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Passage of time in RPGs

Quite some time have passed since the birth of RP video games, and we have seen innovation after innovation deepen the immersion and revitalize not just a game genre but also a culture. The introduction of 3D did a lot to the first-person branch of RPGs for example, and the obvious demonstration would be the Elder Scrolls series. The advancement of internet also did a lot to RPGs which by nature is based on gameplay including several players, if you consider their origins, and today we have a genre called MMORPG.


I have always thought of the element and mechanics of time's passage as one of these things that could really revolutionize, or at least explore a very neglected aspect of gaming in general and worldbuilding specifically. I mean, today we can explore a sprawling and ever-so-detailed world with grass swaying in the wind and NPCs going about their daily tasks and talking to each other. But it's still like you're walking around in a world frozen in a time stasis. Nothing happens until you show up. If you can play for months or even years in-game why wouldn't you be able to see the seasons go by?


I'm talking about using time as something more than just a decorative day and night cycle, or as simple quest requisites, as in "meet me here tonight". I'm talking about having the passage of time being an integral part of the game world and how things in it functions. It would be a difficult task to implement in a game like Skyrim for example, considering the massive, open, and minutely detailed 3D world it has, as regards to the pure amount of data it would require. But take something like what Project Eternity wants to create, and you can at least start to see ways of actually doing this.



So, let's take some basic aspects of RPG gameplay and expose them to the element of time and see what happens.


Items and keeping inventory

Items and the use of an inventory is elementary in RPGs, but since most of the things in an RPG inventory are probably made out of metal, paper, cloth and so on, there's really not much gong on in there. But let's say food and drink are important things for the wellbeing of a character, just like in pen-and-paper RPGs and many other games. So if food and drink are made important, you could actually have drinks going stale, bread molding, and meat rotting and becoming poisonous. Perhaps it would be wise to throw out old food if you don't want rot to spread to the other foodstuffs in your inventory. But then again, there's potions and healing...


Potions and healing are the natural enemy of food and drink. Why go through all the pain of enabling players to satiate their hunger and thirst, and doing so to recover and maintain health, when you're just a couple of pots or hand movements away from full health at any moment? If food and drink is to be implemented it will compete with potions and healing since they all share the same use, namely that of keeping you healthy. Now, if everyone knew how to heal, then even potions would be superfluous, but not everyone does, and usually the healing is limited to X uses per day or something like that. If you think about it, potions and healing are almost exclusively used during combat, because that's where you often need to regain vast amounts of health in a matter of seconds. We all know only magic and futuristic auto-injectors are capable of doing this, not apple pies and dried meat. So that's out of the question. But what we do know is that a man's gotta eat and drink at some point, and hopefully not just to squeeze the local going-ons out of some poor tavern patron.


What if potions actually were a rare and perhaps expensive commodity, I mean, where are all the factories supplying this ridiculous amount of potions at these prizes located anyway? If food and drink were to be made useful it would mean you somehow lost health or otherwise suffered outside of battle. I know there's a lot of people who would oppose themselves to that, believing the world outside of battle to be the safest place of all, and perhaps it aught to be in world where the urgency of time only is applied to battle, but as soon as you introduce time to the world as a whole I believe you should be able to feel it and act upon it, even outside of battle.

Maybe your max health decreases if you don't eat and drink, or you become more vulnerable to some things (like poison and disease), less resistant to magic, or less efficient with your skills. Perhaps then players would feel inclined towards only using their few and valuable potions and heals when they really need them, during battle that is, and making room for the gastronomical adventure while making camp or as a non-contrived way of meeting and agreeing to help strangers at taverns.


World and travel

I've always wondered why some games have elaborate calendars with fancy names and mythology and the only purpose it seams to serve is to organize your saved games. Why not tie all these names and mythology to things that happen in the world? Most places located in temperate regions celebrate harvesting season for example, usually there's festivities and markets. Maybe there's a tourney every year to celebrate the local king's birthday or your own heroic deeds (after completing a quest). Maybe most shops are closed a certain day of the week, or perhaps the a local elven trader leaves town a few days to celebrate the coming of spring with his kin.


There are many things going on in a town for example, many of which are daily tasks that aren't really worth plotting out in any great detail, but seeing the streets change from a sprawling social meeting place during day, to a dark, nail-biting gauntlet by night is something a lot of games have done before and with good results. Besides these area-specific events taking place you can have people moving about between towns and villages, like merchants or a traveling circus for example.


Having different modes of transportation is also something that will make the game more interesting when you add the element of time. Will you make it in time to wherever you need to be if you just travel by foot, or will you need to buy horses or hire a carriage?



How is it that no matter how mundane or urgent a task it is, an NPC will accept no help but yours? What I'm proposing here hasn't been done in any RPGs, at least to my knowledge. To actually turn quests into their own processes of events, and if you want them to take certain path you need to intervene, and if you don't, they' will "solve themselves".

Quests of the type "find the cure..." will likely only have one consequence if left undone, assuming you're the only one able to solve it. But let's say the quest is saving a merchant's daughter who have been kidnapped by bandits instead. If you never show up to take the quest, the quest will start solving itself after a while. Perhaps the merchant hires someone else to do the job, and maybe you run into this person by chance in the wilderness and he asks if you want to join in on the reward, allowing you to still pick the quest up. Perhaps you never meet the hired sword on his quest and maybe he fails, but you run into the bandits much later, and if you talk to them instead of fighting them you discover one of them was once a merchant's daughter who actually ran away from her overbearing father.


Other quests might evolve in more complex ways, not always random, and you are able to intercept the quest anywhere as it travels along its' timeline and hopefully completing it, with different outcomes depending on where. This means you can't pick up every quest in the game in only one playthrough, at least not from their start, since you can't be everywhere simultaneously. Perhaps you have to make though choices based on that fact. Your choices, and at what time you make them, will have a profound effect on the story and the gaming experience of each playthrough. The replayability that implementation of time offers is immense.


I'm not sure how far this project has gone and if this kind of input is "too late" so to speak, but it might still offer some food for thought.

Edited by AutoReiv
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I really like the ideas you propose. However being a game designer myself, i can see some obvious problems with them.


In regards to food/rest and potions. I agree that potions in these kind of games is quite unrealistic, the sheer volume of them is baffling. However they are a necessity in terms of game accessibility. Players need a way of healing quickly at all times, magic and potions is the solution. If forcing the player to make camp, resting and eating to stay alive it can become a chore, something that most contemporary players would reject. Even stopping to rest in order to level up or re-remember spells has been abolished from most RPG's, precisely because they are an annoyance. However, it would be cool to have the option available, some kind of survivor mode like Fallout: New Vegas. Also having rare potions would be nice, the problem with this 1-use items is that the player never really knows when to use them, and will more often than not just save them throughout the whole game.


In regards to time in the world. Yes it would be really cool with seasons, and various events spread out across a year. However practically doing this would require a tremendous amount of work. And again game accessibility becomes a problem. If there was a tournament once a year, the player is then forced to wait for a very long time to witness this, thus requiring a great amount of dedication, something most players today wont give a game. However the point about time is solid, and could still be utilized, a more sophisticated day/night cycle would be cool, and having different scenarios depending on the time of day. The Witcher does this to great effect. Also seasons would be really cool, winter/summer etc. but again this would require an enormous amount of work development wise, think of all the environments, snow covered buildings, leafless trees, shifting color of foliage etc. It would be really cool, but i doubt that it will be possible for this game.


The idea about questing is really cool, it is kinda like Guild Wars 2. But again it becomes a problem on the development side. It is necessary for the players to experience the content the developers make. If you were to skip a quest, it represents potentially hours and hours of development that you will never see. If having limited resources, a system like this is not beneficial. However, if having lots of time and resources this could be done. Remember that the developers would have to create twice or triple the regular content if most quests would just solve themselves. It does remind me a bit about Dead Rising, where time is a big factor, and quests do "run out" if you do not solve them in time. Thus i feel that time should be part of quests, if an NPC says hurry, the player should feel the need to hurry. Also to do this, there needs to be some type of AI that even surpasses the radiant AI of Skyrim, the world should really be completely alive, in order for it to solve its own problems. Again very difficult from a developer stand point.


Very very cool ideas however. In 10 years maybe, we can experience worlds like this. Completely alive and immersive! I can't wait. :-

Edited by MrGeekyGamer
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Firstly, thanks for providing an "insider's" view on the ideas!


Regarding the food and drink part. I might have stressed the inherent antagonism too much and the creative solution too little. I am aware that the use of potions and healing is to replenish health at huge amounts and at a very quick rate (often instantaneous), but I'm suggesting that this is only the case since it's just during battles that you lose health at those rates. However, if you were affected positively and negatively depending on if you were well fed and happy or starving and grouchy, food and drink would actually serve a purpose and not have to compete with the use of potions and healing during battle, perhaps even amplify them.


Changing seasons does indeed require changing the look of the environment, and the reason I thought it possible for this project is because it will use a 2D or 2D-like isometric world instead of a 3D world with high-res textures. The only issue would be how often the "background" would be updated, i.e. how gradual the change would be. Personally I would be happy with going to bed during a winter night and waking up during a spring morning.

There are also some games that have a weather mechanic, usually just precipitation (rain/snow) and the occasional lightning strike. The frequency of these things could also help fleshing out the seasons in more detail (of course depending on what kind of region you're in).


About the quests and that you'd have to make a lot more game material than you can consume in one playthrough to make it possible: First I'd like to see it as a nice way of rewarding those who stick to the game, like many of us have done for decades with some titles. There will, however, need to be more game material (quest-wise) to allow for this, but it's not a problem of whether or not it is technically possible or not, it is simply a matter of putting enough payed hours into it. But at the same time I guess people that work with game development use formulas like: The amount of game material should always provide the equal or just slightly greater amount of gameplay-hours than the average player from the target group invests. Of course it's an effective way of not "wasting" money and hours, but I'd like to at least open the discussion on what could be done, and what could be won, by doing so.


It is, however, difficult things I'm proposing. But give them to a team of guys like these, with the proper funding and support... Baby you've got a stew going!

Edited by AutoReiv
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Avellone wrote about the time passage while back in his blog but...ultimately, my opinion is similar to MrGeekyGamer - simply put, it's not cost-efficient. Such complex system is too consuming compared with the resulted game-play. Rather, I found that Alpha Protocol style of differentiating outcomes by letting the players to choose the order of the quests was much more reasonable as the expression of "time passages."


As for time factor as a challenge, hardcore mode of Fallout: New Vegas had the resource management game-play, which, indeed, made crafting skills valuable. Some ideas may be translated into the exploration factor of Eternity especially if there is a ranger-equivalent class.


About the daily events of the imaginary world, you may find it interesting if you take a look at King of Dragon Pass. Also, Sawyer is a fan of Darklands, which seems to have various interesting factors related with what you wrote, although I haven't put my hands on it yet.

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I find the idea of "Passage of time" fairly simple for the cRPG


1) Day/Night cycle - fairly easy to implement and different sorts of quests can appear/be executed only on particular time of a day... it was done as early as BG/Fallout if not before...


2) Time on quests - failure if time passes -> this would apply only to active quests and before such a quest would be triggered, there should be an option in dialog to cancel the start of the quest. - not meeting the goal or simply failing to get the quest done - has in game consequences (from minor, like some gossip, to world/main quest changing). Portions of the main plot can be timed as well, but I am not sure if the whole plot needs to be time dependent. I think that Fallout 1 had it ok - first part was time driven, but you could also extend that time.. the time was also plentiful for that part of the plot. The other wasn't that strictly time dependent.


3) Fatigue - if you travel too long without any rest, it would be strongly advised to have some rest. Also, rest as in NWN style, which is a few moments and doable at any place and time, which resets all your spells and abilities for a day is to be avoided.. if there are resource or one per rest abilities, I'd like to have a timer on resting too (cannot rest for 2-4 IG hours after his last rest. There could be some consumables that could extend the non-rest period, but only for a limited amount of time. This system would work well with point 2)


All of the above were already available as early as BG if not before... so I would welcome such things in this game.


Passing seasons are pointless unless you plan to have a game stretching for years, so you could have chance to experience seasons more than once... I assume that with a rich world you will see different landscapes as it is... no need for seasons, which are not only hard, but also pointless from the SP experience perspective...

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