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Indepth: economies of time

04 May

This week I’m going to have a look at time economies, which is to say the way players allocate their time during games. Economies are a pretty basic part of game design, any time you have a limited resource it generates an economy for that resource. Since the advent of the videogame, time has become an important one of those resources, but even in games that are technically not time-constrained, time is often modeled through limiting actions per turn or some other similar mechanical resource. This article will look at both designing a real-time ‘attention budget’ and and interesting example of a simulated time economy, specifically in Android: Netrunner.

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Time is one of the most fundamental resources available for a game designer to manipulate. In videogames you’ll usually find it taken into account either in terms of player attention- providing a greater amount of time spending activities than the player has time to perform in order to force them to make choices about where to focus their attention, or in terms of commitment- going to the store takes 30 seconds, going to the healer takes 30 seconds, and overall time is limited in a very similar manner to a cash-resource system- you only get 30 seconds before the next wave of baddies, so you have to pick one and stick to the decision.

Precisely because it is so fundamental it is easy to overlook as a subject of design and analysis, but examining how time is handled in a game can often be incredibly fruitful in problem solving and generating new ideas.

A particularly valuable exercise, and the one I’ll focus on here, is plotting out how much time you intend players to spend on particular aspects of your game, either overall or focused in on a particular area.

Lets say I’m designing an RPG. How much time do I want my player to spend exploring? Fighting? Reading/watching narrative stuff? Browsing their customization menus?

In a fight, how much time should be spent making actions and controlling characters? How much spent planning and strategising? How much watching the action unfurl?

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If my focus as a designer is on the the narrative immersion of the player, I might want weight the player’s time economy on talking to characters, exploring the environment and engaging with the stuff I spread through the game. If my focus is on a particularly elegant combat mechanic set I’d come up with, I’d want to push a player to invest more of their time exploring that to get as much out of it as possible and so on.

So in this way you can start building up a fairly complex ‘spending plan’ for time, something like this:

early game 

  • 40% exploration/familiarisation with setting
  • 40% experimentation/learning mechanics
  • 15% combat/achievement
  • 5% character customisation

midgame

  • 20% exploration
  • 30% experimentation
  • 40% combat/achievement
  • 10% character customisation

endgame

  • 5% exploration
  • 5% experimentation
  • 70% combat/achievement
  • 20% character customisation

This one is just off the top of my head, but you should be able to get the general gist of it. In the early stages of the game I want to invest the player in the setting, get them comfortable and encourage them to spend time messing around and getting a feel for the mechanics and what does what. Combat and character customization are light and more intended to add flavor and points from which to build learning than challenge

In the main section of the game, I want the player to move their time balance out a bit. Still spend a lot of it figuring out the mechanics, as this is one of the key components of engagement in almost all RPGs, but now they’ve got a model of what’s going on to work with, I want them to spend more time mucking around tweaking their character than digging into the background material.

In the last stages of the game, the world has largely been explored and the plot established. I want the player to have figured out how all the various mechanics of the game interact and so not need to spend time mucking around- they should know how they can approach the challenges the game throws up. So we turn that up to 11 and give them a flood of such challenges to reward the knowledge they’ve built up. As with most RPGs, the last stage will also be accompanied by a fair bit more fine-tuning and tweaking of characters to overcome the challenges thrown up.

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By going through the process of establishing a ‘time economy’ you do a very important thing: you give yourself clear targets and goals in your design. You can look at the way your prototypes are developing and say- ‘man, people are just not getting into this setting enough, I need to give them more things to spend time on there’, or ‘people are just fighting all the time, I have to give them incentives to slow down a bit and look at the scenery’

I should be clear that this time economy is the one you think best expresses what your game has to offer. Individual players will always have preferences and will lean towards one or another kind of time spending, so you want to give them room to do so- nothing sucks more than a game that rails you into spending exactly the amount of time the designer prescribes on something, no more, no less. Your designs upon the player’s time should be guidelines, not hard and fast rules (unless you’re using time itself as an acknowledged resource for the player to spend, of course).

This isn’t just a useful tool for videogame designers though- I recently played Eclipse, one of many 4X boardgame attempts. Though it’s apparently one of the more elegant products of its type, I found it incredibly clunky. I did a kind of time budget in my head as I played and for the small scale, three player game mode we were using (which is apparently the fastest and most intense), the time budget for players seemed to be something like

  • 30% setting up the game and putting it away
  • 20% figuring out what you want to do
  • 5% doing it
  • 35% waiting for your turn with nothing to do

This is even accounting for the fact I was a first time player, having to figure out all the mechanics on the fly and that there were only 3 players of a potential 6. Any designer worth their salt should be able to look at that outline and immediately see that there’s some seriously frustrating games waiting to happen. People might be willing to tolerate it because, admittedly, the actual gameplay is pretty solid. Tolerance, though, is not a pretty word.

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Another note is that I’m using very general stuff for my time economy profiling here. If I was designing half-life, for example, I might budget for things like ‘physics puzzles’, ‘travel’ and ‘recuperation’. Again, by making you put your thoughts down on paper, doing this sort of analysis will help you identify these categories of behaviour and action

One last thing the time economy does is really force you to pin down what you want your game to be about. You only have one hundred %’s to play with. Your player can’t be gazing at your amazing backgrounds 80% of the time and fighting desperately for their life 80% of the time. So planning out a time economy isn’t often a fun task for the designer. Just as much as the player, you want All The Things, but you know as a designer that is rarely a good choice in design. Figuring out your game’s time budget forces you to put, in paper, where you want your player to invest their time and, consequently, where you should invest yours.

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The second part of today’s discussion is perhaps a bit more palatable for the more math and statistic oriented crowd. If you don’t like bouncing numbers off each other, however, this next bit might not be for you.

As part of working on the League LCG, I’ve been studying up on the market. In particular i’ve begun to play Netrunner with friends and watch a lot of content there to get a feel for how FFG are managing their LCG model. It turns out Netrunner is a really good game as well and one that has some really nice mechanic/dynamic outcomes that revolve around time as a resource.

Netrunner is somewhere between Magic and chess. Where in Magic you can do whatever you want in a turn so long as you do it at the right time and you have the resources and in chess you can do one thing once per turn, in Netrunner you have a limited amount of actions per turn, but those actions are pretty versatile. Most important for us here are three- you can spend an action (you have 3 or 4 per turn) to draw a card, earn 1 unit of currency (bit) or play a card.

First up, this instantly tells us that these three actions are of equivalent worth. Drawing a card is worth 1 unit of currency, as is playing a card, and so on around in a circle.

So, for example we have a card called Diesel.

It seems pretty amazing (if you’re a magic player anyway). No cost, draw 3 cards. holy moly. But in Netrunner, playing this card costs an action, which you could use to draw a card anyway. So you’re only really up 2 cards. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually do anything for you but give you more cards, when Netrunner puts a premium on getting a lot out of your cards. So that’s really another card down. All in all, you’re up 1 card over just spending an action to draw.

Then there’s a card called Quality Time that costs 3 bits to draw 5 cards. So the card cost is 1 action to play and 3 actions to earn 3 bits to pay for it. Four actions total. In magic, it would be utterly broken, but the time limitations in Netrunner make it, at least without considering synergy, worse than Diesel.

Netrunner, however, is a subtle beast. In general, a card on its own only gets you ahead of your basic actions very slightly- with increasing power based on how hard it is to play. For example, there’s a card that costs nothing to play and gives you 3 bits, for a net bonus of 2. There’s another card that costs 5 to play, but gives you 9 bits, for a net bonus of 3. Because as a condition of play you need to have 5 bits lying around, it’s a little bit more efficient- but only a little bit. Other cards are even more efficient but have trade-offs.

Pad campaign gives you money every turn, but it costs money to play, so you need to keep it alive for 3 turns to break even (1 to pay for the action spent playing it and 2 for the actual cost) . Once you do, however, it’s a gold mine. Because it gives you 1 bit WITHOUT costing you an action, you’re effectively getting an extra action per turn- going from 3 to 4, an increase of a whopping 25% in efficiency from one card. So if your deck can keep it alive, it’s amazing.

Typically, your opponent has to spend 1 action and pay 4 bits to ‘kill’ it, so it costs them 5 overall to get rid of it. If they do that right away, you end up 2 bits ahead, but some cards let them kill it cheaper or give them free money to do it with, so you start getting this incredibly complex time-economy where players are trying to end up coming out ahead by 1 action worth of a resource- be it a card, a bit or something in play. Over the course of the game, a couple of good action ‘trades’ like this can give you a lead to let you do something that would be impossible if both of you were on even footing and thus win the game.

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Coming back to our original cards, Diesel is a great card if your deck has, for example, a lot of low cost cards, so each card draw action is worth comparatively more than if your deck was full of high-cost cards that put a premium on taking actions which earn money. If you have a lot of synergy that allows you to efficiently generate bits, then quality time becomes a better card than Diesel, since that 3 bit cost may only convert to one action, not three.

In this way, Netrunner creates a complex dynamic of time management in a non-realtime setting. A player feels incredibly constrained by their few actions, so tools which give them more ability to act feel liberating and powerful. Because pretty much every economy card gives you one or two actions worth of resources overall (excepting some which give you more but as a drip feed like pad campaign), how you fuel your economy is entirely dependent on card synergies and the structure of your deck. Time is expressed as a resource extremely successfully and good, efficient Netrunner decks are all about time management- creating efficiencies that give the player the time to execute the strategies necessary for victory.

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So there you have it. Time is something that you can explore as both mechanic and dynamics. As an overall design tool you can plan out how time will be spent playing your game to focus and clarify your design and give you signposts to use during your testing and iteration. You can also use time in a more focused way as a resource in games which aren’t formally time-constrained in order create an aesthetic of intense action without forcing real-time constraints on the player.

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