Saturday, 21 March 2015

Time Pressure

A buddy of mine was sharing some cool ideas for a new game when we got to talking about Time Pressure. "Blog post!” I thought!

Time Pressure in Games

If you think of classic games, like Chess, or Tennis, you'll find that most classic games have some sort of time pressure mechanic. A skilled player can apply this pressure to increase the number of “unforced errors” of their opponent.

A great example of time pressure in Ice Hockey is the “Power Play”. When a player commits a penalty, they're sent to the penalty box, giving a 5-4 player advantage on the ice to the other team. As the penalty timer ticks down to zero, the attacking team is under increasing pressure to score a goal and take advantage of the situation.

For a hockey fan, watching at home on TV, the “Power Play” also increases pressure. Either there will be a goal, or the attacking team will make a mistake and squander the opportunity. In either case, the pressure is on the spectator to keenly observe and interpret the action before the penalty clock runs down to zero.

In the casual games, “Dumb Ways To Die” and “WarioWare”, the player must complete amusing tasks, but under tighter and tighter time constraints. At least in the early stages of play, the player actions would be easy to do, if not for the added pressure that comes from the timer.

Curiously, in these types of games, as the player skill increases, the gameplay shifts and becomes more reaction and twitch based. When played at this level, the time pressure is almost completely removed. It's similar to the way the rich, multi layered time pressures in a game like Tennis are largely absent from Ping Pong, which is essentially the twitch-based version of the same game.

My mobile game, ScooterBoy, is a mashup between two popular genres, the endless runner and slicing games. The twist is that when the player slices a spore to get points and combos, the same action also causes ScooterBoy to jump/duck/change lanes. In essence, you're playing two different games simultaneously. For skilled ScooterBoy players, the endless runner determines the length of time for each game, while it's your ability to make combos in the slicing game which most affect your score. In this way, in ScooterBoy, the endless runner acts to apply time pressure on the slicing game.

Time Pressure == A Complication

The common theme across all of these games is that time pressure adds a complication to an already fun activity.

As a game designer, we can turn this observation inside out. If we know that adding time pressure is equivalent to adding a complication, then we are obliged to verify that our game design is still fun, even when the time pressure is removed.

Indeed, if we're following the (so called) “Rational Game Design” principles, we should be able to strip our game down to it's core, removing all the complications... Then we add the complications back in, one at a time and in combinations, in order to maximise player enjoyment.

Under this framework, Time Pressure is just one of many different types of complications we could add, and this means (in general) we can assume a priori, that we could add and remove Time Pressure at any time to our game design, without affecting the strength of the design itself.

Phrased another way, Time Pressure acts as a multiplier to increases the intensity of your underlying experience.

Time Pressure and Difficulty

Lets drill down to the first few moments of your game. First impressions. In free-to-play, these first few minutes of gameplay is where you make or lose your players.

For players familiar with your genre, the time pressure does nothing. They zip through the first few levels with perfect scores, and your effort implementing and balancing the time pressure mechanic has contributed nothing.

For less skilled players, those unfamiliar with your genre, the time pressure adds confusion and failure, additional UI, and worst of all, the pressure increases unforced errors and perceived difficulty. All your hard work to implement time pressure serves to drive off more casual players.

A time-pressure mechanic (generally) makes things *harder* for weaker players, and leaves stronger players unchanged.

This is the exact opposite of how difficulty scaling is supposed to work.

You can compound this disaster by awarding the player a power-up for completing a level in a short amount of time. Here you are explicitly making the game easier for your most skilled players.

Sandbox games with broad market appeal, I'm thinking games like “Disney Infinity” and “Grand Theft Auto” here, commonly avoid these traps by making time pressure optional. There are timed challenges on the map which the player can initiate, but the player isn't required to complete them to advance the player's personal narrative.

Time Pressure as Exotic gameplay

So how do us Indies make time pressure fresh and original? We can take inspiration from some recent games which use the passage of time to completely subvert conventional notions of gameplay.

At first glance, “Braid” appears to be a platformer, but it's actually a puzzle game that explores all manner of time based mechanics.

I won't spoil it for you, but “Five Nights At Freddies” has some amazing time-pressure mechanics where the player has extremely minimal interaction with the game.

I'm sure there's lots more examples you can share with us in the comments below.

Time Pressure, it's been done! Time to do something different.

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