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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Time Is Up! You Lose!

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Timers in games are generally awful.

It seems like it's been a while since I've written a dedicated game design article, so I might be rusty. But we're going to have a discussion here about a big pet peeve of mine that ruins games.

Do you know what's wrong with this picture that does not involve the catsuits?

To answer the question in the caption, today's topic of discussion are those count-down timers. I'll be giving plenty of examples of (beloved by most) Nintendo properties that have this issue, and in that process I hope it'll be clear why these things are a problem.

By the way, that screenshot also has a score counter, which, while it is stupid, it is not "awful" and doesn't ruin games. But we can talk about that in another article if you want. Or if I want.

So all the Mario sidescrolling games have timers on them. My question is... why? How does it make the game better to rush the player? Let's take Super Mario World or Super Mario Bros. 3. Some levels are notorious for having you lose by timer, like "Valley of Bowser 2" which basically auto-scrolls you because you have to go through this cave that has its ceiling/floor constantly moving so you have to retreat to safe spots to avoid being killed. This takes quite a bit of time, and I've lost to the timer multiple times for being patient. It was one of the hardest levels for me because I don't rush through levels. Some people say that is playing it wrong, but games shouldn't discourage multiple ways of play. Games are to be played by the player, and one of the biggest points of quality assurance and beta-testing is to recognize that the player does not play the same way as the developer. Anyway, another level that has its timer against you is the first Fortress level of my world in Super Mario Bros. 3. You know, Pipe Maze.


If you don't know what you're doing, and you won't in your first run-through (and maybe even your second), you're going to die by timer. There aren't many other ways to die in this level (I blew my budget on my own Doomship. ...This was before I was a fiscal conservative.) so it relies on the timer to pose some sort of tension.

That's the argument posed by pro-timer activists (not that I've looked for these people or ever seen this argument) — that the timer creates an element of tension, which is exciting and adds value to your gameplay experience. But should value come from such an arbitrary restriction? Or is it just a substitute for actually good game design? It's especially bad where there is no canon explanation for it. I'm all for the plumber dying, but how exactly does he die if he's in the castle for 200 seconds? Am I gassing it? How does that explain wide open plains? This tension doesn't add to the experience, it only detracts. You cannot take the time to enjoy the sights and explore things. Timers do not work well with good level design. Good platformers are explorational, as I've written in the past. Timers give an excuse to not have exploration-based platforming. Timers give an excuse to not care about scenery. You can't stop and smell the roses. You also can't just sit around and listen to the background music. Not that you'd want to do that in, say, a New Super Mario Bros. game unless you're trying to torture someone. (Maybe that's why Mario instantly dies: The timer represents how long he can stand the really bad music.)

There are games that punish you for smelling those roses. One such game? The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. This is a game that I do not like and I do not want remade. I really do not like the timer. Sure, it works cinematically and is completely integral to the storyline, but as a gameplay mechanic? Nope!


People reference what Majora's Mask does here all over the place.


You lose your items, your rupees, your location, and solved puzzles if you reset the timer in Majora's Mask. That's a lot of progress gone right there. Yes, you can play the "Inverted Song of Time" to make things go a lot slower, but it still doesn't change how uncomfortable the game is when you have to loop the time cycle. And if you want to 100% the game, you will have to loop it over and over.

Full disclosure: I've never finished Majora's Mask due to a combination of it freezing on my Collector's Edition copy on my GameCube resulting in a lot of progress lost and because I didn't like the time cycle. I just lost the will to play the game. The tension caused by timers can be good in short bursts... I don't like it when the entire game is like that!

Final example: The Pikmin series. Do you know why Pikmin 2 is my favourite Pikmin game and one of my favourite games ever? No, not just because of the "Pikmin 2: The Side You Didn't See" fan-fiction from the Nintendo NSider Forums that I loved. It had caves (dungeons where most of the action happened). The caves were untimed. Also, you could spend as much time on the planet as you wanted. This is different than Pikmin and Pikmin 3 where you have a finite amount of days. Without "End of Day" the series gameplay would be completely different and probably not as interesting. Yes, the timer is a pain, but it's a real-time strategy game! Time is a factor!

Speaking of real-time, my distaste of timers may also be why I like turn-based games to real-time games. I have vivid memories of playing turn-based RPGs like Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door and taking bathroom breaks during battles. In that particular game, the audience throws trash at you for making them wait too long, but that's just part of the world. It's immersive, and the trash isn't a big deal. The skillset shifts from reaction time to strategy, and I think that's a greater level of skill, or at least depth. You should be under pressure due to the situation at hand, not because you're running out of time!

Timers in games are also reminiscent of deadlines in life. Deadlines ruin your mood. For example, I have a deadline every weekday to publish a new article on KoopaTV before the day is over. And the earlier I do it, the better exposure it will probably get. Do you know how stressful that is? Deadlines are necessary for things to get done in the real world, but videogames are supposed to be an escapist other world. A world where the player is in control. But... I can't control the timer! Player control is a highly desirable element in games. People compliment when platformers have tight controls. People loved that physics exploits in Super Smash Bros. Melee allowed you to have a very high level of control over them, unlike the other games in the series.

Speaking of which, it's universally agreed that Stock mode is better than Time mode in the Super Smash Bros. series. Can't we carry over that agreement to other games as well? You should get a game over when you lose your life legitimately!


Ludwig apparently causes a lot of game overs, according to people on Miiverse using the Ludwig's Clockwork Castle tag for New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. Ludwig reads every post on that tag, and he sometimes comments. You can recognize him at NNID PrinceOfKoopas. Platformers are one of his favourite genres, but only those without timers.


If you're going to have a timed thing, don't allow the time to arbitrarily change.

13 comments :

  1. I almost complained about these after I complained about the scrolling levels. I hate the timer. I like to take my time and explore at a leisurely pace. I don't mind it in an occasional level--like those levels in Super Mario Galaxy where lava was rising or something, so you had to hurry--but not in every darn level.

    I do think it's Fake Difficulty. I prefer systems where you're rewarded in some way for going fast, like how your speed factors into your ranking in Resident Evil or Bayonetta. That way, I can take as long as I want and still get through, but there will be encouragement for me to get better (though that last one mostly applies to Bayonetta, since I don't have the patience or skill to play through an entire RE game again to try to go faster).

    Now, I like the idea of Majora's Mask's timer, from what I've heard about its implementation. I kinda like that sort of doomsday thing. Of course, I wouldn't be a classic survival horror fan if I didn't enjoy the utter terror that comes from knowing a lot of gameplay progress is at risk. XD

    (Bad implementation of a doomsday timer: Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns, which apparently thinks it's a good idea to make you start from the beginning of the game if you don't finish it in time.)

    I hate real-time strategy games.

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    Replies
    1. Yeah, some timer-based missions can add value by reusing a level design but saying, "go complete this within a certain time" because that can make you appreciate a level in a new way.
      The key there is "new", meaning you can go through the level at your leisure the first time and go back for what's basically a time trial.

      Confession that I never brought up in the article: Jessie Go Jr. Remedial Algebra grades you based on a timer, but penalizes you based on errors. (It's not 100% transparent about that but you should be able to figure it out by the time you're graded.) The point that's trying to make is that it's more valuable to take your time than randomly guessing stuff. You get a base amount of points when you answer a question correctly. That base decreases if you take too much time after a certain amount of time. (That amount of time differs between the subjects.)

      Your score at the end (the sum of your scores/grades for each individual subject) basically gets transferred to your HP bar for the word problem boss fight (which is untimed). So if you went fast, you get the most amount of health. It's based on a range. (So a score of 800-1000 means the same thing. I'd have to look back at the code to see the actual numbers.) This was somewhat inspired by Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, where the amount of bananas you collected through the level determined the amount of health you have for the boss fight.

      Testing what an appropriate time is is absolutely crucial here, or else the scoring system will be broken. You need to be given an appropriate amount of time before you get penalized! Is the use of the timer here bad? Well, I don't think so. You do need some sort of metric for performance, and it is a bit dull if that only metric is complete/incomplete (since you're not allowed to progress until you pick the right answer, not counting the boss fight).


      Majora's Mask timer was not implemented well and it goes against the spirit of a Zelda game.

      (ew)

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    2. Again, Bayonetta!
      I mean, Bayonetta penalizes your ranking for EVERYTHING... (Death? Penalty. Used a healing item? Penalty. Used an item to aid you in combat? Penalty. Didn't find all the secret levels? Penalty. Took too long? Penalty.) ...which also means you can't just rush through even though your ranking is affected by time.

      But yeah, timers aren't always bad, and games need to have some consequences for messing up.

      Well, I have one friend who swears Majora's Mask is the best Zelda game ever and that the timer encourages exploration, so I guess I'll find out where I stand when the 3D version launches. XD

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    3. Bayonetta's penalization reminds me of the Mega Man Zero series.
      ...I didn't like that.

      Timer doesn't encourage exploration wtf

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    4. I understand Bayonetta 2 is a little less harsh about rankings.
      But you're pretty much expected to get stone rankings on your first playthrough. XD

      XD

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    5. Not even bronze? :o

      How the hell can a timer possibly encourage exploration?

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    6. Before I replayed any levels, I think I managed a bronze in one of the early chapters, and in one of the later chapters, after I was better/bought some accessories.

      Looking back, I misremembered it. My friend just said Majora's Mask itself has a lot of exploration, and the timer/time-resetting makes it easier to replay sections.

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    7. You know what's even easier to replay sections?

      A chapter selection feature ala Dual Destinies.

      Or a looooot of save files you can save to.

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    8. I approve of both.
      Bayonetta also has a chapter selection feature.

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    9. Majora's Mask isn't divided into chapters, so how would that work? :p
      (Use non-Majora's Mask in your answer before you tell me you wouldn't know.)

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    10. Well, my vague understanding of Majora's Mask is that you turn back times to play through days again... or something like that.
      Umm.... trying to think of a non-MM example... Hmm....

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    11. Days are nothing like chapters, since besides sidequests which are day and time-specific, you can do temples and the main story on any day.

      Delete
    12. Well... I'll let you know when I play!

      Delete

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