Power Up: A Serious Examination of Energy Systems

If handled with respect for a game’s audience, an energy system can even add to the experience – but that’s something a lot of bad energy systems forget about. While it can be a splendid way to help monetize your game, energy systems should only be used to the benefit of the game, not the deficit.

Really, think about it. If all you’re doing is hindering your players, then you’re wasting everyone’s time, and cutting your game off at the knees. Which would be a shame, because the oft-hated energy system is a valuable tool, when executed properly.

That’s the trick to almost any kind of design that gets overlooked. You have to ask yourself “How can I make this work to my advantage? How do I make this add to my product in a meaningful way?” It might sound like an odd train of thought, but it’s inherently the mindset you need. Design isn’t simply cobbling things together – it all has to cohesively fit, like a puzzle.[sc name=”quote” text=”The oft-hated energy system is a valuable tool, when executed properly”]

Let’s take an example from our own headlines, Terminator Genysis: Future War. To cut to the point, it’s very much a Clash of Clans clone, and with that comes the pacing of Clash; which is to say, a meta-game of scheduling and planning.

In Terminator Genysis: Future War, the player starts out with the ability to rapidly build and improve their base. They are also invulnerable to PvP battles. This invulnerability only goes away when you reach a specific tech level, and you can only reach that specific level by mastering various gameplay concepts that the game lays out for you. Careful player progression is key, because this sort of game demands that players be on a relatively even playing field if they’re ever going to become invested. If it doesn’t feel fair, the players will leave. However, that kind of precise balance doesn’t just happen, and there’s a specific play habit you want to instill.

The best way for any kind of app to appeal to its users is to be convenient and naturally fit into their schedule. That’s what makes games like Clash of Clans and Terminator Genysis: Future War so popular – you can play them on your coffee break, then go back to work. They don’t demand you spend hours at a computer, rapidly typing away, but instead have you regularly play for a few minutes periodically throughout your day.

How do they encourage this habit? Well, the easiest way is with a type of energy system Clash of Clans popularized. Every task, action, and order requires time. At the start, timers are very brief. In fact, in Terminator Genysis: Future War, it can be instantaneous when you’re just getting started. Every player has the ability to immediately finish any task if it has five minutes or less on the timer.[sc name=”quote” text=”The best way for any kind of app to appeal to its users is to be convenient and naturally fit into their schedule.”]

But that contradicts what we’re talking about, right? Wrong. This means players can hit the ground running at an incredible pace. However, since every starting player has invulnerability, they just focus on getting themselves ready for the real fight to come. It doesn’t feel like that – instead, it almost feels like cheating considering how quickly you can put things together. It excites the player, and gets them invested in the short term as they get a handle on things.

The trick here, is that as each player progresses, the timers get longer. You might take that to mean the game is leeching you, but in reality, this serves as a pacing measure. If they made you wait ages to even have a functional base, you wouldn’t bother playing. On the flip side, if the players with the most time to tap away were just granted the best gear, only a very small number of people would play. However, by ensuring you’re invested, and then throttling back once you’re ready, the game stays far more balanced.

“But Elijah,” you say, “What if someone just pays cash to get everything done on time?”

Simple, either they know what they’re doing and get to fight a higher class of player, or they wasted their money, get toasted by someone better than them, and go back to where they were. It balances itself out organically, which is what you want with any game. There’s no way to really pay to win, so much as the ability to temporarily cut in line. The same could be said of a very different game – Cover Fire, a free to play, single-player third-person shooter.

The energy system for Cover Fire is quite a shift from Terminator Genysis: Future War; it has to be, they’re fundamentally different games. By being single-player, there’s no other players the game has to account for. There’s also no auto-generated content, so every mission is handmade. This means the difficulty curve is far easier to control, as the developers are designing all of the content. That detailed grasp of the game factors heavily into how Cover Fire approaches its energy system.

Now, a bad energy system in this sort of game would charge one-to-two energy charges per-mission. While at first that might sound like a sensible option, this means the player is limited from playing the game by an arbitrary gate. It disenfranchises interest and makes playing the game far more cumbersome. This is why Cover Fire‘s energy system instead only uses charges when replaying a mission, not when playing it for the first time.

By using energy charges for retries, Cover Fire far more resembles the coin-op arcade games of yore. Instead of limiting your engagement, it just adds a bit more risk to completing each mission, and as a result also adds more incentive. It feels like a bit more of a gamble, but still fair. Items like health regeneration have to be obtained for use in the field, and are limited use, so they require the player grind and earn them back or buy more of them with currency. If they go into higher difficulty missions without these items, the game is substantially challenging. By becoming more challenging, the player might die and have to retry a mission.

This also adds incentive to replay previously completed missions, because each mission has three bonus objectives. Completing bonus objectives earns you free items and upgrade points. However, if you want to earn the maximum reward, you need to either complete a mission perfectly the first time around, or replay it. Once again, you sacrifice energy charges, but by choice, rather than simply because the game forces you to. Of course you’re directed and encouraged to do so, but a player with enough skill can survive harder missions and for a longer period of time.

This creates a loop of pressing forward as far as you can, then replaying earlier missions to boost your stats. There’s a drive to try again, but also a risk that stays the player’s hand and keeps them from burning themselves out. On the contrary, they only manage to be able to keep playing until they’re either satisfied, or on the edge of burning themselves out on a challenge. Cover Fire walks that fine edge thanks to its energy system.

These are just two examples of how you can use energy systems to benefit, not hinder, your playerbase and enhance your game. Whatever genre the app may be, if the time limits are just there to drain player’s wallets, then they’re going to see that, and they won’t pay up – they’ll move on. If they’re treated fairly, then they’re more inclined to pay. You’re giving them a service, not bullying them for pocket change so that they can go back to having fun.

So, once again, the question is “does an energy system even fit the game being built, and if it does, how it can best serve both the developers and the players?” If it doesn’t fit, there are other options – ranging from booster packs to cosmetic items. These are also fine in conjunction with energy systems, as no game should solely rely on charging for energy as a means of making its money back. It’s but one tool in the utility belt of every game developer, and best one handled with care.

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