Friday, August 12, 2011

The Mana Mechanic

In the far past magic was considered to be more powerful than non-magic. Unfortunately this lead to too many players wanting to play magic users. Thus, if a fantasy story was to be transfered into a game setting, and if the game designer wanted to allow everybody to potentially play a magic user, he had to balance magic.

Mana is the traditional choice. The magic user can be more powerful than non-magic users, but he exhausts very fast. This was a simple mechanic with a reasonable simulation aspect that introduced interesting decisions in table-top RPGs. Great.

Unfortunately it doesn't really work with modern MMORPGs. The problem is mostly with PvP. (But while raiding the mechanic is problematic, as well). The fact that dying in most PvP mini-games (like battlegrounds) is mostly meaningless, makes the mana mechanic useless.
If the magic user were overpowered while he has mana and underpowered while he has no mana, the result would be a very boring battleground: The magic user would defeat non-magic users until he is out-of-mana, at which point he is defeated by somebody else. Revive. Repeat. Very boring.

Because game designers nowadays cannot (are not allowed to) think out-of-the-box, they didn't replace the mechanic, but iterated it over the last decade. This lead to magic users that have almost infinite amounts of mana and are actually balanced while they have mana. Should they run out-of-mana, they are extremely underpowered, but since this almost never happens, it's not a problem.

This is an unnecessarily complicated mechanic that doesn't introduce interesting decisions and doesn't even balance powerful magic. If you could play a PvP-specced mage in a WoW battleground who had endless amounts of mana, you wouldn't feel a difference, really.
Ok, you could try to arcane-blast everything to death. But actually .. isn't that what's happening and forcing Blizzard to re-balance arcane blast all the time? If a mage were balanced while fighting in a mana-saving way, he were overpowered, because he could just as well fight in a non-mana-saving way. And, of course, most mages would do just that. Which would cause lots and lots of complaining about OP mages in the forums. And this wouldn't even be unreasonable.

The mana mechanic doesn't work in a PvP game that has 30s respawns. It requires harsh death penalties (remember tabletops!) to work. Thus, we could either introduce harsher death penalties, or we could use a different magic system.


  1. I am not sure what you ranting about. You want rare and powerful ,magic?

    Magic and mana has nothing to do with pvp. PvP is this - each player has a set pool of resources and moves that diminish/replenish this resource, those who get the other resources first to 0 wins. It doesn't matter what fluff is displayed on the screen (fireballs , necromancy, or old school cold steel and arrows)

    Now in the context of pvp extremely powerful moves are unbalancing and unfun. Despite having other "limitations". Suppose you there is ability that can instakill any player anywhere. To "balance" there is loong cooldown on it (day ,2 -whatever). Well its still not gonna be fun for player killed by those who only login when cooldown is up and log off afterwards.

  2. I am not ranting, Max.

    I am saying that I don't look at my mana bar when I do PvP nowadays, because I cannot go oom, anyway. I give reasons for why it has to be this way.

  3. But... it does work.

    The closest analogy to mana system is ammo. In shooters ammo is plentiful, and you have respawns (much shorter then 30s in most cases!), yet reload time and ammo limits still remain meaningful.

    For mana-users mana limits create decision of when and how they should use their mana-restoration ability (evocation for mages, shadowfiend/dispersion for priests, innervate for druids, mana tide for shamans, life tap for warlocks), which requires them to disengage from combat and avoid damage/interrupts/dispels for duration - since most of them can be countered.

    You can also use them early, potentially wasting part of effect, or save them for later, when you might be unable to use them due to enemy pressure.

    The fact that you don't usually run out of mana at the moment has nothing to do with mana system itself, it's balance decision. WOW certainly had moments when mana-burn combos dominated with same mana system, and running people out of mana to win was real option.

  4. Shalcker, I agree that in an extremely controlled setting, like the WoW-arena, it is possible to balance the classes so carefully that you can get interesting decisions out of mana mechanic.
    But even in this controlled setting, it's often insignificant.

    Much more than half the arena games would go the same way even if mages & co. had infinite mana.
    Which raises the question whether the mana mechanic is worth the trouble and wether it could be replaced by somethign else?

    Outside of the controlled setting, in open PvP, mana becomes impossible to balance. If the mage is as strong as the warrior while he has mana, why then can he go oom? Isn't fair, is it?
    But if the mage were stronger than the warrior while he has mana, that wouldn't be fair either, would it?

    Ammunition is ok, because in these games everybody has ammunition. Thus, you can make running out of ammunition a real problem whithout introducing balance problems.

  5. this is a very valid comment...although I can say that with my shadow priest I run out of mana in pvp very often...if I don't regular kill someone with my shadow word : Death or if I don't regularly get damage from my SW: Death...and this is not something you can really track..if I simple run and pop out dot's and mind blasts my mana will get empty really quick.. and when you go out of mana you really cannot simple wait your mana to fil up (like energy or focus)..

    so I have the question too, if my dps is balanced with the rogues dps for example, why I can go out of mana and when that happens I need to use big cooldowns or potions or drink water and rogue simple don't do that...

    what the game gives to me as an exchange?

  6. [q]Outside of the controlled setting, in open PvP, mana becomes impossible to balance. If the mage is as strong as the warrior while he has mana, why then can he go oom? Isn't fair, is it?
    But if the mage were stronger than the warrior while he has mana, that wouldn't be fair either, would it?

    I don't know the state of current mana mgmt in wow arena , but its irrelevant. Seems you saying that in one particular case (wow arena) mana does not matter and seem to be in arms about it

    Well the fact is mana is just resource bar. Resource bars are present in many games for more tactical options. Fact is in most games mages are not the only one which have "mana", warrirors have stamina ,rogue energy , etc.

    Concrete mechanics differs for variety of playstyles

    League of legends with is huge array of champions probably has tried a lot of variation of this system. It works and its achieves its goal - introduce variety and additional resources besides HP pools and cooldowns.

  7. Calm down, Max.

    I don't know the state of current mana mgmt in wow arena , but its irrelevant. Seems you saying that in one particular case (wow arena) mana does not matter and seem to be in arms about it

    Actually, I said quite the opposite ..

    And I never said that mana should be removed and replaced by nothing. I just said that mana is generally a bad mechanic for games with harmless death penalties..

    Which is why Blizzard tried to use other resource mechanics to supplement the mana bar. Mana is just not really a limitation. It cannot be, for reasons already explained.

  8. "Color of resource bar" doesn't really matter from mechanical side. It's all about regen/usage speed and reserve size.

    Current WoW mana-using melee classes work much closer to "energy" style (they even added combo points for paladins), and their "extra mana" is used mostly to limit their cross-spec utility usage - one use of paladin aoe heal, for example, and you're barely getting enough mana to maintain your rotation.

    It IS possible to make mages care about mana, it was done, it worked - and still largely does for raid encounters as long as you have to evocate at least once. But raid encounter timeframes are a bit too big for world/bg pvp, so it "feels" like your mana is mostly endless.

    Not mechanical problem, just design priority problem. They never prioritized BGs or World PVP (the latter is actively ignored, in fact), and rated BGs feels more like experiment then actual commitment.

  9. I don't think harsher death penalties could work in WoW PvP. It's way to hard to survive. DP should make you want to not die, not punish you for being "unlucky".

    In WoW all classes have limited resources. It's just that the resource for casters is "cooldowns" and not mana. And I agree it's very boring because it means every spell has it's own resource. You don't have choices, just complex "rotations".

  10. I agree with both paragraphs, Kring.

  11. I think the real issue is that the timeframe for a mana bar is too long. If it was similiar to the way energy/focus/runes+runic power works for rogues, cats, hunters, and dks it would probably be much better. For those not familiar, energy/focus/runes pretty much gives you the choice of whether to save up and then burst a few slightly more powerful abilities or to keep using abilities as soon as you have enough energy/focus/runes.

    Mana bars affect healer gameplay much more than dps in my experience. As mentioned, balancing the mage and rogue pretty much requires that the mana bar not matter for the mage. Otherwise the rogue would be better for long fights and the mage (presumably) be better for short ones.

    Mana's longer time horizon is probably done this way from pve encounter designs where mistakes commonly result in extra damage taken (the classic standing in the fire) which makes the healers burn more mana until they're dry in which case you lose.

    It really hasn't been designed very well in Cataclysm. Early on mana was so tight you pretty much mostly used your one mana-efficent heal and only used anything else when the encounter design mechanics forced you to. Even if everything was done right (no standing in fire) but the dps took a little too long, you'd run out and wipe. But now, we're back to mana not really mattering anymore.

    The root of the design problem is that mana costs stay fixed, but better gear improves mana pool, mana regen, and spell strength. The second problem is that healer output scales much faster than player health pools. So early in an expansion, the gameplay is pretty slow and boring as your heals dont budge health bars very much but then late in an expansion, it gets so frantic that you have to predict the damage and begin casting before people have even been hit.

    In some ways I think it would be better gameplay for a healer if the mana bar timeframe was shorter and heal output scaled closely to player health pools.

  12. Thanks for the lengthy comment, Mellasont.

    From an abstract gameplay point of view the main difference between mana, and say WoW-rogue energy, is the time scale. And this time scale makes the mana mechanic broken, as it forces the game designer to make mana not matter for the sake of balance.

    So, I agree completely.

    We should free ourselves from the chains of tradition and move to better mechanics for casters in MMORPGs.