I was recently playing through Dishonored 2 and it got me thinking about time. As I played through each level I was collecting all of the available upgrades, which meant I was moving at a glacial pace. This was extremely boring, but Dishonored 2 never provides any counter measure to this style of play. Naturally I got bored of the game and that’s when I thought to myself, “this would be a lot more fun if I was under some kind of pressure to move forward”. This eventually led me to thinking about how different games use time constraints to encourage players to engage with games or otherwise prevent what happened to me with Dishonored 2.

When it comes to time limits in games I think they broadly fit into two categories: hard and soft timers. Hard timers are those where you’re given a set amount of time to complete a given task and failing to do so results in some kind of punishment. Most often this punishment manifests as having to redo the timed section until you complete it, but other games will strip players of valuable resources which makes continuing to play even harder. When it comes to timers, this is often what people will immediately think of and the punitive nature of these systems have earned a lot of well deserved ire.

Having said that, I still think there are a number of games that simply wouldn’t function as well, or at all, without the use of hard timers. Take for example games with time-loops such as Majora’s Mask where players are given a set amount of time before everything resets back to the beginning of the loop. Each NPC has their own schedule and there are numerous timed events that repeat in each cycle. As a result, this structure plays a key role in how players navigate the world as they’ll be prioritizing which quests they want to pursue. When players can’t get everything done in a single loop they need to make critical decisions about how to spend their limited time and act accordingly.

Another positive example of hard timers is round/match timers. This type of timer can be found in many competitive games and is designed to encourage all players to actively engage with the game. When everyone is under a time crunch they need to act which helps to create situations where players go out of their way to interact with one another. When this happens competitive games are at their best, so by having a time crunch in place developers help to push all players toward this style of play while overly passive strategies are discouraged. This also has the benefit of making the game much more exciting to watch during tournaments as almost no one wants to see a win earned through stall tactics.

Finally are games where players are simply given a set time to complete something in a game like what’s seen in Pikmin. In Pikmin you play as a marooned space explorer who herds a bunch of sentient creatures to help them repair their broken spaceship. You only have thirty in-game days to finish your ship and attempt an escape. This time constraint will often push new players to take gambles and explore outside of their comfort zone, otherwise they’ll fail to repair their ship in time. The result is a journey fraught with danger where players constantly ride the line between success and failure, which is far more exciting than Pikmin 2 or 3 where players effectively have infinite time to complete their objectives.

While hard timers are often heavily criticized, they aren’t entirely without merit. In all of the cited examples, time is used as a way to encourage players to act quickly. This will frequently require us, as players, to think on our feet and constantly evaluate a situation as we won’t have time to plan everything perfectly. This style of play can be off-putting, but is far more likely to result in exciting victories where the player barely scrapes by. The safest path is usually less interesting than a play-through filled with risks and rewards. While they may not work for a one off boss fight, hard timers are a handy tool in the game designer’s toolkit and should be considered as a method for encouraging interesting decision making.

Now, what do you do if you want to encourage players to take chances, but you don’t want to penalize them if they fail? Well that’s where soft timers come in. Where hard timers provide a strictly enforced stopping point, soft timers offer a lenient experience and act as more of a suggestion. They allow developers to put time pressure on the player, but aren’t nearly as punishing which allows for a couple different implementations when compared to hard timers.

The first of these implementations is reward based systems. Games like Sonic are a lot more enjoyable when players are moving through the levels at breakneck speed. As such, modern Sonic releases provide a score and letter grade to the player when they finish a level. Speed plays a key role in earning a higher score, so players are encouraged to move through each level quickly, which also happens to make the games more enjoyable to play. Stealth games like Hitman make use of a similar system when scoring players. Speed is a major component of the scoring system, which helps to encourage riskier, quick executions, instead of waiting around endlessly for the perfect opportunity. In both examples, a soft timer is being used in conjunction with a scoring system to push players toward desirable behaviour.

Alternatively, if scores don’t fit the game in question, other types of in-game rewards can be used instead. Take for example the rogue-like Dead Cells where each level has a bonus reward that can be earned by completing it within a set time limit. This provides a powerful incentive to encourage players to move quickly and play aggressively, which can help to relieve some of the tedium that comes from playing the same levels over and over.

While soft timers lend themselves to being used as reward systems for desirable play, they can be used to ratchet up the tension without the threat of immediate failure. Take for example Invisible Inc where each mission has a security level. The longer a level is played the higher the security level and thus the harder it becomes. This naturally leads players to start taking more gambles in order to finish a mission quickly as it is less risky than sticking around for too long. Even in the event that the max security level is achieved, players don’t immediately fail and are able to finish the level. This leads to a lot of tension without the kind of penalties that accompany using a hard timer.

The examples cited help to illustrate the key strength of soft timers: flexibility. In most cases these timers can be used to help encourage desired behaviour without invalidating slower methods of play. Sonic, Hitman, and Dead Cells are all still perfectly playable in a slower, more methodical fashion, likewise so is Invisible Inc. However, thanks to the soft timers present in all of these games players are given a reason to move quicker and will likely make more of an effort to do so. By providing a light push in the right direction, developers can encourage the actions they want out of players without having to penalize them for not moving fast enough, or otherwise not moving fast at all.

Before closing out this post I’d like to return to Dishonored 2 and apply an example of both a hard and soft timer to illustrate exactly where my mind was at when I started writing this. A hard time limit would be easy: you simply provide a limited amount of time to complete the level. Players are given a map so they know approximately how much distance they need to cover and would be pushed into making a number of different decisions. Instead of meandering through the level collecting all of the upgrades, players would have to determine which upgrades are most important and seek them out. In addition, having a time limit would prevent the player from endlessly waiting for the perfect opportunity to sneak past guards leading to more interesting scenarios and greater opportunity for all of the systemic interactions in Dishonored 2 to shine.

For a soft timer, my favourite idea is to reward the player with additional runes. Runes act as your skill points, and providing bonus ruins for finishing a level quickly helps to offset the amount of runes players will miss by running through levels more quickly. While players could effectively pursue either option and have just as many runes available for upgrading their character, I think that having the option to play quicker would help to keep things more exciting for players like myself who bore easily when a game’s pacing slows to a crawl. This would also allow players who want to comb each level the freedom to continue doing so. Neither option is necessarily more optimal than the other, rather players are given the ability to play at different paces without incurring any type of penalty.

While they don’t work for every game, I think there is a lot of value in timers, both hard and soft. Simply dismissing them as complete bullshit entirely misses the numerous areas where having a time limit helps create a far more compelling experience than could otherwise be achieved. Fact of the matter is, timers help to push players into taking more chances, or simply encourage a style of play that is more fun for a given title. How exactly these systems are implemented can vary wildly covering a wide variety of potential use cases and I hope I’ve demonstrated that here.

Now it’s your turn. I queried Twitter about the subject of timers already, so I’d like to know your favourite games that feature time limits. Did the time limits help to coax you into making decisions you wouldn’t have otherwise made? Did it ultimately create a more interesting experience? Let me know in the comments.