The first MMO I’ve ever played was Star Wars Galaxies. I played it like a full time job for about a month, and the night before I was going to go on a week long vacation I realized that in my absence, all my harvesters would run out of money and be damaged beyond repair. I stayed up til 3am grinding missions to earn enough money so that I can go on vacation. That was the last time I played that game, when I realized it had become a job, and one that I don’t like.
Noel and I are both dads, which means we have a lot less unstructured free time than we use to. Spending a multi-hour chunk of time with a game just doesn’t happen any more, even though we still love playing deep and engrossing games, especially if we can play them with friends.
One of our primary goals with Subterfuge is to Respect the player’s time (with a capital R). We want every minute a player spends in the game to be meaningful and interesting, eliminating all drudgery / micromanagement / grinding / etc.
Following the philosophy that something is perfect when nothing more can be removed, not when nothing more can be added, we set out to MINIMIZE, rather than maximize the amount of time a player spends in the game.
This post is about some of the design choices we made to support this goal. Apologies in advance if some of the explanations are unclear, because they do require some understanding of the type of game Subterfuge is.
Man, I hate push notifications. Saying “yes” to that permission popup is like giving a sleazy salesman a key to your house.
In Subterfuge, however, push notification play the most important role in minimizing the advantage of those who do check the game obsessively over those who peek in a handful of times per day.
Any time something important that pertains to you happens, you get a push notification. This means that when you are away from the game you can be at ease and not worry about whether you’re missing something by not checking in.
Subterfuge is built to be deterministic. Players behave nondeterministically, of course, but once an action is taken, its outcome is deterministic. This allows players to make longer term plans and not worry about what chance might bring, and whether they’ll have time to modify their orders to accommodate a random factor. Again, having the effect of letting players be at ease when they’re away from the game.
Determinism has the nice side effect of allowing the game to show you the future based on the information available to you in the present. While you’re in the game, you are completely unburdened from having to do any tedious math or logic in your head to figure out whether a particular plan would work. You simply put the plan into action and peek into the future to see if it produces the desired outcome. If it doesn’t, you simply undo all your actions and try something else.
Time spent in-game should be time spent doing the higher level thinking and engaging with the actions and decisions that are most enjoyable.
Since the game happens in real time, it is unavoidable that from time to time, crucial things will happen at 3am. Speaking from experience, this gives an unfair advantage to parents of newborn babies.
More than that, if you start getting in the habit of setting alarms in the middle of the night because it feels like what is required to play well, you will start to resent the game for feeling like a job and interfering with your life.
To work around this need, we added a feature that allows a player to schedule any order to happen at any time in the future. Using the time machine, you scrub into the future, and then issue the order on the game’s main map just as you would in the present.
One of the worst things that can happen in a game like Subterfuge is to wake up in the morning and realize something bad happened while you were asleep that you could have prevented had you been awake.
For this purpose, any action that resolves in less than 8 hours (a healthy sleep cycle for a human being) we consider to be a “twitch action”.
One example of how we avoid these is by ensuring that outposts are at least 10 hours away from each other at normal travel speeds.
Another example is that hiring new specialists and promoting existing specialists can only happen when the specialist is at an outpost. This prevents a player from launching an attack sub and in the last second promoting or hiring a new specialist, based on what is needed in the moment.
I’m just going to come out and say this: I play games while I’m on the toilet. I have a few minutes here and there in my day to play, and potty time is just one of those times. Playing asynchronous games allows me to play when it’s convenient.
With multiplayer games, asynchronous play can have a side effect I don’t like. In turn based games, I can only play when it’s my turn. The fact that Subterfuge is real time allows me to play whenever I want, including when I’m sitting on the porcelain throne.
All the rest…
The above are the main features built for Respecting players’ time, but there are probably dozens of other decision that were influenced by this goal, from how often drillers are produced to the game’s minimalist visual style.
So that’s it for now. Over time we’re going to write more about a variety of design questions / problems / spaces we’ve encountered over the last 2+ years of developing Subterfuge.
Subterfuge is currently in private alpha (iOS only) and if you’d like to try it out, you can sign up at http://subterfuge-game.com. We expect to release it in the summer of 2015 on iOS and Android.