Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Justin Time!

Last night some friends and I went out to see the new Justin Timberlake movie 'In Time'.  The movie itself was a decent Sci-Fi Action Thriller, but what intrigued me the most about the film was it's underlying premise of time as a currency.  As a game designer, this of course got me thinking about how I might apply the time as currency premise to a video game.

If you think about it, this isn't an entirely new idea in video games.  Time has been treated as a type of currency, to varying degrees, in a variety of games.  You could make an argument that any game where you are rewarded points for remaining time on the clock is treating time as a currency.  The player is attempting to balance the speed at which he completes the level, for points related to time, against other means of gaining points.

There are also games where time itself is a reward for doing well in a game.  Arcade racing games like Daytona USA give the player a certain amount of time to complete the race, but also rewards the player with time extensions for reaching check points or completing laps.

However, in the world of 'In Time', time is treated more literally as a currency, in that it is used to purchase goods and services and can be earned through working or other means of income.  Time is literally money.  The amount of time a person has left to live is determined by how well they manage their time.  The rich, or those who manage their time well, can live indefinitely, while the poor, or those who manage their time poorly, live very short lives.  My self imposed design challenge was to take this concept of time as a currency and apply to a game.  This is what I came up with.

To start out I thought of a game similar to Geometry Wars.  The player is a lone spaceship fighting off wave after wave of enemies in effort to achieve a high score.

However, not only does the player have to worry about avoiding enemies, they also have to keep an eye on their clock.  If the clock times out, the game is over.  To make things a little more interesting, powerups in this game will consume the player's time.


  • Bombs (Cost: 30s) - A screen clearing bomb attack that can be either used as a panic button when the player is overwhelmed by enemies, or as a way to earn a large amount of points.
  • Multi Shot (Cost: Double Time) - The player can fire a wave of bullets instead of the usual single stream of bullets, enabling them to defeat a greater amount of enemies, but at the cost of time accelerating.
  • Shield (Cost: 30s) - Makes the player temporarily invincible to enemies.
Powerups would be available at the press of a button, so at any time the player can choose to sacrifice a bit of their time for the powerup's ability.  To counter balance the cost in time for these powerups, the player can earn additional time by reaching different point thresholds (10,000 points, 100,000 points, etc.).

I think this system of using time as a currency for powerups results in interesting choices for the player.  If I use this powerup, will I be able to earn more time before time runs out?  Will the points I gain using this powerup now be greater than the points I could gain with the time I'm consuming?

Obviously, this whole system would need to be tweaked and balance before it could be considered a final product as I'm just pulling numbers out of the air, but I think the concept would have merit if pursued.  Maybe one day I'll make some time for it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Communicating Challenge and Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode

A number of years ago, while goofing around with the classic Super Mario Bros., my brothers and I decided to up the challenge factor of the game by forcing the player to constantly hold both the run button and the D-Pad right, so that Mario would be forced to continually run.  This left the player with only the options of jumping or ducking.  We dubbed this new variant of game, Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode.

This way of playing the game made it much more difficult but at the same time it was a lot of fun.  We kept passing the controller around to see if we could make it further in the game than the person before.  I later introduced Super Mario Bros. Challenge Mode to some friends at the office, and they too found it quite fun to play.

It got me wondering, what was it about this way of playing the game, that even though it was much harder than traditional Super Mario Bros., it was also tons of fun to play.  As I played and I found that whenever I would die, I could instantly see what I had done wrong and how to correct it on the next try.  I was blaming myself for my failure, not the game.  As I continued to play the game and get further with each attempt, I could feel myself improving and this was the root of what was fun about the game. 

This to me stood in contrast to what is commonly believed in some game design circles, that a difficult game is inherently frustrating to players.  I came to the conclusion that it was not the difficulty alone that causes frustration, but the lack of understanding of what causes failure.  If the player understands why they have failed and how to not fail in the future, difficulty can in fact be fun.

I think this accounts for the popularity of arcade games like Pac Man or Space Invaders.  The games were designed to be difficult to force players to spend their quarters, but the reason the players kept coming back was because it was easy to tell what they had done wrong.  This type of difficulty design has seen a bit of resurgence in retro style games like Geometry Wars and Super Meat Boy, however, I think this lesson can be applied to all games.

In the end, game designers need to better communicate the challenge in their games.  If the challenge is communicated properly players will not be frustrated by it and will in fact enjoy it.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Assassin's Creed II - DLC

Like always, before reading this you should probably read my general disclaimer on game analyses.

It's been quite awhile since I posted my last blog on Assassin's Creed II, and although I had a lot more to say on the subject, I think it may be best to move on.  However, there was one nagging thing that I wanted to discuss before I do, and that is the Downloadable Content (DLC).

During the story of Assassin's Creed II, once you are about to enter Sequence 12 of Ezio's memories
there is some kind of error with the animus and the player is forced to skip ahead to a future sequence.  The resulting missing sequences of 12 and 13 can be filled in with purchased DLC.  This approach to DLC has given me somewhat mixed feelings.

The designer in me admits it's clever way to sell the player on DLC.  The game's story makes a "sales pitch" within the universe of the game by telling the player there is something that they've been forced to skip over.  The player is left wondering what it is they missed in Sequences 12 and 13, and the only way for them to find out is to buy the DLC.  Without these sequences the game wraps up the story and the player isn't necessarily missing out on any relevant details, but there is still a sense of incompleteness since the player knows that something is missing.

It's this sense of incompleteness that gives me pause and as a player I feel a bit cheated.  In most other games, DLC is used to extend the experience.  If I, as a player, really enjoyed the game I can purchase additional content to extend the experience beyond the basic story.  One could argue that the DLC for Assassin's Creed II does the same thing, but it doesn't quite feel like an extension of the experience, it feels more like a completion.  This is simultaneously the thing that is most clever about it and the most fiendish.

This doesn't seem to be a fair way to sell the player on DLC, but I may just be making a big deal out of nothing.  There aren't many games that could pull off this type of DLC, since there aren't any other games that have the animus to explain it away.  Ubisoft didn't continue with this method in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood either, so it may just end up being an isolated experiment in DLC.