Monday, February 03, 2014

Player-Guided Time

I'm still thinking a lot about how time affects how games play. This is something that's becoming more important. We still categorize games by genre or system, but in truth the most distinct differences seem to be about how they approach player time, and how they monetize because of that.

That's not really what this essay is about, though.

Mostly, I was noticing that a growing sector of games revolve around giving the developers control over time. Things take longer or less long as the developer wills it, and in turn things take longer or less long depending on how much cash the player bribes the devs with. I'm not a fan of this kind of approach, because the player always loses.

I was thinking about turning this on its head. What if our game was about the player deciding how much time to spend in what ways? How would that work? And, briefly, how might it be made profitable enough to keep the devs eating?

Let's assume that we're pulling an EA. We're making Mass Effect 4, The Mobile Game. But we'll make it as bizarro-world EA, a business that respects their players and IP.

Rather than thinking about things in terms of slowing players down, let's assume that the players have a specific amount of time they want to spend and our mission is to make them enjoy that time and feel a solid sense of accomplishment at the end of their session. Of course, to pace for that, we'll need to know how long their session is going to be.

I think the easy approach is to flat-out ask them.

Most players know roughly how much time they want to spend. Maybe it's 5 minutes. Maybe it's an hour. Ask them, then present them with a gameplay arc that fits comfortably within that time. You can balance it either long or short - if it tends long, then the players will tend to have to stop a few minutes before the arc finishes, and that may pull them back into the game world. If it tends short, it makes sure they get a full experience and then can spend some time tweaking things like inventory and character levels and stuff. Which is better might have to be determined through long-term playtesting.

Anyway, what kind of gameplay would scale between 5 minutes and hours? Well, RPG gameplay actually already does. You have short-cycle battles, medium-cycle dungeons, and long-cycle hubs/towns. If you set it up right, you can easily play an RPG for five minutes - just poke around one floor of a dungeon, get in a few fights, then stop.

Unfortunately, RPGs have two big state-related problems. The first is that they tend to be very 'RAM heavy' - that is, there are a lot of things to remember about the current state of the game. Just an overnight break and you might forget where you were in a dungeon, or what new technique you just learned. Take a weekend off, you'll forget which character was leveling for what build, what boss you were pursuing, and so on. Obviously, this varies from person to person, but since our game often works in short bursts the problem is amplified.

For example, let's say you play for an hour and start hunting down a boss in a space station. However, after that you spend ten minute sessions just battling a few fights in a bit of level here and there. Days could pass. You'd be "playing", but when you reach the boss you'll think "oh, uh, right. That guy." As if you hadn't played at all for those days.

The other problem is that RPGs tend to have a persistent state that leaves you mid-adventure. For example, in Mass Effect you might be stuck in the middle of a "wander the citadel" bit of gameplay, and that can take hours. If you just want to pop in for a fight, you have to spend a full ten minutes just getting back to your ship and heading out for an adventure, and even then there's at least another ten minutes of tracking down an adventure to have. While the gameplay can theoretically be chopped into tiny chunks, in practice it takes forever to get from one kind of gameplay to another.

Addressing these issues is part of our core play. We need to be able to arbitrarily create chains of gameplay without much delay, and have days pass without losing track of state. To do this, let's actually approach the game from the other side of player time: time between plays, instead of time playing.

At the end of a session, we can let the player determine how much state they plan to "forget". This is our version of leveling, and we couch it as the amount of time the character spends on their own.

If we just played a session with Tali, we might choose to let her tend to her affairs with the home fleet. We choose how much time she spends away - six hours, a day, a week, whatever suits our needs. During that time she is not available to be in our party, although we get occasional status updates from her to help remind us that she has a personality and exists. When she comes back, she's lost some skill points from all her skills but also gained more than that in new available points. This is a combination of level-up and respec, and allows us to integrate Tali back into our party in a new way.

You can do the same thing with your space ship or even space station: close a certain area down for "maintenance", and when it reopens it's been respecced and upgraded.

Now, this gives us a big opening into the other half of our design: the stuff that actually happens when the player sits down to play.

See, since your crew will be spending a fair amount of time separated from your ship, short adventures could be playing as a member that's away. You want to play for five minutes? Drop the player into Tali's shoes. She's away on a home fleet mission and we're not keeping close track of her, so it's perfectly fine if we just jump straight into a conflict. Get her a little bit more experience, some cash, some gear, whatever.

Want to play a longer mission? That'd be a more normal adventure where you land on a planet or whatever, choose a party, and so on. I think you'd be able to choose between a number of "open requests". The longer you make the request take, the more complex and fruitful it will be... but the reward is reduced by the amount of real time that passes, so you shouldn't make them so long that days pass before you finish. There may be chains of these, though, so you might end up with an arc made of a dozen requests that does last for days or weeks.

Of course, there's also all sorts of general goofing off you can do - wandering around your ship, playing minigames against crewmembers, talking to people on the Citadel, playing dress-up, whatever. These fill in the moments when you don't particularly want to try to start a request - a "wind down" before you put the phone aside, basically.

By allowing the player to choose how much time things take, you can allow them to balance their preferences and schedule on their own.

Now, how would you be able to make money off of this?

Well, obviously you could go the Mass Effect route and sell massive scads of dull as paste DLC, but this is bizarro-world EA, so we like our players and don't want to abuse or disappoint them.

There are a few other obvious things - you could sell costumes, special ship wallpaper, and other cosmetics. But let's consider how to integrate it with our concept of timed play.

The biggest opportunity we've created lies in the player choosing how much real time play a mission should take, vs our penalty for real time passing. We could easily sell forgiveness - pay a buck and the fact that you took three days to complete a mission will be waived and you'll get the reward as if you completed it in on session. Alternately, allowing leave or maintenance to be cut short.

How ethical you think that is, well, that's up to you. It's more ethical than most FTP games, though.

Another option is to allow you to expand slots in your roster. This doesn't get you access to new crew members, but it allows you to have more crew members at once instead of having to choose which ones to recruit and which to leave behind.

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting idea. How we handle player time is at the core of today's game industry, so it's fun to consider alternative approaches.


Ellipsis said...

While I'm not attracted to the hypothetical game described, the core ideas here are really potent. In particular, the idea of giving a character off-time, and then being able to jump into their "vacation" and play it out is really interesting.

Of course, when proposing something like giving the players control over how to spend their time, you should keep in mind how many actual players are likely to respond - by trying to figure out what kinds of play will net them the most efficient rewards and ignoring the others. So you'll need to offer rewards that make the long-term sessions worthwhile, without making the short-term sessions irrelevant. It can be done, I think.

Craig Perko said...

Yeah, I thought it was an interesting approach.