Mechanics II: Time Limits

‘Mechanics’ is a series of posts on specific aspects of game design. It is recommended you start with the first one, because of reasons.

Time limits are ridiculous.

Let me get this straight, though: Time limits are also fine. Both can be true.

So many games have time limits. Performances, immersive spaces, narrative rooms, escape rooms, you name it. Its a standard. To suggest no time limits is to commit some sort of travesty. I contend that there is a different way to look at these things.

Without going over the edge with it, let’s just get with the simple stuff:

Why We Have Time Limits

Tension. It is all about tension. At least when it comes to the player. A game that is too short wins or loses on a single puzzle, or the players don’t have enough time to settle in. Too long, and players don’t care if they win—they just want to leave. It is different for different players, but the tension is there. If you don’t win in time, you lose, and that is too bad for you. Want to win? Get good. That is a challenge that raises the tension from the moment the tickets are purchased.

There is also ease of running the business. Players must be done at a set time for the next reservation. You can predict a certain number of players or player slots per day. When experiences are totally exclusive, like escape rooms, players can expect when it is next available to them alone, and you know when it will be done to schedule clean-up, breaks, and more. Time limits make sense. This is what makes them fine.

Finally, there is the challenge of it. It is a metric that players can compare against, even if some games are kind of fixed (I was once in a mystery theater performance where the players were given fixed information at fixed intervals, thus their interrogating actually produced nothing—they would have to wait the 40 minutes, no matter what, to get the proof they needed.). Time limits make scoring and comparison easy.

Why Time Limits Are Ridiculous

There is some saying or whatever about Einstein and the fish and it is tested on whether it knows how to climb a tree. I could look it up but I am on a roll and I don’t want to be sucked back into Facebook.

Specifically, we sometimes say ’I am good at dinner theater mysteries“ or ”I am good at escape rooms” when these things are also, almost always, done in a fixed timeframe. But then it isn’t true. Completing a crossword and completing a crossword very quickly are different skills. Decoding something quickly and decoding something at all are different skills. Completing an escape room and completing it quickly are different skills. Yes, they are inherently linked, but if a person solves things through a methodical path and another is reckless and fast and relies on pattern memorization, they are solving things in different ways. Different method of solving = different skill.

Thus part one of why time limits are ridiculous: They only reward certain types of players. Players who like to take their time and understand and appreciate a puzzle, or use a perfective and careful method of solving are considered inferior by the measure of the time limit. They can be just as clever or brilliant or helpful as other players, but now the are not in the barren and unforgiving wasteland of the Time Limit.

Then there is the whole package part. Telling a player a game will take an hour to play is fine. If they take longer, they can ask for more help to see it through to the end. If they are good at it and go faster, that is why it was ‘about an hour’, and they knew there was no guarantee, just an average. But if they have a time limit, then you have made a promise.

Part two of why time limits are ridiculous: They promise the players that expenditure of time is what they are paying for. We often price based on time limits, and players see that and think that is what they are paying for: Time spent. If they go too fast, then they just wasted money. In fact, that is the goal—do not appreciate what is happening or what we built. Go as quickly as possible and leave as quickly as possible. That is what you paid to try to do, but secretly hope we challenge you to the last second. This extends to the tasks the players have been given. They can’t take on a challenging task or one that requires too much time or thought because then it is a waste, then they get frustrated, because they were also promised that the game could be done under the time limit.

Consider this, then, when it comes to tension. Time limits aren’t needed to create tension. So part three: Time limits are not needed to make the players feel like they will win or lose. If they are solving a mystery, choosing the right suspect should determine if they ‘win’. If they find the object or release the prisoner, that is the win. Let them enjoy the story if they want to, or the puzzles, and consider that, although escape rooms in particular are stuck with time limits, that at least they can have some extra time to finish.

That gives us part four: Time limits prevent players from seeing everything. If players run out of time, they are often just as annoyed they missed out on the rest of your cool stuff. You can say ‘come back and pay us more money’ in any way you want, but it’s a double-whammy—They didn’t just lose, they lost part of what they paid for.

Consider coming up with timing or scoring systems that are optional. Design games that are 50 minutes average and keep 60 minute slots for them, just in case. Encourage players that this is their game; if they want it adjusted for friendliness, story, or hardcore challenge, have a few tricks to try and oblige. Set goals beyond just staying under the clock. Keep watch for players who are playing for high scores, playing for success, or just playing to experience. Be flexible. Time limits are ridiculous, because they limit what you can do. -JN

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