As we have have moved through the Mists of Pandaria, there has been a trend of resources growing from scarce to common. Really, this happens throughout the growth of all expansions, but it became most apparent to me while playing a Brewmaster, a spec where much of the depth revolves entirely around resource management.
Where energy was slow in Mogushan Vaults, we now are at risk of capping in Siege of Orgrimmar. Where Elusive Brew procs were precious and rare in Terrace of the Endless Spring, they are now not the slightest concern. That’s natural, as our effectiveness increases with our stats. However, I found that at least for myself, it decreased my enjoyment. Sure, I was more powerful than ever, but spending those free-flowing resources was far less satisfying compared to the days when they were scarce. Why are limited resources more engaging? And why are resources fun to manage in the first place? And would it even be possible to maintain interesting resource management throughout the entire expansion.
What are Resources
In today’s World of Warcraft, resources extend far beyond their original roots of Mana, Energy, and Rage. Now we can say that a resource is something that applies a limit or constraint to the way you activate abilities. You can’t use Jab constantly because it is constrained by energy; you can’t use Fortifying Brew constantly because it’s constrained by a cooldown. Most abilities rely on some resource, though sometimes that resource is as simple as the global cooldown. Some resources end up with little effect on gameplay, like mana for ranged damage dealers, or an ability that you strictly use on cooldown.
Types of Resources:
- Conventional: Energy, rage, mana, focus, runic power
- Class specific: Holy Power, Chi, Embers, Eclipse, Combo Points, Runes
- Cooldowns (time): Shield Wall, Fortifying Brew, etc (better applies to abilities that aren’t used as soon as the cooldown is up)
- Stacking abilities/charges: Elusive Brew, Savage Defense, Roll
- Movement, casting: A very subtle resource, though a primary one for most casters. Sometimes a fight forces you to move a lot, and the abilities you use are constrained by that regular movement.
- Global Cooldown: Usually not a resource unless a class is GCD-capped, where they hit an ability every GCD with little room to compromise; the GCD constrains their ability choices.
Creativity thrives under intelligent constraints. This isn’t an altogether foreign concept. Think of sitting in an art class and being told to draw anything you want. Some people can thrive under that, but many will be a bit overwhelmed and have a hard time figuring out where to start. Then in another art class, you’re given a set of watercolors and told to go outside. Even if you don’t have a final goal in mind for the second class, you have a place to start, and it’s likely your project in the second class will be more creative and fulfilling than the project in the first.
Constraints frame the problem at hand. They help us better understand what’s possible or impossible given a problem. They help us decide where to begin and how to progress. In the same way, resources give us a goal and frame of reference. Keg Smash costs 40 energy, so we want to save up on energy to be able to use it. That’s a goal, however minute. We may want to expand that, and decide to always have 40 energy available when Keg Smash comes off cooldown.
When resources are shared among multiple important choices, like Chi being shared by Blackout Kick and Purifying Brew, then we encounter deeper decision-making. The constraints are intended to provide avenues of choice. When limited, we can only pick one or the other and we have to make that decision based on many factors. When we make the “correct” choice, we feel smart and skillful. More “correct” choices in the face of constraints leads to an overall feeling of skill and power.
The key word here is “intelligent”. Some constraints are more frustrating than intelligent. That doesn’t mean they’re unimportant, but that they’re not intended to stoke the fires of creativity. In games, this often includes limits like the global cooldown, or the limit to daily quests that used to exist. Ideally, we want our resources to be intelligent constraints, to encourage creative solutions.
In games, our creative solutions work best when presented as interesting decisions. You’re not really using your resources to discover some yet unknown strategy to the boss fight — you’re using them in a far more short-term manner. You only have 5 stacks of Elusive Brew, should you use them now or will you need them more later? You’ll get more engagement out of having that choice in the first place, rather than always having Elusive Brew up.
Resources are fun because they constrain our actions, encouraging creative, engaging, and fluid play. They guide our rotations into something more, a priority instead of a strict list of actions. They force us to base our decisions on real time information, force us to plan ahead and save resources for a critical moment. If we had no resources, then the game would quickly grow stale when we reach a low point of mastery.
There is a concept in economics and psychology that the relative value of something increases with scarcity. When given the choice of something in abundance and something that is scarce, people generally pick the uncommon thing because they view it as more valuable.
Extending this to games, being able to use an ability less often may actually increase it’s impact in our heads. Maybe not true in every case (a 60 minute cooldown might as well be ignored), but when it comes to resources, we have a naturally enforced scarcity. If you’re only getting four Elusive Brew stacks every 15 seconds, when you use those four stacks feels much more important. If you’re getting 15 stacks every 15 seconds, then Elusive Brew becomes too common to really get a burst of smart decision making. It’s hard to value it highly when you’re overflowing with stacks, even though using those stacks is still incredibly powerful.
So why can’t resources always remain scarce? It’s a problem of complexity in the game, and balancing rewards. WoW is built on increasing power through gear, and even though gear and its ever-increasing power is the source of the issue, that system is so deeply engrained that it would not be practical to disentangle it from the game.
The basic goal of WoW is to get more gear because that increases your power. That increased power can come in the form of a pure magnitude increase that doesn’t directly influence resource gain, but often it does increase some sort of resource. Depending on the spec, crit, multistrike, haste, and sometimes even mastery can directly increase resource gain. For some classes, like brewmasters, those stats are all fairly subjective and introduce a fair amount of customization to the stat priority. Even for specs that aren’t so free to experiment, the increase in stats still introduces variance and a feeling of increased power, both good things. Being able to customize or “feel” resource gain trumps keeping resources in that sweet spot of encouraging interesting choices. Unfortunately, there are two cool things at work here — perceivable power gain vs. interesting resource management. They’re usually at odds, so you can’t have too much of one without hurting the other.
It’s important to emphasize perceivable power gain. One solution to maintain interesting resource management could be to reduce the power jumps between upgrades and tiers, but then the power gained might not be noticed by the average player. They might continue to feel weak, even if they are ever-so-slightly stronger. I think many people can play happily in a game that doesn’t noticeably increase power, while many others need some progression.
Another complication is that the window of clever resource management is so small. There are so many skills that interact with a resource somehow that it would be difficult to nail that happy place to begin with. Like for brewmasters, you want them to have a moderate gain in Elusive Brew charges while also hitting them hard enough that Purifying Brew becomes an interesting alternative to Blackout Kick, while keeping haste’s effect on energy regeneration noticeable, and the healing procs from Gift of the Ox. Just for one spec, you’ve got so many balances that need to happen that it becomes impossible to find a happy medium, let alone keep players there.
I don’t think there’s a way to keep resource management equally interesting throughout an expansion without losing power gain and customizability. There may be ways to regulate it, such that it’s not such a huge loss of interesting gameplay either way.