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Why I Hate Cooldowns
by Eric Schwarz on 05/02/12 07:57:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

If there is one design convention that you can count on being included in almost every modern game (and especially modern RPGs), it's the cooldown.  Conceptually, cooldowns sound great - they allow for easy regulation of a player's abilities through the use of a second meta-game resource, time.  Perhaps it's no surprise that cooldowns have summarily been worked into just about every single type of game out there, both real-time and turn-based.  In fact, cooldowns have become pretty much the de-facto standard for balancing games and designing combat interactions.

I have to be up-front about this: I think cooldowns are, as they are implemented in most titles, bad design.  While they allow for a few upsides, not the least of which is quick and relatively easy balancing, they also have some major drawbacks, often which end up hurting the rest of the game mechanics they interact with.  In this article, I'll be discussing why I think cooldowns aren't compelling as a mechanic, and why they are in most cases simply unnecessary in the first place.

Note: the follow-up to this article can be found here.

Understanding Cooldowns

Cooldowns are pretty simple to understand - they're effectively a time limit on an activated ability or game function that prevent the player from using a given ability "too often."  Almost always, cooldowns are used to preserve game balance, as, if an ability is particularly powerful,  being able to use it over and over again with few to no limits can be game-breaking.  It's pretty clear that being able to use the Spell of Ultimate Doom as fast as you could hit the button would be a problem!

But why, exactly, do cooldowns work?  The simple answer mostly boils down to risk versus reward.  In order for the player to use a special ability of some sort, there needs to be some sort of risk factor involved, largely to ensure the player doesn't use that ability all the time.  If I could turn all my checker pieces into kings whenever I wanted, there would be no risk in placing checkers - but getting a checker piece to the other side of the board safely, that represents a significant risk with what most players would consider a very compelling reward.  The integrity of a special ability as a game mechanic relies upon there being a default state in the game; if a player can surpass that default state without issue, much of the game's challenge is rendered moot.

The time it takes to collect a power-up in Unreal Tournament versus the greater exposure to enemy fire forms a risk-reward dynamic that fuels some of the game's most intense fights.

In most games, risk is expressed in terms of some sort of limited resource.  In checkers, it's the number of times you can move a piece, versus the number of turns until a piece is captured by the opponent.  In Super Mario Bros., there are many limited resources which tie into most risks, such as a bottomless pit which will deplete you one of your limited 1-ups should you fall in.  In Unreal Tournament, running for a power-up will usually expose you to attack for a period of time.  In Baldur's Gate, it's the prospect of your spell failing and not being usable until you rest and restore it.

All of these are limiting factors that make you think twice about doing something; if a game is well-balanced, these will usually be compelling choices all the way throughout the game.  In fact, many games actually get their fun from risk management - most strategy games are less about building big armies and more about compensating for the inevitable hitches and snags in your master plan, which are often difficult or impossible to prepare for.  The question of fun doesn't hinge so much on "doing X" as it does on "doing Y when X fails" and entire games set up scenarios specifically to force players to deal with limits and make the best use of what they have, knowing full well that in preparing for outcome 1, they sacrifice preparedness for outcome 2.

Cooldowns aren't really fundamentally different than any other type of resource management - time is something that you can't usually speed up, so you have to consider when and where to use an ability.  Pick the wrong time, and that powerful special attack might well go to waste, and you'll be at a disadvantage for a set period.  Whereas time-oriented resource management often operates in the short term - say, the amount of time an ability takes to "charge up" - cooldowns usually operate in the long term, i.e. "60 seconds until you can use Rain of Arrows again."  Something like mana regeneration isn't all that different from a cooldown, aside from presentation.

Cooldowns Aren't Fun

With that out of the way, let's get to the number one complaint I have with cooldowns - put simply, they are a bad mechanic.  There is nothing inherently "fun" about cooldowns, because they are almost bankrupt of any value when disconnected from a larger game system, to the point where a cooldown has almost no resemblance to a game at all.  Whereas most game mechanics can be separated from context and still be enjoyable, albeit often on a smaller scale, waiting for cooldowns isn't in any way compelling.

Two minutes of waiting?  Wow, look at that clock count down!  I'll never need to bother watching paint dry again!

Of particular concern is that cooldowns are entirely non-interactive - in almost every case, there is nothing the player can do to influence a cooldown.  Mashing the hotkey won't make it recharge faster.  Playing the game better won't make it recharge faster. The closest I've ever seen to a game having "interactive cooldowns" is on other abilities that cut cooldown times.  What does it say about cooldowns as a mechanic that the most fun thing about them is that you can get rid of them?

In fact, there are many game mechanics that are significantly more interactive and interesting than cooldowns, yet they still come under constant attack from gamers and designers alike.  Consider quick time events - minimal button input in order to witness a sequence that is disconnected from standard gameplay, and which in many cases can effectively be described as an "interactive cutscene."  All the workings of a bad mechanic are there - binary pass/fail, potentially unpredictable (random button combinations or timing), huge visual rewards for an almost inconsequential task, etc.  Yet cooldowns, cooldowns get off the hook despite having much less to them.

Cooldowns Are a Band-Aid

You might be thinking, "so what, cooldowns aren't a compelling mechanic, but it's how they tie into a larger game system that matters."  After all, that makes sense - managing a mana bar, drinking potions when you run out isn't particularly fun either.  And it's certainly true that almost every game relies on some sort of non-interactive finite resource - limited stamina, a completion timer, and so on.  These sorts of resources are often compelling to manage not because of any inherently fun qualities, but because they're things that players have to work within.  The fun of a game isn't just winning, it's winning under pressure, either real or perceived.

At the same time, cooldowns, as implemented in the majority of games, aren't very interesting even taking all this into account.  This is usually because rather than being included as the sole limiting resource in using special abilities, they're actually a secondary or even tertiary resource.  Many titles, especially role-playing games, couple cooldowns with a limited pool of mana.  Both of them serve effectively the same function - only allow the player to use abilities at certain intervals, which may or may not be open to influence (i.e. drinking potions) - but this only begs the question, "why have both when one would suffice?"

Whether called mana, fury, hatred, or something else, it's there to limit ability-spam.  Despite having characters built around managing these resources, Diablo III still employs cooldowns - why, I can't fathom.

After all, we already have limits on abilities in just about every game.  In Call of Duty, you need to kill a certain number of players in a row in order to receive a killstreak reward.  In Arcanum you have to make sure you don't exhaust yourself casting spells or attacking enemies, or else you'll fall unconscious and become easy pickings.  Bastion tempers the player's special attacks by having each one consume a Black Tonic.

These systems do not have cooldowns because they are already balanced.  Call of Duty can let you run away with the game by using powerful killstreaks quickly, but in a competitive environment usually the best should be able to rise to the top.  Arcanum's mana and fatigue encourages the player to save powerful spells for the right situations, as well as smart character building.  Bastion lets you blow all your special abilities at once, but that is almost never a good plan.  The existing mechanics in these games are enough to make the decision to use an ability compelling, and even for the master planner, there's usually still going to be that lingering thought of "maybe I should have saved that for later" that makes exploring alternate strategies so much fun.

Every time I see a cooldown in a game, it feels like shorthand for "we couldn't really figure out how to make these abilities balanced relative to each other and the resources governing them, so we introduced another resource that we can tweak to our heart's content independent of the others."  While it might work for some games, it's a brute-force solution to a problem that can usually be fixed with improved systems design.  Resorting to cooldowns is, in most cases, the easy way out.

Cooldowns Reduce Depth

In practice, my biggest complaint against cooldown-oriented design is that it tends to take a way a lot of the tactical depth in a situation.  As a brute-force stopgap to "solve" poor game balance and make up for problems in other mechanics, many such games feature abilities that are extremely powerful unless mediated, and often in very large quantities.  This usually raises the question: "if my abilities are all so powerful, why am I not just using them all the time?"

A game like Dragon Age II, for example, can see the player activating upwards of ten different abilities throughout the course of a single battle, and even the same ones multiple times over if the fight goes on long enough.  Actually using them thoughtfully isn't just completely unnecessary, it can actually be a liability.  As most of the abilities in Dragon Age II are instant-use and either have some sort of stun or damaging effect, they quickly become near-indistinguishable from each other; what's more, the tougher enemies can be heavily resistant or immune to the effects of these abilities, meaning that using them in a way that the situation might call for them simply isn't very effective.

Mastery over Dragon Age II's combat doesn't depend on smart use of abilities so much as it does on pressing hotkeys as quickly as the game allows.

 Dragon Age II does have mana and stamina as additional limiting resources, but they are far less important than the cooldowns themselves.  Quaffing potions is usually more than enough to get through, and potions are both plentiful and fairly cheap, so most players will never run out of them.  Of course, even the potions have cooldowns on them, to prevent them from being used over and over.  Once again, the question comes up: "if potions are so powerful as to require cooldowns, why aren't they made more expensive, or why can't there be another game mechanic governing their use?"

The Witcher's toxicity mechanic prevented the player from drinking potion after potion, for instance; not only did it work well to balance them, it also fit the game's lore like a glove.  Dragon Age II has none of this tact or finesse - rather than turning weaknesses into strengths through smart game mechanics, it slaps more timers on the player until the exploits disappear.

The Witcher 2 uses a toxicity meter to limit how many potions the player can drink; the first game made drinking an excess of potions lethal, making the choice to down one in combat compelling.

Cooldowns also reduce the value of long-term planning.  As discussed above, many games are built around the question of using abilities at the right times, and as contingencies for failures.  While cooldowns can retain some of the value in planning (for instance, some high-level MMO play relies on calculating perfect ratios of damage input/output/healing), these dynamics are not intrinsic to cooldowns - you can do the exact same thing with a mana bar, or with limited uses of abilities, or providing harsher risks for misusing abilities. 

The end result of all this hard limiting is a system that isn't just rigid and limiting, reducing the sense of control and interactivity the player has, it also ends up largely reducing combat from making smart and tactically valuable choices to a series of quick time events: press the hotkeys as they light up to win.  At absolute worst, this can create a feeling of "false interactivity", where the player isn't so much making smart decisions within the rules as he/she is playing a pattern-matching game.  Instead of "what abilities should I use, and when?" the questions posed to the player are "press all your buttons as soon as you can."  The resemblance to quick time events, and their pattern-matching mechanics quickly becomes apparent.

Closing Thoughts

It's unfortunate that cooldown-centric design has become so prominent, because I think the sacrifices that come to the overall depth of a game's systems are not worth the trade-offs of easy game balance.  There are so many ways to effectively build soft limits into game systems that encourage players to experiment and play smart, and even make mistakes, that resorting to the hardest of limits can actually discourage effective design in other parts of the game.  Imagine a Zelda game where you could only throw bombs once every twenty seconds - it would discourage much of the discovery and exploration that comes from blowing up walls, rocks and so on. 

I do want to clarify that cooldowns are not inherently bad ideas.  In games where a limiting resource like mana or inventory items might not be appropriate, expressing things in terms of cooldowns can actually make sense.  For instance, perhaps using a special attack tires out the player's character and requires a resting period.  This is implemented in a reasonably effective way by Avadon: The Black Fortress in a turn-based context, where certain types of abilities have different cooldowns, and the role of mana switches from a short-term resource to a long-term one that encourages players to think about the long haul when using an ability.  It's not my favorite way to do things, but it can certainly be done well enough.

I'm sure much of this trend can be blamed on the success of MMOs like World of Warcraft, and that's a real shame.  I can't actually say I'm overly familiar with World of Warcraft as I never played it for too long, but what works for one game, especially an MMO, isn't necessarily suited for other games.  To a degree, adopting the conventions of Warcraft is important for presentation and aesthetic reasons (it might attract players who are familiar with cooldown-oriented games), similar to the proliferation of XP and leveling systems instead of more traditional videogame progression systems, but that's a weak argument for poor design in my opinion.


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Comments


Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
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Glad I'm not the only one questioning this.

Evan Combs
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You've just expressed how I have felt for a long time.

Pieterjan Spoelders
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Wouldn't you promote your pawns into queens? :) I know I would!
I wholeheartedly agree btw.
Another thing I 'hate' is the health regen in many shooters nowadays..

Francois Verret
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In chess you would, but not in checkers.

Mark Venturelli
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I do have to take a stand on articles such as these, as they are becoming worryngly common in Gamasutra: for the love of all that is holy, it is NOT a productive discussion to pick up a game "mechanic" or "convention" or whatever and analyze it in isolation - "this is a bad mechanic", "this is a good mechanic". The whole concept is ludicrous. These are just tools. Sometimes a tool that you, for whatever arbitrary reason, think is "bad", will be the perfect fit for your system.

There is no such thing as a inherently "bad" mechanic. This makes no sense!

"There is nothing inherently "fun" about cooldowns, because they are almost bankrupt of any value when disconnected from a larger game system, to the point where a cooldown has almost no resemblance to a game at all."

Your article almosts looks like it was written by 2 completely different people! You start out with a smart and simple analysis of what is the common role of cooldowns in modern games, and then you seem to go completely batshit crazy.

You want to talk about a mechanic being "bad", you MUST take it into the context of a particular system. You can say "cooldowns are bad in Dragon Age 2", but it's insane to state that cooldowns are bad per se, specially with reasoning such as:

"waiting for cooldowns isn't in any way compelling"
"cooldowns are entirely non-interactive"
"What does it say about cooldowns as a mechanic that the most fun thing about them is that you can get rid of them?"

And then you close by saying "I do want to clarify that cooldowns are not inherently bad ideas." So what just happened there in all those previous paragraphs? What are you trying to communicate here?

Maurício Gomes
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I think you do not understood his post.

He explained why cooldowns exist, and why they are abused, and why they should be used, not abused.

It is like "goto" when programming, it is not really inherently evil... But you must really take care when using it.

Eric Schwarz
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Perhaps I could have fixed up the structure of this article a little bit.

Cooldowns are not a good mechanic in and of themselves, because a cooldown is almost totally non-interactive. That isn't inherently a bad thing, because games do depend on non-interactive elements to make their interactive ones more compelling. A ten-second cooldown isn't all that different from a ten-second charge-up, except that perhaps I can interrupt the charge-up animation if I want to, for example. Generally, the best mechanics are those that are interactive and layered - it's why combat can be so much fun but the act of crafting is in itself rather boring.

Cooldowns can be used well, just like a health bar can be used well. In most games, however, cooldowns serve as a secondary or tertiary resource that serves as a brute-force mechanism to ensure balance. It's a solution to a problem that doesn't need to exist in the first place, and in its worst instances can actually hurt a game's depth by, as I said, reducing combat to "mash the hotkeys when they light up."

Does that make things a little clearer?

Luis Guimaraes
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"A ten-second cooldown isn't all that different from a ten-second charge-up"

They are, with a ten-second charge-up I can tell when the other player can and is gonna make use of a skill. It's very straight-foward and reactive.

With a cooldown I can only tell when they can't, and evaluate which skills I have and which skills they have and how to proceed based on what information I have and if that information is accurate.

Jonathan Jou
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I think I'm going to take a stand too! I'm not sure why the analysis of game mechanics in isolation isn't productive. Behavioral psychologists probably do it all the time, and behavioral economists and mechanism designers (a field of Computer Science) spend entire papers disentangling the intricate and often misunderstood process from stimulus to action.

In fact, I'm going to take the stand that suggests that all science is best when it not only controls for variation, but it identifies unifying theories that aren't too different from "Cooldowns are bad."So if people like Eric are analyzing the effects, benefits, and appropriate uses for time-based mechanics that remove player abilities, I can see how you might argue that context can help. But I don't see why a study of the mechanic in isolation, after you strip out all the wonderful things like visuals, plot, or confounding mechanics where the whole distracts from the sum of the parts, is such a bad thing.

To me, I think it's perfectly valid to deconstruct a complex system and analyze its inner workings! Studying the single agent in an economic system, studying the wrench in a toolbox, studying the RAM in a desktop computer... I'd be very interested to hear what put you on that soapbox and learn more about the futility of studying mechanics by scientifically eliminating confounding variables and deconstructing complexity into unifying theorems.

Mark Venturelli
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@Eric: "Cooldowns are not a good mechanic in and of themselves, because a cooldown is almost totally non-interactive."

And I was arguing that there is no such thing (a mechanic good in and of itself).

@Jonathan: "To me, I think it's perfectly valid to deconstruct a complex system and analyze its inner workings!"

I agree. My problem was not with the analysis of the mechanic per se - I think it's actually very productive and I did it before more than once. My problem is with the goal: "good mechanic"/"bad mechanic".

I believe an article called "why I hate cooldowns" is not a healthy way to look at it.

Analysing how it has been used in games lately, and how it could be used *better* is nice and helpful. Stating that it is "bad", and with arguments such as "waiting for cooldowns isn't in any way compelling" completely undermine the article in my opinion.

Eric Schwarz
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@Mark Venturelli

I appreciate your perspective, but I'm not so sure I'm a fan of that mindset. I know that it's tempting to adopt the post-modern mentality of "everything can be good in context!" but I think sometimes that can paralyze us from making proper value judgements. We form an understanding of what works and what doesn't based on cultural and professional consensus over the course of years, decades and more.

Just like moral values are things we have come to as a result of our social and cultural situations, I think it's fair to say that one game mechanic is simply better than another (yes, maybe not the most fitting comparison, but I hope I get the point across). That's not to say there's no grey area, or that context won't change the value or meaning of something - but I also don't think denying objectivity is helpful either. Strong opinions, debate and clashing ideas are all necessary to further the medium.

I admit saying "I hate cooldowns" in the title was incisive to say the least, but it might have put the wrong spin on things. As I tried to clarify in the article and in the comments, I don't really "hate" cooldowns - I do, however, dislike their implementation in most games, and much time spent playing, observing and thinking has led me to the conclusion that most games would be better off without them, because in most cases those cooldowns are symptoms and signs of larger mechanics and systems issues. At the same time, though, apparently the title got people reading and thinking, so that's definitely not a bad thing. :p

Joe McGinn
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Well said Mark. Like almost any mechanic cooldowns can be made into good or bad designs.

raigan burns
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>>but this only begs the question, "why have both when one would suffice?"

No, it absolutely does NOT beg the question!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

"Begging the question" doesn't mean "raising the question", it instead describes a type of logical fallacy.

Would you say "but this only ad hominem's, 'why have both when one would suffice?'"?

I would hope not, because that statement would be meaningless and ridiculous-sounding; inserting the name of a random logical fallacy in a context in which it makes absolutely no sense is silly and confusing/confused.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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Language evolve. Popular acceptance will always win over grammarians.

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks for the clarification. I'll make a mental note to avoid using that phrase in the future when it's not appropriate.

Brian Stabile
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Someone didn't read the 'Modern Usage' section of his wikipedia article. It really ad hominem's me when people make this sort of blunder.

Jason Wilson
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In the case of multiplayer games, cooldowns can be effective in minimizing the effect reflex has on a player's ability to use an attack. This way a player who can click faster or mash a key faster is not better at a game than another player. It would also minimize possible latency issues in a similar way.

Keep in mind that many games have cooldowns hidden in animation. A reload animation or a flourish at the end of an attack animation are effectively cooldowns in another form.

As Mark says above, a mechanic cannot be inherently bad but can only be used badly. Cooldowns may very well be a good solution in some games.

Evan Combs
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Part of what makes reloading work is that it is based in reality, it isn't just some artificial arbitrary cooldown. I /think that is basically the point being made. Typically cooldowns are arbitary and have no reality based or world based explaination.

Eric Schwarz
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This only highlights the problem even more.

1) Why shouldn't the ability to respond quickly in a situation determine the outcome?

2) If an ability is so powerful as to decisively decide the outcome of a battle, then why exactly is it in the game in the first place? Assuming the goal of a game is to have conflicts resolved not in a matter of milliseconds but several seconds (i.e. Call of Duty vs. Halo) shouldn't the ability be balanced with that in mind?

Jason Wilson
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"Part of what makes reloading work is that it is based in reality, it isn't just some artificial arbitrary cooldown. I /think that is basically the point being made. Typically cooldowns are arbitary and have no reality based or world based explanation."

I never had a problem with the logic behind cooldowns. To me it always felt natural that doing a strenous action, like casting a particularly powerful spell, would take a lot out of the character and that they may need time to rest up before trying to do that again.

"1) Why shouldn't the ability to respond quickly in a situation determine the outcome?"

Perhaps in the game your creating you want to test the player's ability to make the right choices and not necessarily who can make the most choices quickly.

"2) If an ability is so powerful as to decisively decide the outcome of a battle, then why exactly is it in the game in the first place? Assuming the goal of a game is to have conflicts resolved not in a matter of milliseconds but several seconds (i.e. Call of Duty vs. Halo) shouldn't the ability be balanced with that in mind?"

This wasn't necessarily what I was referring to. Of course all abilities should be balanced with whatever set of systems and resources that are in the game. What I was referring to was if all abilities can be used instantaneously than a player can press the button twice as fast as another player will always win. Sometimes that is acceptable for the game, other times it is not.

Ryan Marshall
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"To me it always felt natural that doing a strenous action, like casting a particularly powerful spell, would take a lot out of the character and that they may need time to rest up before trying to do that again."

I get where you're coming from with this, but why would casting super-jumbo-fireball-x spell make you tired in a specific way that only prevented you from casting another super-jumbo-fireball-x spell, but in no way hindered your ability to cast puny-fire-barrage-iii or even super-mega-deluxe-fireball-xii?

Global cooldowns make sense (if you're too tired to do anything), and even category-specific cooldowns can make sense at a stretch, but ability-specific cooldowns are hard to justify (from a verisimilitude perspective) outside of literal cooldown: i.e. I've been firing my flamethrower too much, and the heat has caused it to shut down until it cools off a bit.

Jason Wilson
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"Global cooldowns make sense (if you're too tired to do anything), and even category-specific cooldowns can make sense at a stretch, but ability-specific cooldowns are hard to justify (from a verisimilitude perspective) outside of literal cooldown: i.e. I've been firing my flamethrower too much, and the heat has caused it to shut down until it cools off a bit."

Sure, cooldowns aren't perfect but I think their easy to understand for the majority of players. A global cooldown wouldn't be too confusing but it greatly limits the actions you can take after doing the action and may present a much greater risk the player, while category specific cooldowns may be more difficult for players to wrap their heads around and manage in some scenarios. All three versions of cooldowns can work for certain games and valid mechanic choices that are available to a designer.

I think that's basically what I'm arguing for. There are a multitude of ways to deal with the balancing of various attacks and abilities at a player's disposal and sometimes cooldowns can be appropriate and sometimes their not. As Mark Venturelli pointed out it'd be a much more interesting and educational discussion to take a particular implementation of cooldowns in a game and discuss the pros and cons of that particular case and weigh it against the other game systems.

Robert Boyd
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Can't say that I agree with you on this.Cooldowns encourage the use of the player's entire arsenal instead of just picking the one or two best abilities and always using them. It's the same reason why guns in shooters usually have limited ammo.

Cooldowns cover short term resource management. A resource like MP can be used to cover long term resource management. It can definitely make sense to combine the two.

As an aside, I thought it was interesting that you mentioned Zelda's tying of a limiting resource like bombs to exploration as a good thing. I personally think Dark Souls did it much better - any attack will dispel fake walls. By doing it like that, it makes finding and unmasking fake walls a matter of keen observation and attentiveness rather than a matter of resource management.

EDIT: Cooldowns can lead to fun. Take Bastion for example since you brought it up. In Bastion, your special moves are so limited that they're basically only to be used for emergencies. They're like smart bomb in a shmup - they're not fun because you're only using them when you're in danger of losing. In contrast, say you have a powerful spell with a cooldown of 10 seconds. This could be very fun because you're free to use it frequently (at least once per battle) and don't have to worry about saving it only for an emergency.

Eric Schwarz
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"Cooldowns encourage the use of the player's entire arsenal instead of just picking the one or two best abilities and always using them"

If you have a game where the player *can* spam the same abilities again and again then you have a serious problem with your combat mechanics. It's equivalent to a strategy game where spamming infantry is the easiest way to win - do you add a cooldown to infantry production, or do you balance the infantry to be not so powerful relative to other units? Moreover, what's wrong with having favourites? So long as the game isn't so easy as to make it unnecessary to change, I'd say having a consistent load-out you're happy with is a totally legitimate way to enjoy a game.

"Cooldowns cover short term resource management. A resource like MP can be used to cover long term resource management. It can definitely make sense to combine the two."

This highlights one issue that I initially overlooked - cooldowns are generally immersion-breaking. Maybe not a big deal for some, but having meta-game conventions within a game world is not necessary great for establishing and maintaining verisimilitude. I can understand magic and mana and fatigue and so on if they're explained in the game universe and make some semblance of intuitive sense. Cooldowns, I've never seen explained in any logical way, and you're lucky if they're actually referred to as something other than "cooldowns" in-game for that matter.

"In Bastion, your special moves are so limited that they're basically only to be used for emergencies."

I used special moves all the time in Bastion. Yes, they can be a panic button, but they can also be a powerful offensive tool depending on your play-style and level of ability. The fact that those possibilities exist demonstrate the depth of the system, and frankly it's rarely more than about 30-60 seconds before you find another Black Tonic or two anyway.

How is that so different from a cooldown? Use your abilities effectively and move on to gain them back. Use them ineffectively and you potentially end up dying or having to deal with your failure for a little while. Cooldowns in the same situation a) can't reward the player for doing well (unless you, say, reset cooldowns at the end of an encounter) and b) promote using abilities "when they're ready" rather than when they're most tactically valuable.

Robert Boyd
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I think the key thing is that cooldowns are the best form of resource management for encourage the use of abilities because they recharge. Something like the traditional MP system has a serious flaw in that it encourages players to save up their MP for a big boss fight rather than use them frequently. As game developers we should encourage the player to have fun with their abilities rather than harbor a hoarder sort of mentality.

I mentioned it before, but I think Dark Souls has the best magic management system. There are two key parts.

1 - Individual spells have their own set amount of uses (which recharge at bonfires). This encourages the player to use their whole arsenal and not just their most powerful abilities. Also, this helps delineate abilities - something with 30 uses like Soul Arrow is the kind of spell that you're meant to use frequently in most battles whereas something with only a couple uses is obviously meant for only the toughest fights.

2 - Each spell has its own casting time. This encourages strategic use of abilities - you want to time it so that your spell will successfully be cast and not be interrupted by an enemy attacking you. This also extends to other actions - for example, drinking a heal potion takes a couple seconds so you want to make sure that you have enough time to finish that otherwise trying to heal could end up getting you killed.

Adam Waters
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Hey Robert,

I agree about Dark Souls having a great magic & item usage system. It closely resembles old school D&D systems. A rest to recharge mechanic.

It's a perfect example of tossing cooldowns out the window. 5 estus flask drinks until you are out of healing, you can drink them all in a row if you want to, but that would be foolish and it would force you to rest again before continuing on.

Nathan Mates
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I don't like the special moves in Bastion, mainly because I don't know how/when I'll get more. (And, no, the idea of "play for a while and see how many you actually get" is not friendly or fun.) It's like most potions (or similar 1-use items) in RPGs -- I generally don't know how many I'll ever get over the course of the game, and as a consequence, I hoard them to the point of never using them. At least with a cooldown, there's knowledge about more implicit in it.

Adam Waters
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I loved this article. Cooldowns have been on my mind a lot in the past few months while deciding the direction of powers & abilities in my upcoming RTS.

We decided to use only cooldowns. We came to that conclusion through a similar process that the article goes through. To cut the crap and improve the experience, and only have a single limiting factor on the player.

The only decision left for us is whether we want each ability to have it's own cooldown, creating a sort of frantic use everything quickly type of play, or to use a global cooldown, making the selection of each ability a strategic choice.

Eric Schwarz
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If I could offer feedback, I'd say that "categories" of cooldowns are best, because they won't leave the player stuck entirely if they misuse an ability, but they also can't spam several offensive or defensive abilities in sequence. I can't speak to the details of your game, of course, but having to choose between "flaming sword ninja assault" and "ice axe of tidal winter" depending on the situation, then following up with a defensive ability like "wall of zombies" is probably more interesting than picking a single ability and either making a good choice and winning or a bad choice and being stuck with zero recourse. The best games tactically are those that don't rely on lucky guesses, but on adapting to evolving situations.

Adam Waters
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That is the same line of thinking I have.

Our first pass is going to be individual cooldowns, but give each unit, abilities that are useful during different scenarios. So the option to spam is available, but it is not the most strategic solution needed to win.

I look forward to reading more of your blog. Keep up the good writing.

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks for the feedback. I hope your RTS turns out well!

Roger Tober
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Interesting article. I think in the end, cool downs are just another way of managing resources, but they may be too obvious and overused. Generally, things should just run out and have to be recharged in other more interesting ways than watching a bar slowly replenish itself for no apparent reason. If that's actually what a cool down is. I hadn't heard that expression before.

Bart Stewart
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I strongly agree in principle. I believe cooldown timers are being overused and as a result are contributing to making games less fun.

The cause of this trend seems clear: cooldown timers are so utterly simple that any gamer can use them. "[P]ress the hotkeys as they light up to win," indeed. Part of the reason I personally find the proliferation of timer-based resource management so annoying is precisely because it is so mind-numbingly simple. Mashing buttons when they return to availability is the equivalent of piloting the Space Shuttle by playing whack-a-mole -- easy, yes, but you lose all opportunity to do more interesting decision-making.

But short-timer resource management is simple. That allows for more paying customers. So as a practical matter, if you'd like game developers to reduce their use of cooldown timers, then you need to invent and popularize another mechanic that is at least equally easy to comprehend and use without trivializing interesting decision-making in tactical situations.

I don't pretend to know what that might be. Is something like that even possible now?

Eric Schwarz
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I think you can accomplish the same thing very easily. Diablo is one example of a game with quick mana regeneration, frequent use of spells, and so on. You regenerate fast enough to make using your abilities tempting, and while the player isn't mashing buttons constantly, I don't think that's a bad thing at all. It's founded on the idea that "if the player is pressing lots of keys, the game is more engaging!", but that's a pretty poor argument in my opinion. The "real" game should play out in the player's head, not in his or her fingers.

The casual gaming market in particular is rife with games like this. Just about every free-to-play title I've seen on Facebook has some sort of Simon Says-esque mechanic, where you need to move your cursor over an object quickly, or press the right key at the right time, etc. The problem is that these mechanics never really grow or build on each other. You're given more and more long-term goals to strive for, but the basic act of playing never changes. While ensuring accessibility is one thing, I don't think hanging more and more carrots for players to chase works forever - you have to engage at different levels.

Jonathan Jou
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I have to agree, watching the "1"-skill countdown so you can press it when next available isn't at all an enjoyable mechanic. A few ideas immediately came to mind to make risk vs. reward make more sense for cooldowns and make the penalty seem less dysfunctional. But before that, I want to state a few ideas as to why cooldowns are so pervasive:

1. They're easy. I probably can't stress that enough. They balance the game and have almost no cost to implement--every other solution probably is harder to implement, and even harder to tweak for balancing. Just disabling the skill makes everything better without creating more dev work. Can you imagine creating a unique resource for every skill that currently has a cooldown? Or the complexity of linking different skills to different resources in different ways? Cooldowns are easy. Probably not pretty, but they get the job done well.

2. Cooldowns can be entirely client-side. For games like MMOs, which tried as hard as they could to develop a system that accommodates latency (and is slowly evolving away from it), cooldowns are the least problematic solution. If a skill had an environmental effect that prevented it from being reused or something similar, and every other player in the area had to know about your player's cooldowns, that would increase server load and for larger fights, the amount of data probably reached unsustainable amounts.

3. Cooldowns are logical. They have an intuitive analog, which is exhaustion. Maybe each skill uses a certain part of you or resource which does need to be replenished. And they accomplish what they set out to do, as Robert Boyd as already said. Game designers know that when they add a countdown and prevent players from using a skill for some time, the players are going to be aware and going to try to use each skill as frequently as possible, while balancing that against using it at the best time they can. For people who play games, cooldowns make sense and probably made sense to players who had never seen a cooldown before that. It goes without saying that the way cooldowns are so well-established and prevalent helps players immediately understand the resource. Watching numbers reach 0 is more engaging than nothing, in some sense, and it does add tactical value to each passing second.

Now, I agreed with you, so I'm going to list the risks and rewards which I've seen or have thought of:
1. Secondary Effects. Instead of having a skill which does nothing when you can't use it, it would be great if skills gave you something useful when you weren't using them. Signets in Guild Wars 2 do this, and "alternate cooldowns" which replaced your skill with a skill stolen from an opponent weren't unusable but instead a different skill entirely.

2. Active Feedback. This is what you were talking about in the Witcher 2, where you have some resource that is linked to it and instead of managing it as a standalone resource, you're managing a primary resource through its usage. MP is one of these, HP can be one of these, newer concepts like Adrenaline is one of these. More interestingly, instead of disabling all skills when this resource is depleted, it would be just as effective in terms of limiting player abilities to scale a skill based on how long it's been allowed to charge. Moves like Bowser's fire breath from Smash Brothers come to mind, where your fire dwindles into a tiny flame, and R.O.B.'s laser, which could be fired freely but was significantly more powerful at full strength. The same sort of thing works in reverse in Smash Brothers: overuse a move, and it eventually loses effectiveness. It could be possible to confer resistance to enemy players if they are exposed to a move too often, which wears off over time.

3. Unpredictability. In games like Baten Kaitos, your available actions were random, and you couldn't be sure when you'd get to use an activity again, but not because you'd have to wait 2 minutes. This makes things less a timer and more a dice roll. Adding unpredictability to a recharging skill, like a "backfire" or "20% chance to fail and heal the enemy instead" could introduce a better risk/reward balance without resorting to forcing the player to watch a set of numbers reach 0.

I've yet to know of a situation in which cooldowns are the more engaging option compared to the alternatives, but I've never found them particularly unbearable, and I've seen a lot of games where they can be a decisive factory in determining the victor. I think they get the job done adequately, but I hope the rest of the world will soon be ready for more.

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks for taking the time to write this detailed reply. I also have to say that I agree with pretty much all of your points, and that your insight into spicing up cooldowns is definitely appreciated. I don't think at this point I can easily be convinced that cooldowns are "the way to go", mostly because I still find myself haunted by the notion that they're basically the easy way out. As much as I'm in favour of smart development practices, at a certain point you have to start asking the question "will this make the game more fun?" and I don't think the answer, in most cases, is yes.

To be totally honest, I don't think that balancing without cooldowns is all that much harder - it just means you have to understand the greater context of the changes you're making, and that they might require adjustment elsewhere. This isn't rocket science, this is just solid systems design, and micro-managing every single aspect of a system using cooldowns kind of misses the point of creating a game as a whole. Blizzard does this constantly in their updates, making 2-second tweaks all over the place when they feel something is too powerful or not powerful enough, and the end result is that it can often stifle creativity, because players are playing the game in a rigid "as the designer intended" mode and not really experimenting with the system provided.

Again, this isn't at all to say you can't have a game with cooldowns that's still enjoyable. I like a lot of Relic's games, and they rely on cooldowns in a few of them. Dragon Age had a pretty good combat system despite its inclusion of cooldowns (and it only really fell apart in the expansion and sequel when combat was largely simplified and made easy enough to not require much thought). But examining cooldowns versus other more engaging methods of resource management and risk/reward, cooldowns simply come up short every time in my opinion.

Ryan Marshall
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The first time I ever heard the concept of cooldowns being addressed was in the context of the Diablo 2 expansion. The way they explained it, some of the druid spells were too graphically intense to be spammed, so a (brief) cooldown was added to prevent your computer from slowing to a crawl.

Iain Miller
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I'm sorry but this is me being completely honest. You are perhaps the worst contributor on this site. Cooldowns are fun, do add depth, and are a pretty decent mechanic. How does adding secondary and tertiary layers of resource management remove depth? I mean, it's mind boggling the things you come up with. Also, how is the idea of having to rest to use spells again not akin to a cooldown? It seems like a cooldown to me.

Eric Schwarz
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My point about cooldowns is that while they act as a secondary or tertiary resource, they are a rather poor one, both because as a mechanic they tend to be completely non-interactive, they often serve as a stopgap measure to poor systems design overall (see some of my comments above for a little bit more detail on that), and because they often reduce depth of using abilities by reducing them to a Simon Says-style "hit the buttons when they light up" element. Is this true for every single game, and can cooldowns not be use well? Of course not, and in the closing statement I provide a couple of examples of games that I think used cooldowns well (and more in the comments, such as Relic's RTS titles).

As for resting vs. cooldowns: resting is a strategic decision. In Baldur's Gate and similar titles, resting is something that can only be done in safe zones, which means that the player has to make a smart decision about what spells to take along and in what numbers, as well as how often to use them. It rewards the player for thinking about the long term rather than the short term, but the difficulty of encounters also means that players will likely need to use their spells to survive. If there was a greater penalty associated with returning to town for rest (food that's eaten, limited time to complete a goal) then it might be an even more compelling choice, but either way it's certainly more interesting than waiting for something to recharge (as always, in my opinion).

Cooldowns can provide some interesting long term vs. short term strategy as well, but there have been very few games I've seen that have ever utilize this to any great effectiveness, especially as abilities with long cooldowns (i.e. 2-5 minutes) tend to only be relevant to a single encounter apiece. This means that the limiting factor is more patience or travel time between encounters between anything else, and that's not fun in my opinion. Some MMOs get around this by having lengthy boss battles that have multiple stages or require players to all fulfill different roles expertly and like clockwork, but that, to me, tends to take a lot of the creativity and experimentation out of a system in favour of strict role-fulfillment.

Thanks for your feedback by the way. I write these articles in my own time and I rarely sugar-coat my opinions. I've had many of my views swayed or solidified by the insight provided by the Gamasutra community (which I'm very thankful for, as discussion generated by my pieces is often more interesting than the pieces themselves). If you don't agree with me, that's totally fine - in fact, I'm glad you're thinking and forcing me to re-consider my own ideas - but can we please avoid the insults in the future? With respect, I don't see you writing articles of your own and opening yourself to interrogation, and it's very easy to throw around statements like that until you're on the receiving end of them.

Iain Miller
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I think resting is less strategic in terms of actual combat than a cooldown. In Baldur's Gate you can rest anywhere, from my experience, once all enemies in the area are dead. However, sometimes if you rest you will get attacked by more enemies, but not always.

I don't know how it could be more interactive. Is resting interactive? Or stamina regeneration? I don't follow how these things could be made more interactive. I think combat is about the short term and surviving a dungeon is the long term. Within the span of a fight, say 30 seconds to a minute or whatever, there are strategic decisions that have to be made and cooldowns add a layer of strategy in that regard.

Eric Schwarz
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Resting itself is not interactive. The decision to rest and where is interactive. Cooldowns are not because you have no influence over them (unless, of course, you have a cooldown-reducing skill of some sort). Neither is the greatest mechanic ever in my opinion, but I'll certainly take a strategic choice over no strategic choice.

David Holmin
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I would just like to say that, contrary to you, I feel Eric Schwarz is one of the better contributors here.

As for cooldowns vs resting, I think it's quite obvious that cooldowns is a more ridig mechanic. Resting/spells in BG is a way to limit the total number of spells cast during a battle (you pick which ones you get to memorize), but it doesn't put an artificial limit on the minimum time elapsed between castings. With cooldowns, it often becomes a matter of "every second spent not casting this spell when it is ready is wasted DPS". Which isn't fun in my opinion.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Good points all around, especially in the comments.

Eric, time will remain the keystone for many a game system. It sounds like your problem is more with the implementation of mechanics hinging on what is commonly called a "cooldown," rather than with the fact that actions take time to execute.

For example, you listed charging attacks as a better approach. Others listed the inherent time it takes to not only start a move but to finish it, leaving the player vulnerable for a moment. Also broached was the more elegant possibility of alternate effects activating while a move is unusable. You said cooldowns weren't interactive, but being able to press buttons to speed up the recharge (and thus preventing other moves...) may be acceptable.

Besides, as others have mentioned, cooldowns translate to reality. I don't know how many times I could bench 100 lbs, but if you "give me a minute," I could do it again. Nature has had longer to perfect her systems than we.

Are cooldowns implemented in a lot of poor ways? Sure. Perhaps that's more the issue: squandered potential. If this discussion is any indication, cooldowns might improve many systems, but we can definitely improve cooldowns. So, instead of disregarding them as broken, let's improve them.

David Holmin
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Actions taking time to execute is not the same thing as cooldowns. In WoW, D3 or some other game with cooldowns, you can perform a ton of actions during the time a specific spell "cools down". Animations with different durations - as in Street Fighter - or actions costing different amounts of action points to perform - as in Fallout - are very different things. They're less disconnected and artificial systems. They model reality in an intuitive way. (And they're not boring.)

Your benching parable would make more sense if sets of abilities shared the same cooldown meter in games. This is usually not (or never as far as I know) the case. In between two bench press sets, I shouldn't be able to do a full set of dips, either. There's no cohesion to what "resource" the cooldown represents. It comes through what it is: an artificial limit to prevent the player from casting a specific spell too often, no matter how good he/she is at managing resources.

Jason Wilson
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"Your benching parable would make more sense if sets of abilities shared the same cooldown meter in games. This is usually not (or never as far as I know) the case. In between two bench press sets, I shouldn't be able to do a full set of dips, either."

Yes, but you could probably work some other muscle group quite easily. :P

It's obvious that cooldowns don't 100% represent reality, but neither do a lot of other game systems and conventions that we've come to accept. I think players can and do accept the idea behind a cooldown just as players accept health points.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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David: "Actions taking time to execute is not the same thing as cooldowns." Right. I'm defending the concept, not the mechanic. Like Jason said, "cooldowns don't 100% represent reality," and some systems make more intuitve use of time, as we both mentioned.

No analogy is perfect (thanks though, Jason), but benching illustrates my point, much like cooldowns can still evoke ideas of effort, fatigue, etc.

Cooldowns make sense as an abstraction (in theory), but there's always room for improvement (in practice), and cooldowns are no exception.

David Holmin
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I completely agree with this article. Cooldowns are artificial limitations to cover up flaws in a way that's boring and meta enough to take you out of the game.

Bart Stewart
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Reading the generally good comments here and giving this some more thought, I think I can summarize my view a little better now.

What we're talking about here is a replenishment mechanic. Specifically, a cooldown timer does "time-based tactical replenishment": the resource that must be filled back up is time, and it's only active during local/immediate gameplay.

What makes time-based tactical replenishment interesting to talk about is that it's a double-edged sword -- it's not just an obviously Bad Thing. Because time is not under the player's control (unlike applying health packs or quaffing mana potions), time-based replenishment means there's no decision-making required: it's simple. You don't have to do anything but wait. If your goal is to make ability usage so easy to understand that anyone can do it, then time-based tactical replenishment is a win.

It's when you assume that some players prefer more thoughtful gameplay that cooldown timers start looking more like a curse than a blessing. Some people do like tactical gameplay that requires actively assessing and choosing from a range of force-application options -- but the opportunity for enjoying that kind of play goes away when time-based tactical replenishment becomes the conventional interface to what you can do. If you can see the action that's tactically optimal at that moment, why would you want to have to wait before applying it?

This is worth emphasizing: the difference between time-based tactical replenishment and other forms is mindless and mindful play. Cooldown timers, by largely taking qualitative decision-making away from players, promote mindless play... and that's not always wrong.

A lot of people -- more all the time, I believe -- enjoy and even prefer mindless play. After a long day at the office or taking care of the kids, it's nice to be able to engage in some play activity that doesn't require constant decision-making. Just like "grindy" content in MMORPGs, cooldown timers are great for these gamers because they let them do stuff without demanding active attention. That's relaxing.

Other gamers prefer prefer mindful play; for them, it's not fun *unless* it requires perception and analysis, and it rewards effectively choosing among distinctive options. It's these gamers for whom cooldown timers make a game tedious and less worth playing.

So I conclude that, as usual, this question comes down to knowing who your target audience is. Most people prefer either mindless or mindful play. If your game targets the former group, then cooldown timers are actually a positive because they're a good match for that group's "fun means not having to think" play preference. If your game would otherwise attract the latter group, however, then cooldown timers are an impediment to fun, and just sticking them in there because they've started looking like a convention will hurt your game, not help it.

Eric Schwarz
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My big problem with so-called "mindless play" is that it tends to appear in games that really don't warrant it. Sometimes, that can work... but there are many, many titles that either try to walk the line, or try to appeal to both hardcore and casual crowds, or cast themselves as deep and engaging experiences... and cooldowns really do not work for any of those. I guess perhaps I am of the opinion that the more interesting and involved a game mechanic or system, the better, at least when it comes to particular genres... if you're going to be making, say, RPGs, personally I don't feel it's appropriate to direct that effort at the kind of player who just wants to switch his/her brain off, for instance.

Krishna Israney
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I'm a big fan of the "mindful playing". One of the issues I faced with cooldowns was in PVP scenarios. Consider DOTA where I can see the other players health/mana/items and act accordingly. However whether or not the enemies skill is on a cooldown can not be known directly. Its more a approximation call and it I can only know it if I have had a chance to play with the enemy hero and known the cooldown progression right from Level to Level 25.

Geoffrey Kuhns
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So, you said you had an "issue" with cooldowns playing DOTA. Do you find them effective, though? My relevant experience is with League of Legends, where you work with the same unknown. Cooldowns and power use are integral to that game's short term strategy. Would you have done it differently?

Not taking a stance here, I'm just trying to clarify your point.

Krishna Israney
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I consider mindful play similar to having a chess board with the board completely visible for both parties to strategize. With cooldowns the board becomes partially visible and ultimately an approximation. I do agree that the approximation is balanced for both teams. However the better strategizer may/may not win depending on his approximation error. Ultimately being able to correctly time your attack with a good understanding of cooldowns becomes important.

In DOTA, Cooldowns definitely work to keep the balance for the game in its current state. Yes you are right, both parties have to work with the same unknown .I'm not quite sure if the game could be designed in a way to do away with the cooldowns (with a system similar to fatigue/toxicity).

Geoffrey Kuhns
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Alright, now for a stance: While I respect your opinion, incomplete information is a great tool, and a realistic one. The "better strategizer" is one who can effectively command without knowing all the answers.

Whatever people think of cooldowns, in the systems we're talking about, they add a great deal of suspense. Utilizing the mechanic itself does not, of course, but realizing and seizing an opportunity they provide--or worse, allowing one--are peak emotional moments, for good or ill.

Krishna Israney
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Yes I agree in certain cases having unknown has a direct relation to strategy (Poker) however they still know the probability of their opponents hands by
1. Looking at their own hand
2. Looking at betting patterns
3. Looking at other cues in the persons behavior

I assume there may be a way to approximate cooldowns in a similar fashion. However it would be interesting to know the outcome of a match in a given scenario.

A player has no knowledge of cooldown times but knows exactly the order of skills the enemy is going to play and plan accordingly
V/S
A player who has no knowledge of the order of skills being played by an enemy however knows all the cooldown times.

Sergiy [Svargas] Yevtushenko
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"in almost every case, there is nothing the player can do to influence a cooldown."

Great games allow player to influence cooldowns sometimes. Few examples:

http://eune.leagueoflegends.com/champions/5/xin_zhao_the_senescha
l_of_demacia
Battle Cry
... causing his standard attacks to reduce all other ability cooldowns by 1 second.


http://www.wowhead.com/spell=23989
Readiness
When activated, this ability immediately finishes the cooldown on all Hunter abilities.


IMO it's nothing inherently bad in coolown as mechanics, you just need to use it properly. WOW had half-an-hour cooldowns on few warrior abilities - and that was terrible. But they get rid of it, reducing to 3 minites & simultaneously weakening the abilities - and it turned to be important strategic decision when to use that cooldowns.

Joe McGinn
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Well said. Done properly cooldowns result in interesting decisions, which is one of the best kinds of interactivity you can have. And as you say in a good system they are highly interactive as well ... in the game I've working on there are at least five different ways you can interact with and affect the cooldown process (actual game systems I mean, independent of the decision to use them) and the users have responded enthusiastically to this gameplay depth.

No offense but the article is too shallow, it is basically complaining about bad design, not cooldowns per se.

Jacob Germany
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Meh. I'd rather have cooldowns than limited use items, or something similar. Would rather, say, wait for the timer to lapse to use another Shout in Skyrim than to use a potion that offered the same effect. Whatever "strategic importance" limitations like that hold, it's all lost when you either forget your massive list of items, or hoard them for fear of not having them later.


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