Vague Patch Notes: Timesinks, sunk time, and MMOs

    
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We're going to be here for a very long while, princess.

Here’s a fun question I asked myself a lot back in the day: Why, exactly, did leveling take so long in Final Fantasy XI?

The obvious mechanical answer doesn’t require a whole heck of a lot of thought. Leveling takes a while because the game borrows the experience mechanics of games like Final Fantasy Tactics wherein your experience rewards are a fixed value based on a comparison between your level and the target, but it also has the ascending experience requirements of many other titles. In short, you’re never getting more than 200 experience for a kill, almost certainly far less while solo, and yet your requirements for the next level keep going up as you level.

But it did take a while for me to figure out the larger picture of why this was the case because the designers didn’t make the system work like this accidentally. It wasn’t to make the higher end more elite or possessed of a higher skill threshold, no; it was because this change meant that it would take a lot more time as the gaps between levels stretched out longer and longer. And that kept me subscribed longer, and that was what mattered.

If you ever think that business models are entirely separate from gameplay decisions, try to play a classic arcade game. I can very distinctly remember a birthday party for a friend in middle school in which four of us stood to play The Simpsons Arcade Game at one of those family amusement centers that seemed be cropping up everywhere at the time. Our hosts had given us some absurdly large amount of tokens to play on the ticket-awarding minigames or, as we wound up spending them, on the arcade game.

We beat the game. But we had each started with something like $20 worth of tokens, and ended with… far fewer, if any. This was not accidental. Old arcade games were designed to kill you with vigor and intensity to encourage you to keep spending money, to drain your quarters steadily even while remaining technically fair to play.

That’s not to say these games were entirely bad. The Simpsons Arcade Game is a fun game; ditto Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which sucked down so many of my quarters in various locales even as I don’t think I ever saw past the third level in an arcade. It’s just to say that these games were also designed to make money, and they made money by leaving you walking away with a sense of “next time, I’ll come back with more money and then I’ll win.”

MMOs aren’t an exception. They just have never involved popping quarters in a slot – at least not literally.

There are lots of different defintions of penalty.

We all know that Ultima Online used a subscription fee when it launched, and that was almost entirely down to what it cost to keep the servers up and running and developers working on the game as the team tried to figure out what they had actually made. The game had some timesinks, but some of them came down to emergent features of design that developers couldn’t or didn’t foresee being a thing. That’s not to let it off the hook for the tedium of skill driving being tedious or anything; it’s just to say that this probably wasn’t done with an eye toward subscription times.

But it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice pretty quickly that making things take longer meant that you were subscribed longer. Heck, if you want to be very cheeky you can even make progress backslide to force even more time out of players. You died in EverQuest? Well, not only is your corpse and all your stuff now in a tricky place to retrieve, but you also lose some of your experience, maybe even levels. That’s right, you didn’t just lose the time spent retrieving your stuff; you’re also losing the time spent getting up to a level which might have enabled you to actually go back and get your stuff in the first place!!

Herein we see the nature of timesinks as a gameplay mechanism. You can call it “designed downtime” if you so want, but the reality is that we’re talking about systems meant to just take all the time you pump into them and then ask for more. Making you wait for a boat to arrive, then wait for the boat ride, then walk across three zones, then sit there and look for a party, then slowly kill things just to level.

Again, one of the big innovations of World of Warcraft and the reason that the game basically exploded in popularity out of the gate was removing a lot of old timesinks from games like EverQuest. No more grouping up to level! Faster gameplay! Lighter penalties for death! Quest-focused gameplay! Wham and bam! We’re doing stuff without just twaddling about; the gameplay isn’t about tediously scouring at scraps!

(My editor insists on pointing out here that many of these accessibility features already existed in MMOs between EverQuest and WoW, that WoW merely brought them to the mass market. For the record, I personally consider this to be part of a larger sequence of blows to the status quo that also included games like City of Heroes and Guild Wars as signs that the old way of doing things with timesink-heavy gameplay was really well and truly past its sell-by date. An article for another time.)

What’s important here is to understand that timesinks served a purpose. They made the game slower to make the game slower. The goal wasn’t immersion, or making a better game, or anything beyond ensuring that you spent more time playing the game and thus subscribing.

Therefore, timesinks are bad and anything that feels like a timesink must be bad and should be removed. Problems solved! Get rid of the bad things, and games will be good!

Time is, time was, time's passed.

Oh, wait, no, there’s a different problem. Because it turns out that timesinks aren’t actually distinct from just… things taking time.

The problem with having a reductive view of everything as either “this is good and we need more of it” or “this is bad and remove all of it” is something alluded to when talking about arcade games above. See, yes, it’s inevitable that a lot of these games involved yanking quarters from your pockets as quickly as possible and thus extending the length of the game with punishing challenge. That had an influence. But there are also a lot of arcade games that are glorious fun not just in spite of that fact but because of it. Going in with limited lives immediately turns these experiences into finely tuned challenges that play fair and force you to really think about what you’re doing.

It’s pretty unambiguous that Brad McQuaid’s “designed downtime” is kind of a bad thing. It’s literally time spent doing nothing because that makes it take longer for you to accomplish anything. That doesn’t mean that nothing good comes out of it, nor does it mean that you can’t find a certain degree of fun in the simple fact that your time is being sunk into something.

Past a certain point, games are timesinks. The real question is how that time is being spent, and why it’s being asked for in the first place. What experiences are you getting out of this? How is this facilitating your enjoyment?

My personal feeling is that the real dividing line between timesinks and worthwhile design is how much of your time is being spent doing something interesting compared to arbitrary chores. There are a ton of timesinks in WoW Classic that slowly got removed from the game over the years, things that no longer exist in the live game to their credit. (The live version of the game does several things worse, but how it spends your time isn’t one of them.) Even the Classic version of the game, though, lacks a lot of the timesinks that were present in FFXI at the time.

Playing modern FFXI allows you to get a lot more experience than 200 per kill, along with no longer having to sit around and wait for a party. Travel is far faster. You can find other ways to gain experience. In every way, timesinks have been removed. And yet the result is that when I log into the game, I spend more time just doing things, exploring storylines, going through dungeons that previously weren’t worth exploring, even just leveling for the heck of it.

It turns out that when you remove the timesinks from a fun game, you’re still left with a fun game. So if the game stops being fun for whatever reason… well, the time spent flailing about isn’t the determining factor.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Anduri

I agree with the premise of “timesink purely to extend subscription time” being bad. I just don’t agree with your listed examples and in all honesty off the top of my head i’m struggling to think of any although I’m sure there are some.

Much of what you are labelling as timesinks are actually what makes a game for a lot of players. For example, loss of XP in EQ was harsh but it did two things:

(a) it made death meaningful. Players were scared to die. This made exploring difficult dungeons genuinely memorable experiences as the threat of party wipe and consequent loss of time was always there. Compare that to today where in most MMO’s dying is just another way to teleport yourself for a small and usually inconsequential mending fee.

(b) it gave more purpose to individual classes. Clerics, necros, druids and wizards all had a purpose beyond the usual blowing things up and healing due to the need to transport, find corpses and rez with less penalty. It created social dynamic. Has anyone seen my corpse?

A lot of game was lost when things like that were casually thrown aside. I picked up EQ1 again recently after a 15(!) year hiatus and this immediately struck me. No quest hub grinding – which in my eyes is the most egregious of “timesinks”. Just a world with a lot of intimidating dark places to explore. Sure, its raw and I understand why that would turn off most people now. It is satisfying to succeed in though in a way that modern games have lost.

Your statement that “designed downtime” is unambiguously a bad thing is to my eye missing the point. All games by design are timesinks. Nothing productive comes of playing them other than to enjoy yourself and maybe have fun with other people. But no game can create content fast enough to keep players playing for months or years on end in a dynamic and different way constantly. The way all long term games truly capture a player is by making them social. From MMO’s, to golf, football, chess or scrabble, if anyone is going to spend a lot of time on them they will only do it as part of a community. Having them make friends and giving them reason to need or rely each other or compete against one another.

McQuaids designed downtime is a response to that. He is trying to give players space to kindle those kind of relationships. Automatic dungeon finders and the like are the bane of such things.

This is the reason Wow Classic was wanted by a lot of the community, complete with stripped down LFG tool and no quest markers. They remembered a time when the world felt big and that they needed other people within it. Whats more, to get those people they had to actually talk to them. They needed friends and the game tools (or lack of them) made it necessary for even the most hardened introvert to come out of their shell. To me that can only be a good thing.

BigAngry
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BigAngry

Great article, Eliot. If I may, I’ve got a story to relate that’s on the same-ish topic.

My first real appreciative encounter with timesinks (or more specifically, time gated content) came from when I ran my door game-focused BBS back in the mid-90’s. I was the sysop (system operator) so I got to set all the turn limits in each game of turn-based space trading game Trade Wars 2002 (which has a surprising NCSoft connection if you read far enough into the wiki there) and Legend of the Red Dragon, which was a turn-based medieval fantasy simulator where you could go out into the forest and take on bandits and try your hand flirting with the barmaid, each day making more progress.

Both of these games had a set amount of turns that you could do things with per real-time day, and most BBSes had them set ludicrously low to encourage people coming back the next day, usually to get them in the door of paying for a sub to the sysop to get more turns in games, and access to a guaranteed more available subscriber phone line so you would have access to the BBS at better hours. I just said screw it and threw out more turns than you could shake a stick at in all of my 60+ various and sundry door games.

That was, of course, in the mid-90’s, when you had to have your modem dial up and connect to someone else’s computer to play games that had ansi graphics if you were lucky (mostly just colored text if you weren’t) and you were connected at 14.4 kilobits per second. And here in the year of our lord two thousand and nineteen, it’s still possible to come across AAA games that don’t use timesinks or timegates well.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

I don’t disagree with Elliott. The article makes a fair presentation of how we got The Grind, and how it’s used as an excuse to stretch content.

Yet pacing is still important. I grew into MMOs through homebrew tabletop, group storytelling games and the social MUSH/MUX diku offshoots. We had systems and rulebooks and our own progression was heavily restricted and dependent on the consent of the other players. ‘Filler’ existed, but I didn’t feel like my server GM was engineering it to get more sessions out of us.

What Elliott describes about EverQuest is what kept me from playing MMOs until 2000 or so. I was giving up my ability to make content and have a say in the rules and their adjucation. I was losing a trusting atmosphere of consent that had always been Rule #1 of multiplayer RPGs. I never made peace with the idea having fun in a mechanical murderbox.

TLDR: I hate timesinks too, but neither do I wish to play in a world where everyone is rushing about like tactical marines all the time. I like to chat and get to know people.

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Andy Turner

I think that you are correct that the business model definitely drives the software. As a game developer myself I do know that the game probably should be free with the amount of effort I put in it’s really a matter of do I get inspiration or not whether the game comes out at all. No I would be very thankful to have accumulated money from this and frankly I would expect it but also has a game enthusiast playing Street fighter two to me at the arcade it was more about a progression of skill level and learning the moves in fact I would think about the moves a lot in study hall at high school. But now you can by the street fighter two arcade machine I’ll be at a miniaturized version, for about 270 bucks. The mods for that game really made it fun like the rainbow mod where had one s move around and stuff. Because of the nature of the multiplayer synchronicity requirement of massively multiplayer online games then the certain global state having to do with modifications overall need to be sharded out into other servers or emulators to gather those groups of people who wish to participate in those genre expanding features that aren’t really on the same level as a beginner or someone who just wants the vanilla experience. Take a look at android net runner of the online card game modification even though it might not be right to use the cards without the intellectual property of Richard Garfield or fantasy flight games interactive it is a browser based game of the card game that features massively multiplayer like rooms where you can play 1V1 PVP with cards I would like to see a 5V5 PVP of this game but all of that math costs money and the Developers are asking for donations for server hardware or cloud resources. It’s time the game is industry got turned on its head so we could avoid the gear treadmill and instead think about innovating the industry

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Raph Koster

A huge amount of the timesinks present in the original set of MMOs were basically designs copied from MUDs. And in MUDs, there were factors that made many of them not nearly as much of a timesink.

One example is corpse runs, see https://www.raphkoster.com/2008/11/17/why-are-corpse-runs-bad/

But in general, everything involving travel in MUDs got slower in MMOs, simply because you could spam travel through a MUD as fast as you could type nnnnnwwesnwe.

This means getting a group, getting to a corpse, getting to a kill, getting to anything — was all much slower than it had been in text games.

Now, I do think you are selling downtime short. Everyone complains about the lack of sociability in the new games — it’s pretty much unquestionable that go-go-go pacing means less time to talk. Try holding a meaningful conversation in the midst of an online FPS battle. Yes, people can opt out, but they often simply don’t. Sometime, the game doesn’t let them (see aforementioned FPS). Sometimes, the game just disincentivizes it by always presenting you with a big to-do list.

In the real world, we architect specific sorts of downtime and pacing on purpose. Offices try to create “watercooler” spaces. It doesn’t mean intentionally creating long lines like at Disneyland. But it does — or should — mean creating spaces like the many locations in Disneyland intended for you to pause, take a breath, maybe actually talk to your family.