The Stamina Bar

[I'm not working on the game this week, instead I'm doubling up on my other work so I can spend a full week on the game next week. But I've had one little anecdote bubbling around in my head. Indulge me, it's short.]

I had been hired at Turbine to work on the sequel to Asheron’s Call. I was an engineer through and through; I’d been coding (non-games) for nearly a decade and I was pretty good at it. I was hired as a senior engineer, and I got right to work on coding the game engine.

But the game had a troubled development cycle with lots of changes of direction. As the vision of the game changed, the team got less excited. “This isn’t a sequel to Asheron’s Call at all!” became a quiet undercurrent. It was around this time that one of the producers grabbed me at random as I was coming back from lunch one day and asked me to preview his presentation. He was working on a pitch that explained what Asheron’s Call 2 was all about, and he needed to refine it by getting feedback from people like me. I was happy to oblige, so I followed him into his office.

He then closed the door and began his impassioned pitch about why the new game direction was fun. I was a bit of a hard sell: I had specifically come to Turbine to work on the sequel to the game I loved, not to just “make a good game.” But I was willing to hear him out.

At one point, he mentioned that they were removing the Stamina bar. “In Asheron’s Call 1, you have three bars: Health, Stamina, and Mana. That’s dumb. You just end up using spells to convert stamina to mana to health to stamina to health and so on. We’re simplifying…”

I interrupted there, and said, “but that’s fun!”

He looked a little taken aback. “No it isn’t! Why is it fun?”

And… I couldn’t explain why it was fun. I was an engineer, not a game designer, and I hadn’t spent years thinking about why things are fun. I just knew that it was fun.

He figured it was because Asheron’s Call 1 was my first MMO. “People always get stuck on what their first MMO did.” But no, I corrected him: Asheron’s Call was my third MMO. I’d played a little bit of UO and a ton of EverQuest. I knew what else was out there, and I knew that Asheron’s Call 1 was fun in different ways. I just couldn’t explain why.

That was an important day for me. I don’t believe I could have changed the course of the game at that point — it made no difference what I said or didn’t say. (All I did was cause him to focus on other design elements for his presentation.) But it was important because I realized I wasn’t a game designer, despite thinking I was. I’d played tons of games, I knew all the mechanics they used. But here I was, unable to defend the simplest concept. It was frustrating.

It changed how I played games forever, and not necessarily for the better — when you study everything to see “why is this fun”, you sap some of the fun out of it — but I think it’s the critical skill that game designers must develop. Just that. The rest of the job is details, but you have to be able to articulate why something is fun… or at least why it could be fun.

Nothing is fun for everybody, and nothing is fun in every game. A lot of times I can only recognize fun by watching others: there’s plenty of genres I don’t enjoy, so I can only hypothesize about why they’re fun. And I may often be wrong. But the act of thinking about it is what’s important. If you don’t even think about it, all you can do is unconsciously mirror what you’ve seen before. You can’t put disparate elements together (let alone try brand new things) with much hope of them being fun.

I think I can now defend why Asheron’s Call 1′s three separate energy bars were fun, but I’m not going to bother doing so. It’s beside the point. The point is… screw that producer. My MMO’s going to have three bars. No — four bars. No. Five.

This entry was posted in Design, Project Gorgon. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Stamina Bar

  1. Kirk Spencer says:

    In a bit of irony, two people I read every time they post discuss “fun” in MMOs and how the people in charge don’t seem to get it. Because I think you’ll find it not only entertaining but yet another insight I’m directing your attention to Ratshag’s most recent post.

  2. Geoff Hollis says:

    This post feels like such a tease! Will you really have five bars? Why? What will they be, and what will their purpose be? Will they all be managed on the same timescale, or will they be managed at different timescales (e.g., mana = tens of minutes, health = minutes, balance = seconds)? Are you willing to elaborate at all?

  3. Kdansky says:

    There is also the misconception that you can ask people if they have fun. That’s not actually true, because you often get a “Yes” when they are just being Skinner-boxed. I doubt they have fun, it’s just that they do not realize how bored they are due to the constant stream of rewards.

  4. Stabs says:

    Just as long as your players don’t optimise them back to one again.

    In Star Wars: Galaxies characters had Health Action and Mind bars. Because Doctor buffs were over-powered Health and Action could be buffed extremely high. That meant the weakness was Mind.

    Different classes attacked different bars. Pistoleers mainly attacked Health, Carbineers mainly attacked Action, Riflemen attacked Mind.

    This led to pvp becoming a matter of who could deploy the correct classes. Combat Medics in particular killed fun pvp fights as soon as they arrived because they could not only attack Mind but could cause Wounds which were semi-permanent as opposed to the usual damage.

  5. Jonathan B says:

    One thing this made me wonder, from the game designer angle: do game designers ask players *why* something is fun, or only ask whether it’s fun? You talked about game designers needing to learn to analyze why something is fun, and I agree with that, but it made me wonder whether they ever ask anyone but themselves the question in a typical design house.

  6. ExpertNovice says:

    @Geoff
    I think what Eric was trying to say (not to put words in his mouth, you’ll have to ask him yourself) is that he enjoyed the stamina conversion system even though it served no purpose that couldn’t be optimized out.

    It’s like when your attacks miss n% of the time. It could just reduce your damage by n% and hit every time. It would nearly perfectly simulate the win/loss rate – except it would remove unfair chance… But would that be as cool? Not really.

    So Eric plans on NOT streamlining his systems like that. Maybe points will be converted from other points. It doesn’t need to be streamlined out. He’s complicating it on purpose. He might not actually have five bars per say, but clearly this game isn’t going to follow the herd.

    It serves some purpose, even if it doesn’t seem like it. I guess Eric could never figure out why. I’ve got no clue either.

    ***************
    Great article, Eric. I feel enlightened.
    I hope I never fall into the mindset of excessive simplification.

    It’s like distilling a complex painting into a simple cartoon. It’s actually kind of sad when it gets out of hand.

  7. Joseph says:

    I’ll agree. I can’t quite explain why it was fun, but the three bar system from AC1 worked in its favor in my opinion. It was all part of the strategy involved in being a mage (which was practically everyone, including melee…. the only shortfall of AC1 IMO). Having to balance when to convert a stat to another made for some… interesting… incidents in my career. Nothing like having a higher level Stam->Health spell fizzle and then get hit again and die.. haha..

    Another mechanic that I liked was the spell discovery system.. until SplitPea killed all the fun of it. I remember casting Lightning Volley 6 for the first time in Eastham and everyone was like “Wow, what was that?!”. Ah good times.. :)

  8. Quixotic says:

    The spell system strikes me as a very Moon is a Harsh Mistress type of ‘fun’. It was fun the first time, but not fun every time. 3 Bars were fun because you could convert it to either of the two other. It added options, and “Interesting Choices”. Unraveling the spell system was intensely fun, once. It’d have been great if everyone that thought that kind of thing was fun could enjoy it unspoiled, but the fact is it was mindless drudgery (see what I did there?) for a huge portion of the player-base.

    AC2′s history always struck me as an amazing case of mid level management never reading The Mythical Man Month, and the people with the purse strings not really understanding the business, the fans, or any idea of what their real goals were.

  9. Quixotic says:

    (oops left off my closing paragraph)
    I’m always super excited when I see a new unread item in the Elder Game folder in Google Reader. Thanks again ya’ll!

  10. David Bowman says:

    Eric, once again I’m faced with a similar situation in our current game. We started with one bar to manage, then we added a second bar which truly increased the fun we are having while testing the game. Now we’re adding a third bar that (co-op game) everyone shares. We’re not adding bars just to add bars, we’re seeing very specific needs and responding to them. If this new bar doesn’t increase the fun (very small sample size, but we are trying to please our core demographic represented by us) then it goes away.
    Spoiling engineer’s love of games by trying to understand why something is fun has never been my goal, but learning why people who love games are having fun is. Maybe it is enough to know that it is fun, but I believe becoming good at making fun experiences for others consistently, requires designers to learn why something is fun and how to apply it in other situations.
    (should have kept stamina it was my mistake, should have said “no” to publisher producer, should have said “no” to original deal, but couldn’t watch as Turbine closed down)

  11. Eric says:

    @Kirk Spencer – thanks, that’s a good read!

    @Geoff Hollis – not really :) I currently have three (Armor, Health, and Power) and I’m waffling on a fourth. If there’s a fifth, it’ll be very situational and/or class-dependent. (That’s probably going to be true of the fourth bar also.)

    @Stabs – yeah, that sort of rock/paper/scissors design is a quick shortcut for PvP games. I think I’ll avoid that fate by lacking any PvP-specific mechanics, but it’s still going to be possible for a bar to become “irrelevant” unless I’m careful with monster balance.

  12. Eric says:

    @David Bowman – I think you could easily make the case for removing Stamina in AC2; given all the other changes that had happened, it probably did fit better. I don’t think it was a terrible call — just a memory that stuck with me.

    On the other hand, I remember fighting hard for one tiny feature that did eventually make it into the game: the ability for any race to wield any generic weapon (like a sword or axe… those were going to be human-only, due to art engine limitations). I think this improved the game, but not to the huge extent that I (the engineer) thought it was going to. But I’m still appreciative that the designers took the team’s complaints seriously and did their best to merge their vision with other peoples’.

    As you alluded to, I think the big problem was just the non-AC1-esque vision in the first place, given that it was a sequel. I wish that MS had seen the team’s strong negative reaction to the design, and realized that players were going to have similar reactions. That big bout of player-hate when the game launched was really tragic.

    I agree completely that you have to tease out and understand what is fun. We can’t experiment forever, so having an instinct for what might be fun is a key way to optimize your time.

  13. Merlin Gore says:

    So I’ll copy over what I was saying in IRC for the sake of discussion.
    First of all: Please don’t put 5 bars in your game, 3 bars is enough to handle in the midst of a fight with 30+ mobs.
    I definitely agree with you that stamina is needed, though I’m not sure what it could serve alongside health AND mana. I’m playing Dragon Age 2 at the moment, and they only have two bars, but for the warrior, it’s stamina and health, and the mage it’s mana and health, I think that works really well. It limits your capabilities so you’re not too overpowered and you cant just spam abilities, and if you want buffs that’s a constant percentage of your stamina too, which makes you have to work more tactically. It makes the game have a lot more depth. Just health and timeouts would be boring.

    The whole point of MMOs in my opinion is the fact that they’re complex and contain so much information and ‘tweakability’ so that you can customise your characters’ strengths and weaknesses to exactly how you want him/her to be. If you start simplifying and dumbing down the gameplay, then it loses its charm as an MMO. I find myself playing MMOs with all the visual stats I can, effects, actions, damage numbers, and would hate to see this all over simplified because someone higher up wants to appeal to a wider audience. Screw that, do that and you’ll lose your core audience.

  14. Aaron Wa says:

    Speaking of fun. AC2 really managed to create a really fun player versus player environment by a certain combination of systems. Not via incentives (there weren’t any) but just by gameplay.

    The primary systems that led to enjoyable pvp interactions were:
    1. Solid bodies (with knockback effects a big part of my personal enjoyment)
    2. Water draining vigor then health (created landscape hazards, escape routes, etc)
    3. Ease of travel something like up to 10-15 2 click escape routes or alternate routes to a targeted location. Ringways to serve as travel focus points.
    4. The combat masteries which allowed beneficial participation in combat despite level disparities.
    5. Interesting dungeon spaces, publicly accessible. Low gravity, traps, disguises, using mobs to interfere.
    6. Essentially unlimited leveling, and ensuing constantly changing power disparities between players.

    I’m still looking for another multiplayer game, that can provide such an enjoyable combination of systems for pvp.

  15. Aaron Wa says:

    Addendum:

    Also my personal thanks to whatever series of events led to the extreme behavior of airborne knockbacks. I got hours of entertainment from that alone. (Knocked a guy over the shield wall in Knorr, knocked a guy to inaccessible mad crone mountains)