What's more important: convenience or realism? I’m working on a game design project now that involves an interesting experiment: a blend of real-time and on-demand gaming. And I mean experiment, because I don’t have a bias, or even truly, a hypothesis, as to which component will be better, more popular, more compelling.
What do I mean by on-demand and real-time? Real-time gaming is controlled by an external clock. On-demand games start and end when you choose. Of course, most on-demand games are sequential—you move your pawn, I move my rook--and the sequences form an internal real-time aspect to the game. You can’t jump from owning Baltic Avenue to winning Monopoly to debt; you progress through the game as it unfolds. Similarly, in a video game, you are controlled by the time of the game—the time you have until your energy bar goes to zero or all the aliens are killed.
But all of these examples represent time inside the game. All of these games are on-demand, since you decide when to take them off the shelf or switch on the Playstation or abandon the game for dinner. In real-time gaming, on the other hand, you have to be there, ready to play, at the time the game is available. It may be a continuous one-time experience or an episodic one. Whatever it is, it’s in someone else’s control.
On the surface, this seems incredibly limiting. You have to know when the game starts. You have to be available on someone else’s schedule. You have to keep track and not fall behind. Why would you ever want to play (or create) a real-time game? Because...
Real-time games are mass events. There's a reason murder mystery dinners are more fun when they're the real deal than when you take them out of a box. I could write a little scavenger hunt for my friends and we could do it on-demand on a Sunday afternoon at our pleasure. OR we could take part in one of the many all-night or all-weekend puzzle hunts that go on in major cities every year. Similarly, orienteering on your own isn’t as fun as taking part in an adventure race. When there’s a time and a place and an expectation, people have time to get psyched for the game ahead of time. Rarely do I think to myself, “Wow… next week I might get to actually play cribbage!” But I do think, “Wow… next week I might get to play Cruel 2 B Kind.”
This characteristic isn't just good for players who want to be part of something "big," it's also good for game sponsors/creators who are using games as a promotional device. Sponsoring a game that happens real-time captures more media attention than releasing a flash game on your product's website.
Real-time gaming is practical when you want to bring together strangers socially. Of course, sitting down to a game of poker is social. But if you want to play games with people you don’t know, there are two options. There are on-demand games, like chess, that are available in playing environments like Washington Square or Yahoo Games. Or, there are real-time games, like World of Warcraft and other MMOs. You can play WoW alone, but most players end up teaming up with others to form guilds, go on raids, etc. All of those activities need to be coordinated among the players, and the easiest way to do that is via real-time scheduling and play.
When the time pressure is real, the game gets more exciting. If a video game tells you a bomb will go off in 30 minutes unless you pass the level, it energizes you. But that energy is tempered by the fact that you know that a bomb isn’t actually going to go off, that the game won’t totally end if it happens because you can play again. In real-time gaming, that’s not necessarily the case. If you don’t pass a threshold within the allotted time, you may not be able to continue, or the game may be significantly altered. You can’t pause the game or take a break.
Real-time gaming is more realistic. The external ticking clock serves serious as well as recreational gaming. While some military, fire, and law enforcement simulations do allow time out for discussion and reflection, others require the “players” to move through exercises in real time. They do so not to raise the adrenaline but to create environments more directly related to potential real situations.
Episodic real-time gaming allows for a different kind of casual play. In most on-demand games, the decision to play is binary: either you are playing or not-playing. There aren’t many opportunities to take a break in the middle and let the game continue to flow around you. Episodic or long-term real-time games can function more like TV series: you watch a few episodes, you skip one or two, you get back up to speed and keep moving. Arguably the TV series Lost is a highly successful real-time game in which the viewers/players have the challenge of figuring out what the heck is going on. When real-time games have a long duration (weeks or months), the game designers should be thinking about the ways people can drop in and out (unless they want to restrict the game to the most hardcore players alone).
Ultimately, I’m not sure whether real-time or on-demand gaming is more compelling. On-demand gaming certainly captures a wider audience and requires a lower barrier to entry. And yet, particularly for games with strong narrative, real-time gaming can add complexity that makes the game feel more personal, more real. TV has certainly been successful spinning out stories in real-time, whereas books and movies offer a more on-demand experience. Where do you cast your vote? How do you want to play?