It’s About Time: In Defence of Timers

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.

9 thoughts on “It’s About Time: In Defence of Timers

  1. I mean, I already @ you on Twitter, but I have more room here. I completely agree that certain games just wouldn’t work/have the impact they do without the timer. Like you said, with Majora’s Mask, the timer is literally a part of every single aspect of the game. It influences the way you play, approach different scenarios, and ultimately, adds to the sense of unease the game is known for. It’s brilliant. It’s just so well-integrated into the game.

    I also like the way the timer is used in Persona 5 – technically, you’re on a timer for the whole game. It works on a calendar system, so you only have so many days in the month, and roughly, two blocks of time per day to get shit done (i.e. after school and at night). It makes you think carefully about how you’re spending your time, and what kinds of activities you’re prioritizing (like hanging out with confidants or exploring dungeons). You still have free reign to choose how to use your time, but there may be consequences if you don’t meet certain deadlines, or don’t progress certain relationships/storylines by a certain date.

    I think where I tend to dislike timers is when they pop up in games as one-off challenges or random missions – the game hasn’t demanded you play like this before, so when it suddenly changes, it can feel jarring and stressful. Going back to Persona 5, there is a certain boss fight that puts you on a 30 minute timer, and it’s an absolute nightmare. Random GTA missions where you’re timed are also the bane of my existence. Right up there with forced stealth.

    TLDR: When timers are integrated into the gameplay from the very beginning, I don’t mind them. When they randomly introduce a crunch timer suddenly, it’s annoying, and stress me tf out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually had a few friends tell me after the post went live that I should have used Persona 5 (or Persona in general) as an example. I had a similar example in one of my earlier drafts (as limited turns is kind of like a timer – at least in an abstract sense), but I didn’t want to have to argue with someone about the validity of including a more abstract example.

      That said, it seems like Persona hits the exact same beats as what I was outlining here, except when it doesn’t.

      From what I could gather based on the poll I ran, it seemed like most people who had issues with timers felt the same as you do. And to be perfectly fair I also don’t think that having timed stuff pop out of nowhere makes a whole hell of a lot of sense. The one time that I could see it kind of working is during games which feature a time trial segment. However, these are almost always optional challenges the player opts into, so there is an understanding from the onset that you’re racing against the clock.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a little grumpy because the pizza I just ordered was disgusting and gave me the shits, and I’m letting my bad mood out on you. To do so, I will talk about something you mentioned here with only marginal relevance to the rest of the article. Fasten your seatbelts and make sure you’ve got enough coke (I’m 60 % sure that I’m talking about the drink) because you’re in for a ride…
    The part I’m talking about is where you say “it is more exciting to barely scrape by” (although you said “scarp”, but I don’t wanna be that guy…uh…) and it “encourages interesting decision making”.

    No…

    At least, not as genericly as you say it is. I attribute this part to watching one too many GMTK videos, as these are the exact words he uses in every 1.5th video, and – like you – he uses it like it is some universal truth. But it’s not. In fact, it works only in a small subcategory of games. Before I dive a bit deeper, I need to say that I understand the reasoning behind it. Time limits (among other things) are meant to create a sense of urgency, forcing players to rely more on their gut feeling rather than (over)analyze situations. That way, if they make the right decision, players feel good about themselves, if it was a wrong decision, they can’t beat themselves up over it.

    Time limits also set the pace of the game/segment, much like a movie would. It decreases the margin of error (a huge part of difficulty), acts as a motivator of sorts, and creates additional tension. All of this can be a good thing. The flip side is that it takes away control from the players, and by doing that, it also limits interactiviy, aka the key advantage video games have over any other medium.

    My main point here is about taking away control from the players. As I said, this can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the context. “Barely scraping by” also indicates the absence of control. If you were in control of the situation, you’d have aced it, not almost failed. Barely scraping by is only more exciting in situations where you’re expected to do badly, when you are meant to be heavily outclassed, in a context of you having to prevail against all odds.

    If this is not given, barely scraping by is not exciting, it’s annoying. It means that you fucked up where you shouldn’t have. You lost control when, canonically, the main character is a total badass who’s all out of bubble gum. Take, for example, the first Assassin’s Creed game. If you take damage, you lose synchronization (health). This means that, lore-wise, Altair never took any damage, he was just that darn good. Sure, it can be fun to fuck up and deal with the consequences, but the true satisfaction comes from flawlessly executing your plan.

    Hitman is another great example. The game’s appeal comes from finding out how the level works, and then absolutely nailing it (and it’s mum, for that matter). If you get caught and barely scrape by, you did not perform as Agent 47 would have. Or take the Batman: Arkham games. Getting your ass handed to you “really makes you FEEL like Batman”…NOT!

    I reckon you know GMTK’s video about “playing through your mistakes”? Where he basically says to not instantly quickload the moment you get spotted, but to push through and turn the situation around? His “barely scraping by is a lot more exciting” viewpoint extremely shines through there. It might sound counterintuitive, but I’m actually with him on that. However, he missed a critical point (I think he does, I did not watch the video again before posting this comment): THose games, where this comes into effect basically have two game modes.

    First, you’re learning the layout of the level and how you can interact with it. You learn to spot opportunities, and try every possible solution. This is where you absolutely should push through any mistakes. If you get spotted (in a stealth game), let the alarm sound, go on a shooting spree, and take the D (as the final rating, not in any other way…). THEN, reload. From a story-point of view, I like to imagine that the main character does some Sherlock-Holmes-Pre-Fight-Evaluation-BS (“Discombobulate”) and thinks about possible outcomes. If you get caught, he realizes “Ah, I have to be wary of this and that”. After I know the level, it’s time to perfectly execute it. I have tried multiple possibilities and chosen the one I like best. This is what really happened in the game.

    While it can be fun to play through your mistakes/barely scrape by, in these cases it certainly is not more exciting. it is part of the fun, but the exciting part is being in control. It’s not just stealth games, of course. I’d say in most games, your character is supposed to be better than most of his adversaries. You are supposed to tackle insurmountable challenges, but you are supposed to overcome them (canonically on your first try).

    In most cases, you will want to have a fair challenge from your game, and you could argue “But if I always win easily, then it can’t have been that much of a challenge. When I barely scrape by, then I know I had to give it my best!” That is true, and I don’t say we should never barely scrape by. I also do not mean to say that just because we canonically always win, the game should always let us win. After all, we’re playing a video game, not watching a movie. What I *AM* saying is that stating “barely scraping by is more exciting”, like this was a universal truth, is false.

    Even in games with the right context, where everything seems to be able to kill you and every tiny victory should feel like you’re barely scraping by, even those games have a transition. At the start, it really is like that. Even the most basic enemies will kick your teeth in, you’ll have huge difficulty spikes where you’ll initially think it’s BS and bosses are not meant to have to barely scraping by, but to outright deny you progress.

    However, as the game goes on, you’re supposed to learn to think “like the game”, earlier bosses can become regular enemies, and even with new enemies, you will kinda know what to expect. Sure, if you’re not careful, you’ll still die, but you no longer are expected to barely survive each encounter, and only really tough enemies should pose a genuine threat.

    Why is that so? It’s simple. Barely scraping by creates tension. And tension wears off. Either you learn how to deal with the situation, effectively diffusing the tension, or the game keeps adding stuff to keep the level high, but then it will turn into exhaustion pretty quickly. If everything is OP, nothing is OP. If everything makes you barely scrape by, then the challenges meant to be impactful stop being that.

    Anyway, as I told you on Discord, I don’t really think that you meant it in any other way than I described here, but I’ve noticed a trend here and on GMTK’s channel to see this phrase to be used more and more as a universal truth rather than a situational tool. I can’t really reach Mark Brown, so saving you will have to do 🙂

    Funny enough, I think part of this might stem from you playing (almost) exclusively Indie titles, which seem to deal with “barely scraping by” topics a lot more often. A lot of them (especially in the later years) deal with personal/human struggles, and I think we can all agree that we’re never in control of these. On the other hand, a lot of AAA games will have you play as mighty warriors, super-secret agents, powerful wizards, thrifty apocalypse survivors etc. These people are supposed to be badass and deal with situations not only easily, but while cracking jokes.

    Okay, one last thing, which I find funny. And, please, this is meant more as a joke rather than actual criticism, so I’ll phrase it as a meme:

    Frosti: “Timers are a complex subject with numerous layers. You can’t just view one of them and have an opinion on the topic as a whole.”
    Also Frosti on Twitter: “Lmao, what’s y’all’s opinion on this topic as a whole? Yes or no only, mofos!”

    Like

    1. As I said in discord, using more absolute language helps to create a stronger argument. I also don’t think the examples you’ve provided work to prove your point. If you’re really meant to perform perfectly then why not make that the only valid option?

      Now a piece of advice for you: you could stand to learn when and where it is effective to be verbose. What you said in discord was easily understood by me, where as what you’ve written here is mostly jibberish. We’re it not for the discord conversation I wouldn’t have even been able to follow your train of thought.

      Sometimes less is more.

      And yeah… it’s twitter. Not much context one can provide in 200 characters.

      Like

      1. Point taken about my style. In short, I already feared that it was all over the place, but I hoped it wasn’t that bad. Sorry. I will do better next time 🙂

        I know that you’re not meant to perform perfectly every single time. That one perfect run is the payoff for the time you spent practicing the level. I specifically said that. My point is about being in control or feeling like you are. It is why people reload when they get spotted or take too much damage. They feel like this is not supposed to happen, so they instantly try to rectify it.

        Furthermore, it depends on the context of the game if you’re supposed to be in control or not. Many (if not most) big games have you play as experienced soldiers, highly trained agents, mighty wizards, and the likes. These people don’t make mistakes. So if the player makes one, they start feeling “disconnected” and reload.

        Forcing players to barely scrape by also may make them feel out of control and therefore disconnected. In these cases, they might feel like they didn’t do the character justice, and instead of pumped, they feel disappointed and also reload.

        It is different for games like Dark Souls or Celeste. You don’t play as overpowered characters and/or deal with human problems. You are supposed to struggle, and you are expected to fail. These are the games where barely scraping by is exciting. It means you have bested a situation that was meant to fail you. (Except that it wasn’t really, because games are there to be played through, but it’s about how the players feel).

        You play mostly Indie games, so you come across more games where it really is more exciting to barely scrape by. Not all of the time, as I mentioned, but on big obstacles, yes. I play games all around the spectrum, and whenever I find myself basically forced to play suboptimal in “being-in-control-games”, it’s annoying. It’s similar to grey-and-grey morality in games. It can be a very effective thing, but if it’s forced upon players, it has the opposite effect and feels patronizing and hand-holding.

        Hard Timers especially can feel contrived in these games. Even if in this situation there was a natural time limit, having a timer tick down feels inherently video game-y and like additional artificial pressure. This is where soft timers come into play, presenting windows of opportunity as a reward for quick thinking, as you mentioned.

        To summarize: Creating situations where players are forced into sub-optimal situations CAN be a great tool to create tension and a feeling of accomplishment. But it is highly situational and when used in a wrong way, is worse than the potential payoff.

        Again, this got longer than I intended, but I tried to be as to-the-point as possible and I hope it makes more sense 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hrm… As a general rule, I dislike the use of timers in games. I think the lack of such in the Dishonoured games opens up optionality in approach to the game.

    Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and you mentioned some good examples already.

    Plus there is an implementation I not only don’t mind but quite like — and I think it could work for the Dishonoured example too.

    That being that there is no timer at the outset. But should you raise an alarm at the wrong juncture, perhaps in your targets location, it might be the case that their guards usher your target toward a panic room or to another site entirely.

    At this point, you might choose to go with the chaotic path of mowing everyone down before the target is sealed away. You might choose to break line of sight, and beat the target to the panic room or point of egress and take them on there. Maybe possess a sufficiently highly ranked officer capable of calling the whole thing off, either as a false alarm or that they have you in custody.

    Depending on what makes sense for the level and/or target in question, this could be adapted to either a hard fail where a reset is required, or a soft fail wherein this person might make things more difficult for you further down the track, or you might just have a harder time finding a way in to actually get them. (i.e., perhaps again finding some officer not already locked away who can convince them to come out).

    The basic breakdown point of all this being: Make the timer make bloody sense. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could see that working as well. I think the big thing is I just needed something (anything) to help push me toward playing the game in a way that wasn’t super boring. While I get that I was in control of the game and thus was making it boring, Dishonored never provided any checks against that and it made each level fairly easy. That’s very much one of those ‘you need to save the player from their own laziness’ kinda situations.

      Still though – I like the idea of having soft fail states that can help to create new problems that need to be addressed on the fly.

      Liked by 1 person

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