Back when video games were just getting truly started, there was only one way for the average person to play them: arcade cabinets. And because the aim of video games, then and now, was to make money, arcade cabinets were designed to suck up as many coins as possible. As such, many of the original classic arcade games featured punishingly difficult game mechanics—designed to be possible to beat, but only after a lot of practice (and by extension, a lot of quarters)—and, notably, timers.
Now, there are some valid reasons why a timer is a good thing, particularly in older games like Super Mario Bros. For the new home consoles, justifying the price of both the console and the games was difficult, and so incredibly high levels of difficulty, even if they were artificially created through the addition of things like the timers. But as the medium progressed, it made less and less sense to force players to work under these constraints. But still, in genres that didn’t require timers to be effective as games, we continue to see time constraints in the form of Timed Missions, even from AAA companies that should know better.
Anyone who’s dealt with a Timed Mission knows how bad it is. I personally cannot think of a single time when I saw a timer in, say, an RPG, suddenly appear and have the thought, “Oh boy, a timer! Just what I wanted!” At least, not unless you count sarcasm. In any kind of game, there are two kinds of difficulty: artificial difficulty, which is created through constraints that do not complement the other systems in the game; and legitimate difficulty (usually just called difficulty, for obvious reasons), which is when the mechanics of the game and the design of the game work together to challenge the player’s mastery of the systems. Artificial difficulty is bad because it doesn’t add any value to your game. A good example of artificial difficulty are raid encounters in most MMORPGs—nearly all of them feature “enrage timers,” which are unwritten time limits that, when reached, cause the entire party to die, regardless of how well they’re doing. The idea behind an enrage is that players shouldn’t be able to progress simply because they’re competent—players need to be able to excel at the specific mechanics in order to win. This is, pretty obviously, not the fault of players. If they can find a way to manage all the mechanics effectively enough, for long enough, that should allow them to progress. But MMO developers want these raids to last, and artificial difficulty can give them a bit more longevity. And so players are punished for not knowing a fight backward and forward, even if they knew it well enough to almost win. It’s punishment by the developers, rather than punishment because you’re bad at the game. And that’s not what you want.
Similarly, almost all Timed Missions in games that don’t typically feature a timer—an FPS suddenly imposing a timer, for example (while puzzle games often use a timer to great effect)—simply diminish what may otherwise be excellent gameplay. The developers, rather than working toward a way to make interesting, complex encounters, instead impose an arbitrary time limit in an attempt to point at the players and basically tell them that it’s their fault, when in reality the devs just gave up. Timed Missions are, in short, a cop out, and generally lazy.
That being said, there is still hope for creating actual, genuine tension in your game! Next week, we’ll take a look at ways to use player tension well, and how to design in such a way as to avoid timers.