Game Design: The Mana System Paradox

The secret of mana is that I hate its guts. (I don’t actually mean the game, I haven’t played it yet)

Dungeon Fighter Online” used to be one of my favorite video games. I say “used to” because it isn’t anymore: the economy’s shot to hell, the PvP is pay-to-win, the community pretty much consists of gold-seller bots. But that’s all the publisher’s (Nexon’s) fault. The game itself is a lot of fun. Imagine a side-scrolling beat-em-up overstylized to the max. Pull giant dragon spears out of thin air that cause explosions when you stab things with them! Summon a purple demon whale to devour everything in front of you! Ride on top of a tank-sized laser cannon as it obliterates anything in its way!

But I quit playing DFO, and not just because of Nexon’s shortcomings. I quit DFO because of a design flaw in the game itself. DFO is mana-based: every attack you can execute costs mana, except for a boring basic three-hit combo. When you have mana, you get to do all that awesome cool stuff I described above. When you don’t have mana, all you can really do is whack enemies with your staff or sword or whatever you have equipped. Which one is more fun? Obviously the former. The problem is that DFO‘s fun level is directly proportional to the amount of mana you spend in the game, and I got bored with farming for mana potions.

So why did DFO use a mana system to limit players? I could answer that, but the problem isn’t just with DFO: many, many games shove mana systems in where they don’t belong. Mana systems have been around for a very long time, so to truly understand why they’re used, we need to look at their history.

The History Of Mana Systems

Back in the old days, mana was used to differentiate power levels for the sake of making tactical decisions with them. In Magic: The Gathering, do I cast my big powerful 6-mana creature, or do I save my mana so I can play the 2-mana counterspell if my enemy decides to summon a monster? Neither option is inherently more fun than the other: the amount of mana you have limits the actions you can take, and that’s that. Using mana and thinking about how to manage your resources was where all the fun was embedded, and what happened afterwards was only a reflection of your decision.

The difference between DFO‘s and MTG‘s take on the mana system is the placement of “fun.” In MTG, the part where you’re thinking “do I use mana now, or do I save it” was the fun part. In DFO, the part where you’re killing stuff was the fun part… but that part costs mana. DFO is not a tactical game at all, but mana was always meant to be a tactical system. So when you’re forced to ask yourself “do I use mana now, or do I save it?” while playing DFO, it’s equivalent to asking yourself “do I want to have more fun now and be reduced to whacking enemies once I’m out of mana, or do I have less fun now so I can have enough mana to do cool awesome things later?”

To illustrate my point, here are a few breakdowns:

Magic: The Gathering

  • (Do I use mana now, or save it?) <– The fun part. A tactical decision.
    • (Use it now) <– Sorta fun. Watch how your decision plays out.
    • (Use it later) <– Equally fun as “use it now”. Still watching that decision.

DFO

  • (Do I use mana now, or save it?) <– Not fun. Tactical decisions don’t fit in an action game.
    • (Use it now) <– The fun part. Big explosions and cool spells!
    • (Use it later) <– Not fun at all. Whack enemies with a boring combo.

And there’s the problem. The mana system’s purpose is to limit power, and it’s doing that job splendidly. But in DFO, that’s what’s actually killing the game’s fun. Mana in DFO is like a punishment, a leash on your potential. When you’re playing DFO, you’re forced to decide when the game will be fun. That decision shouldn’t exist. Naturally, the player always wants the game to be fun: that’s why they play it (1).

The problem is, games can’t always be fun. There have to be some lulls in the gameplay. Even with MTG‘s mana system, your ability to make decisions is limited by how quickly your character can act. Even though players would like games to always be fun, that’s just not possible. Fun needs to be ramped up and developed through the game. It’s like asking why stories can’t always be at the climax: because they need an introduction and rising action and all that stuff in order to make the climax what it is.

Same thing with fun in games. There are parts that are fun, and parts that aren’t. But there are ways we can use those parts together to deliver a fun experience as a whole (DFO‘s way is not one of them). Still, it’s not an easy fix: mana systems are inherently meant to limit power, so how can you make having limited power fun? A good way to tackle this problem is to first take a look at a wider variety of games to see different approaches to this paradox.

Knights in the Nightmare (Bullet hell/tactics): Skill attacks cost one mana, but the only way to gain mana is to collect crystals dropped by enemies after hitting them with an attack (2). That means if you’re good at the game and continue to land attacks one after the other, mana never becomes a problem for you since it just keeps flowing in. It’s a good way to reward skill and step around the concept of limiting power.

League of Legends (MOBA): Most of the champions you can play as run on mana, but some use different resource systems. One of these, “energy”, is capped at 200, and skill costs range from 50 to 150 energy. However, energy also has a very fast regeneration rate. That means you can run out of energy if you spam your skills, but there’s no long-term punishment for it. Thanks to that, energy-based champions have to focus a lot more on their in-combat energy level. Contrast that to mana-based champions with their binary nature: either they have enough mana to fight or they don’t. Mana-based champions in LoL have the same problem as the mana system in DFO, but LoL‘s alternative resource systems are noteworthy.

Dungeon Defenders (Tower defense/action): Mana isn’t just used to activate special character skills, but also to summon towers that help you kill enemies. That means mana is never exactly limited: if you can only hold 100 mana but have accumulated 200 mana over the course of a battle, that surplus 100 went into building towers that continue to assist you during the fight. Your power level is constantly ramping up rather than being limited, thanks to the fact that you can essentially convert mana into lasting power by building towers with it (3).

Bioshock (FPS): They call it “Eve” in Bioshock, but it’s the same concept as mana. Eve is used to activate plasmids like pyrokinesis or telekinesis or all sorts of other powers. But essentially, Eve is to plasmids as ammunition is to guns. That means the amount of Eve you use scales with your skill level: if you’re smart with it, you use less of it, like using electricity on enemies in water. It works just like how you can save ammo while still killing enemies by aiming for the head. That’s also why ammo systems don’t really have the same problem as mana systems: they both limit the amount of actions you can take, but with ammo there’s a skill factor involved. Bioshock just did the same thing to its mana system.

So those were all interesting takes on the mana system. None of them directly imported mana the same way it was in classic RPGs: instead, they all reworked and twisted the mana system to suit the gameplay style they were delivering. But is there a way to completely revamp the mana system to avoid the awkward paradox in the first place? A way to allow scaling power levels without making the higher ones feel like a guilty pleasure?

In fact, there is. And it’s called Final Fantasy XIII‘s Active Time Battle system (4).

Active Time Battle Versus Traditional Mana Systems

I can’t tell which is better, the battle system or the giant turtle.

Now, FFXIII isn’t exactly the most beloved game in the universe. A lot of people hated it, and I can see why. The thirteenth game chopped out a lot of Final Fantasy staples that fans believed made up the core essence of the series (like a good storyline). But one of those staples was the mana system, and the replacement ATB system pushed FFXIII in a new and exciting direction.

What happens in the ATB system is during battle, each character has a bar segmented into parts called ATB gauges (starting at two and increasing as the game progresses). The bar fills up while the character is idle, but remains static while the character is attacking or rendered immobile by enemy attacks. Character actions in the game cost a set amount of ATB gauges: basic single-target attacks are just one, but larger attacks and high-level spells cost more. There’s no mana involved: the cost for every action in the game is in ATB gauges, or in other words, time. Stronger actions need more time before they can be executed, weaker actions can be fired off rapidly.

If you look at standard mana systems, they can also be seen as time-based, but it’s the other way around. You cast a spell and then you wait for your mana to regenerate. But in FFXIII‘s system, you wait for your ATB gauge to fill and then you cast your spell. By placing the wait before the action, the system generates anticipation and expectation: it makes a player think “the reason why I’m waiting is because I’ll get a big payoff if I wait long enough.” In standard mana systems, the waiting is how you pay for indulging in power, like a punishment. It’s the difference between fearing a punishment and anticipating a reward. That’s the difference between standard mana systems and the ATB system.

Of course, the ATB system isn’t perfect. What I described above was the optimal best-case scenario for what ATB could have been, and the game itself didn’t actually turn out that way. We can look at how ATB is used in the game. First, players can queue attacks together as the ATB bar fills, and the whole queue executes once it fills completely. Alternatively, players can manually have a character attack with only a few ATB gauges filled, if waiting isn’t an option. But in almost all scenarios, the former is more viable because it’s simpler. You’ll only ever attack prematurely when you desperately need the speed, which doesn’t happen very often. I wish the designers had explored a wider spectrum of viable uses for ATB.

Even then, look at what it accomplishes. Since the game encourages players to wait for the ATB gauge to fill fully, the game is either at its maximum power level or ramping up to get there. Executing a full chain of ATB attacks at once is the norm, and if you’re forced into using a weaker attack, it’s because that weaker attack is giving you a lot more speed. Contrast that to standard mana systems, where the game’s normal power level is pretty far down from its highest power level, and using a stronger attack sacrifices mana. Concepts like “weaker” or “stronger” are just numbers: the feeling of speed is more visceral for the player, so a weak fast attack is more fun than a slow strong attack (4).

Now, that’s not the only fault that the ATB system has. Another one is the lack of tide-turning special attacks, like Limit Breaks in FFVII/VIII or Trance in FFIX. FFXIII can’t exactly have something like that because unless it cost like two minutes of waiting to execute (which would be no fun at all), it would just be spammed over and over (which would obviously defeat the purpose of it being a special attack). As a whole, the feeling of “I desperately need this power RIGHT NOW and I’m willing to pay ANY price for it!” is a very powerful feeling that the mana system delivers on, and yet is impossible with the ATB system.

Looking For More Solutions

I feel like I haven’t yet seen a game that has found a perfect fix for the mana system paradox. All of these games came close, but they’ve still got flaws. FFXIII has no big game-changing moments, KitN has a skyscraper skill floor, LoL‘s champions are still mostly mana-based, Dungeon Defenders lacks actual depth, Bioshock uses plasmids for puzzle gimmicks rather than straight combat… I could go on and on.

But let’s move onto a high note instead. Now that we’ve analyzed the mana system paradox, how might we use this knowledge to improve DFO? The mana system is definitely not working out for that game, but it needs the ramping tiers of power that mana costs provide in order to get the cool awesome powerful skills I love about the game. Is there a better, cleaner way to really tap into the core essence of what makes DFO fun and deliver it to the players?

One, the game could be completely cooldown-based. Skills in DFO already have cooldowns. Increasing some of these cooldowns slightly to compensate for the de-manaization could still give each attack a unique oomph, but remove the long-term punishment of being limited by low mana. Plus, it could make more strategic gameplay: and I know I’ve said a lot about how DFO isn’t a strategic game, but right now it really leans towards straight button-mashing. Battlemages in DFO have a skill that shoots an orb of magical energy, and it’s on a 0.5 second cooldown, so usually you just mash that key as much as possible. Increasing it to, say, one or two seconds would make you think more about how you want to use it while still having no lasting penalty. Games like The World Ends With You work this way (although TWEWY is only halfway cooldown-based).

Two, the game could be combo-based. More powerful skills only become available once your combo counter has reached an appropriately high number. This one’s a little more gimmicky, and it would have to be balanced separately for PvE and PvP. Not to mention it wouldn’t work for classes like soul reapers, who summon ghosts to fight for them (it may seem like I’m hating on DFO a lot, but it really has some of the most unique characters I’ve seen in an MMO). But still: wouldn’t it be really satisfying to end a devastating combo with a beautiful finisher, rather than just pulling that same finisher out of nowhere with no windup? It’s an idea similar to FFXIII‘s ATB system, except instead of waiting to execute a powerful attack… you’re attacking to execute a powerful attack. Not only does it get the anticipation factor, but also constant action on top!

Three, increase mana costs and mana regen dramatically. I’m talking a basic skill costing 10% max mana, and a finisher being around 50%. And I’m talking mana regen of like 0%-100% mana in 4 seconds. It’s LoL‘s energy system: you can’t spam all your skills at once, but you can still continue your assault after a bit of regeneration. Now, the length of your combo depends on how much mana you have. If you notice your enemy whiffing an attack, you can now know that their mana is significantly reduced, and you can make a counterattack while they’re not at full potency. But your window for attack is only a few seconds wide with how the regeneration works.  Counterplay is a great concept that DFO doesn’t exactly have: this kind of thought process might work to deepen DFO‘s combat system.

Who knows: maybe someday, one of DFO‘s designers will read this essay and think about the mana system paradox and revamp their game. If that happened, that would be the best day of my life, because then I could go back to the chaotic mayhem I loved about DFO in the first place. But DFO is developed by a Korean company, and this essay isn’t in Korean. And even if I could write in Korean, I don’t have a perfect fix for DFO‘s mana system, just a few rough ideas. Still, that’s what game design is: there’s never going to be such a thing as a “perfect fix” for anything, and all we designers can do is try to get the best thing we can make. The mana system paradox is just one of those things we have to consider as we strive for optimization.

ENDNOTES

(1) This statement is a massive overgeneralization, but I define “fun” differently for each game. “Fun” in Amnesia: The Dark Descent is certainly not the same kind of “fun” in Counter Strike. As a whole, I would define “fun” as the reason why players play a game, which would make my original statement a little cyclical. But it’s relevant: I play DFO to cause big explosions and kill tons of bad guys, so that’s what makes the game fun. Which is why not being able to cause said explosions and kill said bad guys kills the game’s fun.

(2) Knights in the Nightmare is much, much deeper than this. And that goes for all these example games, just KitN in particular. I’m just explaining enough to demonstrate their unique takes on mana systems: going in-depth with these games would require whole essays in themselves.

(3) Really, all tower defense games work on this concept of cumulative power. But at the same time, standard tower defense games deliver fun during the tactical decision phase, like MTG. Dungeon Defenders is notable because it uses the cumulative power theme in conjunction with action-based gameplay.

(4) It’s actually called the Command Synergy System, but as much as I like cool names I’m going to call it the Active Time Battle system for simplicity’s sake.

(5) This statement only applies to RPGs. Fighting games are all about the relationship between weak/fast and strong/slow. But I’m only talking about RPGs, where the difference between “weak” and “strong” is in the number of damage points displayed.

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