Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

16 March, 2008

Weekend Design Challenge: Time zones
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:36 PM

After a bit of travel, time zones become an interesting topic for me. This weekend’s challenge: how do you deal with the fact that people from different time zones can all play the same game?

Some thoughts after the jump.

I had the opportunity to have dinner with Richard Bartle a few times while I was in England. One interesting bit was that Richard played on the U.S. servers on WoW even though he lives in a completely different time zone, for various reasons. This lead to a problem where he was on the game at the “wrong times” to do a lot of content that required a lot of people, expecially Karazhan. This meant that once he got to maximum level with a lot of his characters, he stopped playing.

So, how can you work around these issues? How can you make sure that people playing from a strange time zone, even people who play on the “wrong” geographical servers, don’t get left out because of a relative lack of critical mass at the times they play?

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  1. The best, most simple, and yet most technically daunting solution is to only have one world so that the only way you could ever be at the “wrong time” would be if the time you played just didn’t coincide with enough other players of the game. At that point, you’d have to examine specific cases of “why” for the “wrong time” players to determine what exactly the issue is.

    Comment by Jason — 16 March, 2008 @ 8:31 PM

  2. I think Guild Wars has a very great feature for this..

    Go to the left hand corner, select which district you want to play in, and voila there ya go.

    You can choose a European district, Asian, American, etc. or one of the International ones. So you can always play with your friends, whether they’re from america, europe, or both!

    I think severing the continents from playing with each other is a really bad thing to do. I enjoy playing with the US Crowd but that would mean I’d have to go through much trouble to get myself a copy of most games from the US, and I then no longer have the possibility to play with my friends or family here. Besides I thought we all agreed this globalisation of the internet was a GOOD thing. Why put artificial restrains on it then?

    Comment by Roeland 'SandRock' Schoppers — 16 March, 2008 @ 11:51 PM

  3. Leaving aside the “one world” solution…

    I would suggest not having worlds dedicated to specific geographical time-zones. Peak-times rotate around the globe, so having players from multiple time-zones in the same world would actually be a more efficient use of server power, since the world would be running at full capacity two or three times in a 24 hour stretch, rather than just once. Since these players all come on at different times, as well, the world could have a higher population limit. This would mean that people playing off-peak hours would be able to find groups without too much hassle.

    Technically there are a few issues. Maintenance would be a bigger issue, as it would always affects somebody’s peak-time. GMs would have to rotate with the time-zones as well, making for communication and coordination issues.

    Comment by Lobosolitario — 17 March, 2008 @ 2:02 AM

  4. Because there will always be “wrong” times to play, (no matter how many peak activity times your game has in one day,) What about having creatures who go to sleep when the number of players in their vicinity are low? The higher level quests could still be available to smaller teams, and scale if teams suddenly grew. (Eliminating the “log off, while I trigger this spawn, then log on and help me annihilate,” strategy.)

    Comment by Red — 17 March, 2008 @ 6:38 AM

  5. I’ll add a “me too” to the Guild Wars option Roeland mentioned above. I feel that this works better than the one world option as I’ve actually found Eve Online quite frustrating as its daily downtime coincides to around about 9pm for me in Australia which is prime play time. When Eve would shut down while I was in the middle of play, I’d jump to another game and often get caught up there never bothering to return. Lobosolitario hits on important points here, maintenance and GM’s (and also by association timed events). I’ve found it very difficult to be involved in any one off events on the more typical game servers as the times they occur are outside my regular playing time.

    In a number of cases I’ve checked out forums and other online resources to find servers that are designated as ‘Aussie’ servers by mutual agreement and joined them to ensure that I have people in the same timezone to play. However, this really has little impact on anything but finding others to play with.

    The upside is that playing ‘off peak’ means I rarely have to suffer through a large amount of server lag.

    In order to combat this I’d suggest careful design of the network and update architecture. Having the ability to perform rolling updates that don’t necessitate the player log out for hours on end, dynamic load balancing that shift the player base around the servers as needed, in a manner that is effectivly invisible. Background download of updates that install at the next time of startup (which would require the game allow clients at different patch levels be able to play… this could be nigh impossible).

    All of these things though come with a hefty cost in terms of complexity (as well as resources, time etc) so it would need to be traded off against the perceived benefits. In most cases my timezome seems to come off worse due to low player levels at the time of play, traffic analysis shows that when I tend to play is often the low peak times, so its considered the best for updates and restarts. From a purely commercial point of view the impact is considered minimal as revenue from my timezone can never compete with high peak times so its acceptable to disadvantage us low peak users. But in effect this means that for a monthly subscription based game I am paying for less available play time than peak timezones, so perhaps these timezones could see reduced subscription costs based on their zones ‘peak time’ interruptions.

    Comment by TickledBlue — 17 March, 2008 @ 12:21 PM

  6. Asynchronous gameplay has potential to solve the ‘critical mass’ issue, and make smaller MMO’s a lot more viable. Unfortunately, these probably couldn’t be ‘action’ based, like WoW.

    As an aside, when I was living in Honolulu and playing a couple of MMO’s to stay in touch with friends on the West Coast, I also happened to meet a lot of people in Sweden who were just getting up as I was just winding down. Chatting with them was a lot of fun, but I doubt if we ever could’ve built a pyramid together. In some cases, the Critical Mass ‘problem’ is more accurately described as a design problem where you want X, but the game insists you do Y and Z before you can get X.

    Comment by Bret — 17 March, 2008 @ 6:46 PM

  7. I think for this one needs to take a look at how it was/is done in MUDs, at least the good ones that run regular events. First step would be to know the players, which can be as easy as knowing when your “peak” times are, and doing things around those times. Have events span multiple days, with the key parts (IE the parts that a GM is actually there working it) rotate through the different peaks (assuming you’re using one world). This way everyone gets a piece of the action, instead of just one crowd. Of course that requires that you have GMs at all different times, or a few that don’t mind being up at 2am (I think we’re called programmers…).

    One way to deal with the daily down time, if the code does support hot loading of new code, is through a network architecture similar to what is used in Content Staging. Basically everyone goes through a switch that allows you to easily redirect traffic to a secondary server while you load up the main one. Both servers are kept in sync, you load the changes to the backup, then flip the switch and all traffic moves over to the other one. Done right, as in they are in sync minus the newest code (IE current player data), should make a fairly seamless switch over without players noticing at all. It also provides a nice backup in case of hardware failure.

    Comment by Joseph Monk — 18 March, 2008 @ 11:00 AM

  8. I am also one who feels we should start moving to bigger worlds than the 2500 – 3000 player limit on servers…

    But this can’t happen quite yet, as the worlds themselves are still made about the size of Hawaii. Vanguard (should it have been a less buggy game) could have supported about 3000 – 5000 players on the size of their world…. with proper race balance.

    Which brings up another issue of bigger worlds, is trying to balance the races that that each race has a fair amount of players at each of the peak times.

    Like people said, we need a whole lot more GM events to liven up these games, I am not talking one a week or one a day, but wholly molly, I think I am playing the wrong time on the US Servers living in the US. I get to see no real interaction in events. I do have a normal crowd of people I can talk too, but since Solo play is so easy, its beginning to become like pulling teeth to get a group.

    Comment by Boon — 25 March, 2008 @ 8:27 AM

  9. I wrote a while ago about the idea of a character select screen that included a “help me choose my server” function.

    Basically, the idea is that new players often have no idea what the difference between servers actually is. For a new player, do they really know what “PVP” is? What about “roleplay”? Show them a list of 40 servers with names like Starsider, Feathermoon, or Guk and it’s no wonder players have a hard time figuring out where to go.

    Comment by Kendricke — 31 March, 2008 @ 12:40 PM

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