Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

3Feb/100

Learning and the Art of Time Travel

Consider Achron: the world's first meta-time strategy game. It's a pretty crazy idea.

Many games these days implement time-rewind mechanics. It started with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and the most recent examples are probably indie favorite Braid and racing behemoth Forza 3. But Achron is different, Achron doesn't just let you rewind time, it gives you a proper timeline, like a movie editor or music sequencer, and lets you skip around in time freely.

If an attack goes poorly, you can go back in time and change how it played out, or cancel it completely. You can also go into the future, build units and teleport them back into the past, which means you can use your army... and then build it.

Oh, did I mention the game has multiplayer? And that your enemy can do all these things as well?

But it would take too long for me to try to cover all the cool stuff going on in this game; instead, I'll let the developer do it in one of their awesome demo videos:

I think this kind of mechanic is really compelling, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of games start embracing time travel as a true game mechanic. It offers so many gameplay possibilities, it's easy to grasp but hard to master, and it's an experience that only a video game can give you.

Where else in life can you experience what it'd be like to change the past? Or travel through time?

There's a lot of interest in Achron's engine too, the army would like to use it to teach causality and long-term effects, which brings me to the second half of this post.

Learning Through Failure

I've been reading a lot about difficulty and challenge in games lately, and one subject that comes up a lot is the idea of failure vs. punishment.

Failure, whether in a video game or in some task in the real world, has an awful lot of value. We learn through failure, or more accurately, we learn by analyzing our failure, making changes, and trying again. A key point to make is that the sooner we can try again after failing, the more quickly we learn, which shouldn't really surprise anyone. Are you more likely to learn from a failed attempt if you immediately try again, while your past methodology is fresh in your mind, or if you wait a week before your next attempt?

This is where punishment comes in. Punishment is where a game essentially piles extra baggage onto your failure, usually by making you lose progress, and forcing you to redo something you had already accomplished in order to try again.

The problem with punishment is that it makes it hard or impossible to learn from your mistakes, and quickly breeds frustration, which will make some people lose interest or give up entirely. If you have to run through 5 minutes of level every time you miss a specific tricky jump, you're not really learning very much from your failure. It takes too long for you to try again, and by the time you do, you no longer have a good idea of what you did wrong in the first place, making it harder to compensate.

I'm not the first to make this argument of course, and rather than rehash what others have said, I'm going to focus this post on the above in the context of Achron. If you'd like a more in-depth view on the subject of challenge vs. punishment, I definitely recommend you check out this wonderful post, as well Shamus Young's original take on the subject, which has spurred a lot of the conversation on this topic on other blogs I've read.

Real-time Failure Correction

So what makes Achron so exciting, besides a wholly new and original gameplay mechanic, which might actually become a lasting innovation to the genre, unlike more "innovations" thrown around these days?

Games that let you rewind time without punishing your failures already do a better job of teaching you how to improve, and preventing frustration, than traditional games where failure is a chore. Achron takes this to another level however, because not only can you rewind a single action, or a single mistake, but you can continually go back and tweak your strategy, learning from your mistakes in real time, and seeing how your corrections impact the ultimate outcome.

Not only that, but Achron is multiplayer, or at the very least, it has an AI opponent capable of impacting the timeline the same way you can. This means that you can not only learn from your mistakes, but from your enemy's mistakes as well. You can watch how your opponent modifies his past actions to account for changing situations, and you can continually respond in kind, in a sort of see-saw on enlightenment.

The potential for learning in a game like Achron is tremendous, and it should make for great gameplay as well, because not only does the time travel mechanic provide a completely unique experience and allow the development of insane strategies, but learning how to do something interesting is also fundamentally fun for most people.

Just consider how exhilarating a new game can be, when you're still bumbling along, learning the mechanics for the first time.

Of course, maybe it's too early to declare Achron a harbinger of the future of games. A lot depends on the execution, and the game won't officially be out until next year. However, preordering gets you access to beta builds, and since this game intrigues me so much, that is exactly what I have done.

I haven't had a chance to try it yet, but once I do, rest assured that I will let you know how their ambitious work is looking.

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