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Ahh, our old enemy the time limit. Is there a lazier way for a designer to increase the difficulty of a game?

The latest object of my scorn due to this lazy design element is Star Fox Command on the Nintendo DS. Before you get to the Star Fox part of the Star Fox game, you plot out flight paths for Fox and his allies on an overhead map of the planet, keeping in mind enemy squadrons that approach the Great Fox, cities that need liberating, and objects on the map that may assist you in your quest. The caveat? You have a limited number of turns in which to accomplish the planet’s mission objective. You can increase the number of turns you have remaining by liberating cities under enemy control. Turns are a limited resource I have to manage, so much for getting to enjoy the experience at my own pace.

It’s the final countdown!

So you see your characters fly around this map on the courses you’ve plotted out and run into an enemy squadron. Hooray, time to finally do what this series is famous for and get behind the controls of an Arwing. Your objective on these missions is to destroy certain types of enemy in order to collect star shaped cores needed to complete the outer mission on the main map. The controls are strictly touchscreen and, surprisingly enough, work rather well. Unfortunately, the Arwings now have a VERY limited supply of fuel, in the form of a timer that counts down at the top of the screen. You can increase this time by flying through rings and by killing things. You get ONE second for each enemy you kill. Yes, you will get ONE second back for each enemy you track down and kill, an act which can easily take five to ten seconds, or more. Wow.

Okay, I came into the mission to fly around and shoot at things, so of course it makes sense that I’d want to spend a lot of my time desperately hoping that I can finish the mission in MINIMAL time, and hope I can collect enough time bonuses from the rings to save up for a big boss fight at the finish that could take goodness knows how long. A weird decision is that despite the fact that this is supposed to be ‘fuel’, ALL of the characters share the same pool of time remaining. Use thirty seconds in Fox’s Arwing and Slippy, despite being in a separate Arwing on the other side of the map, now has thirty seconds less fuel to use in his next mission. So the Arwings magically share fuel across vast distances or something? Bah! Lazy. Lazy. Lazy.

Why in the world did the designers think this arbitrary time limit was a good idea? It is essentially saying, “I do not want you to enjoy this game for too long.” I actually looked forward to tooling around in an Arwing again. The designers of the latest Star Fox game, however, will have no such thing. Missions are not fun hunt-and-destroy objectives, they are a desperate grasp for time bonuses, and frantic shooting, hoping that you can finish the mission quickly enough to have enough time left for the rest of the missions, which will also have to be finished as quickly as possible. This is only fun to a very small subset of the game playing public. Not to mention that the resources the company expended on supporting this mechanic, adding the art and code to implement the time limit, would have been far better spent enhancing other elements of the game.

Did the designers conclude the game was not hard enough unless the player was frantically fighting against a ticking clock? When you run out of fuel, you lose an Arwing, and must pull another one from the stable of ‘remaining lives’ (another design element that needs to die). If the designers want me to be careful to protect my Arwing and its copies, why not put more and more difficult enemies in the levels to fight against? That, after all, is why I bought the game in the first place, to fly around and shoot at enemies. Not to hope and pray that I find enough time bonuses to allow me to finish the missions.

Pikmin’s time limit kind of makes sense because it is tied to sunrise and set.

There are rare occasions when I think a time limit is sensible and serves to enhance, rather than detract from a game. There is a room in an early level of Viewtiful Joe which looks down a long hallway. As Joe fights the seemingly endless string of enemies, a spiked barrel slowly approaches down the long hallway. Destroy enough enemies to get the key and open the door before the barrel reaches your position at the end of the hall, and you get to live. The ‘timer’ in this case is not a number the designer has arbitrarily decided upon. It is a real, moving danger within the game level. It is something that can be seen. It’s clear why you have forty seconds in which to complete the objective, because that’s how long it will take the barrel to reach your position!

So, the next time you are designing a videogame’s mechanics, or a level, and you’re tempted to jam a time limit in because you are too lazy to think of a better way to increase the tension of the game, do the rest of us (people who play games to enjoy them) a favor and just quit your job. You are clearly too lazy to be doing this work anyway. Or, you can invent something new within your game that increases the challenge in a more interesting way than simply having a number that ticks down in the lower left corner of the screen.


  1. Shota said on April 23, 2008:


  2. bruce said on April 23, 2008:

    Another reason I think this annoys me so is that our brains have to use a different part to process the ticking numbers. In the example I gave where a barrel steadily approaches, we get to use the spatial perception and reaction part of our brain to process the barrel’s approach, areas which we generally actively seek to engage while playing a game. A ticking number, however, demands processing by areas other than the spatial bits. We have to break our minds out of the tasks we were so gleefully engaged in to perceive and process the information embodied in the numbers. In other words, we have to do math.

    I never minded Pikmin’s sunrise/sunset limit, it made sense in the context of the game. Note also that Nintendo chose to use a visual metaphor for that limit instead of a number (see above paragraph). Outside the game, I know Miyamoto was originally inspired by working in his garden and wanted to convey a sense of working outdoors. And any outdoor activity is governed by the rising and setting of the sun.

    The thirty day limit to the overall game, however, remains a very sore point with me.

    And a big thanks go out to the editors at videolamer for reviving my old writings!

  3. jay said on April 24, 2008:

    You mean new writings 😉

    The time limits in Fallout and Shenmue bother me in particular. Neither is difficult to complete in time but the design choice to throw a time limit into an RPG is just stupid. On the other hand, a game built from the ground up to be based on time seems fine. Shinobi on the PS2, for example.

  4. Christian said on April 24, 2008:

    There is a time limit in Shenmue?

  5. pat said on April 24, 2008:

    i think we only know about it because we read it, its basically impossible to take that long. its a number of days/months, but im not sure how many. the only times ive heard of people coming up against the limit(there is a bad ending, apparently) is by repeatedly failing a quick time that skips a day (eg sneaking into the warehouse).

  6. Stefan said on April 25, 2008:

    Actually, within Shenmue there are a lot of smaller time limits, like having a set amount of time to move as many crates as you can while working at the docks. Those are the kinds of things I don’t mind as much as the sort of overall game limits that keep me from continuing to experience the game world for as long as it holds my attention. In defense of Shenmue, however, being able to import a character which had taken 2 years to finish the first game would completely screw with the timeline of the second, since they form one continuous narrative.

  7. jay said on April 25, 2008:

    Good point, but the only way for someone in our country to import a Shenmue 1 play into the sequel is to import the game, burn a boot disc, upload your save file data onto a PC, do some editing to it, put it back on a VMU and viola!

  8. Shota said on April 25, 2008:

    …and viola!…???

    What do stringed instruments have to do with videogames?

    I mean I hate seeing acts of ‘violins’ on my TV but violas… that’s another thing entirely. Voila!

    (I don’t generally make it a habit to pick on peoples spelling but this one was too hilarious to ignore.)

  9. jay said on April 25, 2008:

    If I had spelled it correctly it would have been an endorsement of America’s oldest enemy, the French. Your correction leads me to believe you have simply feigned allegiance to our nation all these years.

  10. Shota said on April 25, 2008:

    Oh, of course Jay… Everyone knows that we would have beaten the British without the French; because Washington could fly and shoot lasers from his eyes. The American Revolution was rather like Superman 64 in that way. The French? Who are they? What did they ever do for us? Oldest enemy indeed!

  11. jay said on April 25, 2008:

    You do know I am kidding, right?

  12. Shota said on April 25, 2008:

    I was about to ask the same thing.

  13. Stefan said on April 25, 2008:

    Good lord. That’s a real book!

    I found a (not very positive) review of it at http://www.amconmag.com/2005_01_17/review.html

  14. pat said on April 26, 2008:

    working our way back towards the topic, i feel like many of the final fantasy games have an early mission with a time limit. off the top of my head, i know 7 and 8 did. also, many games in that series have an early boss that you were discouraged from attacking at certain times. i always wondered why the developers abandoned these mechanics. seemed like keeping them around could have been interesting…

  15. Darthziggy said on April 27, 2008:

    I just recently picked up Star Fox Command, and I have to agree with the comments. It doesn’t totally kill the game for me, but it is kind of annoying. I had heard that this game was a bit different for the series, so I didn’t exactly go in expecting a portable SF64 (or even the SNES version, for that matter), but still, the turn-based function is rather annoying. I hate that if you happen to blow the mission by one turn, or die on the final turn, you completely crash and burn and have to restart the ENTIRE mission!
    Also – another game for which I was late to the party – I just finished Gears of War, and, though not frequent, the timed segments in that game just felt totally thrown in. Race to the car before the Brumak crushes it? WTF? It took me five tries just to realize how many Locust I had to kill before the clock started, and then I had to shoot around those certain few to avoid running into a deathtrap while trying to haul ass to the end of the level. Quite annoying.

  16. Christian said on April 27, 2008:

    Ziggy – that section in Gears is beyond retarded on the hardest difficulty.

  17. jay said on June 5, 2008:

    I’ve been thinking about time limits and wonder what your position on a puzzle game that’s entirely time based, Bruce. Something like Katamari Damacy seems right to me.

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