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Adding Asynchronicity
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Adding Asynchronicity

October 18, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Blending the Asynchronous with the Synchronous in Conclave

Conclave is a browser-based co-op RPG with story, mechanics, and aesthetics inspired by tabletop games. Parties of up to four players work together to complete quests that are a mix of tactical combats and group decisions driven by the story and the skills of the players' characters. Like most multiplayer online RPGs, it offers synchronous play, but it also supports asynchronous play and lets players switch back and forth between the two. Here's how we made that possible.

(Click for large version)

1. Turn-based, but not ordered

At the outset, our desire to support asynchronicity led to a fundamental decision: that Conclave's combat would be turn-based.

We could have picked a different organizing principle -- perhaps a Diplomacy-influenced scheme where players choose their actions independently and the game then resolves them in a batch all at once -- but turns are familiar to both tabletop and computer RPG players and provide a convenient way to divide combat into chunks that can be played at different times.

In addition, each chunk is small enough that it doesn't require a major time investment, making it possible to take a turn whenever you have a few minutes to spare.

Initially the game assigned a turn order to players. In a particular round of combat, Amy might need to take her turn first, followed by Ben, then Chris, and finally Diana. While turn order is a tradition in tabletop RPGs -- not to mention most turn-based games -- it quickly became apparent that it could lead to frustration when playing Conclave asynchronously.

Chris might have a free moment and be eager to take his turn, but if Amy or Ben hasn't taken a turn yet, he can't play. In a two-player asynchronous game, you only have to wait for the other player, but with three or four players the waiting is magnified.

A close-up of the party log showing players acting in different orders each round.

To address this issue we simply removed the concept of turn order from the game. Players can still take only one turn per round, but they can take them in whichever order they prefer. Besides reducing the amount of time players spend waiting, this change has a couple of other benefits:

  • A player that acts last in one round has the option to immediately take the first action in the next round, further streamlining play.
  • In a tight spot, players can act in whichever order gives them the greatest tactical benefit. With a turn order, you're sometimes forced to act suboptimally: an ally might have an ability that can make a foe more vulnerable to your attack, but that's not immediately helpful if you're required to act first. With no turn order, you can ask your ally to use the ability and then follow up with your (now more effective) attack.

Of course the change was not without trade-offs. Games with turn orders sometimes introduce special abilities that allow you to take your turn earlier than normal; that's a bit of design space Conclave can't explore. In addition, the lack of turn order has an implication for synchronous play: two players might submit their turns at nearly the same time, rendering the later player's action suboptimal or invalid. As a result, we've had to do extra work to handle these conflicts, and in the future we plan to avoid more of them by showing players when someone else is in the process of taking a turn.

Even so, the benefits of streamlined play and additional tactical options are worth it.

2. Saving the timeline

Another complication introduced by asynchronous play is keeping track of what each player has seen. In a game where two players alternate turns, this is straightforward; the game can always display its current state to both players, and neither one will miss anything. That's not true once more than two players are involved and playing asynchronously.

A close-up of the event/timeline navigation controls.

Building on the example above, suppose that Amy takes a turn and then logs off. If Ben and Diana take turns before Amy logs back in, it's not enough to show her the current state of the game; the results of Ben's turn will be obscured or eclipsed by Diana's. In Conclave, the party's enemies also take turns during combat, which means that a dozen or more combatants might act between your own turns. That's a lot of intervening action to puzzle out from "before" and "after" views of the game.

As a result, we've elected to save every action in the game as a kind of timeline and track where each player is along it. If there's a lot of activity on your quest while you're away, when you come back you'll see the first action you missed; you can then navigate forward in time to see the remaining turns play out in sequence. In effect, you see the action the same way a party playing synchronously sees it, except that it's not "live".

Saving actions in a timeline has a nice side benefit, too: players can go step back through previous events in the game and review them at any time. You can review past combats for tactical inspiration if you encounter a troublesome foe, and you can also review the decisions you've made along the way for hints of what to do next in the story. All of this is possible whether you're playing synchronously or asynchronously.

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