Real-Time Games

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The progression of game time during play is tied to the progress of real time.

Most traditional games require the players or some game facilitator to update game states based upon what the players do. This meant that, unlike early sports like wrestling and sprints, the speed by which the gameplay for the games unfolded was not tied to how time passed. However, with the invention of mechanical games, pinball machines and early arcade games, the update of the game state was no longer enforced by humans or laws of nature but by designed systems. These, and the computer games that followed them, thus became Real-Time Games in the sense that the game system updates automatically without player involvement.


Early arcade games and computer games, e.g. Pac-Man and Space Invaders, have enemies constantly acting against the players and requiring them to continuously have the attention on the games. All different kinds of First-Person Shooters games, e.g. Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, the Left 4 Dead series, Counter-Strike, and Unreal Tournament pitch teams of players against each other in real-time virtual battles. Real-time strategy games, such as those in the Warcraft and StarCraft series, modify the usually slow pace of strategy games by making the game system continue without player interaction.

Sports, Eight-ball, and Bowling are trivial examples of Real-Time Games since they rely on the laws of nature to update the game state. However, Bowling, Eight-ball, and many sports divide gameplay into turns (Peggle does this as well but simulates gravity rather than uses it).

Nertz, Speed, and Stress are all examples of real-time Card Games.

Related Descriptions

Wikipedia[1] has a section on Real-Time Games.

Using the pattern

The design of Real-Time Games is typically achieved through Dedicated Game Facilitators such as computers or mechanical systems, but isolated parts of a game's gameplay can become real time through simply means such as the use of hour glasses or letting the laws of physics has their course of game components. The latter is typically done by having a gameplay where real-time modes are switched between the players by Turn Taking. Cue Sports[2] such as Eight-ball, Peggle, and Bowling are examples of the latter, in that the consequences of each strike is played out through the physical movements of the balls but otherwise the games are not strictly tied to the progress of time; it should be noted that these games are also Turn-Based Games which shows a way of combining the otherwise incompatible patterns. Tick-Based Games is another way to combine Turn-Based and Real-Time Games where all Agents actions and all game events are simultaneously updated at regular ticks which have noticeable time between them. Another option it to alternated between real time and another type of updating game state as for example in the computer game Space Hulk. Here controlling a marine in real time (including simply doing No-Ops) allows players to accumulate time (a form of Budgeted Action Points) in a strategy mode where orders can be given to several members of a squads. During these real-time modes of play, there is obviously no Downtime for players. Synchronous Gameplay is well suited for Real-Time Games, while it is also possible that parts of Asynchronous Gameplay have characteristics of Real-Time Games.

Regardless of how the real time update is achieved it is important to consider how the available player actions must fit with the pace of the game. Simple Maneuvering combined with Aim & Shoot in a Game World is a classical example of basic actions available in Real-Time Games (e.g. Asteroids and Space Invaders) where the speed of movement and shots are balanced against the speed of movement of enemies. In general Rhythm-Based Actions and Dexterity-Based Actions are common in Real-Time Games, and the latter can easily be created in these through requiring Aim & Shoot or Capture activities (so in practice, Combat can create this as well). Stealth goals can also create Dexterity-Based Actions for avoiding the just mentioned activities. All these activities require Timing of the players to match their actions, including No-Ops, to how the game updates. Combat and Capture actions are also often based on correct Timing (although in real-time strategy games the Combat between Units typically resembles the that from Turn-Based Games and Tick-Based Games). Actions requiring reflection or Tactical Planning, e.g. Action Programming, can also be used but may easily provide Tension since they often need to be done under time pressure.

If players are provided with Communication Channels to support gameplay, it is important to consider the characteristics of the Communication Channels to appropriately map the pace of required Social Interaction to the pace of the game itself. For example, text chatting in fast team-oriented first-person shooters is not necessarily the preferred communication method for the players.

Disruption of Focused Attention can be used in Real-Time Games to create Challenging Gameplay as well as to provide more Varied Gameplay, e.g by having Tactical Planning. The UFO in Asteroids is a good example of this kind of gameplay modification, and many other games use rapid Attention Swapping as one of the basic challenges of the game. Other ways to make gameplay more difficult in Real-Time Games is through the Optional Goals of Speedruns.

Some Real-Time Games offer players the possibility to stop gameplay through Game Pauses or Option Interfaces to modify the update pace of the game. Besides progressing narratives, Cutscenes give the possibility for the system to give players breaks from the need to constantly follow the gameplay. Private Game Spaces support this partially for individual players, while Drop-In/Drop-Out (possibly being replaced by AI Players) supports it completely. Real-Time Games with Game Time Manipulation can allow players actions that manipulate how time progresses in the game through speeding it up or down, it can also reverse it for some parts of the game (as Braid is an example of).

Interface Aspects

Real-Time Games can be difficult to make work in Multiplayer Games where the players are supposed to be able to move independently and only one screen is available to all players. Split-Screen Views is the typical solution to this.


Real-Time Games do not require player actions for the game state to update, as the game system can perform such simply based on the passing of real time. This makes all Real-Time Games provide the possibility of No-Ops for players and in one sense all Real-Time Games are self-running interactive simulations in which the players may participate. Somewhat paradoxical to this, Real-Time Games are always have Attention Demanding Gameplay since they either require Timing of players or that they react within a certain Time Limits. This enforces Limited Planning Ability which makes it difficult for players to maintain Analysis Paralysis and counters Stimulated Planning. When players need to do some form of planning, i.e. the game has Tactical Planning, Real-Times Games can easily create Tension since one may not feel that one has enough time - one example of a planning activity that can produce this effect is Action Programming.

Real-Time Games naturally give rise to the pattern The Show Must Go On and opens up for FUBAR Enjoyment (especially when combined with Challenging Gameplay), even in the cases where the players can use Game Pauses or other methods of suspending game time, such as Save-Load Cycles. Likewise, Extended Actions are easily achieved although they tend to also be Interruptible Actions. Since players need to focus their attention on what is happening in the game world and how they move in it, Real-Time Games can lead to Sensory-Motoric Engrossment and Spatial Engrossment. While this may link players attention to the game, Real-Time Games can linked to the real world by having their Events Timed to the Real World.

Making a game play out in real time can radically affect the possibilities for Social Interaction since this requires Attention Swapping and may cause Disruption of Focused Attention. Likewise, it may shirt the feeling of Togetherness from one based on verbal interaction to one based upon embodied interaction.

Combos in Real-Time Games that depend on Timing, which is normally the case since most actions depend on Timing in one sense or another, can give rise to Clickability in the game.

Besides Tick-Based Games, Real-Time Games are difficult to combine with Turn Taking and Turn-Based Games. This also makes patterns relying heavily of turn orders, e.g. Token Placement, difficult to use with Real-Times Games.


Can Instantiate

Aim & Shoot, Attention Demanding Gameplay, Events Timed to the Real World, Extended Actions, FUBAR Enjoyment, No-Ops, Sensory-Motoric Engrossment, Spatial Engrossment, The Show Must Go On, Time Limits, Timing

with Action Programming or Tactical Planning


with Aim & Shoot, Capture, Combat, or Stealth

Dexterity-Based Actions

with Movement


Can Modulate

Asynchronous Gameplay, Capture, Combat, Disruption of Focused Attention, Limited Planning Ability, Social Interaction, Synchronous Gameplay, Tactical Planning, Turn-Based Games

with Combos and Timing


Can be Instantiated By

Dedicated Game Facilitators

Can be Modulated By

Action Programming, Attention Swapping, Budgeted Action Points, Communication Channels, Cutscenes, Dexterity-Based Actions, Drop-In/Drop-Out, Game Pauses, Game Time Manipulation, Private Game Spaces, Rhythm-Based Actions, Save-Load Cycles, Speedruns, Split-Screen Views, Tactical Planning, Tick-Based Games, The Show Must Go On

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Analysis Paralysis, Token Placement, Turn Taking, Turn-Based Games, Downtime, Stimulated Planning


A revised version of the pattern that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[3].


  1. Wikipedia entry on Time-keeping systems in games
  2. Wikipedia entry on cue sports
  3. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.