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Challenge vs Frustration: Bloggin' on Time Limits

Chris Avellone


So a designer's job is to make jumping through hoops fun, and calibrating the challenge/frustration ratio of jumping through said hoops.


This blog post stems from a question from the AMA Brian Fargo and I did on Reddit (long ago) concerning the issues with this in regards to one infamous piece of game design: time limits, and how two different games dealt with the challenge.


From a gamemaster/game designer perspective, the idea of time limits is appealing. It creates pressure, and it creates an urgency for the player that's hard to beat.


In Fallout 1, the skill system and the plot was built around the design that you only had a certain number of days to find the water chip for your vault and then defeat the mutant army or game over. If you don't recall that, then chances are you played it with the patch that removed that design element, as the mutant-hunting-your-Vault-down-time-limit was patched out of the game in 1.1 because of the outcry.


So I love time limits. In Fallout 1, it was appropriate because:


- It reinforced the urgency and pressure of saving your Vault.

- It reinforced the brutal nature of the world you were in.

- It made time-usage skills more risky for players to use. Sure, Doctor was helpful, but you had to be careful because it could consume a lot of time if used repeatedly.


Players reacted negatively because:


- The time limit was unforgiving.

- It prevented them from exploring areas at their leisure, which undermined the non-linearity of the game -- suddenly you didn't want to go everywhere and explore everything, because the clock was ticking.

- It couldn't be reset/extended beyond the time limit except in a few places in the game, and only a finite number of times.


So the question becomes - if I, as a game designer, want to introduce the same level of time pressure and instill the player with a sense of urgency, what can I do?


System Shock 2 had an elegant answer to this: It associated all the time limits with your inventory items. If you powered up an implant, it had X amount of time to function before you needed to recharge it. Here's the conditions:


- It was forgiving. When the time limit ran out, you would be inconvenienced, not fail the game.

- It could be reset. The player had some measure of control over resetting this time limit.

- Yet, it STILL created a sense of urgency while exploring the environment - the loss of item functionality was enough of an inconvenience that it made you keep an eye out for recharge stations and keep an eye on the clock for when you needed to start heading back to get recharged.


In any event, this was the answer promised on Reddit, and to @VipulManchala.

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I bought Fallout 1 on Steam a little while ago and the water chip had a time limit so I solved that first before taking on the baddies.


Do I understand correctly that in the original version one had to take out the villains before returning with the chip so it was all under the same time limit?

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That's not an elegant solution. It's kind of lame. And doesn't even pertain directly to quests.


Fortunately, I've got your solution for you. It's something I puzzled out a while ago as I too am interested in time limits on quests and other ways to make my beloved video games more sophisticated, challenging and consequential. The solution is that you alter the quest itself. You allow a certain amount of time for the simple solution to be taken. If the player dilly dallies that time away, the simple path is closed, and only the difficult path is left.


Example: say you're playing a spy type RPG. You've received intelligence that a certain contact has valuable information you need to advance the quest. However, you're also warned that you should hurry to find him, because the Big Evil Semi-Secret Society of Bad Guys (BESSSBG, "Big Bess" for short) is out to get him. If you find him within a game day, say, then you can talk to him and get the info through a simple dialogue puzzle. But if it takes you more than a day to find him, you find him dead. Then you're on your own, chump. You've got to search his house. You know the info's in there somewhere, but the tricksie developers don't give you any clue that they've hidden it in a floor safe in a closet in the dead dude's bedroom. Hell, you can even add a timer to that path too. If you search for more than a game hour, the assassin from Big Bess comes back to the house because he left his cell phone on the kitchen counter when he hit the head to relieve himself after killing the dude and before taking the long drive back to bad guy headquarters. Now you have to deal with him too.


There you have it. Problem solved. Quest is still complete-able, just harder to complete because your spy apparently doesn't take his job seriously enough to prioritize his time appropriately.

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To be honest, I feel it's odd to hear this from Avellone. For I regarded him as a designer whose ideal seems to let the players build their own stories. And yes, non-compromising time-limit is, indeed, imposing. In any shape, the sense of urgency may fit survival horror such as SS2 in a closed environment, I cannot imagine a scenario where time limit and open world exploration go hand in hand together. If I am allowed to give up the fixed time-limit, the closest I could imagine would be Dead State, which is still under development. In any case, the game seems to be carefully built around survival theme from the initial concept.


Making various types of management, including time management, here, as a challenge rather than independent mini-games is a spirit of older RPGs. The problem is that, once something is screwed, it can prevent the players from completing the game. Definitely one of the most likely reasons why they have died out. I think the game like FO and Wasteland should basically allow free-loaming but, if some quests reward for completing a further challenge on the top of the basic game-plays, it can be good for change.


So, possible alternatives would be:

A time-limited quest and/or SS2 style independent quest (However, make sure that the players are aware of the time-limit trigger and/or entering the area). Dead Money, for example?

Time-line instead of time-limit - no game-over but, if the players are reluctant to react to an obviously urgent situation, the inactivity itself has its own consequence but it won't be a game-over screen - some may welcome (an) alternative quest(s) as such a consequence like chamr's example, here. However, normally, this is mostly presented as quest/quests line which allow the players to choose the order of solving quests - The quest-lines of Alpha Protocol is built on this idea and, indeed, it gives the players initiative to the story rather than imposing factors like time-limit.


In any case, if we are long-time board lurkers, we have discussed the issue quite thoroughly. So, I mean, why now?

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I bought Fallout 1 on Steam a little while ago and the water chip had a time limit so I solved that first before taking on the baddies. Do I understand correctly that in the original version one had to take out the villains before returning with the chip so it was all under the same time limit?


Nope. There were two time limits, one for the water chip quest (the one that stayed in the patched game) and one, which was hidden, for the Super Mutant invasion. Super Mutant would gradually invade the civilized outpost and, iirc, they'd manage to find Vault 13 eventually. Players didn't like it, so the team quickly removed that time limit with a patch.

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I like urgency through story. In DS3, when trying to save Queen Roslyn, there was a sense of 'story' urgency. I knew I could take my time, but there was this certain sense of, "they are breaking through"! Good sound and music can help. Saving Roslyn It wasn't enought to get my adrenline pumping, but sometimes I don't care about the adrenline experience either.

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That may work when the story is/gets linear but, in a free roaming setting, the fake feel of the urgency is inevitably hard to be ignored.


Again, the theme has been discussed thoroughly that I'd be pretty surprised if someone managed to come up with a possible solution worth being added to the existing tricks. Considering that human being cannot keep attention all the time, I think it would be wise for the designers to give additional stresses/challenges to the players at certain intervals, which can be covered by alternatives above. I presume even Dead State would try to employ some humour at times to avoid possible monotone. For the same type of stimulation would eventually end up with immunity, obligations, or even routines from the eyes of the players. Designers need to pull various strings to keep the players entertained/engaged. However, guess Avellone already knows better than this even if he can be astonishingly dumb to introduce factors such as jumping in a first person format (e.g. Dead Money) :(.

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I think brief time limits for specific challenges are the way to go, and there should never be an absolute failure state attached. An easy example is a mini-game inside a mini-game collection like Mario Party - the timer creates tension, yes, but even if you fail, there's plenty more chances to make it up because that challenge was one of many you'll be taking on. When you do eventually lose the game, it feels fair because your failure is a result of repeat losses, not one.


In an RPG context, the same approach works fine - give the player a limited time to accomplish an objective, perhaps with negative ramifications for failure, but allow the game to continue. Fallout would have actually worked with this; its open-world nature meant that the player could still win without ever saving Vault 13, so why not simply give the player a different ending if the Water Chip is never recovered? There's a story consequence (your friends all die), and a gameplay consequence (less direction/info on taking out the Master), and none of it would feel especially unfair either.


Perhaps saving Vault 13 could have been a more multi-part objective with a mix of different limitations, hard and soft. Multiple outcomes with a sort of granularity in success would have also been just as fair. For example, perhaps you side with the rebels and convince them to open up to the Wasteland, saving the Vault but ruining its safety and lifestyle. The details of course require tweaking to make everything interact and operate smoothly (which endings trump which?) but you get the idea.


As you brought up, System Shock 2 had time limits attached to inventory items (upgrades), and I think this is also a much more fair sort of limit to include in a game. While charging stations were fairly plentiful (at least one per deck of the ship) it still provided benefits while also encouraging the player to make ideal use of time. It's a timer, yes, but it's disguised both in gameplay and narrative. In that sense, a game like Fallout also has a timer - ammunition - but you can also use others like food supplies to accomplish the same. Instead of an annoyance, it becomes a game mechanic for the player to consider.


The only real issue here is development time and priorities. I can appreciate the want to tell a specific story and limiting the player's choices because of it, just as I can also appreciate that implementing so many different outcomes may not be feasible for most games. Ultimately the question isn't just how to implement time limits in a fair and effective way, but whether it's feasible. Doing it mechanically is probably the best bet when budget is a concern - building unique situations and outcomes for different possibilities is tough, but expressing that same thing as a game system is comparatively much less work.

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As you brought up, System Shock 2 had time limits attached to inventory items (upgrades), and I think this is also a much more fair sort of limit to include in a game.

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I've never particularly minded being punished for timewasting so long as i'm made volubly aware that my punctuality will be an issue, I thought the latest Deus Ex handled this well with the first quest. It gave me a choice and a consequence, which i'm always in favour of.


I know i'll not be the only player who replayed Fallout because of my own meandering progress dooming the hub and other locales, that might have been rubbed in a little more in the ending slides however. Flagellate the player with guilt a little more.

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It's a world away now, but the time limit was the reason I never played Fallout 1 until after I did Fallout 2. This was before the time I was smart enough to look up stuff for myself, so really all information was sourced from print magazine reviews, so in the main all I saw was the time limit mechanic as described in the review and thinking to myself "that doesn't sound fun" and more of less ignored the title. A regrettable incident in hindsight of course, and one that I imagine lessened my perception of the game when I finally got around to it years later.



But that's a digression that adds nothing to the discussion really. I'm still not particularly in favour of time limits, though it's not a firm position. Hard, binary, "you fail" type limits I don't feel are particularly compelling, especially in longer time scales. Even on the shorter scale, like "run away from the time bomb" or "get in and out quick before the radiation kills you" I can take or leave. It becomes either a case of save-scumming in examples like the former, or a maintenance chore in the case of the latter. It's not an interesting decision point, it's just either a case of doing it and being allowed to move on, or not doing it and having to replay that section.


On the other hand, I'm very much in favour of time as a variable in terms of choice and consequence - a third axis if you will - in which time elapsed contributes to the outcome, not in terms of success or failure, but in terms of story divergence. The most basic implementation of such a system would be some linear scaling, where your task would get incrementally more difficult if past certain thresholds; the next would be as outlined by chamr, where certain options would be closed without completely denying you success. But the concept could be taken even further, with things like a completely different narrative branch possibly resulting - neither positive nor negative - leading to potentially different ending scenarios.


This leads to the tangential issue of, in the case of "failure" to meet a time limit (I don't like the use of the term "limit" in this context), the handling of failure in general. In a perfect RPG world, there would be no concept of failure in the metagame sense, just the in-universe consequences of the player character failing. Or before I muddle myself up even more in the phrasing, "being allowed to fail." This was discussed here in the forums earlier this year I think - my favoured example is as always, Wing Commander's losing path. Wing Commander 3 in particular had a very long, detailed, and fleshed out (and mostly unrecoverable) losing path where the tide of the war would sweep you up into a final, doomed, last defence of Earth. In the context of the game, this path was just as significant and compelling as the winning path.

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Fallout would not have been the game it was without the time limit. Everything you did mattered because it ate into your time. You had to weigh everything.


The Atelier series still uses time limits. It really adds another element to the no brainers that you usually get in RPGs like fighting lots of monters and picking up everything you see. Both combat and harvesting take time.


I should add I really hate real time, time limits. None of this complete dungeon X in under 10:00 to get an S rank stuff. I can do it, but I don't like it. I like to take my time and look around.

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I've always found time limits to be far more interesting when they change the outcome of the game rather than end it. I like it when they react like a time limit in real life. When you run out of time on a project at work or school the world doesn't end, the circumstances change. I would love to see more games play with variables that are affected by time running out rather than just ending the "story" of that section.


For instance: In Fallout 1 if you didn't get the chip back in time, vault inhabitants start revolting and become pseudo raiders. A subsequent time limit runs out and they start becoming tribal.

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I thought the end of Mass Effect 2 was perfect - if you **** around and don't save your crew, they die. Simple as that. But their death triggers if you do two or more sidequests, not if you don't run fast enough.

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When you run out of time on a project at work or school the world doesn't end, the circumstances change. I would love to see more games play with variables that are affected by time running out rather than just ending the "story" of that section.


For instance: In Fallout 1 if you didn't get the chip back in time, vault inhabitants start revolting and become pseudo raiders. A subsequent time limit runs out and they start becoming tribal.


Exatly this, I lean more towards this type of time limit then say the original Fallout 1 time limit regarding finding the water chip and saving the various towns from being overrun by Mutants.


However, I would much much rather a time limit then none at all, a la Fallout 3 - no time limit to find Daddy comes off as rather lame, there are no reminders to get the job done like in Fallout 2 with the dream sequences (made me feel guilty for f$ing around), there's nothing, which comes across as very inconsequential.


Regarding the sort of time limits referred to in the blog surrounding item use like with System Shock 2, imo that doesn't particularly sound elegant to me (although I have never played this game) and I do not think that it would compell me in quite the same way.


In my more recent play through of Fallout 1, I remember making multiple saves to figure out how long you had before mutants started raiding places such as the hub, so that I could 'save' them etc. Whilst sometimes this is annoying, for me, it creates the sense of urgency I feel is severly missed when playing Fallout 3.


I remember even Baldur's Gate had Jaheira reminding you to go to Nashkel and if you d&$#ed around for too long exploring or w/ever Jaheira and Khalid would leave your party, that example pretty much sums up how I like time limits to apply.

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this is an old blog post but i just found it and wanted to say that personally i loved the water chip time limit for the exact reasons Chris mentioned.


And if people thought it would hinder them to explring things why didn't they finish that quest and then explored?? also it's not as if you couldn't explore at all! I did this one quest (water trade or something?) that gave you more time and i had plenty of time to get the water chip. but you never forgot this quest and were always thinking,"should i do this and that or should i first follow up the main quest?". I thought it was awesome.

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Just getting a whiff of time limits that prevent taking your sweet time about things, fully exploring the world, trying all options not restricted by character class or such, etc., is very high on my list of complete dealbreakers for a game.


That said, timed single non-branching quests are fine and can actually be great as long as they're quite brief and don't force you to rush through places you won't be able to revisit afterwards. So need to be very efficient in completing just that quest, but without sacrificing other things for it.

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I feel like if there urgency in some places but not for the hole game!


I dont mind having a sence of need to do stuff, but hard coded stuff like timers are bad idea. maybe in small quets to prevent the over use of a game ficture like "rest", example in a dungeon yuo need to finish it because of a quest in one day gametime, if you rest a standard rest consumes 6-8 hours, then having to rest ofter will consume the time and giving the quest not a failure per se but another outcome. for example you didnt reach in time time to help a companion so he died you compleated the quest but the bonus.


But in the end having a "DOOM CLOCK" is never "FUN"!

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Wow....I certainly got into this late...


When it comes to playing games just for myself, I rarely ever like being timed in them. I play games to relax and unwind. I do have depression and anxiety and prefer to play games that don't push me to do things when I'm not ready to do them. I can be in a hurry on my own when I get wrapped up in a storyline and that's enough of a timed event that I feel comfortable with. Why would I want to play a bit before bed or when I can't sleep and end up messing up my game because I didn't do things fast enough/not being awake enough to react when I'm just wanting to look around in game as much as possible for comfort when I don't have the time or special patience in order to do something "on time"?


There is urgency felt in storylines and maybe very quick moments of hurry to this room or that that are just fine if reasonable. But say, having negative consequences because I'm not comfortable doing something that quickly raises my anxiety is a no go. I play to relax...not make my anxiety worse.

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Why so many players today see things like time limit as something which harms their way of gaming instead of supporting it is an interesting topic on it's own.

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