Stuns are one of the most common forms of disable in lane-pushing games. Right now, genre-wide, around 50% of heroes have a stun, and this plays a substantial and understated role in shaping the gameplay and hero combat of those games.
Rise of Winterchill offers an alternative view of the genre. It has no stuns, nor any similar "stun-like" disables (hex, sleep, etc.).
This comes with a lot of benefits, some of which are obvious (no getting stunlocked!), and others which are subtler.
Stuns and Stun-like
The scope of this article isn't just stuns, but those disables which give the "experience of being stunned". I'm going to call these stun-like, and we can identify them as disables where all of the following are true:
The affected unit has heavily limited choices.
The affected unit is vulnerable to further attack.
The duration of the effect is long enough to interrupt the player's flow.
Using this definition, we would count a sleep, but not a mini-stun (too short) or a slow (not limiting enough). With experimentation, we can assess other disables and see that this is an effective set of criteria for identifying the "experience of being stunned".
On limiting choices: the accompanying chart shows a hierarchy. The top two circles are usually limiting enough to count as stuns, but it will depend on the individual game.
The Three Peeves
The three conditions for a "stun experience" also happen to correspond to the problems that stuns create. These problems are something we should examine in detail:
Heavily limited choices:
"A game is a series of interesting choices." - Sid Meier (of Civilization fame)
In every possible moment of gameplay, from drafting their heroes to deciding the exact moment to loose a spell, we would like players to be faced with interesting choices.
This should be implicit, and we could propose many arguments in favour of it. Indeed, "choosing among interesting choices" is not far from a description of playing itself.
A player who is stunned or chain-stunned cannot choose, only suffer from their previous choices. And what worse time to consistently deny a player choices than during the most decisive moments of gameplay: in the middle of team-fights.
Vulnerable to further attack:
Many players enjoy being tested on their aiming and timing; their ability to predict an opponent's movements. Unfortunately, having stuns in the game creates many situations where landing spells is trivialized, because the victim cannot react.
This denies everyone in the game of opportunities to aim, dodge, juke, and make clutch plays.
Interrupting a player's flow:
Brief moments of pause or transition are inevitable during gameplay, but sustained inability to act (particularly during the crucial moments of a team-fight) is likely to spark frustration, which in turn can break immersion. We'd prefer to minimise this wherever possible.
More on Flow
To back this up, we can look at the psychology of flow. Flow is a state of mind where a person is fully engaged with the activity they are doing, free of distractions and completely immersed in the moment. It can be achieved by people who are rock-climbing, painting, competing in sports, and many other activities.
Flow is particularly applicable to games: having players who are deeply immersed in gameplay (or achieving a flow experience) is testament to great game design!
However, flow only happens under certain conditions, and not all activities or games qualify. For example, most people will never achieve flow while filing their taxes. A primer about the conditions of flow can be read here, but the three relevant to this topic are:
The individual should be actively exercising control over their situation.
The activity must be challenging and require/test skills.
The individual's attention is absorbed completely by the activity.
It is easy to see how the absence of these things would cause problems in a game: look no further than a game with poor controls, a mismatched difficulty setting, or a clunky/distracting interface.
Earlier, we established a definition for identifying stun-like disables. Upon re-examination, we can see that said definition is an inversion of these conditions we need for flow. Stuns stop players exercising control, trivialize challenges, and interrupt immersion. They oppose flow by their definition.
If we're aiming to have a fluid and immersive gaming experience, stuns probably don't have a place in it.
Note: Stuns don't always have to oppose flow, and the RTS Warcraft III® is a perfect counterexample. Players control entire armies, and when parts of an army are stunned, there are plenty of other soldiers and tasks to manage. The player is still in control, and can still take actions around their stunned units.
The issue for lane-pushing games is that players control exactly one character, making stuns on that character absolute. (For this reason, allowing stuns against non-hero units poses no problems.)
The Maximal Disable
My focus on stuns and their removal from RoW is because they are particularly bad for flow experiences, and flow is something I value highly. But for a balanced discussion, we must also consider the positive influences of stuns:
They reward good game sense. If a player slips up and is out of position, stuns let you keep them out of position while unloading more spells and damage without reprisal. To survive, players have to sharpen their senses and think a few steps ahead to avoid stunlocks before they happen. That game sense is a skill that many players enjoy demonstrating and being tested on.
They increase dependence on teamwork. Disables create points of weakness where a hero is less able to act independently, creating a window where the importance of allies is increased. Since stuns take away the maximum possible actions (all of them), they similarly maximise a player's dependence on their allies during those moments.
In a small way, stuns also encourage coordination, since staggering stuns is more valuable than staggering most other disables.
They increase the importance of immunities. Being stunned at a crucial moment is a big risk, so players must invest further into understanding and leveraging any mechanics which can mitigate that risk.
They create more reliable and diverse structure in fights. Stuns temporarily reduce the number of possible actions an opponent might take to zero, which makes it easier to execute a team fight, or fight in a structured way. Without stuns (or at least hard disables), it may not be possible to create real openings that make a fight advantageous.
Similarly, if it's not possible to stop individual heroes from using their spells, then "generally" all heroes can use all the spells they want to during a fight, and fights lose variety.
The above properties apply to disables in general, but are seen at their most extreme with stuns. In removing stuns, the potency of these factors in overall gameplay would be diluted.
Is improving flow worth the uncertain outcomes this would have?
A Different Approach
Rather than simply removing stuns, the real challenge lies in tacitly replacing them: finding alternative mechanics which preserve their best properties while removing those which inhibit or interrupt flow.
For Rise of Winterchill, the closest equivalent to a stun is a knockback. Many mobas have knockback, but RoW's implementation is special: bonus damage is dealt for each obstacle hit by the unit during their trajectory. Depending on the angle and obstacles that a victim hits, that could be 4% of a unit's maximum life, or 40%.
This "variable bonus damage" mechanic creates interactions where:
Bad positioning is still punished
The displacement is quick enough not to interrupt flow or leave a window for further attack
The victim immediately reclaims control and can resume making choices
Great for flow, great for gameplay! This implementation of knockback has been a player favourite for a long time.
Some of the other positive influences of stuns are trickier to replace directly, but can still be manifested using other mechanics or game systems, and I look forward to writing more about those in the future.
While not an intended outcome, I was interested to discover that the saturation of knockbacks in RoW (as I was ending its development as a mod) is about the same as the saturation of stuns in other mobas (~50%).
Importantly, this does not imply that RoW heroes are simply heroes from other games with stuns switched out. Far from it: it depicts a fundamentally different and unique ecosystem in which heroes are designed and interact. One that I am very excited to be involved in curating.
Stay tuned for more about that!
The RoW Design Articles aim to introduce the features of my upcoming game Rise of Winterchill, while also sharing insights about lane-pushing game design, and opening the grounds of discussion with a view to improving the genre as a whole.
But knockbacks are essentialy the same as stuns, except the units are forced to take a specific path during it. In fact, a stun is a type of knockback, where the unit is in place. Maybe allow players to change their trail a bit while being knocked back?
The distinction made in this article is that knockbacks don't count as stuns because they are 1) brief and 2) provide "unreliable" displacement that makes it difficult to follow-up with a guaranteed hit.
When it comes to follow-up, there are two extremes on the scale:
A competent player can always land more hits (stuns do this).
A competent player can never land more hits (imagine we had heroes behave like they do in certain platformers, where they flicker and can't take more damage for a few seconds).
I don't think either extreme is healthy. Knockback is a solution that lands somewhere in the middle, and seems to strike a good balance even without giving players partial control over where they land. If we felt that follow-up was too easy, then implementing some % of partial control is of course an option that's available to us.