Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gaming On A Busy Schedule

One of the tried and true stereotypes about video games is that they are for kids. Honestly, who can blame people for thinking that? Between work, errands, family obligations, and everything else an adult has to deal with there is not a lot of time left to beat a JRPG or master a Street Fighter character. That doesn't mean that we should give up our favorite activities, though.

What does one do to fit more gaming into their lives? The answer that I have found is to live deliberately. When time becomes sparse, you have to make the most of it by minimizing downtime as much as possible. The goal is to never find yourself with nothing to do. Here are a few tips for getting more gaming (and by extension, more relaxation) into your limited amount of free time.

Finding The Time

The spare time for gaming is there, you just need to find it. The best way to do this is to make a calendar of your daily life. You don't have to schedule everything at first. An easy way to began is by writing things down in google calendar after they happened. Then, when you start seeing a pattern in your daily activities set those events to repeat themselves. Now that you have your basic daily schedule figured out, you can start to look for blocks of time where gaming can be fit in. These don't need to be hour long blocks, or even half hour long blocks. Maybe you fit one Puzzle Quest battle in after dinner? Maybe you set your alarm a little earlier so that you can sneak in a few rounds of Team Fortress 2 in the morning? Be open to these small opportunities.

A calendar can also be a great way to schedule gaming events with other people. Most MMO players are accustomed to seeing a calendar on their guild's forum or website. This is especially true in games like World of Warcraft where raids are set on a tight schedule. You can do something similar with your friends. Set up a google calendar specifically for gaming, then give your friends the ability to edit it. Now you can all input your free time and what you want to play. This can start out simply with someone adding a block of time and then other people confirming whether or not they are free. You can also schedule more specific events like tournaments, drafts, and game releases.

Portable Gaming

This is the most obvious solution for adding more gaming to your life. The recent mass adoption of smartphones has turned everyone into a portable gamer. However, the offerings on smartphones tend to be short puzzle games or analog representations of common games like solitaire and sudoku. If you want a more long form experience, then purchase a Nintendo DS or Sony PSP. Just because they are portable systems doesn't mean that they have sacrificed anything when it comes to the quality of the games. I have often found myself sitting in front of my high end gaming computer, but playing a game on my DS.

Pre-downloading and pre-purchasing

Many online retailers have become very good at shipping pre-ordered games so that they arrive on the same date that they are released in brick and mortar stores. If you don't have the time to make it to your local store then don't be afraid to get a copy shipped. It's great to come home from a long day at work to find a new game sitting on your doorstep.

One of the benefits to buying a game off of Valve's Steam service (PC and Mac) is that the major titles can be pre-downloaded before the release date. As soon as the game goes live you can begin playing. If you want to play a game that has already been released, spending 5 minutes of your time in the morning to purchase and begin downloading the game so that it is waiting for you when you get home that night will mean that you aren't wasting your precious gaming time staring at a progress bar.

Xbox Live goes a step further. You can purchase a game from the Xbox Live Marketplace website and have it automatically downloaded to your home console. This is extremely useful for gamers with a limited amount of time because you can purchase a game from any web enabled device and have it ready to play as soon as you get in front of your TV.

Gathering information

Part of the fun of playing video games is in the discovery. Finding new quests, new items, new parts of the game map are all rewarding experiences. However, sometimes your schedule just doesn't allow for that. Using a site like Gamefaqs to get information about a game can save you a lot of time and energy. Stuck at a boss battle and need to know the pattern to defeat it? Wondering where the next quest is? Want to optimize your character's attributes? You can use the FAQs to find information faster then you would have discovered it. I am not advocating cheating though. The goal of using gamefaqs is to minimize your "stuck" time. You don't want to waste precious hours searching a dungeon for an item or exit that isn't there (I'm looking at you, Water Temple).

The breadcrumb trick

One of the problems with playing a more extensive game in limited amounts of time is that it's tough to remember exactly what you were doing every time you boot the game up. This is especially true when you are busy focusing on work, family, and other responsibilities during the interim. Some games like Professor Layton will give you a short recap of what happened previously every time you load a save game (bless you, Level-5). Most other games will just drop you back into the game and expect you to remember what to do next. That initial "what was I doing?" moment can really kill a gaming experience. One trick that I use to alleviate this problem is to create a breadcrumb trail for a game. Every time I stop playing I write myself a short message describing what I was doing and what I need to do next. I can use these notes as a reference to keep myself on track. My preferred method for doing this is email because I have access to it on almost every device. I will create the initial email with the title of the game, send it to myself, and then reply to that email after every gaming session. However, you could use any text editor or (gasp!) even a pen and paper to accomplish the same task.

Some more complicated personal tricks that I use

Some games can be installed on flash drives. This is a great way to take gaming with you. If you find yourself with some downtime and access to a decent machine at a campus computer lab or internet cafe (are those even still around?) you can plug in the flash drive and start playing. This practice is more common with MMO players, but I know that smaller games like Spelunky, Braid, World of Goo, and Torchlight can all be run from flash drives. The biggest hurdle to overcome is whether or not the game relies heavily on the operating system's registry. If you have questions about setting up your game to run on a flash drive feel free to ask me in the comments.

When the game Torchlight was released last year it was praised for including a "netbook mode" in the graphics options to allow it to run on slower machines. This provided me with hours of portable entertainment, but when I had the free time to play at home I really wanted to utilize my desktop's superior graphics to make the game shine. What I needed was a method to share my character save across multiple computers. The solution I found was a free service called dropbox. I used the basic principles from this guide to set up a link between the save files on both computers. Every time I connected one of these machines to the internet it would check the save file for the last time it was modified. If the save file in "the cloud" was updated more recently then the local version it would download and replace it. This system can be used for almost any save game.

The ability to access your home gaming computer from mobile devices can greatly assist in maximizing your gaming time. Want to boot up your computer remotely so that it's ready for gaming as soon as you get home? Need to re-install a game or download the latest patch? These tasks can be done from just about any device using desktop sharing software. Desktop sharing is a method of controlling your monitor, keyboard, and mouse through a network connection. The easiest way to do this is to use a service like LogMeIn. Install the software, download the app, and you can access up to 5 computers from your smartphone or any web enabled computer with flash. You can also use common protocols like Virtual Network Computing and Microsoft Remote Desktop to accomplish this. These services won't allow you to play games on your PC (the refresh rate isn't nearly fast enough), but they will allow you to accomplish ancillary tasks so that you can spend the time at your computer actually playing the game.

There is never enough time in the day, and there never will be. The best that you can do is try to make every second count. If gaming is something that you love to do, then you owe it to yourself to try to squeeze as much gaming as possible into your lifestyle. These tips have helped me to do this, but I'm interested to know what you do to find more time for games? Leave a comment and let me know!


  1. I am going to try that Google Calendar trick, mostly because now you've made me intrigued with how I actually spend my day!

    Random note: saving your files to dropbox so that you can keep the same save file across different computers is a good idea, but Torchlight is a bad example. Torchlight has Steam Cloud, so if you are playing it from Steam, it will keep your data in the Cloud automatically and sync. :)

    Of course, this is coming from someone who doesn't buy a game unless it's on Steam, so I suppose it's still valid for someone playing a non-Steam Torchlight. (The horror!)

  2. I'm going to have to start using that bread crumb trick. I've been slow to get back to some of my rpgs and Phoenix Wright because I don't have any clue what in the world I was doing when I got to that point.

    I have been able to incorporate gaming into my study techniques, but quite frankly, I wouldn't recommend it to others. However, what I will say is that for students, making time is really important because otherwise, you will go crazy. Plus you need to take a break between those several hour long study periods anyway. I happen to prefer a 10-20 min. break an hour just to clear my head, though I tend to not listen to myself and burn out...

  3. Shy and I were just discussing how we'd like to have more games with less filler because we're just too busy to sink in the time that these games require just to get through the storyline. We'd be much happier with succinct games for a lower price. When you barely have enough time to complete the game once, replay value becomes a moot point.

    I am quite antsy to see the new games that Double Fine has coming out. It appears that they will be attempting to do just this, and seeing as how Tim Schafer is behind it, it should be awesome!

  4. These are some great tips, especially the breadcrumb one. I had to give up on Final Fantasy III for the DS because I couldn't remember any part of what I was doing despite numerous attempts to jog my memory. And I think using Google Calendar will help me find more time to game just by helping me figure out where I'm being time inefficient!

    I don't consider storyline "filler" at all, but an integral part of my gaming experience. For that reason, I'm of the anti-grind and spawn camping mentality - if I'm playing a game "just to get through it", what's the point? It's not a game anymore, but a task or job to be completed. That's not my idea of fun. That being said, it's why I love my DS and companies like PopCap, that make games you can play and enjoy in 10-20min breaks. In fact, I originally purchased the DS because I wanted to get back into gaming after giving it up in college due to brutal time constraints.

  5. I've begun to run into the same problem with my gaming that I have with reading, I play right before going to bed. Now my body attempts to go to sleep if I'm playing games late at night! This unfortunately causes all manner of havoc with my ability to compete in Hereos of Newerth or finish Mass Effect 2.