The Optimal MMORPG Day/Night Cycle

The MMORPG genre is basically dead, on account of being crazy-expensive to produce upfront (though very cheap to keep running, despite lingering myths that it is still 1998 and server costs are a thing we have to care about, like, at all) and the audience having mostly moved on, first to MOBAs, then to arena shooters, and now to the whole survival of the fittest PUBG/Fortnite thing.

But hey, being current was never really this blog’s schtick, so let’s talk about the optimal day/night cycle for a genre that is almost impossible to produce new installments for. I guess maybe like ten or fifteen years from now advancing tech will allow indie MMORPGs to be a thing the way they’ve brought back Infinity Engine games and stuff.

The trick with an MMORPG day/night cycle is that 1) you want the average player to see both the day and the night of your cycle. If your day/night cycle is 1:1 with the real world, then sure, America always plays in the morning, Europe in the afternoon, and China at night, but so far as each individual player is concerned, you may as well have just made it a static time and called it a day.

But also 2) you want the average player to be able to spend a significant amount of their session in either day or night, so that you can have content occur in one or the other. If you have decent dawn and sunset times (and you should), then day and night occupy only about a third of your cycle each. If your cycle is one hour long, that means your day- or night-exclusive content is available only in twenty minute bursts, way too short for players to notice it’s night and go somewhere to do something about it. They have to track when in the hour your night cycle begins and head to the cemetery in advance to fight the vampires as soon as night falls (or whatever).

Even if your day/night cycle is purely cosmetic, having a very short day/night cycle means it’s much harder to have a sense of having an adventuring day. The average player’s session is probably going to be about 2-3 hours, which means that during one real life day of play, an hour-long cycle gives 2-3 days’ worth of adventuring. But since you probably don’t have sleep or thirst mechanics or anything (and those would probably not be a good idea), this all blurs together, resulting in the day/night cycle being practically unnoticeable. If you’re going to have a day/night cycle, size it to fit the average player’s session, so that it feels like their play session for the day is equal to one day in the life of their character.

To satisfy these requirements, four hours is about ideal. It still syncs up with a 24 hour clock (module the need for occasional leap seconds, if you really want to be precise). Most players will probably only see about half the cycle on any given day, but because the exact length of their play session and the exact time they stop and start will probably vary by an hour or so day by day, they will see all of the day/night cycle over the course of a week or so (whereas, with a 24-hour cycle, you might once every few months play the game at a very unusual time, but 99% of the time you’re probably playing in the afternoon and evenings every day except the days you don’t play at all).

Players are much less likely to see multiple days in one session, though, unless they’re really marathoning by playing for over four hours at a stretch, which is hardly typical (not that early MMOs didn’t try to incentivize people to play for such absurd lengths, for some dumb reason – even when subscription fees were ubiquitous, you get paid for consistency, not obsession, devs). This preserves the “one day of gameplay per day” thing that the 24-hour cycle attempts to achieve, but fails to, on account of players don’t play the game for like eight hours a day (except when they do, but Christ, don’t do that).

Finally, day/night content is around for a full hour and twenty minutes, which means that when night falls, someone can notice that night has fallen, spend twenty minutes extricating themselves from whatever they happened to be doing, go to the cemetery, and still probably have 50 minutes at least to fight the vampires before the sun comes up. Even content that happens strictly during dawn and dusk (40 minutes each under this system – 40 minutes of dawn followed by 80 minutes of day followed by 40 minutes of sunset followed by 80 minutes of night, total of 240 minutes, which is four hours) is reasonably accessible, if for some reason you ever do that, although I expect most MMOs will use dawn and/or dusk as extensions on day and night that apply to some, but not all, events. Like, some content is available at dusk and night but goes away at dawn, some content happens whenever it isn’t night, but probably nothing is only available only at dusk.

The day/night cycle even lines up reasonably well to an in-game calendar, if that is for some reason something you care about, in that one IRL day is six game days, which is roughly a week, and five IRL days is thirty game days, which is a month-ish, and every 61 IRL days (loosely, two months) is close to a game year. If you’re running a game whose scale benefits from the in-game timeline moving faster than the IRL timeline (and many settings do, especially the bog standard epic fantasy), then this calendar allows for easy conversion while still allowing for years to pass relatively quickly. A story arc released incrementally over the course of three years – not atypical in long-running MMOs – can happen over the span of an entire generation of in-game time, but it’s easy for players to remember 1 real day = 1 game week, 1 real work week = 1 game month, and 2 real months = 1 game year, and thus keep track of how time works in the game.

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