And it was evening, and it was morning

I logged into EQ2 the other day and headed out into the unknown wilds of Butcherblock Mountains. The zone is unknown to me for three main reasons:

  1. I’ve only just poked my (small but perfectly formed) fey nose into it, so it’s all new to me, kobolds and all. I am still getting my head around the notion that EQ2 kobolds look a bit like gorillas.
  2. I still have a fog of war setting on my map so most of it really is still hidden to me.
  3. It was night time in game and I couldn’t see very far past aforementioned nose anyway. This is why I didn’t take any screenshots of the kobolds, I was struggling to find an actual screenie to link but the best I could do was one of Tipa’s epic cartoon strips. The kobolds in game don’t look as dogman-like as the room decoration she’s using here — at least not on my settings!

Lots of MMOs have included some kind of a day-night cycle. “Well of course it’s night time”, you tell yourself as you trip over a treeroot, whilst all the regular daytime beasties continue to frolic in their enforced darkness, “That’s because having day and night settings is so fantastically immersiv–OWWW!” (that was you falling off a cliff, by the way.) I do really enjoy the day-night cycles, especially when you throw in the sorts of heartbreakingly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that MMO artists love so much. If I ever pause in awe at the sheer beauty of the virtual world around me and take a random screenie, there’s a good chance that it is during in-game dusk or dawn.

Days and nights in game can genuinely be hugely immersive. It does give a sense of time passing, and of being able to see different aspects to zones that you know. In a PvP game, the difference between night and day is even more marked. I remember night time raids in DaoC where the whisper went down the line for everyone to turn off their torches and march in darkness, so as to catch the enemy by surprise. Night time raids felt stealthier and more exciting than the day time battles where you could see your enemies cresting the hill on the other side of the zone … (OK, who am I kidding? In DaoC we knew where the zergs were coming from by turning around and seeing which direction felt more laggy but you get the general idea.)

It’s because day and night don’t usually have a huge effect on gameplay (apart from walking into things) that I remember so vividly when that rule is broken. The inhabitants of Pyrewood that transform into humans during the day and into worgen during the night, for example. The schools of nightfin or sunscale salmon that only spawn at the right time of day. The quest mobs who only appear at night (I don’t recall many of these in WoW but I think DaoC had some), and so on. Pokemon actually goes the whole hog with this, synchs its cycles to the player, and includes some encounters that only happen at day or at night, and others that only happen on specific days of the week too. But while this is just about acceptable in a single player handheld game, there are issues with it in a MMO.

A casual player may not be able to either hang around until in-game nightfall, or may not want to arrange her playtime around the extra hassle of working out the in game cycles.

So how long is an Azerothian day?

So let’s assume that you decide you want your game world to have nights and days. How long should a day be?

If you set a 24 hour cycle then players who always play at the same times of day will never see the full cycle. Some of them will be stuck in virtual eternal darkness forever. If you want some content to be specific to the time of day in game (and frankly if you are going to all the effort of generating extra art, it’s tempting to do so) then there’s also a limit on how long a player will want to wait around for the sun to rise or set, so the cycle needs to move fast enough for a player to experience it all during a typical session. Alternatively you need to find ways to give players lots of other reasons to hang around in the right area, so that it’s likely that they’ll be there for several sessions and will get a chance to see both day and night.

So there’s definitely more to this than meets the eye. Also probably you want the day to be longer than the night, because falling over treeroots gets old quick. So assume that most players would like to be able to see where they are going for most of the time. There are some exceptions — some games or genres favour night over daytime. In a vampire game, most of the action takes place at night. Any grim, moody, or gothic setting might have long evenings and gloomy moonlit nights, and very short days. As far as WoW goes, I’m not certain but I think their cycles are zone specific. So some zones will be in night whilst others are in day. The darker themed zones like Duskwood might never get proper sunlight.They do the same thing with seasons — different zones are themed for different seasons, rather than changing through the year.

I always feel that it’s a lot of effort to put in the day night cycles for so little gameplay return. I love them and I know I’d miss them if they weren’t there, but Im always impressed that people bother.

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13 thoughts on “And it was evening, and it was morning

  1. This topic has been on my mind a lot lately. In LotRO one game-day is roughly 3 real-hours, about 90 minutes day followed by 90 minutes night. So, moving to WoW, the game time = real time thing evoked an “oh!” and got me thinking.

    Both approaches have their perks and shortcomings, but first let me say that I totally agree with you, that day cycles are indespensable for beauty, immersion and those factors that set apart a game-WORLD from an animated arena. It’s one of the things that were atmospherically damaging in Mines of Moria – you spent your entire game time in some timeless void (always wondering why nearly everything is so well lit in this supposedly ABANDONED MINE). Then in the end you zone out and suddenly remember that the game engine is capable of displaying day times and drawing the colour green. Oh well. I’m ranting. Back to topic.

    The artificially shortened cycle has the advantage, that you can work with it, can actually make it matter. Which is why LotRO is, in fact, significantly darker during night time – without damaging your gameplay! You really, really wanted to avoid going to the Old Forest at night – at least in the old days, before they added a separate Old Forest map and changed the elite-trees to passive, down from aggressive. As you can guess, in those days the Old Forest had to be walked barefoot (hobbits, lolol!) and constantly uphill, while regular snowstorms would have to be expected, but, fact is, many of the “old” characters probably got more deaths in that regular level 15 questing area than in some endgame dungeons. Old Forest at night was suicide. But, and this is the big but, it wasn’t game breaking. You’d just wait for dawn before going in, and usually wouldn’t have to wait more than half an hour or so. That time isn’t hard to fill with something else. Having to wait until real-tomorrow to go somewhere or for an NPC to appear would be, of course, quite different.
    The downside is, that game time just passes too quickly. Somehow my character just went (virtual) 36 hours without stopping – am I freakin’ Aragorn, or what? “Ah, the sun is rising, time to go sleep” became a running joke with us. We’d have adventured through something like two game-days straight and out real-bedtime would curiously often coincide with game-sunrise. At some point, you have no choice but to ICly ignore game-time entirely, which is not necessarily a good thing for a game element which is there for the sake of immersion in the first place.

    There’s not much to say about the real-time correspondent cycle. The advantage is, that time passes at the rate you intuitively feel time should be passing. And this is not a small advantage. Meeting a friend and stopping to talk won’t result in an entire day passing. Whenever things feel intuitive, it’s a good thing to begin with.
    The disadvantage is, as you said, that fixed play times result in fixed parts of the cycle experienced. I don’t think I’ll ever see a sunrise in WoW. Anyone with a day job/responsibility will usually log in when the sun is about to set and play through the evening time and early night. WoW recognizes it, and its solution is, basically, not to make the night matter. Night isn’t dark, it’s just a different shade of pretty.

  2. I love the added bits which don’t change gameplay much, but which make the world a little more real: the fighting wolves and elk in Grizzly Hills, the wights dragging pallets of saronite in Icecrown, that sort of thing. It means someone put in an extra bit of effort to make a more complete world.

  3. I think that WoW’s 24 hour day cycle is a bit of a mistake for precisely the reason you describe – if you always play at the same time, you always see the same thing.

    Also, I was getting ready to blast LOTRO the other day for low levels of ambient light when I found a slider in the options that lets you increase the light level. EQ2 may or may not have a similarily convenient slider, but I just end up using the “night vision” button on ProfitUI instead. I respect the value of ambiance, but not at the expense of eyestrain.

  4. EQ2 has both an ambient light and a gamma setting. I have both tweaked upwards just a bit and am able to see very well in dungeons and at night. I will occasionally use the Profit UI’s night vision button, but usually don’t feel the need.

    I haven’t played much lately. Rumor is they’ve added a torch slot? Or is that still forthcoming?

    *Heads off to log in to check*

  5. Personally I’m a supporter of day / night cycles. My experiences go back to EQ where you had to have something like a torch or a lightstone just to see if you weren’t a race with infravision. I loved it. I loved Kithicor Woods: a place that would be cozy to level 15-20s or so during the day, but at night the equivalent to level 50-60 elites came out, some necessary for the rogue epic quest.

    I’m very much a fan of time of day being important in the game, just as it is for Pokemon, as you stated. I don’t think ALL things in game design should be designed for ALL people. If some people can’t be bothered or simply can’t play at night … oh well? One of these days, on a weekend, if they really want to experience it, they’ll log in at night, or wait around til night comes. Just don’t do that with anything that would prohibit natural progression in the game. Extra stuff is ok.

    When EQ was first released and the infrared vision was there and sonic vision actually worked and infravision worked as well, the world was amazing, even at night. Sure not every race had a method to see in the dark, but by the time you got to the commonlands you had a perfectly easy way to get a lightstone: kill wisps. In EQ you couldn’t kill them unless you had a magical weapon!

    Anywho, I love games that go that extra mile. And I agree, Spinks: some of my best screenies come at sunrise / sunset with max settings and bloom turned on. EQ2 is VERY pretty.

  6. I was thinking about day/night cycles in LOTRO and Aion recently.

    Aion: Two hours real time is 24 hours Aion time. 1 real minute = 12 Aion minutes. So basically, you have 60 minutes day and 60 minutes night. But the nights are very bright, it never became really dark in most areas.
    Aion changes within seconds from day to night with a very fast animation.

    LOTRO: The night is definitely night, very dark. This is annoying at times, but also changes the mood of an area much more than the bright nights of Aion.
    The night is often very long, I guess longer than one hour or was it just my perception, I wished it would become day very often.
    LOTRO seems to have a 1-2 steps between day and night where the light increases or decreases, but also quick transitions between the phases.

    -> How long does a day/night take in LOTRO?

    WoW: has already been mentioned by “Rem” and you.

    I am a supporter of day/night cycles. Though you are right, darkness can be annoying!
    I am just not sure which of the mentioned day/night models I prefer.

    I am also a supporter of seasons and weather in mmos! :)

  7. When I played WOW, I deliberately picked a server a couple time zones away from me so that it’d get dark during my RL late evening. If I stayed up late on weekends I could get true deep night game play. And what was odd was the server community ebbed and flowed ‘correctly’. At 3 am (my time) the server was pretty quiet and deserted. But that’s back before 27 billion people played WoW. Doubt servers are ever quiet these days.

    Longasc touched on weather. I’d like to see seasons, at least in some zones. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch the leaves change, watch winter set in…

    The problem would be in-game holidays, of course. Hard to do a “Yule” holiday in a game with seasons when it’s summer in-game and Dec. 25th out. Well, I guess that’d feel fine to folks in Australia. :)

    And I’d like to see the fauna change with seasons, too. But then quests and everything else would have to change. A Kill 10 Bears quest might be a real PITA in mid-winter when the bears are all hidden away, hibernating.

  8. Changes in mob behavior and the like between day and night are fine.

    What really isn’t fine at this point in MMOG history is when developers try to use darkness to withhold information from the player that really is actually available to the client (like terrain always is), just artificially withheld. Such a mechanic basically screams: mod (legal or otherwise).

  9. I find it interesting that having days longer than 24 hours isn’t even brought up. A 36 hour day with 16 hours of darkness and 20 hours of light fairly guarantees that everyone will see both day and night. On top of that, it won’t kill your immersion by taking a full “day” just to log in and say hi to everyone.

  10. Well, if the planet is not earth, it is a fantasy world, after all… why not have two suns, and periods of extreme heat and sunlight? Your idea of the 36 hour day is quite nice, as it really will shift time for those who log in at the same time every day, but… it still stinks somehow!

    I think it is just that we are used to earth days and time, Sarah.

  11. I remember trying to level a barbarian warrior in the original Everquest. Barbarians, being humans on steroids, didn’t have infravision. Stumbling around Halas in the dark with no torch at level 1 was bad enough, but the worst was dying in, say, Qeynos Hills and having to make the corpse run through Blackburrow. With no light. Naked. With a squillion gnolls between you and the exit. While spamming the “Sense Heading” button because McQuaid and Smedley decided that knowing which way is north should be a trainable skill that doesn’t work worth a damn until you’re about level 50.

    Every time I start to grip that nights in WoW aren’t dark enough, I remember that, and find myself grateful for all that wonderful ambient moonlight. :)

    Kithicor Woods, however…oh man. I remember when the changes went in to translate the place into a 50+ zone at night. Doing raids on some of the high-level mobs in the pitch blackness was fun, on the other hand, it was less fun being a level 15 trying to cross from the halfling town into the Western Commonlands and running the wall at dusk, praying the dead wouldn’t spawn before I got there…

  12. I loved EQ2 before I found the gamma/light sliders – map fog even thru Qeynos, then out in the world – very immersive feel. The gates locked from dusk to dawn in Thundering Steppes or you’d have to take the long way around or try to jump the walls.

    I wish more games made more difference to the night/day quest lines and feel of the zones. I still regret my PC back in the days of EQ would have worked better. I didn’t last long unfortunately. /regrets

    But, for those that aren’t grinding as fast as possible to endgame content, I love the feel of zones and enjoy that ‘danger’ that a new zone or night can bring. Crafting that involves only night blooming plants or animals that can only be captured in the day – a big yes here!

    I was reading something yesterday about a guy that uses Questhelper in WoW, so never reads the quests nor listens to the NPC dialog. I thought how sad, its such a fun rich world. As every MMO is in its own way.

    It’s true about the sunsets & sunrises – they’re so beautiful. More screenies of those from every game than not!

    Great article!

  13. FFXI has a convoluted 25/1 ratio with elements and moon phases and the like.

    It touches everything in the game from which elementals spawn to weather patterns to nighttime where some zones were completely different (fear the skeletons!) and which fish you caught depending on the time of day or the phase of the moon.

    There are even timers online so you can attempt to time your crafting for maximum effect though still to this day it’s “unconfirmed” whether it makes a difference or not.

    I don’t like WoW’s way of doing it tying it into the server time clock but vastly sped up is no good either.

    what I’d like to see is a 25 hour in game clock so that every day you log in it’s 1 hour earlier, whether that has any “real” in game consequences or not.

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