CSC News

December 21, 2009

PhD Student Makes ‘History’ with Acclaimed Time-Travel Game


In video games, the concept of the “do over” is familiar to players – replaying a level or situation over and over, using your knowledge of previous tries to finally get it right. Chris Hazard has taken that idea to a new level with his groundbreaking new video game Achron – and the result has gamers and others buzzing.

Achron is a multiplayer real-time strategy game set in an alien world.  As the survivor of an alien attack, you must use ancient alien ruins capable of manipulating time to outmaneuver your enemies. 

Acrhon is the world’s first actual time-travel game,” says Hazard, who’s finishing his Ph.D. in Computer Science at NC State University. “It’s a game where all players can jump back in time to reverse their past decisions.  They can build up an army, take the opponent’s army down before they create their army…but your opponent can do the same thing.

“It’s a real-time strategy game where time itself is a resource.”

Hazard, who came to NC State after graduating from Valparaiso University in 2004, began developing this idea a decade ago.  With the final game due to be released in the latter half of 2010 from his Hazardous Games company, he’s already receiving buzz from such online media sources as “Boing Boing” and “Slashdot.” 

He says that the game has also received attention from the U.S. Army, who is interested in how its time-travel techniques could be used in helping teach strategic thinking.  “If you play this game a lot, you’ll start to think, ‘What are the long-term effects of every decision I make?’” Hazard says.

In addition, Hazard says that Achron’s gameplay has the potential to carry over to other video games as well.  “The way time-travel is done in Achron could be applied to other games,” Hazard says.  “What if you have a football or soccer game and you can go back in time for three plays and say, ‘What if I had done this play instead?’”

“Let’s say you have a racing game.  You’re driving around this track, and then you have the timeline element.  Now it’s not just about reactions – it’s almost a strategy game, like Sudoku.  What if I had braked a little bit earlier before I went around this curve?  You can see how it actually affects your time.  It’s about optimizing your time.”

But how exactly does Achron’s time travel work?  Well, for starters, players are given control of time-travel devices called “chrono-porters” that allow them to send troops, equipment and more back in time.

“Let’s say you’re fighting a battle, and you decide, ‘Well, this is a losing proposition for me,’” Hazard says.  “You can go back in time and alter things so you never entered the battle in the first place.”

Done correctly, your time-travel can allow your troops to battle alongside the counterparts from the past, head off the enemy before they can attack, or even “chrono-frag” the attackers with a devastating time-travel collision.  

“But the further back in time you go, the larger an impact your changes will make,” Hazard says.  “If you change something that only happened 30 seconds ago, it’s probably not going to affect what’s going on in the world right now very much. If you got back to 10 minutes ago, it might have a large-scale effect.”

And the time-travel isn’t unlimited.  “Players need to manage their chronal energy, which is full at the present,” Hazard says.  “As they go back further and further, every command they give eats more of it.”  The chrono-porters are also limited in the number of things they can send, or how long they can be sent.

“If you pause time in Achron, time keeps moving for the other players. One player can be playing in fast-forward in the past while another is paused in the future while a third is at normal speed in the present, all playing against each other in the same game. 

“The player sees a timeline on the bottom of the screen that indicates when everything happened.  This way, they can see when another player is changing history and can easily jump to a particular point in time, such as the beginning of a battle.”

Because of these factors, players need to think several steps ahead. “The time manipulation in Achron makes strategy even more important,” Hazard says.  “It blurs the boundary between hypothetical and committed. 

“Imagine two kids arguing about who would win in a hypothetical ‘no holds barred’ race to the park.  One kid might say, ‘Nuh-uh, you wouldn't have been able to take your bike because I would have had it chained to the bike rack.’  Then the other replies ‘Nuh-uh, I would have brought my dad's bolt cutters to cut the chain off.’  In reality, the second kid wouldn't have brought the bolt cutters without having heard the first kid's strategy.  Achron is a playable game built around this idea.”

Hazard developed Achron’s system of time-travel cause-and-affect by studying such science fiction works as the films Minority Report, Primer and Back to the Future. His goal was to make the concept of time travel believable.  “Our central mechanism is one of the most manageable ways to do it,” Hazard says.  “When you have a well-defined system like we do, you say, ‘that could happen.’ It’s kind of a fun test of science fiction.”

To see how well Achron's game mechanics stood up against scrutiny from someone who researches the possibility of time travel, Hazard showed the time-travel mechanics to Dr. John Carroll, a professor in NC State's philosophy department, whose work deals with the philosophy of time travel. “His reaction was, ’Wow, you guys really thought through this stuff!’” Hazard says with a laugh.

Manipulating time has become a bigger part of video games in the past few years, with such titles as Braid allowing players to rewind scenes, reverse the flow of time, and undo their past mistakes.  Hazard credits this innovation in part to the desire to find new forms of gameplay.

“As I and a lot of the other gamers who grew up in the ‘80s have grown up, we don’t have as much time to play games,” Hazard says.  “We don’t have four hours to try and make that platform jump.  Time travel allows you to play the game in a new way – now, saving the game and replaying the scenes isn’t cheating any more.”

Hazard says that right now, Achron is “very playable,” and that he’s looking forward to its release in 2010.  “We have the gameplay, engine, and story mostly complete, and we're just starting to focus on the graphics and level design,” he says.  “We've only been showing a small handful of units in the game due to our lack of art assets, and we expect the final visuals to be a bit different than what is seen in our screenshots and videos.”

As for time travel itself, “I’m skeptical to admit that it exists in the real universe, but I would be happy to be proven wrong,” he says.  “Physics is such a weird and wild and wonderful place.”

For more information on Achron, click here.



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