In a Daily Grind not long ago, MOP reader Armsbend said something I thought just cried out for discussion. After noting that he had a guild member who used to spend hours rescuing friends’ corpses from in-game disasters, he criticized the way some MMOs seem to have intentionally built in these timesinks: “We long for yesteryear, but at the same time so much of game design was created around wasting our time to stay in their game over other games,” he observed.
In gaming parlance, that’s literally the definition of designed downtime, is it not – the idea that developers are padding out a game with intentional reasons for you to stop your chugging along a path and take a break without actually logging out of a game. We might be charitable here and say that not all designers have that conscious goal of monopolizing all our free time with boring bits, although we certainly know of some using psychology wizardry to do just that. But the end result speaks for itself.
For this week’s Overthinking, I’ve asked our writers to reflect on the concept of designed downtime in MMOs. Is it a good thing? A bad thing? A plague on all MMOs? What’s the worst example in MMO land, and what’s the most appealing?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): It depends on the design goal. For example, when crafting has daily stamina or timers involved in a game without item decay, it feels like the goal is to prevent you from playing at your own speed. With item decay though, it helps prevent flooding the market which ruins the economy.
Body runs I feel were one of the better MMO downtime tools, especially in PvE. They made death during regular play sting, but rarely was it that painful once you had an idea of your own abilities. And if you messed up or were new? It gave you a reason to reach out and be social. I actually met some of my favorite MMO players because of body runs, and I’m still in contact with one of them. That was almost 20 years ago, yeesh! I think that says something.
Andy McAdams: I might be a little in the minority here, but I like designed downtime. For me, it makes sure I don’t rush through everything at breakneck speed and forget that playing the game is the fun part. I can sometimes get so focused on my in-game goals that I actually ignore when I’m not having fun pursuing those goals, or that I would really rather be doing something else. Designed downtime provides that check for me, that moment of pause and reflection to say, “huh, you know maybe I can do something else for a bit,” and so I do. I know people will argue vehemently against this, but my favorite designed downtime is a taxi service. I like instant travel to exist, to be a special event or something that takes consideration to use. Taxi travel can feel burdensome, but it can also (if done right) add the immersion and the feeling of being part of the world. Riding the taxi in Wildstar and listening to the robotic cabbie chatter at you as you lounged in the back seat was a joy.
Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I don’t mind designed downtime as long as I don’t recognize it as such. That means it’s been well integrated and is not detracting from other parts of the game that I enjoy. But the moment I roll my eyes at the thought of leveling yet another legendary weapon or closing yet another Psijic portal (purely hypotheticals, of course), my brain has started to realize that what I’m doing isn’t enjoyable any more. It’s at this point that I begin to resent being forced down a path in order to get to the “fun stuff”. Too many of these revelations, and I may decide to find another game altogether.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’ve written a lot about designed downtime in the past, not all of which I even agree with anymore. The term used to make me exceedingly salty because I associated it with a certain subset of games that purported to seek to create a social environment but seemed obsessed with baking in a lot of waiting in the hopes that it would inspire social play – instead of, you know, building out actual social systems like housing, PvP, and trade that would definitely generate social play, and social play of a higher caliber and stickiness to boot. That drove me nuts.
But the game I directed most of my ire at has changed so much since then it seems pointless to continue harping on it now. So instead, let me point you all to an old Raph Koster blog in which he talks about social loops in Star Wars Galaxies. Though he doesn’t use the term designed downtime explicitly, it’s a good descriptor for some of the gameplay in that title, and even better, SWG has both really great examples and really terrible examples to learn from.
“In SWG, we were designing in loops instead: sending players out into the wilderness, then bringing them back. We wanted people to bump into each other in ‘water cooler’ areas, and we wanted there to be ‘third places’ in the world, where you voluntarily went for your downtime because you liked to go there. Because of this, our building list included things like bars, theaters, parks, areas fully intended to one day host player weddings or guild induction ceremonies, and so on.”
Koster wasn’t gleefully inserting downtime to slow down your advancement, like making you meditate for a minute between every fight; he was effectively inserting a player interaction nexus in logical spots along a planned gameplay loop that managed to feel freefrom. So when you came back to town to bank or catch a flight or pick up more missions, you would also stop into the cantina and rest up to heal your battle wounds and fatigue, surrounded by a whole secondary community of cantina-rats providing both social and mechanical services. Aside from the potential for this to go awry on underpopulated servers or be derailed by botters, it worked on multiple levels to create social intersections between player groups, to flesh out the player ecosystem and create fresh bonds between combatants and noncombatants.
On the other hand, SWG also did supremely annoying things like make you wait 10 minutes for a shuttle, often with several hops to get where you were doing. The lengthy travel, presumably inspired by long boat rides in games like EverQuest, sparked roughly the same social interaction as people who get on an elevator at the same time, and it’s over as quickly as it began, so what was the point again? Wouldn’t it have been better to spend all those minutes actually roleplaying or hanging out in a medical center patching people up? Perfect examples of how a single game can get it so right and so wrong. The idea isn’t bad, but the implementation can make or break it.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I play Black Desert Online, and two of the major instances of designed downtime is from the travelling and the processing. I like it. It forces me to get up and do something healthy, get a bite to eat, clean the house a bit, take out the dogs, etc. When I play Final Fantasy XIV, all I did was tank. I got instant queues and since I didn’t need to travel anywhere it was very easy for me to lose track of time and play myself to exhaustion because everything was so instant. That doesn’t happen for Black Desert Online; when my bags are full, there’s my stopping point. It gives me a chance to change my pace and decide if I want to keep playing that day. It also encourages planning ahead; I need to know what I’m doing in the game at that moment so I don’t waste any time. Of course, there’s ways around it, people would “park an alt” where bosses spawn so there’s no travel time between places, but that needs an alt. For me, I plan ahead, but when I’ve got like all day to play, I appreciate the downtime because it’s a good stopping point to do some self care. So for me, it’s good.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): An absolute plague, and I promise that’s not my salt coming from my Legends of Aria CMA. There are a couple of these wasted timesinks that I don’t hate too much if it provides a sense of immersion — the boat rides in Final Fantasy XI or the train trip through Lorville in Star Citizen — but forcing me to waste my time to revive and retrieve my stuff simply because your came couldn’t be fussed to include even a vague gauge of how well I can stack up against a threat isn’t clever or hardcore, it’s laziness in a thin “difficulty” shell.
Okay, maybe a little bit of salt.
Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): My first reaction to this is to say, “Yeah! Designed downtime is the worst!” It’s basically the MMO equivalent of limited lives and unreasonable difficulty in games from the ’80s and ’90s; it’s an outdated mechanic designed to keep you feeding quarters into the arcade machine or keep you from realizing how short your NES game really is. So many people have solved this problem in other, better ways, why should I put up with it?
… And then I realize just how much time I’ve been putting into Oldschool RuneScape lately (mostly on mobile), which is literally Timesinks: The Game. Watch your character turn steel bars into cannonballs. Watch your character chop down teak trees. Watch your character stab inches-deep water with a harpoon and somehow retrieve sharks. Even the combat is just watching your character perform the same action repeatedly, with no input from you, until stuff dies. It’s all designed downtime. Yet somehow I get satisfaction out of watching those XP bars fill up. Yes, RuneScape was my first MMO, so nostalgia has a lot to do with it, but there’s a certain — dare I use the phrase? — “sense of pride and accomplishment” that comes with doing something super boring so long that you can do it better than anyone else.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): This is a trickier topic than you might first assume because not everything that takes time is designed downtime. I’m not for intentionally inserted time sinks that serve absolutely no function than to waste our time, but there are things that take time that help to immerse us into the world and are parts of gaming. I mean, unless you bring us a game where all travel is instant, all combat can be resolved with a single button press, and you’re automatically at the highest level with the best gear, there’s going to be some time and effort involved. I think that we would simply like the game to respect our time and deliver an experience that feels fulfilling and is productive with as little procrastinating as possible.
The worst time sink that I routinely encounter are reputation grinds. I like these systems on principle, but the amount of reputation and time required to max these out and get rewards is usually stupid long. Cut them in half and make them more reasonable, and we will talk. The best time sink is scenic travel, especially through zones that carry memories for the player.
Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I have mixed feelings about designed downtime. I think it comes down to a matter of the types of downtime and the pacing of the downtime. I have noticed that a lot of modern games have a frenetic vibe, with people running through dungeons like their pants are on fire. I have played casters in a bunch of games where mana potions exist, but I have never found an actual reason to use one because the mana regeneration rate is that high. That keeps the fights moving along briskly, but sometimes I would actually like to talk to the people I meet in game. There’s no time for that in a lot of those situations..
I am old and played EverQuest (the original) for a long time, and that’s at the opposite end of the spectrum. It was largely TimeSink: The Game, and when I subscribed for a month to jump onto one of the progression servers, I discovered that I just can’t deal with that at this point in my gaming career. Even on the regular servers with all the quality of life improvements, the pacing is still very slow compared to what I have become accustomed to. That’s part of what EverQuest is, but I have different expectations in 2019.
I would like to see a game where the downtime and the pace are such that I can have actual text chat conversations with people at least occasionally, without being so slow that I wander away from the game to go watch some paint dry. I think it helps to have a lot of optional activities that are slower paced and take you out of the main thrust of the game (fishing, for instance), and a mix of features that keep the required downtime to a comfortable minimum without speeding everything up to the ridiculous pace of the supersonic dungeon sprints.
I feel like I want to say something about quick travel vs. autorunning vs. manually running all over the map, but that’s a particular kind of downtime that might be an entire discussion unto itself.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I have some problem with the designation “downtime.” Downtime implies that the activity is taking a break from playing the game, and I hear it used in gaming, that specifically means combat and/or hard-core progression. Is the fighty combat stuff the only thing considered playing the game? Are we trying to say only fast-paced adrenaline rushes count? Why isn’t participating in non-combat activities considered a part of playing the game? Why isn’t fishing considered playing the game? What about traveling to explore areas? I could go on. Those are more about playing a game to me than combat. But it is definitely a stigma I see over and over again: People are even accused of not “playing” a game regardless of their hours involved just because they choose activities other than combat.
Now, if by designated you mean being artificially forced into an activity instead of my choosing when I want to participate, then yes, I am not at all a fan of that. If I am in the mood to go harvesting, then I don’t want to be gated by having to complete some sort of combat — or combat level — requirement to do so. Conversely, if I want to go all blast-and-bash on mobs, then I’d like to go go go and not be told, oh wait, you first must level up inn-sitting for a total of 300 points!
That doesn’t mean that progression can’t have a sprinkling of alternative activities mixed in. Say you need to gain entrance to a new dungeon but first must collect a few materials by harvesting. An organic weaving of non-combat and combat is ideal for me — as long as you aren’t gated completely by an alternate activity. There need to be other dungeons or fights you can participate in still if you just don’t want to harvest for that one. And you need to not be completely prevented from advancing in story or progression until you do it! If there are alternatives so I can participate in different activities when I choose to, I am satisfied — and way more likely to spend lots of time in the game.
Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’ve got to say I’m not a fan of designed downtime. I’ve only got a couple hours at best a night to get my game on, and I’m not about to be happy spending any amount of it not enjoying the game. I know lots of you are thinking of designed downtime as sitting on the boat waiting to sail or something similar, but I’m thinking of it in terms of terrible matchmaking. Bear with me here. Let’s take some arena PvP matchmaking.
Now there’s a ton of different matchmaking algorithms that games can employ, but you’ll know fast when you are in one that is driving your overall win-rate to 50% no matter the rank/class/league you are in. If I’m playing solo or even a duo queue and suddenly realize I’ve won the last, let’s say, 4+ matches in a row, well strap in because the next 4+ fights are going to be absolute trash. If its a game with full teams versus solo queuers, prepare for those next fights to be filled by full teams. To me, this is designed downtime. The matches likely won’t be close, and there’s absolutely nothing I, playing solo, can do but grin and bear it. Well that or git gud.
Tyler Edwards: I have few kind words for any game that intentionally wastes my time, to the point where there’s little for me to say on the matter beyond quoting the immortal words of Mr. Horse: “No sir, I don’t like it.” I’m all for stopping to smell the roses. I’ve spent plenty of time in MMOs just standing around, or wandering aimlessly, taking in the sights. But that should be my choice when the mood strikes me. It shouldn’t be forced on me by developers just so they can delay my progress (and presumably make more money off me).