Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #158:

Game Lengths

by Shannon Appelcline

Last month, we officially released Ticket to Ride at Skotos. It's another of our games from Days of Wonder: tabletop games, adopted for the online medium, that usually run an hour or length.

These Days of Wonder games highlight something fairly unique at Skotos: we have games of a lot of different lengths. Our shortest is probably either Queen's Necklace or Fist of Dragonstones, each of which is unlikely to clock in at more than half an hour, while our longest are clearly Castle Marrach and The Eternal City. We've had Marrach players since release, slightly more than 4 years ago; I suspect TEC might have some even older old timers.

So, this week I want to talk briefly about game lengths. Most designers in this field are probably thinking about long-term games, like every other MMORPG out there. However, that's not the only answer for game design and it's worth at least considering what else has been done. So, this week I want to run through all of the types of game lengths that have provably worked in the online medium.

Single-Session Games

Though we like to think that our MMORPGs are the big dogs in the field, single-session games are actually the rulers: to be specific Bingo (and maybe Bridge and Poker). These are games that last between a couple of minutes and a couple of hours. You usually sit down with 1-4 other players, like you would at a table, though those Bingo games stretch these player numbers, with possibilities of tens, hundreds, or thousands of players all in the same virtual game. You play a single, distinctive game that was probably originally intended for physical play. When you're done, you're probably rated, to try and create some longevity and continuity within the community, then you either play again or move on to something else.

At Skotos we have four single session games: Fist of Dragonstones, Gang of Four, Queen's Necklace, and Ticket to Ride. In addition, the Lovecraft Country has continued to run Tomb of the Desert God, which clocks in at a much longer 4-8 hours, but is still a single (or double) session game.

Biggest Problems: The biggest problem with a single-session game is undoubtedly the dropout player; because you have a set number of people playing the same game, if one person suddenly leaves, it can ruin the whole game. This may happen due to 'net connectivity issues, or just because a player is losing. It can be resolved by player replacement, ranking penalty, or other methods. I wrote about it more extensively in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #142, The Disconnect Dilemma.

From the developer's side, there also isn't a proven revenue model for this type of game. People have shown a general unwillingness to pay for shorter games in the online form, even if they might spend considerable hours playing them every month. I've seen some company trying one-time play fees or daily fees, but I'd guess they aren't doing much better. I think our method of offering them as an add-on to longer-term games is a good one, because they help solidify our community; they also can be valuable in and of themselves as marketing, which I'll mention more in a second.

Possibilities for Growth: Each of these game lengths I'm going to be discussing this week is a somewhat viable form in and of itself. However, I also think there's room for designers of traditionally longer-term games to use each of the other game lengths to their advantage.

One possibility is to embed short-term games within your long-term game. There are a number of such games in our own Z-Opolis, while Tale in the Desert is another game that takes this route. This way, if your players are looking for a short-term or long-term gaming experience on any individual day, they can always come to your game and enter your world.

Another possibility is for short-term games to exist as branding for your long-term games: something that might not attract paying subscribers in-and-of itself, but could still show how exciting your gameworld is. For example, we've facilitated the reprinting of Arkham Horror, a Cthulhu boardgame, as a way to increase interest in our own upcoming Lovecraft Country: Arkham by Night. If we could develop an online version of the final game and offer that as part of Skotos, that'd do even more to show people how cool H.P. Lovecraft's Massachusetts witch-town is.

Limited-Time Games

Beyond single-session games you find games that are a pretty short duration, on the scale of things, but still much longer than a player can sit and play for a single-session. Traditionally, most of these have been strategy games.

At Skotos we have two limited-time games: Droid Arena (2 months), and Galactic Emperor: Hegemony (3 weeks).

Biggest Problems: The biggest problem is really a question: how do you stretch out a game over an extended period without requiring players to sit at their computer constantly? Every limited-time game I've seen has answered this question in the same way: resource depletion.

In many of these games, you have a set number of actions/turns/etc. that you can do any day. For example in Droid Arena you have some limited purchases you can make, some limited arena battles you can engage in, etc. Thus, at some time on any day you sit down, you run through your actions, then you're done for the day. (Some ongoing strategic games, such as our own Space Federation take the same tact.)

I find Hegemony's answer to be one of the most elegant. The limited resource is time. You can theoretically take an unlimited number of actions, depending on how many ships you have, but each action you take (typically moving ships from one planet to another) takes a certain amount of real-time, and thus you have to wait until it's completed. In many ways this method is more organic than the singular resource depletion model that most games use, and that oraganic nature has taken a fair amount of additional coding in Hegemony: we've had to offer ways that people could issue commands before-hand, so that they don't have to run to their computer and login everytime a command is finished. However, the end result is also more complex than a lot of the other limited-time games out there.

Possibilities for Growth: We've long planned to incorporate this length of gameplay into Lovecraft Country as "expeditions". The idea is that every once in a while a splinter game breaks off from Lovecraft Country, where players roleplay in some foreign place for some limited amount of time. (How well this will work, as there are real issues with constantly building up these new, foreign places, is an open question.)

However, looking instead at the traditional strategic roots of this genre, there are other rooms for expansion. Consider the possibilities for an add-on to your MMORPG world where, every couple of months you run a one-week wargame which help modify the setting of the world for the months to come. Other possibilities for interrelating limited-time strategy games and ongoing roleplaying games could prove quite interesting.

Limited-Story Games

A near cousin to the limited-time game is the limited-story game; there's no set time limit, but once the game's story is done, the game is over. I believe A Tale in the Desert may have done this to a limited extent, since they've finished up their "I" game and moved on to "II". Sam Witt considered this type of story as a way to evolve a game in Limited Games.

Biggest Problems: This type of gameplay is pretty untried, which largely means that we haven't yet discovered the big problems that are going to be out there.

For a short-term game, probably things will work much like a "limited-time" game, discussed above.

However, for a long-term game, where you let players play for a couple of years, then move toward the next step of evolution, you face concerns of alienating your entire player base. The correct answer is probably, simply, to make sure that the "next" game is ready to go (though, again, there will be resource-creation issues here).

Possibilities for Growth: This is probably the type of gameplay that MMORPG designers should consider the most carefully. To date, we've all been thinking about how to make a game last forever, but as technologies continue to move forward in leaps and bounds it becomes obvious that an eternal game still isn't a real possibility: there will always be players left behind when you upgrade, or else you game will get older and more out of date. Neither situation is entirely desirable.

Considering a start, middle, and end for your game's story not only gets you past this hurdle, but also promises that your game will be that much more memorable because of the joint story being told.

Forever Games

And that leaves us with the games that we're all familiar with: the MMORPGs, MUDs, and whatnot that theoretically go on forever, or at least for the lifetime of the playerbase/company/adminbase/servers/etc.

If this article has had one purpose, it's this: to point out that eternal games aren't the only answer, nor even necessarily the most desirable one. There are plenty of other opportunities, and many of them can actually be incorporated into MMORPG gameplay.

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