Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reactive Responses

"Alex, what's the most basic counter in the WoW?", Mike asked me one sunny morning.

We had been working long nights creating abilities for Zangarmarsh and I was still quite sleep lagged.

"Obviously whatever the other jerk just did to beat me that I don't have and am clearly underpowered without," I sniped back.

This is not a rogue kicking.
Mike snorted, "Okay, lets narrows this a bit. What's the most basic mechanic to counter a spell?"

I thought for a bit. Weeks of Mike's deceptively simple sounding questions had taught me to resist the instinct to give the first answer that came to mind. "At first, I would think of the rogue ability Kick, but in truth, I think it's actually something even more basic."

Mike's eyebrows raised slightly, "That was actually the answer I was thinking of, but go on."

"I think the most basic counter in our game to anything is movement. The universally available tool to avoid a spell is to move out of range of it. Unfortunately, we've done a lot that reduces the impact of movement on avoiding spells."

"How so?"

"You can't move to avoid most spells once you're in close, ducking around a corner only works in buildings. Hiding behind a hill flat out doesn't work. The fact that most spells are targeted takes a lot of the counter fun out of the game."

I have no idea what game this is.

"That's true."


"Part of it is that our movement validation isn't very accurate. Other parts are because WoW was built on EQ and targeting is a legacy feature from EQ.  In the end though, I could see a game working either way."

"I feel like movement is the one thing all classes share. It's a shame we don't put it to good use."

"Maybe someday you will."


The ability to prevent another from performing an action is a very powerful and very potent game mechanic. It's a pervasive mechanic in many games. Having a clear and direct counter to a given ability makes you feel smart for picking that choice. 

The ability to kick a fireball, counterspell a force of nature or place the thief on a brick quarry when you roll a 7 are powerful, potentially game changing effects. As a result, they can be incredibly frustrating to play against. 

In Magic: The Gathering, a popular blue deck type was the Counterspell deck. Designed exclusively to prevent the opponent from acting and eventually force him out of the game from a steady stream of damage, it was a frequent source of complaints and frustration.  Likewise, the rogue ability Kick, can shutdown a caster for a fairly long amount of time and generated large amount of complaints when PvP opened in WoW Alpha. 

Consequentially, there's two major ways to handle this: limit it to being used against NPCs, who don't mind it, or restrict the frequency of its use.  This forces the player to choose the best time and ability to counter. When you add a counterspell to any game - make sure it exists for the right reason and at an appropriate cost.


Obligatory Neo reference - check!
As I mentioned earlier, another popular response is to GET OUT OF THE WAY!

In fact, 90% of the games created in the arcade and platforming era were based almost exclusively around this idea.  If the location is clear and sufficient warning is given, avoidable attacks compose the widest variety of response-triggering mechanics. 

Yet somehow, even after 25 years of gaming, people still seem to stand in the fire. 

Tool Change

In Legend of Zelda, a Link to the Past, there was a simple boss with three heads. One was weak to swords and bombs, the other was weak to fire and the last weak to ice. 

This is one of just many examples of swapping to the right tool for the job. It reinforces the natural instinct to counter cold with fire, fire with cold and to stab large, scary things in the face.

On its own, tool change is a simple thing, but is built upon reuse of tools the player has been trained upon earlier in the game.  The longer and more frequently the player has been exposed to the tool, the more consistently they will be capable of using it. 

In WoW, occasionally a fight will call for a rarely used tool, like Enslave Demon, Scare Beast or Water Breathing (just kidding). If you've gone weeks, if not years, without using that spell, players will take longer to realize that tool exists in their toolkit. Frequency leads to reinforcement, reinforcement to mastery.

However, you have to be careful. Sometimes you can create situation without a real solution. One my favorite examples was the use of the chromatic drakonids in Blackwing Lair. The Drakonid would be dramatically vulnerable to one of the major schools of damage in WoW and resistant to all of the others.  This was great when a common school like Fire or Shadow was picked, but Frost or Arcane types were both highly annoying and took a long time to kill. 

When creating a scenario for a tool swap, you need make sure the player has two things: the tool and the training to use it. 


Another super common tool is the use of an attack or blocking at the right time. Stab the heart before it attacks. Parry the blow before it lands. Block the attack to reduce the damage taken. Fighting games in particular are rich in these mechanics.

"What the heck, these are all obvious!"

This is true. None of what you're going to be reading the next few weeks is very hard to understand. However, think of how many times you've play a game where they failed to provide these kinds of opportunities. 

When the only way to deal with damage is to heal through it, you become bored and your playstyle static. When the only option is to dodge or die, you become frustrated quickly. Creating and selling the windows of opportunity is a powerful tool that often distinguishes novice designers from great ones. 

Next time, I'll be writing about the other two major categories of response: recuperative and preparational.


  1. Just a word of thanks for this series of essays on game design. Primo stuff.

  2. Great blog. Out of curiosity, when you say "recooperative," do you mean "recuperative?" Or is it a different term I'm not correctly gleaning the meaning of?

    1. Recuperative. I'm just bad at spelling :)