Time for a change

We’ve been maintaining the high tempo established last week, with daily meetings, and rapid progression on a wide range of tasks.

The main screen design has remained the primary concern. It’s gone through around nine iterations now, with each stage adding refinement and clarity, both to the interface and the game design at large.

Assumptions continue to be challenged, this week most notably seeing a change in how we handle time in-game.

For well over a year, we’d been aiming for an “always ticking” model, with the game engine constantly proceeding at a minimum rate – initially, the proposal was that a second per day would be the baseline: a constantly-ticking clock, encouraging players to be swift in their actions.

A day a second, however, does not bear up under close analysis. The original game modelled two hundred years of the Earth’s future; at a day a second, that would take twenty hours to play through. Not exactly feasible for a group of synchronous online players.

OK then, the argument went, let’s go for a *week* a second. That means we resolve a year in just under a minute, and the whole game can resolve in three hours. If we allow consensual time acceleration amongst players also, the game time could be reduced even further, down to maybe two hours for a full game. This seemed the perfect solution.

The “week a second” paradigm persisted for several months, and only really came under question recently, when we put a lot of focus on our other main new feature: the conference screen.

Given that international conferences are how climate change is tackled in the real world (via the COP, and its littler siblings), this interface is a very important feature in the new game. The agreements players make there will be binding, and any pledges breached will be the cause of significant diplomatic consternation.

We all agreed that the game clock will need to stop while conferences were occurring. Assuming there could be up to five agenda points to resolve via voting and bidding, each one might take three minutes or more to resolve.

Suddenly, our sums didn’t stack up again. In the real world, the COP happens once a year. 200 COPs over the course of the game is another 600 minutes, or 10 hours. Not feasible.

Discussion resumed. Having a conference every five years would mean two hours of conference play for a full game. Likewise, much of the gameplay will focus on the early 21st century: the first conference is of vital importance, the later ones diminishingly so. If climate change isn’t effectively handled by the late 21st century, then it will be way beyond the remit of courteous diplomacy to resolve.

Twenty important conferences for the first century adds up to around an hour of game time. So far, so good. At our “week per second” rate, the time between conferences would put another 90 minutes on top of that total, meaning that it would take no longer than two and a half hours to play the first hundred years.

Everyone was happy with this, but one circle remained unsquared: the constantly-ticking clock. Our work on the main screen made it clear to us that players will be constantly monitoring information, comparing data, and making policy decisions on the basis of their investigations. Their early actions would be particularly significant: banning coal in 2020 makes a lot more difference than in 2050.

The observation was made: a fast clock punishes thoughtful play. If it takes several months just to implement a single policy (with game-weeks ticking by, while the player resolves the multiple decisions and confirmations necessary), then success depends primarily on the player’s speed of action, rather than the sharpness of their analysis.

The death knell of the ever-ticking clock was sounded. Returning to a completely turn-based paradigm, with the clock paused until all players are ready to proceed, was the only way we could see of addressing the problem.

Going back to a purely turn-based system (albeit one with an accelerable turn timer) has had a few knock-on effects on the other interfaces – for example, we’ve removed the “ticker tape news channel” element, which told players about events as they occurred. However, the impact has been pretty slight, and everything we’ve worked on this week is being briefed into the concept art pipeline – another place where changes have been occurring. But that’s a story for another time.

As always, thanks for reading, and we’ll be back next week with more tales to tell.

The Fate team