Friday, June 23, 2006

The Passage of Time in MMORPGs

Let's consider the question of how time passes (or not) in online worlds. It takes us into multiple game systems, and winds up having some deep connections to how different people experience a game world.

The first question that has to be asked is, should time pass at all?

It's not a requirement for a game. You could simply make time in the game an eternal "now," and eliminate all questions related to the passage of time.

For some game worlds, that might be desirable. Social worlds, for example, probably don't need to create their own local time format. It's also possible to imagine game worlds that are more like tone poems; they're not about gameplay so much as experiencing a particular feeling or event.

It's when we consider larger and more complex game worlds in which players can, to some degree, tell their own stories that marking time in the game world becomes useful. For these worlds that try to balance gameplay and immersiveness, the next question is whether time should pass with reference to physical or social phenomena (or both).

Examples of physical phenomena related to time are things like the day/night cycle, circadian rhythms, tides, seasons (temperature, weather), erosion, plant and animal responses to long-term temperature changes (as during the "Little Ice Age"), and continental drift.

And examples of social phenomena related to time are interest on loans, labor organization, traffic patterns, housing styles, city growth, and migration routes.

To explore these possibilities for features in a gameworld, let's look at the most common ways in which time is measured.

The measurement of seconds only gains importance when you can measure them accurately. That means you need the ability to build clocks/watches. So does the technology in your game (whether mechanical or magical) support that?

And from a game perspective, do players need to know exactly what second something happened or will happen?

See "seconds."

Hours are primarily a social measure of time. As civilizations become more complex, they tend to develop labor specializations. To support people of different professions working together, it's useful to be able to coordinate times at which exchanges can be made.

Is this really necessary in your game? Is there gameplay value in players knowing exactly what hour (within some larger measure of time, usually a day) it is?

Is your game set in a location on a planet that rotates near a star, revolves around that star, and whose rotation period does not match its revolution period? If so, then logically it would have a day/night cycle. (Some orbital bodies are what's called "tidally-locked" -- from the perspective of someone on the body they revolve around, such a satellite always presents basically the same face. Our Moon is like that.)

And do you want to spend time developing the graphics and code to dynamically change both the ambient lighting and the sky textures?

If both of these conditions are true, if you implement a day/night cycle, then you'll probably want to define the "day" of your game to be shorter than a real-world day. All of the MMORPGs I know of with day/night cycles do this; it just seems to be perceived as more fun by most players -- probably a function of variety/novelty.

Another socially-generated measure of time that your game probably doesn't need.

Yet another primarily social measure of time. Because months are usually named, they're potentially interesting as lore flavoring if your game also implements days and years.

Seasons -- cyclically recurring periods of global temperature and weather variation -- are sometimes thought to be caused by a planet's orbit being elliptical, but that's not correct... at least not for Earth, whose orbit is not very elliptical. (A planet in a more elliptical orbit, such as Mars, does have orbitally-induced seasons.)

Earth's seasons are caused by its axis being tilted (rather than perpendicular) with respect to the plane of its orbit around the Sun. Because of its tilt and average distance from the Sun, both of the northern and southern hemispheres get roughly four seasons. (Except for Minnesota, which has only two seasons: Winter and Construction.)

So if you set your game world on a planet, is that planet tilted on its axis? And will you implement weather in your game?

If so, then it's conceivable that weather patterns could change over the year according to seasons. Knowing when a season was about to start was incredibly important when survival depended on predicting when the local delta would flood. That permitted sufficient crops to be irrigated to feed a growing city. But as technology improved, and agriculture became less critical, seasons became mostly a mildly interesting way to break up the passage of a year -- basically they allow some variation in the local weather.

So are seasons worth the development time?

To put it another way: If weather is implemented at all in your game, will it have any practical effect? Or will it just be pretty?

If it has some actual effect, then seasons might be worthwhile. Otherwise, probably not.

The period of a planetary body's revolution around a star is its year. It's a good measure of the passage of time compared to a human's lifespan.

If characters in your game are effectively immortal, years might not be worth implementing.

On the other hand, if nothing else ever changes cyclically in the game, then there's no real downside to implementing years as an accumulation of some number of days (other than the time to write and maintain the code). If players can know that they started playing in the year 3371 and it's now the year 3402, what are the benefits of that, and do they outweigh the cost in terms of the time it took to code that capability?

What about if instead of numbering years, you named them (as in the "Year of the Fruit Bat")?

Decades and Longer Periods
It would be fascinating to see an online game world that tried to deepen its immersiveness by reflecting some of the phenomena related to multi-year spans of time. These could be physical, such as changes in tree types or animal migrations; or they could be social, as in organizing periods of years according to who's in charge politically ("the 12th year of the glorious reign of Planodigitus Maximus").

Perhaps someone will give this kind of thing a shot someday.

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