Monday, October 3, 2011

Real time waiting in games

When people talk of offline single-player games using “real time”, it is understood that this real time is measured in seconds. Offline games don’t use concepts where a player would have to wait hours or days. Not just because of the subjective judgment that this wouldn’t be fun, but also because of the technical limitations: Unless you forced the player to keep the game running, it would be very hard for the game to determine how much real time really passed offline. If the game relied on the internal PC clock, players would just too easily manipulate that. Thus for a game to keep track of real time, it needs to be online.

Online games make use of long real time waits all the time. Everquest 2 hands out veteran rewards based on how many years you’ve been playing. In World of Warcraft the “What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been” achievement to get a violet proto drake takes a year to complete, as it involves all the holiday special events. Raid lockouts take a week. EVE Online has over 21 years of cumulative waiting time if you want to max out all skills.

The reason for these long waiting times is twofold: First of all it limits how much content people can consume in a given time period; for example you can’t farm the same raid dungeon several times in a week because of the weekly raid lockout. But a second, more sinister reason is making people wait as a monetization strategy: If you limit a player’s progress with waiting times, he will need to subscribe to your game longer.

Various Free2Play and browser games make extensive use of waiting times. Again this both limits content consumption, and helps with monetization: Players can usually pay real money to skip waiting periods. Now some people are inclined to always only think the worst of Free2Play games, as there are undoubtedly a lot of bad apples out there. But I do think that limiting progress also had valid game design purposes. Especially in social games, where limiting how much a player can progress per real time day ensures that he doesn’t totally outlevel all his friends within a short time. Furthermore I am under no illusion about the degree of deliberate monetization in subscription games: I don’t believe any of the MMORPGs I played have been designed without somebody considering how to get the most money out of their players, even when it is to the detriment of fun. You don’t design a daily quest system with 695 marks of the world tree needed just to unlock all NPCs for fun.

The advantage of the waiting time monetization scheme of Free2Play games is that you can easily beat it with patience. I have a lot of that. Thus if a game tells me that now I will have to wait for X hours before I can proceed further that is exactly what I will do. Happily. Well, in most cases happily. I’ve seen games which hit you with a waiting period after each click, and I quickly left those. But more commonly you can play these games for 5 to 10 minutes before running out of “energy” or whatever other resource is used which refills slowly with time. Usually I end up playing several of these games at once, doing all my actions in various Facebook and browser games, and then doing something else while waiting. No need to pay anything. Like a slot-machine I could play more if I kept feeding the game money, but I don’t mind the wait.

Now why would I want to play games that provide fun only in short spurts of 5 to 10 minutes? I would say that this is part of my general burnout from standard-model MMORPGs. As I see it at the moment, many MMORPGs offer the same 5 minutes of fun as the Free2Play games. Only that instead of coming after X hours of waiting, in a MMORPG the fun comes in the form of a reward after X hours of grinding something boring and repetitive. Whether that is killing monsters, or doing quests, or mining asteroids, I am way beyond the point where these repetitive actions are still fun to me. Been there, done that, for far too many hours. So these days skipping the grind by waiting sounds like a good plan to me. Especially since waiting for a Free2Play game to advance costs nothing, while grinding in a subscription MMORPG costs me money for doing something I don’t enjoy all that much anymore.

I am not saying that this method is suitable for everybody. Some people are hooked on instant gratification and just can’t wait. Others still enjoy doing the same activity over and over in a MMORPG. But for me these Free2Play games currently work quite well. If you have the patience to wait out the designed waiting periods, and have the Facebook friends that don’t mind exchanging endless game requests, even many Zynga games become quite enjoyable for free. That is more than I can say about the subscription MMORPGs available at the moment for me.

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