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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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