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Adding Asynchronicity

October 18, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Can asynchronicity work for more than simple board games? Indie developer Derek Bruneau describes the process of building asynchronous gameplay to RPG Conclave, examining the history of the form and how it works for him.

How much time do you have to play games? For many of us, the answer is, "Not enough." Finding time is often even more difficult when it comes to multiplayer games: not only does each player need to have free time, but their schedules need to align. Multiplayer games that expect physical proximity -- board games, Johann Sebastian Joust -- present an additional hurdle.

Some multiplayer games mitigate these difficulties by offering asynchronous play. Not everyone agrees on the definition of "asynchronous"; here I'm using the term to refer to multiplayer games where the game state is shared but players' participation isn't simultaneous. Words With Friends is a recent example of a game that's asynchronous by this definition: the board is shared, but players take turns separated by arbitrarily long periods of time.

Though a synchronous (simultaneous) game might inspire an asynchronous version, it's unusual for a single game to allow players to switch between both modes of play on demand. For some, this just isn't possible; it's pretty difficult to imagine a version of Johann Sebastian Joust that isn't played simultaneously. But couldn't other games support both styles?

That's what we set out to do in our game Conclave. We took a genre that's usually played synchronously -- the online co-op roleplaying game -- and developed a game that allows players to shift to asynchronous play when desired. In this we were guided by the long history of asynchronous adaptations of synchronous games, but that didn't prevent us from running into challenges along the way.

Asynchronous Influences

Though less common historically than synchronous play, asynchronous play is not new. Correspondence chess, with moves exchanged by courier or postal carrier, has existed for centuries, if not longer.

More recently, players and game creators extended the play-by-mail (PBM) approach to games involving more than a simple exchange of moves. Only a few years after the board game Diplomacy was published in 1959, groups of players were negotiating (and breaking) alliances and submitting orders through the mail rather than over the board. Even though a game might involve up to seven players, Diplomacy lends itself fairly well to asynchronous play: negotiation is open-ended and best conducted privately, and players' actions are resolved simultaneously, making the order in which they submit them unimportant.

Other PBM games like It's a Crime -- think Mafia Wars, but with more direct player interaction and a lot more firebombing -- can accommodate dozens of players. In practice, however, you typically interact with only a small subset of other players at any time, which keeps the scope of play to something manageable.

New technologies have provided additional ways to play games asynchronously. Email and online forums have led to play-by-email (PBEM) and play-by-post (PBP) games, respectively. PBP is a particularly popular alternative for pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, and our experiences with it influenced some of the design decisions we made for Conclave. (More on those below.)

While PBM, PBEM, and PBP games emerged mainly as a way to eliminate the requirement of physical proximity, other asynchronous games have become popular even with players who share a living space. Mobile apps like Words With Friends, Scramble With Friends, and Draw Something are played not just by distant friends but by roommates, significant others, and spouses. Here, asynchronicity provides opportunities to reinforce our social connections in moments scattered throughout the day or week, rather than requiring us to coordinate schedules.

Though many of the previous examples are asynchronous adaptations of synchronous games, few allow you to switch between the two modes of play. Unlike its synchronous, physical inspiration Boggle, the Scramble With Friends app doesn't allow players to find words simultaneously, even though both are shown the same set of letters.

This opens up some design space -- the app offers power-ups that affect only a single player's view of the board -- but closes off other possibilities. In Boggle, you can tell how many words another player is writing down, which heightens the tension of the game; Scramble can only imperfectly capture that feeling of head-to-head competition, even if players are in the same room together.

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Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Derek,

Thanks for the props :) As you might suspect, in my universe the terms are essentially reversed because I refer to synchrony as a property of game time and of specific loops rather than overall gameplay. (And I used the word "temporany" as a reference with whether players are in the same real-time environment as one another).

So from my perspective what it sounds like you've done is ditch a simple turn design (a la many boardgames) and instead adopted a queued turn system. (for reference: Both are synchronous, both are atemporal. One is just more forgiving of player memories, mishaps and boredom than the other.

And, on the whole, that sounds like a great idea for the kind of game experience you want to create. One of the most maddening things for any kind of game involving more than one player is the player who walks away, leaving a big hole and often resulting in the game being over. I also think the idea of a default action is great too. To take it one step further, have you considered letting the player set his kind of default action in case the clock times out, rather than assuming defensiveness?

Derek Bruneau
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Hi Tad,

I've appreciated your efforts to define terms of art for games, even if occasionally I've found them to run counter to my own use. :)

Conclave's story decisions fit your definition of a queued turn system -- players choose their options separately, then the resolution happens for the entire group -- but I don't think its combats do. Whenever a player takes a turn in combat, it's resolved immediately and separately from other turns. Looking at your other definitions, I think you might call it a simple turn variant where the order is flexible and player-determined.

We've definitely considered letting players set their default actions. It's one of a number of features we haven't had a chance to explore so far due to time constraints.

Jeff Underwood
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A very nice layout of the hurdles involved in utilizing Asynchronicity. It seems like a very powerful but underutilized mechanic. We've been using it in our first project and Im surprised that you didn't mention player expectations (within an established genre) as a problem. That has been by far our biggest hurdle. I'd be interrested to know if that's been at all an issue for you. Again, nice article and Im going to head over and check out Conclave now.


Derek Bruneau
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Thanks! Now that you mention it, player expectations are indeed something we've had to address. For the most part, we've tackled it through context-sensitive tips. For example, when you accept an invitation to join a party, you see a message that introduces the possibility of asynchronous play so that you're not surprised if the party you've just joined isn't online at the moment.

Ideally, we'd do more of this through intuitive UI design -- affordances, constraints, natural mappings, etc. -- but we've found it challenging to avoid help text entirely. The places we've added tips and the language we use has been driven by informal user testing with alpha and beta testers plus everyone we've ever demoed the game to. I don't feel like we've licked the problem by any means, but our internal metrics and the feedback we've received suggest that we've mitigated it at least.

Is your project public? I'd be interested to hear/see how you've been tackling the issue.

Jeff Underwood
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From what little I've played of Conclave so far you've seemed to have handled it really well. Our player base seems to have a real hard time conceptualizing the asychronous nature of our game system. I think it may be a combination of us needing to do a better job contextually (like you mentioned, intuitive UI design, tool tips and what not), and the fact that it looks and feels like a traditional board based war game (which comes along with about 50-60 years worth of established game mechanisms). We are in Beta testing as well, but Im concerned about moving forward towards release until we get our player expectancy issues sorted out.

After carefully considering many of the aspects you already touched on we chose to go with the daily deadline and simultaneous turn processing that you mentioned in the article, since it was at least kind of close to the PBEmail system that some of our target audience would be familiar with. Its been a rough go so far, but then I know we can do a better job with the contextual stuff, like you guys have done. You can find it at if you care to take a peek. If you have any feedback Id love to hear it.

Chris McLeod
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Some neat stuff here. I may have missed it, but do you have a system for allowing the player to switch Play Pace. For example, two player are playing, but then one has to head off to bed. That player could propose a pace-switch and the other would have to agree or something. Obviously, things become complicated, since the second player could just refuse. Perhaps rewards or something could be used to smooth that exchange a little. Anything is preferable to a game over \ auto-victory.

Good work on AI-controlled default actions. I second the ability to choose from a few versions, although defensive may be the way to avoid players always setting their games to AI-controlled.

I'm excited to take a look at how you set all of this up when I get home!


Derek Bruneau
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Hi Chris,

Players can change their pace of play at any time just by when they take their turns; there's no explicit mode-switch they need to engage. In the example you gave, the game will simply wait until the player wakes up and is ready to take a turn again. If the other player chooses to remain partied-up with the sleeping player, he or she will also have to wait. Alternatively, the other player can choose to leave the sleeping player and find a group whose pace/sleeping habits match up better.

In practice, players often communicate their expectations either through chat -- e.g. "Going to be busy this week; mind if we play a turn a day or so?" -- or by how they advertise their parties in the Adventurers Hall. We're considering more explicit controls, such as letting party leaders set the timeout period to something shorter than 24 hours.

Carlos Cabrera
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Hi Derek,

I enjoyed your article for the insight it brought me, as I research techniques that differentiate synchronous and asynchronous play. I've found your analysis invaluable regarding the balance that had to be brought between both modes.

I'm also from Cape Cod, so it's awesome to see a studio in Boston putting games out there. I found there wasn't a lot of that at the time when I first left, so I wish you the best of success. I am also tweeting your article for recommended reading with friends and peers.

Roger Tober
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Very interesting. I know I've had thoughts along these same lines, so it's good to see someone working on it. One of my favorite game types is grid_based combat rpg's, where position is important ala Betrayal at Krondor. I think a game like that would be great in multiplayer, although waiting a day for a turn to go by could get tedious in a fight. Travel would have to be much faster, with, at the most, 2 turns happening before some type of interaction.

James Pierce
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Thanks for the article Derek. I enjoyed the explanation behind some of the design choices you have made. The online RPG and empire building game space has proved a fertile ground to cultivate new ways to play asynchronously. It looks like your heading in the right direction. My gaming group and I can't wait to give it a go.

Ulf Hartelius
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Nice article, not the least to see asynchronous play applied to a "new" genre. I'm a bit surprised you didn't go down the Diplomacy route of resolving all actions at the end. While it's not the traditional form here, it was the norm for the Japanese roleplaying games for a long time and it feels as though it would have avoided some of the problems you faced.
I'm also skeptical that the "tight spot situations" you talk about are wholly positive, since players may have different opinions on the optimal order in which the commands should be issued which in turn lead to prolonged (and asynchronous, making them even longer) discussions.
Nonetheless, it's an interesting and promising game and I wish you the best of luck!

Charles Stuard
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Having played a lot of Conclave, I can say I like their approach to turn order quite a bit. Since movement and position (weapons have range) is such a major factor, you can't just choose an action and go, you have to choose where to move as well. Assuming your target is killed, you end up not only wasting an attack (with no easy "retarget" logic as in JRPGs where position is meaningless) but also potentially moving completely out of position compared to everyone else.

I also find it a nice feature to discuss with party members optimal turn order. It gives the game a little bit of that "talking over strategy" that I remember from D&D sessions. I think it's a nice dimension to have.