On Designing Skills and Abilities

In case you’ve read my previous article on talent trees, you might find it natural for me to write another one about skills and abilities. I might be mainly an RPG player, but the topic about to be covered is something that concerns more than just RPGs, it concerns every genre.

I’ll refer to ‘skills’ and ‘abilities’ as the mediums through which a character interacts with the in-game mechanics (usually, in a special way). For example: I’ll refer to jumping as a mechanic and double-jumping as an ability; I’ll refer to Health Points as a mechanic and Healing as an ability.

You’ll often find that certain abilities or skills are highly linked to certain game mechanics. For example: spells consuming mana, abilities dealing damage, being able to craft and drink potions etc. There are certain mechanics that are especially used and overused: abilities interacting with health, positioning, resources, whilst rarely interacting with the environment, the player’s accessibility/visibility of information and others.

I’ll go through some points regarding a variety of aspects abilities consist of, with moderate hope that you’ll learn something new or get inspired/motivated. Some of these points were already made in the article about talent trees (you might want to check that one out).

 

Depth

 

One of the most important aspects to take into account when making an ability. Depth is usually synonymous with ‘easy to learn, hard to master’. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean that, but often times it does. The main point to understand here is that there is a difference between depth and complexity. Simplicity, complexity and depth play different roles and blend into each other.

Having an ability which shoots a fireball that turns into an ice-spike then into a lightningbolt might sound complex, but it is mechanically simple: You press a button, the projectile is launched. A thing to consider here are the vulnerabilities of the enemies hit, so being able to predict and/or line a good shot is important.

Having an ability which shoots a fireball, then you can change its direction once, might sound simple, but is offers mechanical depth. It can be used as a run-of-the-mill damaging spell, as a pulling tool, as a zone-control tool etc. A change of a simple parameter can sometimes produce amazing depth. In this case, the designer changed the parameter of ‘can the direction of a fireball be changed?’. Yes, now it can, and the player is the one who has control over it.

The ability to double-jump is the change of the parameter of ‘how many times can you jump?’. Another example I noticed in Heroes of the Storm: Xul has a reversed-skillshot, he creates a scythe at the target location which goes towards him (instead of the usual, the projectile’s starting point being the character).

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Xul from Heroes of the Storm

The pace and timing of an ability can bring both difficulty and depth. Having a Meteor Shower spell activate 5 seconds after being cast makes planning more important. Having a spell deal its damage over time hides the visibility of the impact caused, thus the damage can be harder to predict.

The question the designer has to ask themselves when making an ability they desire to have depth is: Can the player become (noticeably) better at using this ability through practice and/or planning? If yes, then you’re good to go.

 

Resources

 

The four most used resources I can think of are: mana, spell points, gold and stamina.

  • A character usually has a high capacity of mana, say 100. Each spell consumes mana, say a Fireball costs 10 mana. The mana is able to regenerate over time, or can be refilled with potions. It is usually displayed in the form of a bar.
  • In Vancian Magic, a character is able to cast a certain number of spells until they rest. That number is equal to their spell points. Usually, the spells are also memorized or prepared before having to cast them, thus having to choose what spells will be cast until the next rest.
  • Gold, or however you call it, is a resource common to Strategy games or the Tower Defense genre. The game usually has you start with 0 gold, then build up as you kill creatures or generate resources.
  • Another often used resource is stamina, or energy. A low-capacity resource which depletes and regenerates quickly.

When you decide that certain abilities interact with a resource, it is important to keep in mind the playstyle and the limitations the resource implies. Mana means that at the beginning of the match/fight/whatever the character will be at its full potential. Later on low mana will impose resource management. Stamina assures a constant playstyle and a limit on the amount of burst-casting a character may do. Vancian Magic encourages strategy above everything. Gold means that at the beginning of the game you will be able to cast a limited about of spells, but be able to cast more at the end of the game.

Try to play around with resources. Create them based on a playstyle, or generate a playstyle around it. Some games, such as LoL and WoW, have characters using a resource called Fury/Rage. It starts at 0 and grows over time through dealing damage or receiving damage. It depletes quickly when out of combat. This resource encourages building a character meant to stay in combat a long amount of time, such as a Bruiser or a Warrior.

One resource I thought of at some point was ‘Flow’. Basically, you gain Flow by moving – the faster you move, the more you generate. You start to lose flow by standing still. This encourages a hit-and-run playstyle, as well as one able to burst when desired (starting a fight with full Flow is possible). Counters to Flow-users are intuitive as well: slows makes them generate less Flow, whilst snaring/stunning makes them lose Flow by standing still.

Do not be afraid of using multiple resources if it makes for an interesting twist. Diablo III’s Demon Hunter uses 2 resources, one meant for Damage abilities and one meant for Utility abilities. Games in which characters are able to use both magic and physical abilities could use a resource for each, such as some JRPGs (with mana and TP) or games from the Elder Scrolls series.

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Monk’s Skills in Diablo III

If you want your abilities to use a certain resource, or resources, make sure that the resource you use adds to the playstyle. Do not be afraid of not using one, or creating mechanics like Overheating or such in order to tweak the way the resource works.

 

Restrictions

 

Restrictions are the rules which limit the amount of times you use an ability. They can vary wildly and I think that it’s for the best to list some and talk about them, rather than detailing a general idea. You, as a designer, should be able to tell or guess how each of these restrictions interact with the abilities you create.

  • Cooldowns are perhaps the ones you think about mostly. You can’t cast that Fireball unless you wait another 6 seconds from casting the previous one. Some games also have a Global Cooldown, meaning you have to wait 0.5 seconds before casting another spell, regardless of it being the same or not. This denies the ability to cast all of them at once, if they are instant. Low cooldowns are usually used for spammable or basic abilities, whilst long cooldowns are used for abilities with a great impact. You can play around, however, with low-cooldown high-mana abilities if you want characters to be able to unleash controlled bursts of spells, or high-cooldown low-mana if you want the character to be able cast one big, impactful, spell without having it alter their playstyle (meaning, not having to consume a lot of mana so you can continue as normal).
  • Resources are another way you can limit the amount of skills used and when they are used. No need to further detail this topic, if I want to keep this article concise.
  • Slots do not limit the amount of spells you cast, but the selection of spells you cast. Limiting the amount of abilities a character has can imply two effects: concentrating the feel and playstyle of a character to a certain core-gameplay and reducing the amount of spammable variety. Oftentimes you’ll find that reducing the number of slots available is a healthy thing: think of MOBAs which offer a limited pool of skills for each character and Diablo III, which offers a lot of skills but not all of them equippable at once.
  • Combos are a restriction wildly popular in Fighting Games, Brawlers, Beat’em Ups and others. These are games in which abilities are a thing used in tandem with your basic attacks in order to unleash continuous damage. However, they are not limited there. Two abilities used at once can create a ‘combo’ if their effects are synergetic. When thinking about combos think both about the order of buttons that have to be pressed in order to generate an effect, as well as the order of in-game things to be done in order to generate an effect. Remember that sometimes you wouldn’t want to use an ability unless you already used another one previously, in order to deliver a combo. This implies that one skill or the other is ineffective outside of the said combo.
  • Time is another restriction as well, apart from cooldowns. The casting time, the duration before the effect is caused, the duration of the effect – all of these can alter how an ability feels and what it is supposed to do.
  • Environmental restrictions often come in the form of natural rules. Not being able to double-jump unless you jumped once at least, or not being able to glide when not in the air. Such restrictions can also be extended to things like ‘ice spells consume nearby ice’, thus being in places with ice or generating ice is encouraged. Make sure that you use tools which interact with the environment as well, not only with characters.

Oftentimes you will use more than just one restriction for a certain skill. One thing to have in mind when designing your skills is to have restrictions come both as something natural and as something that doesn’t frustrate. Restrictions should feel interactive at best and not-there on average. In the worst case scenario, the player will blame the game for not letting them use an ability when they feel it’s right.

 

Roles

 

Each and every ability has a role and it is never a simple one. Roles can vary from a simple ‘deal damage’, ‘heal up’ to ‘evasion tool’ and ‘execution tool’. When creating abilities you can create a list of contexts in which the ability will be used. For example, you can ask yourself when to use Healing Light: when an ally is damaged. The role of this ability then becomes clear: damage recovery. Changing a parameter of the ability, having it also work as a temporary Health-buff adds another role: damage prevention.

It’s a requirement to break down an ability and see its effectiveness in terms of absolute value. When a character is damaged, the damage prevented is the same in both cases. When a character is at full health and is about to be damaged, Healing Light #1 has an absolute value of 0, since it is a reactive spell. Healing Light #2 would have an absolute value equal to the damage prevented, since it is a preventive spell.

Changes of parameters can create whole new roles for abilities or fine-tune already existent ones. Having a Fireball spell which deals damage is quite basic. Having a Fireball spell that deals lower damage, but bonus damage based on its target’s missing health is something specific. The ratio damage/enemy health of Fireball #1 is constant, whilst the ration of damage/enemy health of Fireball #2 is dynamic. Thus Fireball #2 is a less powerful overall damaging tool, but it becomes a powerful execution tool.

When making abilities try to always keep in mind the role your character has. Their abilities are assets which together build the character’s general role, so make sure the character doesn’t end up feeling ‘empty’ or without a sense/purpose. Also, keep in mind that sometimes it’s good idea to show players the varied roles an ability has, and sometimes it’s for the best to let them discover.

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Classes and their roles in Rift

Minigames

 

Something worth noting is that you might want the player to put a little extra effort when using an ability if they want to achieve its effect or its full effect. This is not something done only to increase the power per player-skill ratio of an ability, but to generate one most important quality in a game: fun. It’s fun when I have to time a double-jump right and I feel good when I do it. It’s fun when I miss an ability and find out it ricocheted into another enemy.

There are many minigames one may employ. There are positioning minigames, in which you have to be at or avoid a certain place, there are timing minigames, like in the case of double-jumps or in fishing-minigames, etc.

Minigames bring more than fun. When you implement a minigame mechanic into a skill, the skill generally has a bit of a more powerful effect in order to reward the player’s ability to play the minigame. This brings both depth and the potential of mastery, of becoming good at something.

Here’s an example. Let’s say that every creature you kill leaves behind an elemental spirit. You can shoot your Arcane Bolt to damage enemies. If your Arcane Bolt goes through an elemental spirit and you press the Arcane Bolt button again, it absorbs it, becoming a fireball, lightningbolt etc. and continuing its trajectory.

Now, this is an easy to grasp minigame, but it offers a lot of interactivity. The player has to be able to position their character in such a way there is a spirit between their character and the enemy, as well as time pressing the button right. The timing bit offers the ability not to use the spirit, as well, if not desired. They can also plan ahead and position the enemy in a favorable spot before killing them.

When using minigames in your abilities be sure not to oversaturate them. Minigames allow for spice and a slight power increase, but unless they are a core mechanic, they shouldn’t be something that consume the player’s entire attention.

 

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Bard and his chimes in League of Legends

Numbers

 

I would have said that ‘it all comes down to numbers’, but that’s not quite how it works. However, numbers have a big chunk of importance. The numbers I will focus on now are the ones that come out of an ability formula. I touched this topic when I talked about roles, but here I will talk a little bit more in-depth.

The most basic of values that can be used in a formula are flat numbers, meaning 5, 10, -1.5. The effects they generate are often easier to predict, since the effect-outcome is always the same. Easier to predict isn’t something bad, though – you wouldn’t want your dash’s length to vary when platforming.

One of the most used values are scaling numbers, meaning stats. Your character’s Intellect, Level etc. You’ll often find spells that deal 50+int*2, where int=Intelligence. Scaling usually works with enemy values as well, taking in count their defensive stats. For example, a Mighty Slash might deal 2*(str+end)/3 –e.arm, where str= Strength, end=Endurance and e.arm= Enemy Armor. Do not use complex formulae unless you know they work well. You are always encouraged to experiment around with all kind of formulae. Do not be afraid to use stats like Movement Speed, for example, if it will allow for an interesting playstyle.

Dynamic values are something used when your ability has a specific, well-defined role. These dynamic values include your remaining mana, your enemy’s missing health percentage etc. These numbers tend to offer the most varied effect and sometimes can become situational. Make sure not to oversaturate your abilities with these numbers unless they offer a useful and unique effect.

Random values are a wild one. RNG is used to offer thrill, to spice things up. The worst outcome is usually less valuable than your average ability’s outcome, whilst the best outcome is usually more valuable than your average ability’s outcome. Too much RNG can make the player feel cheated, or feel that their skill is not involved enough when playing the game.

One last piece of advice is not to be afraid of using the same value in an ability more than once. For example you could make a Rain of Fire spell that the longer you cast, the more damage it deals and the wider its area.

When making formulae there are two ways to go around it: the formulae are simple enough for the player to understand or they are complex but yield intuitive results.

 

Playstyles

 

This term I have used so many times in this article. It’s one of my favorite terms as well, given that I love playstyle variety. There are two things that make a character be mechanically unique: their role and their playstyle. Their role is the ‘output’ of their abilities, it is what they offer: damage, utility, healing, resource management etc. Their playstyle is the ‘input’ of their abilities, it is what the player does and feel when using abilities.

Playstyles can circle around a certain mechanic, a certain theme or they can be something manufactured by min-maxing. A playstyle, despite being the same, is always executed differently by different people. Even a single skill can offer more than just one playstyle, as different people can find different purposes for it or prefer using it in different scenarios.

The playstyle is the sum of the gameplay offered by the abilities of a character. Always be sure to make skills be varied or, at least, offer an enjoyable playstyle, if not more than one.

Since this part is something more practical than theoretical, I will offer an example from a design I made once. Your character is a Dragon Knight and it uses the following resource: discipline/rage; it is shown in the form of a bar. The middle of the bar has a value of 0, the far left has a value of 100 discipline and the far right 100 rage. You gain an amount of defense percentage based on your discipline, or lose in the case of rage. Vice-versa for an amount of attack percentage.

All your abilities, breathing fireballs, spawning dragonlings, hitting with a giant hammer, alter your level of discipline/rage, moving it more towards a direction or another. Some abilities benefit from high rage, others from high discipline, others from being at the center, others benefit from both high rage and high discipline.

This system contoured four playstyles: high rage, high discipline, staying on the middle-level and fast-switching.

It is pretty hard to advise you on the playstyles you make, since they differ wildly. What’s to keep in mind is that they have to feel good and be fun.

 

Balance

 

Balance is the ultimate value of an ability. All abilities have to be balanced in some form or another in order not to feel overpowered or underpowered. Perfect balance can rarely be achieved (since we’re not talking about tic-tac-toe). Here are some things to take into consideration when balancing your abilities:

  • Some abilities are used in certain contexts – you wouldn’t use Healing when no one is harmed and it’s more effective to use an execution tool when the enemies are on low health. The more situational an ability is, the lower its value gets.
  • In the case of an execution ability, its effectiveness is depending on the enemy’s health. Thus, taking in count how often they are on low health affects the value of an ability. Things can get complicated. For example, if you have a bouncing arrow ability which you can charge. The more you charge, the more damage you get, but the less times it bounces. Its potential damage is calculated as: damage * number of bounces. You will find that this is an exponential formula and its value spikes usually somewhere in the middle, when there’s average damage and an average number of bounces.
  • If an ability is difficult to use, its value gets lower.
  • If an effect is unique and interesting, the value of the ability is higher. Utility can be seen as the opposite of situationality, as an useful ability is usually one that can be used in multiple scenarios.
  • Raw outcome. Raw outcome refers to the absolute numbers that come out of an ability. The more it heals, the more it damages, the higher the ability’s value.
  • The longer the cooldown, the higher its resource cost or casting time, the lower the ability’s value.

There is no universal formula to use to determine an ability’s value, though you will find yourself obliged to create one at some point. You will find yourself making spreadsheets after spreadsheets of situations, graphs and what not. This is part of the beauty of making abilities and the grandest of moments is when you draw the final line, you add up all the values and it all comes down to 0. (Zero is oftentimes the number you will want to get at, in the case of formulae like: Usefulness*Raw Outcome – Situationality*Difficulty).

 

Conclusion

 

I do hope that this article helped you in some way or another. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to cover absolutely everything I desired to cover since I wanted to keep this writing piece summarized.

I wish you to have a great journey of ability-designing, filled with uniqueness and everything sweet!

If you want to read more, here’s the link to an article I wrote on talent trees. Also check out my facebook page which I update every now and again.

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2 thoughts on “On Designing Skills and Abilities

  1. Pingback: On Skill (or Talent) Trees and How to Make Them |

  2. Pingback: Retrospective Journey – Ability Design | Stormmer's Gaming

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