Time progression in RPGs have always been a dicey matter. In a game where you get the freedom to explore the world map at your own pace, the passage of time has to be handled in a proper way in order to preserve a sense of realism (and to a certain extent, immersion). It’s foolish to have the player wander around the world for half a century of game time when the game’s premise is about a big bad evil wrecking havoc and destruction upon the peaceful kingdoms (aka the premise of 99.9% CRPGs).
Take Oblivion for an example. Demon gates have opened around the world and you, as the protagonist, have to close them all before the world is overrun by demonic minions.
The problem is you, the heroic protagonist, can skip around and collect flowers for practically your entire game life without even touching one demon gate and the world would still be the same, patiently awaiting for your salvation. In my playthrough that salvation never came – I never did closed any of the gates, but THAT’S OKAY! Because the world will wait for you.
If only real life was like that!
No, Oblivion sucked at handling time. It was immersion breaking, and even screws with its own premise. At least Morrowind’s made more sense. Now let’s take a look at the other side of the spectrum: Fallout. Fallout had a time limit to find the waterchip, but latter patches extended the time to a point where it became insignificant. The reason was that the world was so fun to explore that the developers didn’t wanted to impose a time limit that would certainly restrict exploration.
Come to think of it, no game ever imposes a time limit on the player just so that the player can play the game at his own pace. And in this blog post, I am going to explain why this would not be suitable for Splintered Core.
Why a Time Limit?
While we are building Splintered Core as a one-off game, if it ever sells well we would be able to continue with the second game and eventually (with our fingers crossed) a complete trilogy, which was the original plan. We started out designing the game from a trilogy’s standpoint, with a plot that spans three titles, but structured it in a way that there are NO cliffhanger endings in any titles. Each title has its own story to tell, it’s own theme to explore, and that’s how we’re approaching the plot design.
However, this does impose a design limitation for us. Firstly, we wanted the capability to transfer a completed save game from a previous title to the next title. The reason was because we wanted to attempt to transfer all the player’s decisions and consequences in the first game into the second, and then into the third, creating a highly customized playthrough of the trilogy. The problem here is that what if the player spent 30 years wandering aimlessly in the first game? Would he start off an old man in the second game? Can he then spend another 30 years wandering the fields?
Say for example, the player DID spent 30 years of game time in the first game. This would mean that his greatest investment into the first game will botch his experience in the second game, if we ever implement an aging feature. If we *dont’t* implement an aging feature, you’d have characters at the age of 200 in the third game, which requires suspension of disbelief of epic proportions to maintain immersion.
Catch-22 situation eh?
How is it implemented?
So we decided to impose a game limit. First we calculate the total time to walk from north to south, the longest journey in the game. The distance is about 350 miles, and on average the player can only travel at a speed of 3 miles per hour for a maximum of 15 hours a day. This means that it will take approximately 7 to 8 days to travel that distance.
Therefore, over a span of 5 years, if the player kept the character on the move, he would have been able to traverse the north-south route 234 times. The speed of travel increases significantly if the player ever manages to buy a vehicle, or tag along on mechanized merchant caravans. So we can safely say that 5 years of in-game time would be a good indication of how much time a character would spend in a normal playthrough.
Now we increase that by 2 fold, to a maximum of 10 years, and set that as our time limit. But instead of making it a hard time limit (e.g. game ends when time is up), we instead choose to implement a countdown timer called the resolve meter, which is directly tied to the game’s plot.
Recall that the game’s premise is finding the legendary city of Gauntlet, in hopes of settling down there, away from all the chaos and lawlessness in Oasis. Spending 10 years on this task wouldn’t seem to be out of place. But like all far-fetched quests, taking into account that the protagonist is not even sure that Gauntlet exists at all, it won’t be hard to imagine one’s will of finding that place slipping over time.
So here’s how it would work: your resolve meter counts down slowly, initially giving you a maximum of 5 game years before it runs out and you’re forced to choose to settle down in one of the towns, with the ending explaining your fate in that town according to your reputation there (choices you make in the game will affect the ending in that town). However, if in your travels you piece together information about Gauntlet, like finding Lorekeep at the end of the first arch and securing a way to Severim in the second arch, will recharge your resolve meter, thus effectively giving you extra game time.
The afore mentioned events will completely recharge your resolve meter, while smaller events like finding an person who left the Combine army or finding Gauntlet’s satellite images would recharge the resolve meter at a smaller scale. Therefore, it is not impossible to stretch the first game’s time limit to a total of 15 years.
So this means we’re going to try something that not many CRPG designers have even dared entertain, for all sorts of reasons. The time limit would stay, and to spice it up we decided to allow the game world to change over time, tied to the player’s actions. The key here is to balance freedom of exploration with a time passage system, and this is something we intend to experiment in our first game.