GameDev Protips: My Thoughts On Energy Systems In Game Design

We’ve seen a trend for the past few years, particularly in the dreaded world of social games, towards “energy systems”, namely systems which restrict one’s playtime. Generally, this will be done through either an “energy bar” or a timer and, perhaps more nefariously, there is usually the option to bypass these restrictions by paying a fee. These systems, if not abused, can be highly effective in ensuring that a player returns again and again, compulsively and almost inexplicably, to a game. But when implemented incorrectly, as they so often are, they serve no practical purpose other than to alienate and annoy the player. Let’s examine a few examples of excellent and poor implementation of the “energy system”, and see whether or not, as a designer or player, you should embrace them.

Energy systems have three main goals in mind, which are, in informal order of significance: habituation, content restriction and monetization. Habituation is key to developing a reliable, steadfast group of customers in any industry; this is particularly true if microtransactions and the like are a significant part of one’s game, meaning the greater the exposure, the greater the likelihood to buy will be. As such, games will put certain actions on a timer, encouraging players to return to the game at various points throughout the day.

This idea was made mainstream by MMO’s which incentivizes “resting” in order to gain in-game experience upon logging back into the game world. This can be done while offline, however, after a time limit, the bonus stops stacking. This heavily encourages players to log back on in order to reap the rewards of the resting bonus, as the majority of us will strive for efficiency in games when possible. However, most players probably find this system quite enjoyable, as they view is as a “bonus” for coming back to the game.

Yet this behavior becomes less acceptable to the player the more blatant it is, especially when games don’t seem to provide much content to make up for it. This is most definitely the case for social games with the most obnoxious monetization system, which are, essentially, nothing but time-based “energy systems” which “rewards” the player for logging on every few hours, thereby making it a part of their routine. Not only is one penalized for not logging in often enough, but one is mechanically prevented from proceeding after a couple minutes, instead of being forced to wait until a timer has been completed. There is some logic behind this, as it is intended for these games to become a part of a player’s daily routine, making it more likely that it would be opened automatically.

As we have briefly discussed, these systems specifically focus on making the player feel rewarded. Interestingly enough, the MMO-style resting mechanic was originally designed as a penalty, but, perhaps predictably, this did not sit well with the players. So it was labeled a “reward” system instead, and the reception was far more positive. Not a single thing was changed, bar the name, yet players preferred the idea of a bonus to that of a deduction. Perhaps this is also a result of the illusion of freedom — players feel as if they don’t have to check back in, as it’s only an optional bonus.

Finally, there is the most heinous crime of all, the injection of microtransactions into gameplay. We have briefly touched on this, but most social games give players the option to lift the onerous time restrictions by paying a fee. While this may, at first sight, appear to be an easy way for developers to make some extra money, it is, of course, entirely detrimental in the long run if the game isn’t designed properly. In a game without microtransactions, players are usually able to play the game unrestricted by artificial time-barriers. With the freemium model, however, players are usually gated with in-game currency and are forced to stop playing or shell out real dollars to accelerate progress. This is usually fine if it doesn’t come at the cost of the gameplay experience — something that’s quite controversial within both the development and player community.

Important Takeaways: Energy systems are a method by which developers attempt to control when, and for how long, you play their games. This is done with three goals in mind, namely habituation, content restriction, and monetization. Most developers know that they will make the most money if they can get players to keep coming back for more, but not as many realize the harmful effects the unwarranted insertion of microtransactions can have. As such, it’s important to remember that, while offering incentives to your players is nice, at the end of the day it is a game’s actual content that keeps it afloat. Make sure that your game’s core gameplay loop isn’t compromised during the process.