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.