Elephants, on the other hand, NEVER forget

Design by Numbers: Cooldowns

Maximum Cooldown Time: 6-12 seconds

Purple hippos. Green puppies. Red monkeys. Short term memory is an interesting thing. Yellow birds. Blue horses. It can only hold around seven items (give or take a few, depending on your level of concentration.) Which means for some of you “Orange lizards” is going to drive the first animal right out of your working memory. This is why most game controllers have around seven buttons — White spiders, Pink fish — and most successful action games don’t even use that many. Player’s simply can’t hold all those options in their heads at the same time.

Elephants, on the other hand, NEVER forget

Orange elephants.

But the most important aspect of short term memory isn’t how many options player’s can remember, but how long it takes for them to fade. Or how short. Neurological research indicates that we start to forget details as few as 6 seconds after being introduced to them. After 300 seconds we are only half as likely to remember a concept, and after 10 long minutes… forget about it. (Sorry.) So that means, depending on your reading speed, you’ve almost certainly forgot the first animal by now.

This has a direct application in determining the length of cooldowns for abilities in action games. (In this context, a “cooldown” is the amount of time that must elapse after an ability is used before it can be used again.) The player stores the fact that an ability was used in their short term memory, and if the cooldown doesn’t expire before they forget about it, they may never use it again! It sounds preposterous, but how many times have you seen someone go through a tutorial on how to use an ability, use it successfully once or twice and appear to understand how it works, and then get utterly baffled when required to use it again just a few minutes later? How many times has that happened to you when playing an unfamiliar game? I know it has happened to me more times than I can remember. (Sorry again.)

So, if a cooldown prevents a player from using an ability for more than 6 seconds, there is a risk that they will stop using it entirely. An onscreen indicator that a cooldown has expired helps, but habituation and change blindness limit how effective an indicator can be, especially when it changes very rarely. Repetition helps, because it transfers knowledge of the ability into more permanent memory, but even this is tricky because with a long cooldown what the player will be committing to memory is the fact that the ability is unavailable, making them even less likely to use it. The options, then, are to use very short cooldowns — between 6 and 12 seconds — or rely on a very noticeable reminder when ability is available again.

You missed a spot.

Indicators have their own problems

For an action game, where onscreen indicators are not desirable, long cooldowns lead to mechanics that are often ignored and quickly forgotten. Maroon walrus.

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He's about to have an experience he won't forget!

Put to the Question

If you want to learn something, read about it.  If you want to understand something, write about it.  If you want to master something, teach it.

– Yogi Bhajan

Successful designers are those that have the discipline to edit their work.  Generating gameplay ideas is exciting and easy; discerning those with potential and removing the rest takes resolve and vision.  But you’ll never get where you are going if you walk down every road — you must cut!

Removing game elements is usually straightforward.  They are almost always part of a collection of similar elements, so they can be compared on an apples-to-apples basis.  They are often specific instances of a general system — the Assault Rifle is an instance of the Weapon system, the Goblin is an instance of the enemy AI systems — which means that most of the work that goes into them can be applied to other elements and isn’t wasted.  An element is associated with a certain amount of work that must be scheduled for the models, textures, effects, sounds and animations, so it is easy to measure its impact on the overall scope.  And finally, since an element is by definition discrete, it can usually be removed with virtually no impact on the rest of the game.

This guy's name is Needler

Some elements just don't fit in

“Is this mechanic going to be fun?” is a good question, but impossible to answer.  Prototyping can help, but it still takes discernment to recognize the potential in a prototype.  It also represents an investment of resources, which can bias the team toward keeping a prototyped mechanic that ought to be cut.  “Can we implement this mechanic?” is also a good question, but “can” is not “should” and “implemented” is not “tuned”.  “Has a mechanic appeared in another game?” is a useful question, but isn’t necessarily relevant to the current game.  “Does everyone agree this mechanic is good?” is a seductive, but destructive, question; it replaces a designer’s instinct with general consensus and will lead to “downhill design” where the only possible solutions are the easiest ones.  The single best question for determining the potential of a mechanic is “Can the player be taught to enjoy this mechanic?”

He's about to have an experience he won't forget!

Not everything is teachable

Answered honestly, this question has far-reaching implications.  If a player never uses a mechanic, it might as well not exist in the first place.  If a player fails to realize that a mechanic exists, it is too subtle or the game is overly complicated.  If a player refuses to learn a mechanic, it probably doesn’t fulfill a fundamental aspiration for them — they will never be interested.  If a player is unable to learn a mechanic, it is probably unintuitive or it clashes with other aspects of the game.  If the designer cannot distill a mechanic down to teach it, they likely don’t understand the mechanic themselves.  If a mechanic can only be learned through explicit tutorial, it probably has an awkward or obscure control scheme.  Any of these problems are fundamental enough to warrant removal.

On the other hand, if a mechanic can be taught effortlessly — or better yet, players discover it on their own — or if mere awareness that an experience is possible is enough to motivate them to learn how to access it, this is a sign that a mechanic is reaching them on a subconscious level.  This kind of mechanic can be integrated into their thought process and lead to a fluid flow experience.

Definition: Game Mechanics

Game Mechanic

A single constraint on the possible gameplay actions that determine a part of the player’s experience.

According to our working definition of gameplay, the purpose of a game mechanic is to constrain a game’s interactivity so that it guides the player toward a fun experience.  Tuning these contraints is one of the most important game design processes.  However, in order to tune game mechanics, it is necessary to understand what mechanics are and how they combine to form gameplay.

First, let’s look at how a single game mechanic constrains the possible actions a player can take.  Often these constraints are explicit rules like “If the King is put in check and cannot legally escape, the king is checkmated and the game ends in a loss for that player.”   Sometimes they are limits enforced by the simulation; there are some gaps that Mario can only jump while running.  The most important constraints are usually determined by the game’s control scheme.  After all, the player can only perform actions which are mapped to available inputs.

Another common type of constraint is the player’s objective in the game.  For instance, a goal in Pac-Man is to eat all the dots.  This limits the player’s behavior because any interaction that does not involve eating dots is irrelevant to the game.  This mechanic divides all the entire spectrum of possible actions the player can take into two halves, actions that are permited and those that are prohibited.

More DoTs!  More DoTs!

Pac-Man suffers from OCD

Game mechanics guide the player experience by removing some alternatives and emphasizing others, but by itself, a single game mechanic is not a game and cannot lead to a fun experience.  In fact, a single game mechanic by itself is barely even interactive.  With only one constraint, there is only one option.  There is no room for choice or skill or expression.  To demonstrate this point, I built a “game” based on a single dot-eating game mechanic.

Pac-Line

(My free Flash host can no longer keep up with demand, please click this link to load the example.)

In order to actually define an experience, game mechanics must be placed in opposition to one another, much like the legs of a tripod.  That way instead of creating a single boundary (and therefore no choices) they create a region of interactivity for the player to operate within.  This is what Will Wright calls a possibility space.  It is the sum of all the potential gameplay experiences, sort of the wave function of game design.
Triangle Man hates Pac-Man, they have a fight, Triangle wins

Or maybe the Triforce of Game Design?