GameDev Protips: How To Properly Implement Energy-Based Game Mechanics

While originally being found in social games, energy systems are becoming a core part of many different games and genres today. Most of the time, this type of system is located in free to play games and are used for making the game a part of the players’ schedules. Now, you may be wondering how this system actually works, and how you can best implement it in your own indie games, and that’s what I’m going to explain today.

Energy systems should only be used for two purposes, primarily habituation, and secondarily content restriction. In the case of habituation, humans are known to try incredibly hard to maximize efficiency in various areas, but in the case of games, this is multiplied. When there’s a timer that determines when you can do something, a significant amount of players will plan around that timer. If you’ve ever set an alarm in the middle of the night to avoid “wasting” energy in a gacha or other type of mobile game, you are experiencing this yourself. Because of this, timers help your players make the game a part of their daily routine, which causes them to become deeply involved in the game, usually to the point of spending money to further their enjoyment. This is a good way to use the timer system, as there’s nothing inherently malicious about it.

A good example of this system was included in World of Warcraft. Early on in the game’s development, the “resting bonus” that we all know and love was originally an “unrested penalty.” Players hated the system and begged for its removal. Afterwards, without changing the implementation of the system at all, they just changed the name of the modifier and where it showed up to the player, and thus the “unrested penalty” that showed up after you played for too long became known as the “rested bonus” that would show up when you played before that “too long” time mark. The system still penalizes experience earned after playing for too long, but now it behaves similarly to the glass-half-empty or half-full system. Instead of thinking about it as losing experience efficiency for playing too long players may think of it as gaining extra experience for additional play time, which is a much more positive frame.

The next way that energy systems should be used for, content restriction, is a simple but slightly less healthy way of using it. Simply put, using a timer to stop players from progressing is using it for content restriction. A lot of mobile games rely on this as they usually don’t have a huge amount of content in the first place, and they need to stop players from blazing through before they’ve become invested. Obviously using the system like this can cause some frustration, but when done correctly in a way that doesn’t make the player feel obliged to pay up, it works out just fine.

Remember what I just said about making the player feel obliged to pay up? That’s yet another way energy systems are being used, and it should be avoided at all costs. This just isn’t the way to use the system as it’s a short-sighted cash grab and will turn players away that would otherwise become even more invested and likely spend more money if the game had been friendly to them. You see this system in action when a game’s time gates frustrate you to the point of paying just to progress through the game. This type of system is usually found in the various “city-builder” type games that you find everywhere, where you have to wait exceedingly long periods of time in order to finish building something that will let you progress.

Basically, these systems should be aiming to make the game a part of your schedule rather than frustrate you into paying. While nobody enjoys having the energy system, implementing it correctly will significantly mitigate that dissatisfaction and turn it into player investment. If you fail to realize its strengths, you’ll just turn away more potential money than you’ll be gaining from your cash grab.

Important Takeaways: Energy systems in games today are intended to persuade players into making the games a part of their daily schedule. While that is the primary intent, they can also be used to gate content to prevent a player from blazing through the game, but this should only be done if you have other things the player can do in the meantime in such a way that they don’t get frustrated by it. Unfortunately, many game companies today ignore this advice and purposeful make these timers frustrating to extort money from players’ impatience. While this might get some money in the short term, it’ll seriously hinder sales in the long run as you’ll be turning away players that would spend even more money if you were just accommodating to their desire to play instead. Basically, use energy systems to make playing the game a habit and to extend the lifetime of your game and avoid making them frustrating so that you aren’t causing potential dedicated players to quit early on.