The Joy of Energy Systems

The Theory Bit

I recently watched an excellent short video on Penny Arcade about how energy systems are framed. Watch the video itself for the full 5m08s of insight, but it basically pointed out two things.

Firstly, energy systems (I included any mechanism that paces play here, from CityVille’s energy to World of Warcraft’s rest) are there for three reasons (plus one I add myself…):

  1. To make game companies money
  2. To spread out content for longer
  3. To habituate players to playing games
  4. (To distribute wealth more evenly amongst players – not something PA mention but I’ve written about it before)

Secondly, they point out that many social games don’t frame these mechanics very well, leading to player frustration and resentment.

The Good and the Bad

World of Warcraft is the exception, because instead of limiting how long players can play for, they give them a bonus for logging on after an absence. The game economy used and player behaviour resulting is identical, but the player experience is greatly improved. Players love getting a bonus, where they hated getting a penalty.

So how could we frame existing energy systems in social games to give us the benefits outlined above, but in a way that players would like?

If pacing systems can currently be divided into energy based systems (e.g. CityVille) and time based systems (e.g. War Commander), then I think the answer lies somewhere in between. How about a system where buildings, crafting and other contracts are completed over long periods (like WC), and players have a limited source of “energy” which can accelerate these and itself recharges over time (like CityVille, but inverted into a bonus)?

Reframing Social Games

The Grinns Tale currently employs something along these lines, and despite the game’s other flaws, it’s very good. In The Grinns Tale, crafting an item might take 1-2 hours for a mid-level player, and your wood and metal factories fill up ready for collection over a similar period. These contracts can be completed instantly for hard currency, but they can also be accelerated for “villager actions”.

Villager actions take 2 minutes to recharge, and accelerate contracts by 2 minutes… they are actually very similar to energy points used in other games. The number that you can have depends on the number of inhabitants your village has, but easily 30-40 for a mid-level player without using hard currency, so players have enough to complete a medium sized contract instantly, once per session.

The result is that play is paced to 1-2 hour intervals, but with each session players aren’t limited in the number of actions they can take as in CityVille. Eventually players will run out of things that they can do and be left with a time delay whilst crafting completes, factories refill etc., just as in War Commander. However, as a player you can elect to accelerate particular time delays by using your villager actions.

The resulting feeling of control gives players a satisfying rush, rather than a frustrating obstacle, and is a much more pleasant experience than either pure energy or time based pacing systems. Although as a player you are encourage into regular sessions to maximise use of your villager actions, you feel like you have a lot more control over the way that you use these to plan your production.

The Grinns Tale could probably improve this system further y adjusting the balance between the timed delays and the villager action acceleration – at the moment the former dominates and the latter feels like a bit of a bolt on. To make this system work really well the bonus needs to be significant, and I suspect that increasing the recharge rate and acceleration bonus to 5 minutes, and increasing time delays proportionately to compensate, would leave players with an even better feeling.

Wrap Up

Pacing in online games is important for a variety of different reasons:

  1. Monetization
  2. Content rationing
  3. Player habituation
  4. Distribution of virtual wealth

Framing such pacing is important to ensure that it does not adversely affect player enjoyment. This can be achieved by positioning energy as an acceleration bonus to a time based economy, rather than as a hard limit to the number of actions players can perform in a session.

Image from Monica Vidal’s Flickr stream.