.

Other possibilities

What other game mechanics could use resources?

One way to keep all classes using a mana system to to give them a unique flavor is to change how mana regenerates. For example, a system where mana regenerates faster if you have more mana in your pool would mimic some aspects of the Energy system in WoW. It would encourage users to perform single actions then wait for the mana bar to regenerate. A character could then burn through a mana bar for a big effect, but would then take longer to regenerate.

Another idea is to tie game mechanics to the amount of resource a character has. Some WoW skills do this for Rage or Energy, where the ability consumes any remaining resource and converts that to damage. For a mana-type resource, you could give a bonus based on the amount remaining: an interesting idea would be to give a small “desperation” bonus to damage if the user is low on mana. A player could then decide if he wanted to conserve mana “just in case” or burn through the mana bar quickly and stay nearly empty for a bonus.

So, what do you think? What other types of resources have you seen in games? What other types of resources could you have for a character in a game?

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  1. Guild Wars has “Signets”. These abilities are balanced by different cast times, recast times, or must meet certain pre-requisites to be used. has a list of all the concepts used, some more than in WoW at the moment. There are also “Upkeep” mechanisms, some permanently active (until cancelled) spells reduce energy income for example. Guild Wars also makes the relative power of a skill depending on the points in an attribute. So you must make a choice whether to have two very strong or three or more somewhat balanced attribute lines and go with the corresponding skills.

    Death Knights are outstanding in WoW, in terms of class design. They have the most advanced mechanics when it comes to reducing downtime. They either have runic energy ready or their runes active. In fact DK’s can leave a fight with more health, energy and runes active than at the beginning. They are an interesting lesson in class design, their only flaw is curiously that this concept basically knows no downtime, which elevates it above mana-based classes, even if these got changed to have mana for eternity basically, Mana never running out, which Blizzard wanted to correct and maybe already did so, did not play since december.

    Then there could also be reactive abilities: If the mob is knocked down or you if you can attack it from the rear, you gain special abilities/attacks whatever of opportunity, giving positioning more meaning and the player opportunities.

    Comment by Longasc — 4 April, 2009 @ 1:44 PM

  2. One approach which I like is the domination build-up for dominators in City of Villains. Domination is a resource that is slowly built up by using other powers (skills). When the build-up reaches 90%+ of the domination bar, the player can trigger the domination skill. The domination skill is essentially a skill-booster that lasts for 90 seconds – damage is increased, control powers have higher magnitude (more difficult to resist) and lasts longer. It also makes the character more resistant to mez effects.
    Essentially the character becomes more powerful in most things they do for a short period.

    When the time is up the bar empties and it starts all over again. The domination also builds up faster in teams – the larger the team the faster the build-up. There is a decay if no skills are used, but it is quite slow.

    Lotro:s Rune-keeper also have an interesting resource twist. The resource bar there essentially starts from a steady-state position in the middle. Damage skills changes the state on the bar in one direction, healing skills in the other direction. Skills associated with either side (damage or healing) becomes more powerful the further it goes to either side. So you cannot do both very well at the same time, but have to make some compromises. The state goes back fairly fast to the steady state and it is possible to go back and forth a bit within the same combat.

    Comment by Sente — 4 April, 2009 @ 3:13 PM

  3. Also part of this system would be the rogue ‘combo’ points seen in various games (WoW and WH come to mind), where certain moves generate combo points and others use them up. These are sometimes tied to the specific target rather than “in general”, so no saving them from one person to the next.

    WarHammer also used a rage-like mechanism for its melee healer classes, along with the mana system, with the ability to channel mana into ‘healer points’ over time.

    Comment by Trevel — 4 April, 2009 @ 3:16 PM

  4. In fiction there are lots of examples of wizards who make use of assistants to cast their spells, as well as those who work in conjunction with their peers to work magics that are bigger than what they can cast on their own.

    A simple way to implement this in existing game designs might be to create a shared mana pool among party members. You’d probably have to do other stuff to make this interesting though.

    Maybe with a big spell that cost more mana than one caster could provide… put it on a long cooldown so that you get a rotation instead of several mana batteries and one caster.

    You’d probably have to have 2 mana pools for this… one that stayed personal, and one that was shared. That way even if someone screwed up and wasted the shared pool an individual could do something.

    Comment by Vargen — 4 April, 2009 @ 9:16 PM

  5. As an aside, there’s very little about any existing MMOs that specifically takes advantage of the 3d world — ie 99% of the mechanics could exist in a text-based MUD. The only exceptions that come to mind are facing for melee, line of sight for ranged, and backstab. Most don’t even have collision.

    One ‘resource’ that could provide a fresh mechanic would be to somehow quantify the space around players or between players. Distance, direction, and relative facing can all be measured. Groups can then be assessed for relative cohesion or organization, and situational buffs or debuffs incurred (ie based on weapon type/size, or class, or w/e).

    I should footnote that Age of Conan’s Conqueror had a system of directional buffs, but it was an absolute failure IMO and represents only a very shallow use of spatial relationships as a mechanic.

    I agree w/ the poster above that the idea of group resources can be further explored. In the raiding model, group accomplishments reward the individual with individual loot. I would like to see more mechanics that reward the whole group for group accomplishments. ie what if your guild had a shared mana pool, used for very powerful abilities and perhaps only replenished by large-group endeavors?

    Comment by Matt Beals — 5 April, 2009 @ 10:07 AM

  6. “For a mana-type resource, you could give a bonus based on the amount remaining:”

    This made me think of manaburn, a wizard AA in EQ2. The wizard spends all of her remaining mana, and the damage dealt is proportional, with a very solid multiplier. If the wizard doesn’t get the kill shot, she has no mana left and a mob that is very unhappy with her. I like this idea, actually.

    Comment by Toldain — 6 April, 2009 @ 8:55 AM

  7. One option that’s rarely taken in most MMOs today (I can think of one: Ragnarok Online) is the use of ‘reagents’ to power skills, occasionally even more so than the use of mana. This could be implemented in a number of different ways: one possibility might be the use of bulky and/or weighty reagents to replace a certain /amount/ of mana, energy, or whatnot in the application of skills, taking up potentially-valuable inventory space until they’re utilized. Alternately, as RO does it with Red, Blue, and Yellow gemstones, certain skills could simply require those reagents on top of the normal cost, usually for skills which benefit an entire group of people.

    I do think, though, that the most interesting _possible_ mechanic that already exists in nearly every multiplayer game, is team cohesion. In thinking from the opposite end, developers could come up with an encounter or mechanic which is far more effective if the team works together and pays attention to what the others are doing. Say, a group of five crystals, each on opposite ends of a large chamber, that have to all be smashed within a 5-second period, to weaken a large mob within the chamber. (Mind, that’s weaken, not ‘render defeatable’.)

    Similar, though on an opposite tack, to the above, A Tale in the Desert has a number of ‘digs’ at periodic intervals, for a useful resource – cut-able stones. If all of the players are continuously digging at full capacity, and too few players pick up any of the stones, eventually it results in wasted effort, as about 10 stones can be on the ground around a hole at any given time. Paying attention to the others and knowing when and when not to dig helps the entire effort, and gives a good indication of when a group is too large.

    Finally, in City of Heroes (as well as a LOT of others) there are some skills which are best applied to a large group of enemies rather than individual ones. This isn’t as much of a resource as it is a tactical decision: at what point do those skills become less beneficial than others for the amount of energy they take (or time to recharge), and how safely can they be used without swarming the whole party?

    Comment by Theogrin — 6 April, 2009 @ 9:25 AM

  8. Reagents are indeed out of fashion, for good reasons. They were often annoying and limiting, not in a positive way. There need to be limits to skill usage and power, but reagents could either be very expensive and often making people just forget about an ability or had to be carried around by the dozen or hundreds.

    The Diablo III trailer shows Blizzard’s solution how to combat the potion guzzling of the earlier Diablo titles. Defeated mobs leave health powerups behind. So you can no longer stack up on potions and just overpower/”overpotion” enemy mobs and just get the resources necessary to recover and keep on going.

    Comment by Longasc — 7 April, 2009 @ 5:21 AM

  9. Interesting how we’ve moved from traditional RPG mechanics (reagents, potions) to a traditional arcade mechanic (powerups). Although you could argue that Diablo was more arcade to begin with…

    The nice thing about consumables such as reagents is that it, in theory, allows design to reward strategic gaming — plan ahead, know the enemy, and stock up. However in practice I think it needs to be coupled with other systems. Some sort of limiter on what can be carried/equipped could do it, though taken to far will be equally unpopular. Also, reagents could enhance (or alter) abilities instead of being strictly required.

    Anyway, I generally agree that reagents as executed in the past are just a monetary tax put on certain abilities.

    Oh, and soul shards, wtf?!?

    Comment by Matt Beals — 7 April, 2009 @ 9:49 AM

  10. It might be interesting here to try to define a categorization system for action resources.

    One useful approach is what the Gartner Group calls their “magic quadrant analysis,” which is just a fancy name for defining two axes at right angles to one another, forming four quadrants. Each axis represents some quality of a thing, where the two endpoints of an axis are the opposite poles of a spectrum for that quality. The trick is to try to figure out the two most important qualities are for the thing you want to understand — once you’ve done that, the individual items in each of the four quadrants formed should fall into the most important categories.

    This approach has a really handy benefit: it’s a good way of highlighting gaps in product coverage. You first define the four quadrants, then you fill in each quadrant with a broad selection of representative products from the system you’re studying. If at this point you see that one quadrant is nearly or entirely empty, then you’ve discovered what might be a good area for products of a new kind.

    In the case of action resources for characters in online games, we might say that the two most important qualities of action resources are their Form and their Generation. Form — Abstract or Tangible — describes whether resources are some innate aspect of a character or are physical objects outside the character. And Generation — Collected or Regenerated — describes how those resources are obtained through gameplay. (I think a good case could be made that these are two important qualities, but I’m definitely open to suggestions for qualities that might be more determinative.)

    That gives us four quadrants: Abstract/Regenerated, Abstract/Collected, Tangible/Collected, Tangible/Regenerated.

    Abstract/Regenerated resources would be the typical “mana” types. This quadrant would include Energy as well as “Action” from the original Star Wars Galaxies.

    Abstract/Collected resources would be those which characters must perform actions to gather but which aren’t represented by tangible objects. Examples of resources in this category would be Rage/Fervor and Domination.

    Tangible/Collected resources would be physical “things” that characters would need to accumulate, and which would be destroyed by use. Reagents are one example of this kind of resource, with physical spell components being the general case. But ammunition could be understood to be another such Tangible/Collected resource. In fact, we might even say that money constitutes an important form of this kind of resource, the acquisition of which enables certain sorts of character actions.

    And then there are Tangible/Regenerated resources. What the heck are these? What kind of physical resource starts out topped off in a player’s inventory, then after being expended restores itself automatically over time?

    I’d say this might be an interesting place to look for alternatives to “mana” and other action resources. :)

    I came up with one possibility here, which I call “pet juice” for lack of a less disgusting term. This would be some resource which character pets naturally generate. It’s external to the character, so it has to be sort of carried around, but it’s also self-regenerating after use (assuming your pet is still around and is not affected by anything that prevents pet juice regeneration).

    Any other ideas for some different forms that a Tangible/Regenerated action resource might take?

    Finally, what about this approach? Too high-level to be useful for coming up with alternative gameplay mechanics? Or useful, but needs some tweaking?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 7 April, 2009 @ 3:07 PM

  11. Huh, that’s an interesting way to classify resources, Bart. One side-effect of these types of organization systems is that you have odd categories that crop up.

    Your “Tangible/Regenerated” resources are interesting. The first thing I thought of were usable trinkets and short-term buffing potions like in WoW. Although you don’t usually need these to use your abilities, but they give a small boost to your abilities at the right time (or on a regular basis, depending on the boost).

    Perhaps instead of trying to think of this like quadrants, you can define a series of attributes for the resource. For example:

    • Regenerating – Does the resource come back (or refresh) on its own under normal circumstances, or must it be gained through some player action?
    • Internal – Is the resource innate to the character or does it come from an item or other target?
    • Required – Can the ability be used without the resource, or is the resource something that just gives a bonus?
    • Pool – Is the resource a pool that is used or a single, discreet unit?

    So, mana would be typically be “true” for all these categories. A trinket would be regenerating, not internal, not required, not a pool. “Pet Juice”, as Bart defines, would be regenerating, not internal, required, and a pool. You’d still have strange resources like Hunter Focus in LotRO, where it is diminished if the character moves.

    I’m sure you could come up with other attributes, too, but these are four off the top of my head.

    Some further thinking about this topic. Any other thoughts?

    Comment by Psychochild — 8 April, 2009 @ 8:22 PM

  12. Reagents were also rather useful in preventing the inequality between magic users and warriors. Warriors naked are useless, while wizards end up being pretty much as powerful as before. By requiring said wizards to reequip with reagents, it placed a brake on their abilities.

    It also led to a lot of emergent behaviour with the stealing skill – robbing a wizard of his key reagents could greatly weaken him.

    One issue with UO’s reagent implementation was the economic system on top that made shopping a crazy chore. While it is cute to see second hand reagent shops actually become practical in game, it isn’t all that fun to keep shopping. An interesting twist on reagents may be to make it easy to acquire them – one click fill up of your reagent bag before heading out. The reagents thus become a “max number of spells” you can cast before returning to town. This sort of non-renewable resource adds another strategy of resource conservation on the encounters.

    Comment by Brask Mumei — 9 April, 2009 @ 11:38 AM

  13. >> Perhaps instead of trying to think of this like quadrants, you can define a series of attributes for the resource.

    I think that’s a perfectly valid alternative. The quadrant approach is handy for showing clustering — or, more interestingly, “odd categories” where there’s a lack of clustering.

    But listing characteristics in a multi-column, multi-row chart form can be a good way to brainstorm about the distinctive qualities that a collection of things might share — our old friend Mr. Spreadsheet to the rescue! :) (I can’t resist putting in a plug here for the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. There may not be a more effective single-page aid to creativity on the entire Internet… which is saying something.)

    In the case of finite resources, some other characteristics that spring to mind besides Regenerating, Internal, Required, and Pool could be:

    • Units – a number ranging from 1 to Bignum. A value of “1″ indicates a one-shot resource; a larger number signifies a repeatably depletable resource. (This might just be a slightly more specific way of thinking of a “Pool” characteristic.)
    • Reset – can some event reset the resource counter, either to zero or maximum? (This would distinguish resources like Hunter Focus.)
    • Group, Leader-owned – is this a resource that exists only when two or more players are formally grouped, and which is available only to designated group leaders? (Note: “group” as used here can mean either temporary pick-up groups or persistent “guild”-type organizations.)
    • Group, Shared – is this a resource that exists only when two or more players are formally grouped, and which is available to all group members?
    • Guild – is this a resource which is available only to members of a persistent player organization?
    • Public – is this a world resource which any player can draw from (possibly according to some rule(s) of play)?
    • Expandable – can the maximum amount of the resource controlled by a player or group be increased? (If “yes,” indicate whether the increase is temporary or permanent.)
    • Control-only – is this a resource which is not used by a player or group, but which is only controlled by a player or group with active usage being restricted to other players or groups?
    • Side Effects – are there negative side effects which scale according to the amount of the resource a player or group controls or uses?

    Just a few more ideas there. Any others? And could combining some of these, along with the initial four Brian suggested, produce some types of resources (with appropriately interesting names, of course) that haven’t been seen in online games but that might be fun alternatives to straight “mana”-type resources?

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 10 April, 2009 @ 2:53 PM

  14. Reagents, hehe, I like that – shows its fantasy roots though as most people use it in reference to chemical reactions, personally I call it ammo ;)

    Not sure if you’d consider it a ‘resource’ but it has the effect of limiting a players use of an ability is something like the ‘counter’ or ‘reaction’, like in Vanguard where a specific effect that the mob does to the player triggers the abilities availability, think along the lines of a ‘parry’ ability which is more or less useless unless someone tries to hit you first. D&D 4th Ed. has the concept of ‘bloodied’ where a monster or player gets additional abilities when they have been reduced to 1/2 or less of their hit points.

    Offshoots of this are abilities that remove conditions from a player – activating them is useless if the player doesn’t have the condition, or combo style abilities that require a mob or player to be already suffering from a condition in order for the ability to take effect (you see a lot of that in Guild Wars or Magic the Gathering).

    Maybe another ‘limitation’ could be considered animation time. I vaguely remember something about Age of Conan where female avatars were less effective in combat due to having longer animation sequences than the corresponding male avatars, very similar to a cooldown timer though I guess. Speaking of which, its been ages since I’ve played, but don’t most spellcaster types in WoW and the like tend to have spellcasting timers as well? So not only did the spell have a cooldown but it took a set amount of time to cast and if you got hit there was a chance of disruption of some description?

    Of course none of these are really ‘resources’ I guess, but to my mind the key is limiting the players access to repeated use of an ability.

    Comment by TickledBlue — 19 April, 2009 @ 7:49 PM

  15. On the Blogroll: Psychochild

    [...] give you a few recent hits, there are two posts to help you avoid that digital sand on non-mana resources and defining “indie.” I note this first one because it approaches the topic in a well [...]

    Pingback by Kill Ten Rats — 12 June, 2009 @ 6:53 AM

  16. I’ve only ever seen reagents done well in a game, and that is actually Psychochild’s Meridian 59. The way posters here regard reagents make me sad – it means they’ve never experienced it done right. Reagents are not ‘ammo’ at all when done right. Reagents turn Strength (carrying capacity) into a metaphysical measurement of how long your character can fight. Instead of relying on a number, HP, the player has to make choices as to what to carry and use. Meridian 59 also limited the number of arrows in the same way as reagents, by giving them weight.

    The end result of this is PvP combat that changes over short durations. Everything may go ‘according to plan’ in the first fight, but players may start to run out of certain reagents as early as the second fight, forcing them to innovate or fight differently. Often, fights begin with high-level spells and skills, ranged attacks like arrows and lightning bolts flying… then arrows and bolts are expended… the fighting tends toward backup tactics like short-range ‘splash’ spells or melee weapons… and then, mana and buffs start to run out, changing everything again. This kind of organic changing competition blows all other MMOG PvP out of the water in terms of depth and enjoyment, because even games like Guild Wars rely on an ‘artificed’ experience, where people talk in terms of ‘spell rotations’ and ‘cooldown timers’ and characters are more or less always operating exactly as the player designed them to operate. There’s no innovation in systems like that, no ‘true skill’.

    Comment by Gar — 28 July, 2009 @ 11:59 AM

  17. Unique Mechanic

    [...] that there is less feel of “mana or something slightly different,” although you do get rather different effects from bars that build up during combat and those that empty out. Or I could be completely wrong, [...]

    Pingback by Kill Ten Rats — 1 September, 2010 @ 11:03 AM

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