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.
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.
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.