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Passage of time in multiplayer games

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43 minutes ago, Wysardry said:

If you allowed characters to continue playing out of sync you could end up with any number of paradoxes.

I guess it depends how much change players can affect upon the world.
e.g. if one party is 8 hours in the future and kills a particular boss, but then a different party who are 8 hours in the past kill the same boss, then yeah, that's chronological nonsense.

If it's not a big deal to the story, you could just allow it. e.g. in Diablo, the same characters can complete the same parts of the story many times repeatedly and I've never heard anyone complain about the fact that the timeline is nonsense :D 

If it is a big deal, then you could apply some "fate" / "destiny" rules to protect the timeline. If you know that the boss will be killed 8 hours from now, then you have to make him immortal until that time :) Adjust the chance-to-hit so that the "in the past" players can't ever land a killing blow, make the boss escape into a trap-door, deliver a new quest that distracts these players ("you can either catch me or save the villiage!"), etc... A magician character could use a fortune telling spell to read "fate" and find out whether the boss has a fixed destiny at the moment or not.

You could also put a cap on how far out of sync each group of players can get. e.g. you can sleep and become up to 12 hours out of sync, but then if you try to sleep again it will tell you that you have to regroup with the other players first. You could let people send a message to the other players (e.g. "let's meet at the tavern"), which synchronizes everyone back to the same moment in time.

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Ideally, I would like player characters to affect the world as much as they would in a single player game.

For example, only one character could earn first place in this year's archery contest in Littletown  and only one could reclaim the Sword of Ultimate Doom from the Goblins of Deepest Dungeon. There would be enough other contests, swords, goblins and dungeons to go around though.

Most multiplayer RPGs don't hold my interest for very long because the developers don't allow players to have any lasting effect on the world. There isn't any real sense of progress if the same ogre can be killed multiple times.

I'm not sure how easy it would be to avoid paradoxes when one character's past is another character's future, particularly when the number of players increases. Your example with the boss works if the (game) future player kills him, but what about if the (game) past one does while the future one is nearby? ("What do you mean I just spent 15 minutes taunting a dead guy?")

The idea of limiting how out of sync players can be is a good one, as is offering a choice to become in sync again. This could be done whenever someone wanted to do something that takes a while, such as sleeping, training and travelling.

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Time doesn't have to obey the laws of physics in a simulation, but it is going to seem very strange too the players if travel times and camping times just don't actually exist, or only last 20 seconds or so.  That's the real option if you want this "camping" and "traveling on the strategic map" to work in a real-time game, a 20 second or so delay (with a scene of a campfire or Indian Jones map travel scene or something) just to attempt to create the illusion of time passing as you do that activity when in reality you are still in real time.

What you are wanting to do would work a lot better if you were willing to make the game more of a blending of turn-based and real-time game.  At the strategic level (or "layer") it would be turn-based and you could have things like camping and map travel.  At the tactical layer it would be the a real-time dungeon crawler.  Something like the original Wizardry, or for a much newer reference Darkest Dungeon, where there is a town at the top of a dungeon and you make expeditions into the dungeon.  Your strategic map could be many towns, each with their own dungeons beneath them.  It's turn based at the strategic level and real-time in the dungeons.

One of the reasons forums for "game design" are so rarely used is that it is impossible to see someone else's vision.  I can't have any idea what you are really thinking, so maybe these examples will help.

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In single player games, it is common for game time to pass quickly when resting, waiting or using some sort of automatic travel, as there is little to be gained from making a player do nothing while that happens. Most of the ones I've played just show some sort of loading screen - usually with an image and a gameplay tip - whilst the world is updated.

I'm not sure that making some parts real time and others turn based would help much, as some characters could still be in different areas and time systems, so would still get out of sync.

What I have in mind is not exactly like any one existing game, so I'll use several different examples to explain.

I see it as having quite a large open world. Not Daggerfall huge, but bigger than Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim combined. Some areas will have tougher enemies than others.

It will have first person perspective with a skills based advancement system something like The Elder Scrolls. Some NPCs will be able to train player characters in certain skills for a price.

There will be a day and night cycle, and seasonal weather variations. Some shops will have restrictive opening hours and most NPCs will have some sort of activity schedule, including eating and sleeping.

Player characters will be able to travel on foot, ride their own horses or use transport controlled by an NPC, again like The Elder Scrolls.

Enemies and loot would be finite, to some extent. Dead bandits wouldn't respawn after they've been killed, but as time passes others might migrate to the area where they were killed (bringing more loot with them).

Some towns will have special events on certain days of the year, like Daggerfall. This might include competitions that player characters can get involved in, like Chicken kickin' and the archery contest in Fable.

Player characters won't absolutely need to rest every day, but if they don't they will have to drink special potions to reduce fatigue, as in Might and Magic VI etc. In towns there wouldn't be as much going on once the shops are closed, so that would also encourage players to rest their characters.

However, stealing secret plans or spying on someone would best be done after dark, so stealthy characters might not sleep when other characters do.


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Your problem is that you want to cheat time in actual, real-time... which even my Rube can't do.  If you create "artificial time" and run a simulation on that you are not bound by the laws of physics and can do things that might appear to be "time travel" to the audience or other simulation designers.  But you want the game to run on actual real-time, with players sitting at their computers playing in real-time, and then too play with time in ways that amount to time travel.  This can be done, but not when the simulation is running on actual real-time and the players are playing in real time.

You could do something similar too what you are wanting to do by "severing" the game into two layers like I mentioned in the previous post.  If the strategic layer is turn based you can "cheat time" within the strategic layer, then when players go questing they are in your real-time open world and are bound by the laws of physics "during the day".  With the strategic layer "severed" from real-time doing what you want to do becomes easy.

You can't cheat time in actual real-time with the players watching in real-time.  Like a magician, there needs to be some type of "misdirection" going on if you want to cheat time.

"Time is the fire in which we burn..."

Edited by Kavik Kang

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Since you are hitting on a subject that I have spent a lot of time thinking about over the last 30 years or so I thought I'd add a little more to try and help you with what you are trying to do.

A real-time “open world” is the “glorious vision” of many, many game and simulation designers and has been for decades. It is, ultimately, something very much like “The Matrix”. That is ultimately the “glorious vision” that everyone has about what people today call “open world games”. This is why games like No Mans Sky are so disappointing to everyone when they are released, and why I always know the instant they are announced that they are going to disappoint everyone when they are released. Everyone is envisioning “The Matrix”. I actually know how to do it, and it is a decades-long thing to actually achieve even a primitive and mostly empty version of it. That “glorious vision” can be achieved, but not as a commercial game.

All games and simulations are abstract, it is only a matter of the level of abstraction. Both Checkers and Chess are highly abstract representations of war in the “Age of Kings”. Like all games, especially commercially viable ones that won't take 80 years to make, your game will ultimately be very abstract in many, many ways. It will not be the glorious vision of “The Matrix”, it will be a game with almost no content compared to the real world. One definition of game design is choosing which aspects of reality to represent and which to leave out, or which to emphasize and which to de-emphasize... because you can't actually “represent everything”.

So, one thing that would make what you are trying to achieve much more attainable would be to not ever use or mention time. No years, months, weeks, days, and certainly not hours or minutes. You can still have night and day. Players in a game have very little “situational awareness”, as Hollywood directors say “the camera only sees what the camera sees”. With no time represented other than night and day, it becomes easy for the passage of time to be “severed” from time here in the real world.

The players would never be in sink with each other, other than whether it is night or day for them. You might have been playing the game all day camping and traveling withing the severed “strategic layer” of the game, and I just started playing 5 minutes ago... but we can still wind up in the same real-time quest area at the same time, and it will be either night or day for both of us. Of course, in reality you might have years of play time while I am a new player.

To do what you are wanting to do you need to “sever” the strategic (camping, travel, etc) layer of the game from the tactical (real-time questing) layer of the game. The “magician's illusion” of being non-specific with time other than if it is night or day would allow you to make this happen in a real-time multiplayer game... but it wouldn't be that “glorious vision” of an “open world”. It would be “Places” that were like an open world within a structured strategy layer that both allows you to “cheat time” and contain the game to something that can actually be produced within a reasonable amount of time.


Edited by Kavik Kang

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I'm struggling a little with what you're describing, because I haven't envisioned this game as having a strategic layer.

Although I had considered allowing the player character to be viewed in a third person perspective, it wouldn't change how the world was interacted with. It would still be in real time, rather than paused or turn based.

As with MMORPGs, the game would not pause if you opened an inventory or map screen, and you could still be attacked by an enemy if your character was standing near one, shops would open and close, NPCs would wander about as usual etc.

I know single player RPGs do usually pause time when you open certain menu screens, but in a multiplayer game you can't expect everyone else to wait for you to finish whatever you're doing.

I agree that any large RPG will need to have a certain amount of abstraction if it is to be made in a reasonable amount of time. That's one of the reasons I intend to use low detail artwork (intricate bump-mapping adds nothing to gameplay).

I think removing all references to the passage of time would be going too far, however. Having shops open and close on a schedule adds to the believability of the game world and time limits in general can create a sense of urgency to certain tasks.

Maybe the player doesn't need to know the time to the exact minute, but they should have a general idea of what day it is and whether it is morning, afternoon, evening or night.

As most - if not all - "real time" computer RPGs have game world time pass more quickly than in the real world (so maybe 6 game hours = 1 real hour), I was thinking that game time could potentially be speeded up or slowed down slightly for each character to get them back in sync without it being too noticeable. After all, in the real world time does seems to pass at different speeds depending on what you're doing.

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As long as you are envisioning a "fully real time world" then there isn't any way to "cheat time" in the way you are wanting to do.  As long as game time is matching real time at all times wherever you go, and there there is more than one human player in the same game location, there isn't any way to "cheat time" that isn't going to be very noticeable.

Almost all games have a strategic layer too them, in an RPG it is the towns, travel on the "world map, camping, etc.  Just about everything that doesn't involve questing in real time.  You are wanting to incorporate the strategic aspects into the tactical layer, which is what "open world" games do.  That's "reality".  That is, ultimately, "The Matrix".  So the question you want to ask yourself is if you want to make a really bad and empty version of the "glorious vision" of The Matrix or the best and most engrossing game that you can make.

You should play Darkest Dungeon.  It is about the exact opposite of what you are wanting too make, and it is probably the best computer game made in the last decade.  A real-time world you can "live" within is a dream of a lot of people, but it is by far the most challenging "game" that you could possibly attempt to make.  On every level.  Technologically, production time, and making a good game out of it.  On every level it is the hardest thing you could possibly try to do.  And anything less than a decade long project is just going to result in a boring, empty place.

You have to "contain the design" somewhere, it can't just be "like real life on an entire planet".  Where you pick and choose to do that is one definition of game design, but the way you are wanting to have players be out of sinc in a real-time multiplayer game, one obvious way for you to do that is to have a turn-based strategic layer and real-time tactical layer.  With time being only night or day, players in the same location on the world map play either night or day missions (which would be very different types of missions) and will play with other players in the same location who choose the same time of day mission.

If every town on your map was a Wizardy/Darkest Dungeon-like place (a town with a dungeon beneath it)... I know I'd love that game!  And its something you could realistically do, as opposed to "real-time on an entire planet" which, if you manage to do, would inevitably be empty and boring like everyone else's attempts to do the same thing.  You have to "contain the design" somewhere... unless you are working for the military, haha!



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I had another idea. Disclaimer: it's probably harder to do than it sounds.

You will have accelerated time, where one in-game day lasts a couple hours or so. What if you make it dynamic, so that days can last shorter when needed.

For example, it's morning in-game and you have two players: one is in a town and another one is at a dungeon or something. Player 2 wants to do the dungeon at night, so they skip time. Now it's night at the dungeon, but still day at the town where Player 1 is. Now, if Player 1 wants to go to the dungeon, while they are walking towards it time will accelerate, so it will be night time by the time they arrive, however long that takes. If the player stops midway through (while it's afternoon at their location) and turns back to the town, time will continue to tick normally and it will be afternoon at the town when they arrive. Meanwhile, for some Player 3 that is on the other side of the map, it is still morning and time is flowing normally. If there are more players at the same place when time skipping happens, both players skip time. That can be justified by having time skipping be some AOE magic or technology. When players log off and on, they could log on at the latest time, so all that is left is to sync up the players that are still online.

So, in a way, each player has their own clock, and earlier clocks sync up to later clocks as players get closer. Almost feels like relativity :D If your players aren't together all the time, that could solve your problem. 

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Kavik Kang: Real life on an entire planet is way more ambitious than the game I'm talking about.

For one thing, the land area would be more in line with a smallish island and the player character would be restricted in what they could do. Their role would be an adventurer, so they would only have skills appropriate for that way of life. They couldn't (for instance) become a farmer, shopkeeper or fisherman.

The level of detail would also be much reduced compared with real life, as much of it would not be needed.

Although I haven't played it, I can tell that Darkest Dungeon is very unlike what I have in mind as it is party based, single player and turn based. In single player games where you directly control more than one character, combat would be difficult without at least a pause option.

Party based RPGs seem more like a hybrid of RPG and strategy game though. I play them occasionally, but I prefer single character games as it's easier to immerse yourself in the role of the character.


1024: I mentioned something similar to that idea in the last paragraph of my previous post. It might be something worth exploring during the prototype phase.

I also thought that some features that the player normally skips in single player games could be made interesting enough to be done at normal game (faster than real world) speed.

For example, NPC controlled travel methods could be fast enough that the player doesn't get too bored during the journey. Like the gryphons in World of Warcraft. Instant travel options would also help, like the waygates in Diablo II and Torchlight.

Training could involve the player character being coached by an NPC in real (game) time, with sparring sessions, target practice etc.

The biggest obstacle is still resting and sleeping, as I haven't yet come up with a way to make that interesting or interactive that doesn't depend on a plot device. I'd really like the solution to be applicable to any similar game.


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