Ability Creation 101

I was writing this for a couple of friends and realized it might make for a good blog post. Enjoy. Apologies on the poor formatting, this was cut and paste from a series of emails.

For a mechanic to be meaningful ( and meaningful is a spectrum, so I am defining meaningful as ‘strongly meaningful’ in this case), it needs to be:

  • Situationally useful
  • High payoff in the right situation
  • The situation where it’s useful cannot be automatic
  • The decision to use the tool in the situation should come at a cost that makes you weigh the situation
  • Making the sub optimal decision should have a consequence

As an example of a non-meaningful decision:
Some Attack: 100 dmg
Holy Attack: 100 dmg + 200 dmg to undead

In all situations, using Holy attack is the correct choice.

As an example of a slightly more meaningful, but not meaningful enough decision:
Some Attack: 100 dmg
Holy Attack: 1 dmg + 200 dmg to undead

In all situations except undead, Some Attack is the right choice and Holy Attack is useless.

Improved slightly more, but still failing:
Some Attack: 100 dmg
Holy Attack: 50 dmg + stuns undead for 10 seconds.

Holy Attack is always the wrong choice vs non-undead. Some attack is always the right call vs anything else. The decision is made for you before the fight begins.

But at least there’s a scenario now, (the target is undead and already stunned) where ‘Some Attack’ is now a better choice. Stun, Some, Some Some, Stun again.

So let’s level up this scenario even further: 

Some Attack: 100 dmg
Holy Attack: 50 dmg + stuns any target for 4 seconds. (Twice as effective against Undead)

This is now in the space of interesting. It’s not fully there, but its close enough to almost pass our meters.

Oddly enough, it fails because *now* the best decision is to *always* use this ability on the undead. Both abilities do 100 damage vs undead. There is no reason to ever use Some Attack in an undead fight.

So let’s level up this scenario again.

Some Attack: 100 dmg
Holy Attack: 50 dmg + stuns any target for 4 seconds. 30 second cooldown. (Twice as effective vs Undead)

Now, we are in the space where it looks like a meaningful decision. There’s still a flaw, but we’ll get to that.

Your decision space is now:

  • Want to do max damage? Spam Some Attack
  • Want to stop an enemy? Holy Attack
  • Do I have two targets to choose from that threaten me equally and one is undead? Prefer the undead target if using Holy Attack.

But there’s a flaw. The tension isn’t high enough. If you *really* want to just kill the Undead, you should spam Some Attack. If you want to Stun the undead, you’d be using Holy Attack anyways. The +100% effectiveness is a red herring that makes you *feel* like it’s a better decision.

But since you are getting 100 dmg out of both scenarios, its only creating ability cadence (alternate between pattern Holy, Some, Some, Some, Some, Some, Some, Holy… repeating)

Now that’s a valuable thing we’ve achieved. Very important to MMOs and long-play combat sequences (raid bosses). However, we can do better.

Let’s wrap this up.
Some Attack: 100 dmg, no cooldown
Holy Attack: 150 dmg + stuns any target for 4 seconds. (+100% vs Undead) (30 second cooldown)

Because the cooldown exists, the improved play pattern (2, 1, 1, 1) exists and is now an optimal pattern for standard play. The ability fits into normal combat cycles – AND includes the Undead bonus pattern. Furthermore, a strong tension now exists:

“There is an Undead Target and a Non-Undead Target. I want to stun the Non-Undead… but I want to burn the Undead target down faster… what should I do?”

… and there, you now have a real decision that we, as developers, cannot answer for you. This is a decision you will make for yourself and the game will either reward or punish you in the way you decided the combat should go.

and THAT is the kind of decisions we want players to make.

Thank you for attending Ability Creation 101. You can send your Tuition checks to alex@xelnath.com via paypal.

(Bonus: +100% vs any creature class tends to make decisions automatic. It’s not a smart way to build abilities, but its a good example illustrating the ease at which we can fall into making automatic +power options which feel like good decisions, but are actually hollow)

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