Unreal-time games

A real-time computer game is one in which time passes continuously and at the same speed as in reality.

There are many computer games these days in which time passes continuously, but much faster than in reality. I call these unreal-time games.

For instance, in May 2003 I tried the free demo version of Rise of Nations. This is quite a good and attractively-presented game in some ways, but it suffers from two serious defects.

Strategy served up as tactics

In military terminology, strategy is the art of conducting a war, while tactics is the art of conducting a battle. A significant difference between them is that much more thinking time is available for strategy, and the quality of your decisions is more important than the time you take to decide. When making a strategical decision, in many cases you can think at leisure, consult your advisors, get a good night's sleep, and issue your orders another day. Time is hardly a factor.

Rise of Nations simulates centuries of time. Every second that passes in the game is roughly equivalent to a year of real time. This means that players are making strategical decisions under severe time pressure, which is a gross distortion of reality and bears no resemblance to real-life strategical decision-making. A game such as this has no right to be called a game of strategy.

Of course, it wouldn't be feasible to play such a game in true real-time mode, because it would take centuries. However, a good compromise exists: the traditional turn-based game, in which time doesn't pass continuously. Instead, players decide for themselves how long to think about each decision. This is a relatively realistic method of simulating strategy, because in the real-life situation time isn't a factor and the decision-makers really can take as long as they require to think about it.

In practice, it's annoying to play against someone who takes much longer to play than you do. This problem has been solved in the chess world by the use of chess clocks: each player is given a certain amount of real time to make all his moves, and he loses the game automatically if he plays too slowly.

In this way, slow play is punished but fast play is not rewarded. The trouble with an unreal-time game is that fast play is rewarded, which encourages players to make hurried, sloppy decisions, and to play a strategical game like a tactical game.

Come to the clickfest

Another unrelated problem with Rise of Nations is that it's what Americans call a clickfest. Players are constantly clicking on things, and in general the players who click faster will be more successful.

To me, a good strategical game is one in which I make relatively few decisions, but think carefully about each one. Each decision I make should be important. The trivial decisions can be handled by subordinates; I'm not interested in them.

But in Rise of Nations I can't take my time thinking about important decisions, because I'm rushing around trying to handle all the trivial stuff. Do people really enjoy this? Why?

I don't intend to pay for the full version of Rise of Nations. A game that forces me to make lots of mostly-trivial decisions fast is the opposite of the sort of game I want to be playing.

Even battles are slower than this

It might be worth mentioning that even single battles, in real life, can take a whole day or several days. Although seconds may occasionally be important, in most cases the top commanders can take five minutes, maybe half an hour, to think about something without suffering disadvantage as a result.

As an anecdote, I quote Fremantle's account of his meeting with Longstreet just after Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

When I got close up to General Longstreet, I saw one of his regiments advancing through the woods in good order; so, thinking I was just in time to see the attack, I remarked to the General that “I wouldn't have missed this for any thing.” Longstreet was seated at the top of a snake fence at the edge of the wood, and looking perfectly calm and imperturbed. He replied, laughing, “The devil you wouldn't! I would like to have missed it very much; we've attacked and been repulsed: look there!”

For the first time then I had a view of the open space between the two positions, and saw it covered with Confederates slowly and sulkily returning towards us in small broken parties, under a heavy fire of artillery ...

The General told me that Pickett's division had succeeded in carrying the enemy's position and capturing his guns, but after remaining there twenty minutes, it had been forced to retire, on the retreat of Heth and Pettigrew on its left. No person could have been more calm or self-possessed than General Longstreet under these trying circumstances ...

Here is a general at a crucial point of a crucial battle. He's facing superior forces and his troops have just been smashed. Yet he has time to sit on a fence and make light conversation with a passing non-combatant. Fremantle was a British military officer who was travelling around observing the American way of war.

I point out also that Pickett's division held that position for twenty minutes before being forced to retreat. Think about it: twenty whole minutes. In a typical unreal-time battle game, that would be compressed to a matter of seconds.