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The Return of Asynchronous Gameplay

June 28, 2013

Dear Reader,

I’ve been playing a lot of X-Com over the past few days, and it’s been great (up until the mission I happen to be on right now, which has gone disastrously; I lost my first soldier in probably 20 missions).  It’s gotten me thinking about the apparent return of turn-based games, and those games’ relationship with the “always online” phenomenon.

There’s a lot of swirling factors here, so let me see if I can just compile them here in a list to start, and we can discuss their relevance as we continue. I’ve noticed a few rising trends that I believe are related:

More turn-based strategy games (re)appearing
More complaints about the social requirements of MMOs
The increase of asynchronous games (like Words with Friends), where people don’t have to be playing at the same time
Data showing that people under a certain age (I forget the exact number, but it was around 20) text more than they speak on the phone
Backlash to always-online requirements

I think all of these factors are a response to synchronicity fatigue.  We’ve become so connected everywhere at all times that we’re starting to shy away from it.  We prefer being able to respond to texts when we want rather than being tied to the phone or to take our turns when we feel like it rather than being in a real-time setting.  In other words, we’re acknowledging that, at times, we want to set our own schedules or, even, just be left alone.

If you look at some of your older multiplayer online games, you’ll notice a feature usually abbreviated as PBeM.  Those of you too young to remember a time before ubiquitous high-speed Internet may not know what that means: Play by e-Mail.  Old Civ games used to have that option, as did some turn-based tactical games.

At first glance it may seem ludicrous to try to play a 500 turn Civ game one dragging turn at a time, but that was completely standard for a long time.  Chess games were played that way, online “pen and paper” RPGs were played by email or by forum post.  There were many complaints then about how long it took, and about how if one person was slower than others, it dragged everyone else down, and those were legitimate concerns, but what we found in the opposite wasn’t much better.

Ferrel writes in his excellent book The Raider’s Companion of some of his early raiding experiences in EQ, where raid bosses were all world spawns and server dominance went to the guild who was ready at the drop of a hat – at any time of night or day – to hop on and kill it when it spawned.  He writes about having people call at 3 or 4 a.m. when he had work next day as part of a phone tree to get everyone up and logged in to kill the bosses.

I sincerely applaud him and all his guildies for such dedication, but to me, that’s madness.  That to me epitomizes what engendered the asocial MMO behaviors like enforced parallel play or solo dungeons.  Sometimes the social stresses of having to be in a certain place at a certain time are just too great for a leisure activity, and you end up with situations like what PA described in their The Guildfather comic.  In the post that accompanied the comic, the oft-quoted description of MMOs as “a vortex of social obligations” first came to my notice.  I’ve used it a lot since, and I think the above trends are all backlashes to that idea of the “always available online” world.

For a long time I’ve believed that technological advancements solve problems, but present an equal number of new problems in the process.  It’s not always readily apparent what the trade-offs are, and as a result the law of unintended consequences often takes a heavy toll.  For each long process of putting together a group to run a dungeon that LFD alleviated, you got instead dungeon jerks who treated people like toilet paper: useful for absorbing shit but ultimately disposable.  For all the wonder of being able to play in a 40 man raids, there’s the trade-off of having to participate every week like clockwork in 40 man raids.

I think that the grand design of synchronous gameplay, which alleviated the abject boredom of waiting for your buddy to email you his Civ move, might have come at a higher cost than we’ve realized.  The pushback against it now may very well lead to the kind of innovation that the quest for synchronous gameplay did, which generated the earliest MMOs.  There’s no doubt that it’s been great being able to play together, but maybe now the pendulum needs to swing back to some individuality, too, instead of the groupthink that’s come with the rise of MMOs.

Take a moment to prod around in the cloudy non-space of what could be and imagine a 40 man turn-based raid.  A group of people who’re working and, when they can, inputting who to heal, whether to move, or what attack to use on the boss.  A grand-scale MMO for people who don’t have the time to sit down and raid.  A twitter WoW.  Sure, there’s a million things wrong with that, but who knows; someone out there might have the innovation and creativity to replace those million problems with great ideas and make a million bucks.  Only time will tell.

At any rate, whatever the future brings, I’m sure it will, eventually, be something new, and I look forward to it!


Stubborn (and in sync… though I sort of feel like the band ruined that descriptor for me)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2013 10:56 am

    Kind of sounds like a large scale Pokemon battle in a sense – and I mean that in a good way. Pokemon managed to have depth without quicktime events or APM metrics. The only timer you were facing was the batteries in your Gameboy (which wouldn’t even warn you when it was about to shut off!).

    One concern about that type of game, though, is the question of what separates 20 people taking part in the turn based boss fight and one person controlling 20 characters. A person can’t control 20 characters in real time but they could in something turn based like that. So the real time part actually forces the multiplayer aspect.

  2. Beshara permalink
    June 28, 2013 2:00 pm

    I would love to see more development on a game like that. I am drifting toward games like that lately, Great Big War Game being the one I’ve been playing in the mornings. That or an RPG that rewards experience and loot for exploring, without constantly having to fight. Tried some JRPGs on the AppStore, but they didn’t fill that desire to play a good game.

  3. June 29, 2013 3:04 am

    PBeM? You kids with your new-fangled innovations! I used to play PBM games where the turns were sent back and forth on paper in envelopes by post! 🙂

    • June 29, 2013 12:24 pm

      4 words:
      WoW Raids By Mail.
      That is all.

  4. Felcat permalink
    June 30, 2013 1:28 am

    So, not exactly a MMO based post, but I feel relevant to the subject of the post.

    I am a big fan of Company of Heroes, and play it 99.95 of the time vs. only computer controlled enemies, This lets me freely pause the game, issue orders then resume. Actions per minute become irrelevant and I feel free to play much more strategically.

    X-com was a load of fun for me because of it’s turned based, strategic play. I could take my time, think things out, if I wasn’t on Iron Man I could try lots of variations on saves. Being able to just relax and take my time can be very enjoyable.

    In MMO combat I’ve been wanting a game with slower game play. The WOW style smack a key every 1-1.5 seconds feels fatiguing to me as of late.

  5. Nina permalink
    July 5, 2013 7:09 am

    I think more turn-based stuff is inevitable as the gaming population ages.

    I’m 15 years older than the next-youngest person in my raid, and I know for a fact that the rest of the team learns faster than I do and reacts faster than I do. I make up for it in working harder, but I’m not going to be able to do that forever. And raid design seems to be increasingly dependant on fast reactions, or maybe that’s the curmudgeon in me shaking her fist at the clouds.

    I find myself going back to Civilization and XCom with something very much like relief. I even got Master of Magic to work on my PC, but it’s kicking my butt since I seem to have forgotten all I used to know about playing it.

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