Vague Patch Notes: The gating of time in MMO content

    
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I grew up on a farm.

People are over the moon about the Island Sanctuaries added in the most recent update to Final Fantasy XIV, and I entirely include myself in that lineup. I’m enjoying the content, it’s fun, and it’s reached a comfortable place for me of just slowly waiting and accumulating resources over time. And this is fine, but it also does raise the specter of something that is going to be a constant question when it comes to MMOs: the issues of time gates and the amount of time spent waiting for things to reset, things you can only do so many times per day/week/month, and so forth.

If you’re expecting something as simple as “time gates are bad” or “time gates are actually good” or anything like that, you may be new here. No, today I want to look at the idea in a little bit more depth and examine why these things come up because a lot of the assumptions about why time gates are in place at all are only about half-true. And it all starts with the reality that however quickly you think players will accomplish something, some will want to go faster and some will want to go slower.

In the most basic terms, time gates are any firm boundaries on how long something takes to get done. I’ll continue using FFXIV as an example: The most recent tomestone type always has a weekly limit. You cannot get more than 450 in a week no matter how much high-level content you run. Renovating buildings on your Island Sanctuary takes a certain amount of time no matter how many resources you have. Certain duties have a weekly lockout for loot; you can get only one reward for each seven-day period, no questions asked.

Many games also have soft timegates as well. Island Sanctuaries provide this; while you can always advance your rank by just gathering, the amount of time taken to earn thousands of experience by gathering at 10 XP a pop is dwarfed by just letting crops finish growing and deliveries go out so that you can claim much bigger amounts of experience for less effort. Beats running around for an hour gathering 100 things for 1,000 experience, doesn’t it?

Most analysis of time gates tends to stop here and points out that all of these are mechanics to keep you playing longer because by definition time gates slow down your progress. If you could get as many tomestones as you wanted in a given week, for example, you could easily finish gearing up pretty early and then unsubscribe until new gear arrived! Clearly, the only reason for this limit is to keep you subscribing.

It's a landscape.

And it’d be wrong to consider that irrelevant. But you also have to consider the different demands of everyone’s personal schedules. To do that, let’s take a look at Samantha and Becky.

Becky and Samantha both really like Final Fantasy XIV. Becky, however, has three kids and a full-time job as well as hosting a weekly game night at her house. She doesn’t have a whole lot of time to necessarily play the game on a daily basis. Samantha has a freelance job with a flexible schedule, no kids, and a girlfriend who takes care of most of the house chores. Samantha can spend a lot of time playing the game.

Let’s consider that “get as much as you want in a week” setup again. Within a week of the patch releasing, Samantha will easily be able to fill out an entire set of tomestone gear without trouble. Becky, meanwhile, will likely be getting her first piece on week two. In this scenario, the gap between Samantha and Becky is significant and likely to widen further; even if they’re friends, it’s going to be frustrating for both of them when Samantha can just advance further because she simply has more time.

Of course, that’s not what actually happens. Both women have the same limits on their weekly progression, so while Samantha may very well be able to reach her weekly cap faster than Becky, she actually remains on even footing with Becky on a whole. Even if Samantha has time for progression content that does let her get stuff faster than Becky, the gap is significantly narrower than it would otherwise be. Moreover, it incentivizes Samantha to actually do other things instead of just to beat her head against progression, and it even encourages her to slow down and work on Becky’s schedule.

After all, she isn’t going to be losing time by just running daily experts with Becky. She’ll be advancing at the same pace regardless, so why not team up?

Keep in mind that this is not to say “oh, so time gating like this is actually all positive.” It’s not. If Becky can’t cap out on a given week, it means she is now indisputably behind and can’t catch back up. Furthermore, it does actually have a negative aspect for people who do have more time and more desire to play; you can wind up in a scenario wherein you want to play the game but you do not actually have anything to do in the game until resets happen.

bo-NA-na

It’s easy to look at time gating as something that doesn’t really exist in single-player games, and in large part that’s true. (There are, as always, exceptions.) But the thing about single-player games is also that there’s no player interplay to deal with. If I have all day to play a game for review purposes or otherwise, it doesn’t actually matter if Chris has only a couple hours to play. My acquisition of more stuff in my playthrough does not affect his environment in the slightest.

Unless I choose to spoil parts of the game, of course. But that’s a different discussion.

MMOs are all, to a certain extent, shared playgrounds. On the one hand, time gating is a way of ensuring that you have to keep coming back to the playground on a regular basis to see everything the playground has to offer. On the other hand, time gating is a way of making sure that the playground is actually shared with people who are at least roughly on par with one another, that you don’t fall badly into an uncomfortable space wherein you can’t catch up and don’t want to bother trying anyhow.

Much like grinding, it’s something that is best treated akin to salt. When you add a little bit, it adds some flavor and draws out some welcome tastes, but too much or too little can ruin the whole concoction. The trick is getting the right amount… while also being aware that no matter how fast designers want players to clear content, someone will always want to go faster and someone will always want to go slower.

So it’s complicated. But what I do know for sure is that it’s nice to log in every day and see that my loyal mammets have shipped more goods for a special currency I earn to fund glamour items. And hey, if you expect me not to write about what’s on my mind, you must be new here.

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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