Do­ing Time

Un­ex­pected ways time af­fects game de­vel­op­ment.

PC GAMER (UK) - - MONITOR - By Xalavier Nel­son Jr.

We tend to think of time as some­thing that just works. In games, this couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth. The way time is de­fined and ma­nip­u­lated deep in a game’s code can af­fect every­thing from the meth­ods used to de­sign game­play spa­ces, to the bugs you en­counter on launch day.

“I be­lieve in met­rics for a lot of things – door sizes, ta­ble heights, safety rail­ing di­men­sions,” says Bren­don Chung, cre­ator of Thirty Flights of Lov­ing and Quadri­lat­eral Cow­boy. “For tim­ing of events and scenes, it’s a lit­tle bit of a dif­fer­ent story. For me it comes down to touch and feel and dig­ging around un­til some­thing feels right.” It’s a cy­cle of tweak­ing and play­ing which Chung de­scribes as “this messy, or­ganic process”. He of­fers an ex­am­ple: “Once an area is built out, you sud­denly re­alise you no longer have a sight­line to so-and-so place, so you have to re­lo­cate this story beat, which then af­fects that other story beat, and so on.”

Story beats in VR mys­tery The In­vis­i­ble Hours were tricky to nail down. Due to the in­ter­con­nected plots con­tin­u­ously play­ing out across the game’s man­sion, ac­tors had to time their per­for­mances to the sec­ond to en­sure the game’s fun­da­men­tal con­cept didn’t break. Nar­ra­tive di­rec­tor Rob Yescombe calls the phi­los­o­phy ‘Spher­i­cal Nar­ra­tive’. “Ev­ery scene in the en­tire game is si­mul­ta­ne­ously set­ting some­thing up and pay­ing some­thing else off. You leave al­most ev­ery scene with an an­swer and a new ques­tion,” he says. “I’ve seen peo­ple watch the story back­wards, or jump around all over the place in a mul­ti­tude of ways that we never imag­ined. That free­dom, even though we don’t have tra­di­tional ‘game­play’, is what gives you a sense of own­er­ship over your ex­pe­ri­ence – and it’s what stops it from feel­ing ar­ti­fi­cial.”

In upcoming in­ves­tiga­tive thriller The Oc­cu­pa­tion, you play as a re­porter with four hours to af­fect the fu­ture of Bri­tain in the wake of a na­tional tragedy. “We don’t pause the game for any rea­son,” says White Pa­per Games co­founder Pete Bot­tom­ley. “There are a few more lin­ear ar­eas of the game, mostly for hid­den tu­to­ri­al­sa­tion pur­poses, but in­stead of paus­ing the game we just al­low time to con­tinue ticking away. … Let’s say the jan­i­tor is sup­posed to clean a cer­tain room at 5pm, as soon as the game hits 5pm, it will de­liver a mes­sage to that NPC to tell them they have a job to com­plete,” Bot­tom­ley ex­plains. “A cool thing to note here is that all NPCs have their own de­sires also, so if that jan­i­tor has been clean­ing a lot of rooms be­fore 5pm and needs to take a short break or get a cup of wa­ter, they will. This means that they are not so heav­ily scripted and pre­dictable.” Com­bin­ing pre­dictable events with semi-ran­dom con­di­tions can play its own havoc. As Flippfly co­founder Aaron San Filippo re­calls, “In Ever­gar­den, a puz­zle game about grow­ing flow­ers, we de­cided to add rab­bits as a sort of griefer crea­ture. When they ap­pear, they clear-cut through the gar­den un­less you can find a way to block them.” The rab­bits were im­por­tant in ad­ding un­cer­tainty and keep­ing play­ers on their toes but too many rab­bits felt ir­ri­tat­ing. “Our first pass on the logic for these was to just have them ap­pear at the start of a turn with a given fre­quency – some­thing like 8%. This worked okay, but ev­ery once in awhile, you’d have re­ally bad luck and get like five of them in one game.” Anal­y­sis showed the odds were work­ing cor­rectly but that didn’t stop rarer out­comes feel­ing frus­trat­ing.

“Ev­ery scene in the en­tire game is si­mul­ta­ne­ously set­ting some­thing up”

Quan­tum Leap

First-per­son rogue­like dun­geon crawler Delver’s time in Early Ac­cess helped to op­ti­mise game per­for­mance. How­ever, launch day brought an odd hitch to light: “I started hear­ing re­ports of peo­ple say­ing that climb­ing the lad­der in the tu­to­rial level took them a lit­eral minute,” de­vel­oper Chad Cud­di­gan says. His at­tempts to re­pro­duce the sit­u­a­tion failed. “Fi­nally some­thing clicked when a player men­tioned hav­ing VSync turned off for their graph­ics card.” It turned out the player’s ma­chine was rendering the game at over 1000fps, ru­in­ing the scaled timestep gov­ern­ing its physics sys­tem. That far into de­vel­op­ment, chang­ing the game to run at a fixed timestep or mak­ing physics cal­cu­la­tions run in­de­pen­dently would be nearly im­pos­si­ble. “The fi­nal fix still haunts me,” Cud­di­gan ad­mits. “The timestep is still dy­namic but it has a cap around 120fps. After that, physics stops but the game keeps rendering.”

Time may not be re­li­able, but the range of prob­lems de­vel­op­ers will en­counter re­mains as con­sis­tent as ever.

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