How to use Time Cycles in Multiplayer Games

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The passage of time is something all living things know all too well. Day gives way to night, winter changes to spring and then to summer, and another year goes by. The concept of time pretty much rules our life. However, we don’t often see or feel time passing in the MMO games we play. Why is that? I believe MMOs can only benefit from a consistent day-and-night cycle, or even a yearly one, if they do it correctly.

Give it the Time of Day

Just like in the real world, the time of day should have at least some impact on the game’s world. Wouldn’t it be nice to see the reds and oranges of the sunrise and sunset, the bright yellows of the afternoon sun, or the deep blues of night? Of course, the difference needs to be more than a cosmetic one; the gameplay itself should change.

For example, some monsters only come out of their lairs at the early hours of the morning, making them more vulnerable. Or maybe some units gain a bonus while attacking under the cover of darkness. A day-night cycle will not only diversify the gameplay, but will immediately add another layer of strategy and planning to everything that you do in the game.

A Change of Seasons

Nothing makes a world seem more alive than watching it change before your eyes. Trees change their colors, snow melts away to reveal green grass and monsters migrate and change locations on the map, like a lot of animals do. Seasons also provide an opportunity to introduce players to the game’s lore and culture, as we can now have in-game seasonal holidays, apart from the mandatory Halloween and New Year events.

In most games, weather is usually determined by location: snow is confined to the mountains, while in the valleys it’s always nice and warm. Introducing seasons to the game will mean locations themselves change based on the time of year.

Armies and convoys move much slower through snow, so a rough winter can actually force players to adapt new ways to gain more resources. Resources themselves can be affected by the changing seasons - crops don’t grow so well when it’s cold, but workers and miners can work faster now that’s not so hot, for example.

About Time

When it comes to introducing the concept of time to MMOs, there is one important question you need to ask yourself - how closely should it reflect time in the real world? Should the time of day be determined by the server’s internal clock? Should the game follow the seasons in real-time?

A lot of players only play during very specific hours of the day, so they will never get to experience the game’s world at dawn. If you want all players to be able to enjoy every possible aspect of the time cycles, you’ll naturally need to speed things up. 4 hours of daylight and 2 hours of night can be pretty idle for an MMORPG, but you’d want to stretch these out to 6 and 3 respectively when dealing with the more methodical MMORTS.

The same is true for seasons. You don’t want players to have to wait months for their farms to go back to full production. A week of winter is more than enough to spice things up every month.

Time in MMOs is a delicate concept that can vastly improve any game if used correctly. Time can help create a fleshed-out, living world players will want to immerse themselves in. It is also a powerful narrative tool that lets players experience the game’s lore and culture for themselves, instead of having to read through long introductory texts.

The passage of time is a fact of life, and MMOs that utilize it can unlock their full potential and have players keep coming back day after day, year after year.