Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Ticking Clock: Understanding Time Limits

There are few things gamers seem to hate more than being rushed.  Although timers have historically been with games since nearly the beginning, and were a staple of arcade and home console titles throughout the 80s, in modern times it's been an element of gameplay that has fallen out of fashion - at least, in any explicit sense.

In this article I'd like to take a moment to examine how timers work in games, why players usually don't enjoy them, and how the fundamental design ideas and mechanics behind timers can be effectively implemented into a game in other ways.

Long Time Past

Timers, as mentioned above, have their roots in arcade games.  Back in the golden age of arcades, timers existed as a second way to make sure players kept plunking quarters into the game machine.  Just as the design of many arcade games was centered specifically on trial-and-error (Dragon's Lair) and sheer perseverance (just about any brawler) to make sure players kept paying, timers were a more brute-force method of achieving the same goals.  If the end boss on level 2 didn't get you, then you could be sure the five-minute limit would force you to deposit more money by level 3.

In the days of arcade games, time limits were less a function of interesting gameplay and more about getting players to cram more quarters into the machine - in many cases the health bar itself was a substitute for a numeric clock.
 On home consoles, time limits persisted for a very long time they were obsolete.  Many of the most iconic platform games of the 80s included time limits, some of them variable with each stage (Super Mario Bros.) and some of them fixed (Sonic the Hedgehog).  The time limit was to a degree a legacy of the arcade world, but it also served a new function - to improve gameplay for its own sake.

The lengthy ten-minute clock in Sonic the Hedgehog existed not for profiteering reasons, but to add a feeling of tension to stages.  It was a game all about speed, and as a result of the timer, Sonic couldn't pick up every last power-up and collectable.  The "feel" of being under pressure was enough to push players onward even if they were almost never in danger of running out of time - environmental hazards and enemies were enough to do put success in jeopardy already.

The Ticking Clock

The problem is that most people hate time limits.  The feeling of a ticking clock counting down constantly is one that borders on torturous in some cases, as anyone who's taken a timed exam will know, and that carries over into the realm of videogames.  In an era of home consoles, time limits are often more frustrating than fun, feeling antiquated next to other relics of the past like limited lives.  

There's a certain Otherness to the timer, a sense of a foreign entity watching over us, monitoring our every move, and casting silent judgment.  The timer isn't just about what we're doing, but what we're missing as a result.  Every action loses valuable time that could be spent elsewhere... and only the ticking clock knows if we made the right choice.  The game is now about performance, in more ways than one.

Survival horror games don't often have literal timers, but the exact same stress and panic can be created because the underlying mechanics governing player actions are very similar.
It's this discomfort that is the essence of the timer, not the timer itself.  When reduced down to such an emotional response, suddenly there are all sorts of other ways that we can create the mechanical function of a timer, without necessarily creating the same emotional reaction in players.  Moreover, this allows us to better manipulate scenarios to engineer the feelings we actually want players to experience.

One of the best examples of this can be seen in a survival horror title like Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.  In this rather unconventional game, much of the tension and fear is a direct result of being forced to run from enemies that are faster than you are.  While not a literal time limit, that feeling of intense distress comes on in full force because every action feels significant, and there's less and less margin for error as the game goes on.  Contrast this with Alan Wake, where a more pervasive feeling of dread is created, rather than any sort of panic - without a strong time management element, the game isn't so much outright scary as it is a page-turner.

Mechanics of Time

Time is one of the most fundamental resources we have to manage in games.  Even games we usually don't think about time in are heavily moderated by it - first-person shooter game systems are usually a function of accuracy and reaction speed vs. damage taken, turn-based strategy games usually have a form of time limit in turn timers, cooldowns before you can use your super ability again, and so on.  There are any number of ways time limits can be expressed, but the main goal is always to create a sense of tension by providing a secondary gameplay consequence to each action.

Understanding that timers are not about time and more about limiting the range of a player's available options before failure is integral to getting why timers work.  Seen through this lens, it's hard to un-see time limits in games whether they're explicit or not.  It often forms much of the depth of an experience, and gives additional structure to what would otherwise be a fairly isolated and limited set of mechanics.

Long-term and short-term time management, and their interplay between other resources, is what defines StarCraft's intense strategic gameplay.
No longer is building an army in StarCraft about simply farming the right amounts of resources and building up forces - now it's about doing so in the most efficient way possible, to ensure that the enemy doesn't do it first.  This strained, tense relationship, the fear that every action could be the wrong one, is what drives the strategy of StarCraft.  All the selection of units, buildings, and so on only gains meaning through the context of time.

From there, it's simple to see how time can offer further gameplay propositions.  Different units can take more or less time to build, balanced out by their relative effectiveness.  Strategies are more or less risky due to how much time they consume (the Zerg Rush being the most classic gamble).  
Changing the shield or health regeneration rates on different units can make them more or less compelling to maintain long-term, and also make players think twice about sending them in on the front lines.  And of course, this is just one example of one game - this applies equally to everything from scrolling shooters, to platform games, to puzzle games.

Handling Time Limits

Of course, if you absolutely just have to have a time limit in a game, then it can still definitely work when given the right context.  There's a few general rules to follow that will ensure time limits stay fun.
  1. Never attach an absolute fail state to a timer.  If the player makes a mistake, gets stuck, etc. and runs out of time, that's frustrating.  Combining that with a game over screen, lost progress, the requirement to replay a section of gameplay?  Even more annoying.  For example, in Diablo III, there's a challenge to reach a hidden vault before it closes again, but this doesn't result in a "rocks fall, everyone dies" scenario.
  2. Telegraph the benefits of beating the clock, or the risks of failure.  If the player doesn't know what's at stake then it's not worth bothering with a timer at all.  This can apply both to gameplay and story - such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution punishing the player for spending too much time smelling flowers during a hostage situation, but only after reinforcing the importance of being quick.
  3. Offer rewards, not punishments.  Timers are already punishing in themselves.  If a player is able to complete a goal before a timer runs out, that's a sign of skill, and should be rewarded.  Losing out isn't always a function of a lack of skill, and while sometimes punishments are fine, usually the punishment should come from what the player is missing out on by losing, not by crippling them further.
  4. Give alternatives.  Especially in the case of long-term timers (such as a food and hunger mechanic), players can always be caught with their pants down in a way that is unpredictable and may not be their fault.  Rather than face the prospect of hours of lost game time for simple forgetfulness, offer the ability to take an alternate punishment (exchange one resource for another, i.e. time for gold), or make up for the mistake (complete an optional challenge to gain more time back).
This isn't to say that time limits should always conform to these guidelines.  Some games benefit immensely from their brutality.  Some of the most fun I've had with games has come from the result of mis-managing time limits, such as in Fallout, when during my first play-through I had to rush to bring the Water Chip back to Vault 13 before a game over scenario.  The STALKER series is immensely satisfying and provides a great deal of challenge in resource management, and failure to prepare properly will get you killed - there's nothing wrong with that so long as players are well-informed of how to survive in the first place, whether through explicit tutorials or a gradual ramp up in difficulty and game depth.

Grand Theft Auto is known for its stringent time limits, but they tend to be more frustrating than fun due to their incredible strictness and mandatory nature.
 The key thing to keep in mind above all else is that timers should never be unfair - I have many memories of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City imposing strict mandatory time limits on extremely difficult challenges before story progress could continue, for instance, and it was no more fun a decade ago than it is today.  Between the squirrely controls and scripted events designed specifically to force mission restarts, time limits of that nature were nearly malevolent on the part of designers, and the novelty soon wore off in the face of sheer repetition.

One last thing I'd like to draw attention to is the "inverse time limit" that some more modern games have begun to sport.  Rather than ticking down, a timer ticks up to document your final score.  Whether that's Bulletstorm's level completion time leaderboards or Super Meat Boy's limited-access bonus stages that require quick reflexes to reach, these timers feel far more fair for players.  Players won't ever die as a result of those time limits, but they might miss out on unlocking optional bonus content or reaching the high scores.  This provides an impetus to keep playing and mastering the game rather than a sense of frustration.

Closing Thoughts

It's been interesting to see such a staple in gaming's early days transition into a much more smartly-utilized, softer mechanic.  While some purists might insist that timers are great to have around as a pretense of challenge, like all game mechanics it's important to recognize the underlying reasons for why time limits exist in the first place, and how they can be repurposed for new situations or even camouflaged to avoid frustrating players needlessly.

I'm also curious to see developers take time limits in more interesting directions in the future.  While many of the games of my childhood depended upon explicit time management, much of that has disappeared or been obfuscated in recent years.  Layered resource management is the core of interesting systems design, and adding just one or two time limits, in both the long or short term, can often completely change the nature of gameplay.


  1. I'm happy to say that New Super Mario Bros. Wii's level timer feels just as a natural part of the challenge as in previous games (IMHO).

    1. I haven't played it, so I can't say, but I do think time limits still work in Mario, at least ones with smaller stages... while it's arguably at odds with the leisurely pace of home console gaming, I do think the timer does a nice job of subtly pressing you onward. When your time starts to tick down and alarms go off, you always still have enough to finish the stage, but it definitely keeps you on task.

  2. Have you ever played Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter? It's a survival horror game that pretends to be an RPG. And it has a "timer" of sorts, too. The main character has merged with a dragon. Using its dragon powers makes the game's extremely difficult fights easy, but also makes the "D-meter" go up. And when the D-meter hits 100%, it's game over. The D-meter is always there, in the corner of your screen, and although using the dragon powers is indeed optional, even just walking around will cause it to slowly tick upward. And it never goes down. No matter what.

    It's a pretty intense experience.