Playing in an Asynchronous World

The recent rise of mobile as a key platform in the gaming space is accompanied by meteoric growth in asynchronous gameplay. Not what you typically envision when hearing of the latest “multi-player videogame,” asynchronous games do not require the two or more participants to be playing simultaneously; rather, players make turns at their convenience. Chart toppers such as Words With Friends, Hero Academy and Draw Something have millions of people around the world playing asynchronous games daily.

The appeal of this detached gameplay mode on the mobile platform is obvious: by not having to participate “in-sync,” players are free to go about their day, logging in to make a move only when it’s convenient. Growing up, getting a quick game of StarCraft going with my friends required planning in advance to ensure everybody was free (or hoping they were signed into Ventrilo). Now the rich, social experience of multiplayer gaming is available anywhere, anytime, and with any of your hundreds of Facebook friends.

Without a doubt, asynchronous gameplay is bringing millions of new gamers online. Everybody from busy professionals to even busier moms can find time throughout the day to glance at their phones and lay down a quick 20-point word or crudely sketch a sunflower for their friends. These types of people that could never carve out a two-hour block of time to delve into the latest RTS or explore the world of a new MMO are exactly the target audience for asynchronous games.

Recently, I became completely addicted to Zynga’s Words With Friends. My phone buzzed constantly with updates – after all, with 10 or 15 games happening simultaneously, there’s always somebody free to play. I am, and imagine I always will be, a huge Scrabble fan, and my initial enthusiasm motivated the first few weeks of play. However, after a few months of playing WWF, I found myself oddly numb to the experience. Sliding my finger across each subsequent “New Move” notification pop-up seemed more and more of a chore and less about enjoying the game. I was no longer playing because I was immersed in the game, but rather because felt beholden to making the next move so my friends would not be left hanging.

A few months back, I finally snapped out of my daze and started reflecting on the experience, ultimately concluding that I expected too much of asynchronous gameplay. Like most of my daily electronic information flow, the game simply became another source for that short, addicting burst of serotonin so many of us crave in the Digital Age, with little to gain that could not be found in a casual glance at Twitter.

I may think that I’m a busy person and at times certainly am, but I’m no mom rushing kids to soccer practice and dance recitals. In retrospect, I probably spent close to two hours a day keeping up with WWF – not exactly a “non-disruptive” amount of time. Keep in mind, this was not two hours I scheduled specifically for play, but like with most players, time taken in small increments throughout the day that quickly added up to the point of distraction. This most convenient form of gaming was not only sucking an hour or two out of each day, but also doing so when I should have been focusing on work or enjoying the company of friends.

A few months free of Zynga’s iron grip and I’m making a point to schedule time for the sort of immersive gaming that I used to know and love, inviting friends over for a game of Super Smash Bros. or investing the time to set up a game of Risk or Settlers of Catan. I still play the occasional game of Draw Something or Scramble With Friends, but my notifications have all been turned off, and the icons are gone from my home screen. Now, I play only when I’m truly not busy or have made a point to invest some time.

Asynchronous games are part of a wider push in the tech space to make everything as convenient, connected and on-demand as possible. “No time to sit down and play? Just have these bite-sized snippets instead!” That’s great for people on the go, but for those of us accustomed to the deep immersion that comes with truly investing yourself in a game, with setting up your StarCraft hotkeys and arguing over which dictionary to use for Scrabble, there is more than a bit of magic missing so far, in asynchronous gameplay.

While I may sound like the exception to the rule in the face of so much overwhelming success, evidence suggests many others experience the same burnout and disappointment after the initial rush to play. However, I’m confident that the next generation of asynchronous game developers will mitigate these issues with innovative new features that not only keep us hooked, but also tear us away when things start to get out of hand and our entertainment threatens to become a chore.

 

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