geekdynasty

trials and tribulations of albert lai

Mana Mia!

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Let’s just roll with the pun, I’ve been staring at this title bar for thirty minutes and I’m just going to keep it like this.

I’ve been thinking about the MP/Mana bar for a while, and the more I consider it, the more I’m convinced that mana is one of the really old traditions in the game industry that really needs to be re-examined. It’s like a really old piece of furniture that you keep around for sentimental value until you realize it’s unnatural weight and musky odor is less because of its great value and age and more because it is 60% spider eggs.

In almost every single game that uses anything approaching magic you have a ‘mana bar’ which represents how many times you can use special abilities before you fall back on basic attacks. I don’t know exactly when this tradition started, but it’s safe to say that it was probably itself a refinement of old D&D rules, which had the even worse system of treating spells like one-time magical fever dreams that you got every time you went to sleep.

The issue I have with the mana system is that in many cases it encourages a rationing system to skills. It’s a pretty straightforward exchange system : Mana = Heads Explode. In many games, mana regeneration is limited so that once you use up all your mana you’re out unless you spend some period of time attacking normally, which was basically your punishment for having the gal to use up all your mana.

For a lot of people this meant that you would hoard your mana like a champ. You’d go into encounters going “fuck, better not use this mana in case a hell ogre shows up” and end up flailing at enemies with your really ineffectual attack or, alternatively, set rats on fire and giggling like a moron until you realize that you don’t have enough mana to get back to town.

The issue here is that there’s no reason to adhere to the formula that mana = fun times. If a game seeks player engagement, there should be the option for Fun Times ™ at every point in the game instead of smacking players on their knuckles for having the audacity to eat dessert first.

There’s also the big issue of warriors, who usually end up as the kid with his face pressed against the candy shop window. With level ups they get maybe one or two new abilities and hit harder, while wizards get access to a wide variety of spells that are each as interesting as the new abilities the warriors get.

The reason that mana exists is that spells are more powerful than regular attacks – therefore spells should cost some intangible amount to prevent them from being used all the time. But that’s obviously not true – why not give every player a number of options and spells different tactical uses and structure enemy encounters to require tactical thinking?

A couple games have really gotten past this tradition though – more and more recently we see a move away from a ‘rationing’ sense of gameplay with regards to RPGs and more about interesting and tactical uses of abilities that give players something better to do than pound attack while their mana regenerates.

Guild Wars, for example, solves the issue by giving wizards a high mana pool and fast regeneration, so in effect they start every encounter with a maxed out mana bar, and have to juggle cooldowns and using that mana up too fast instead of worrying about ‘using mana too fast’ and becoming useless for the rest of the adventure.

Warriors have a new system of adrenaline, which allows fighters to ‘charge up’ all of their skills over the course of an encounter, and gives fighters a fundamentally different feel than wizards. Wizards use their spell poop up and can exhaust their pool with a big combo. Fighters can pull off a big combo once they stay in battle long enough at the expense of a longer ‘build up’ phase and melee range requirements.

Things change a little bit when we look at games balanced completely around multiplayer, such as League of Legends.

In this case, mana does function as a rationing system, but instead of punishing the player it adds another aspect of depth. Mana means that a champion must balance their powerful abilities now against using it later when it might be more useful. In addition, it means that a player with ‘better mana management skills’ can effectively drive another player with bad mana management skills out of lane, effectively denying that other player gold and experience.

In the lens of League of Legends mana also prevents long and drawn-out encounters. If a standoff lasts too long, mana pools will bottom out and players will be forced back to spawn to refresh it. The changing topography of a standoff means that this might dissolve the standoff, or create power shift that players can exploit.

At the same time though, I can’t help but think that there’s a better alternative. In a game like LoL the player has four skills available to them at one time. A player that uses a skill more often will have a closer engagement to the game than one that has to save up their mana so they’re not useless in an engagement. There are champions who use energy (which regenerates incredibly rapidly) or health (with, usually, abilities that allow them to recoup health costs) very easily, but these are in the minority. It would be really interesting to see a game like League of Legends with primarily energy/cooldown-cost abilities and see how this affects engagements — sometimes standoffs end not because people are out of mana, but because they’re tired of waiting for someone to make the first move and wander off. Other strategies bypass the “5v5 standoff” situation entirely!

Energy and Manaless champions are much more interesting to play as, I think, but it’s not a huge problem in LoL because of the tension between correct usage timing of skills. Fun isn’t watching enemies pop in this case – it’s more about timing your engagements right.

What Do You Plan To Do About It, Punk?

Well, once I get my laptop back I’m thinking of doing a very simplified roguelike with the ATB battle system from Final Fantasy 6. Ideally there wouldn’t be a mana system. There wouldn’t even be an ‘attack’ option. Every choice that the player makes should have an interesting effect that naturally chains into another – for example, a class that summons robots that each perform one specialized task. He might summon a bot that joins him in attacks, then use a skill that deals damage based on the amount of robots he has out, then use another skill that summons a robot that boosts the power of all other robots. Or, for example, a class might focus on polarity, by having attacks that deal more damage the more blue you are, attacks that deal more damage the more red you are, but with the restriction that consecutive attacks of a same color decrease in effectiveness rapidly.

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Written by atlai

January 5, 2011 at 4:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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