Mana bars are the long-standing resource implementation for casters in MMORPGs. In this article, we’ll look at the implications of mana bars on game balance and mechanics.
But first, let’s consider why mana bars were (probably) created. I’ll use the term “caster” to mean both healers and mages.
Old-School “Spell Memorization”
Before online games existed, the most popular pen & paper RPG was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in its various iterations (D&D, AD&D, AD&D 2nd edition, etc). Later, single-player computer RPGs were introduced (e.g. Pool of Radiance by EA, the superb Baldur’s Gate series by BioWare, etc) but they were built around D&D’s systems.
In D&D, there were two caster archetypes: clerics (armor-wearing healers) and magic users (cloth-wearing mages). They had access to physical weapons, but the most important part of their arsenal was their repetoire of spells. To be able to cast spells, the caster had to memorize them. Each character had a fixed number of memorizable spells at each accessible spell level, so you had to be selective about which spells you memorizabled. Once you cast a given memorizable spell, it was gone – essentially an infinite cooldown – until you memorized it again. While you could memorize a given spell multiple times (e.g. Cure Light Wounds x 3, Fireball x 2), that in itself was a tradeoff choice.
The obvious implication of a spell-memorization system is that once casters had burned through their spells, their combat capability nose-dived. The party would need to camp out while the casters memorized their spells again. I played Baldur’s Gate extremely anally (after multiple attempts, I made it through each game without my main character dying), and that meant resting the party after every major fight to re-load the casters’ quivers, so to speak.
Spell memorization is not a mechanic that would work in an MMORPG context, and developers have solved the problem different ways.
Solution Model “A”: Some Classes Have Mana Bars, Others Do Not
In many popular MMOs, Healers and DPS casters have mana bars, but other classes do not. Let’s call this selective mana-based classes (SMBC) for short. SMBC has been implemented in many mass-market games, including WoW and RIFT.
A class with a mana bar expends mana whenever they cast a spell, and different spells have differences in mana costs and possibly cooldowns. The spell cost is particularly important for games in which certain spells are spammable, e.g. Greater Heal vs Flash Heal.
SMBC is a vast improvement over spell-memorization systems, but consider key implications:
- Casters are vulnerable to going OOM (out-of-mana), whereas other classes that do not have mana bars can fight indefinitely (e.g. Warriors, Rogues, etc)
- Casters tend to have to chug more consumables to maintain their contribution in extended fights, particularly in PVE boss fights
- Because a caster could blow through their mana quickly for high throughput, this can create imbalance in PVP. On the flip side, casters are vulnerable to mana drain and / or going OOM, which is a huge issue in extended PVP combat (e.g. arena)
- Itemization is much more challenging when some classes of a given role (e.g. DPS) have some budget related to mana longevity (e.g. MP5)
I know that some gamers would defend SMBC by saying that it adds flavor to the game and requires more game knowledge and/or skill. E.g. managing your mana pool takes skill, building your spec and gear for sufficient mana regen takes knowledge of game mechanics, and differing mana costs enable a player to manage situations.
While I see that side of the argument, let’s consider how other games have implemented mana bars.
Solution Model “B”: Mana Bars for Everyone
The first mass-market MMORPG I played was Knight Online. Knight Online had a simple but elegant mana system: every class had a mana bar. Every time you used an ability there was an associated mana cost and possibly a cooldown, and every class had access to reasonably-affordable mana potions.
Warhammer Online (WAR) followed the same philosophy – every class had an Action Points (AP) bar which was essentially a (yellow) mana bar.
Solution Model “C”: No Mana Bars for Anyone
In this model, there is no associated resource cost for casting a spell, and spells tend to be balanced with one another by differences in cooldowns and cast times / animations.
Guild Wars 2 (GW2) implements this model. ArenaNet made the design decision to not have any abilities be spammable in GW2 except for the “1” auto-chain for a given weapon set. Combat as a caster in GW2 therefore has a distinctly different feel, as timing of abilities (i.e. when to use them) is what drives decisions in combat, not sequencing of abilities (for HPS or DPS) or mana management.
Which of the three models do you prefer and why? My opinion is that Model “B” or “C” offers the best foundation for class balance and game experience.
P.S. As greencactaur pointed out on Twitter, you can also cast on-the-move in GW2. That said, there is no reason in other models why casters can’t move while casting – the self-rooting aspect of casting is a design decision independent of the three models.
P.P.S. like Lethality on Twitter, I’m a fan of secondary and tertiary resource mechanics, e.g. Righteous Fury for WAR Warrior Priest and Holy Power for WoW Paladin, because they add more abilities to manage, once you have built up sufficient resource.