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.


  1. While the idea of using time as a literal currency is an interesting idea, one major barrier in my mind is that this only really applies to games where scoring/time matters. Even games that used to depend on scores (like the racing genre, or a hack and slash game) no longer place emphasis on scoring, which makes this a somewhat muted idea. In a game like geometry wars, I'm having a difficult enough time surviving the allotted base time, but giving me the option of trading time in for better powerups only shortens my play experience with no guaranteed upside, not give me an interesting choice.

    Instead of taking the Daytona time extension parallel, I would have taken the Daytona pitstop parallel: You can choose to lose position, but you gain in car damage and tire wear. In this scenario, the tradeoff has a direct correlation with a positive result.

  2. I admit that the time as a currency model I suggested is rather dependant on a score based type of game. The basic premise of my suggested model was that you were sacrificing time for score. There may be a way to incorporate the idea in a non-score based game, but that will be another thought experiment for a different time.

    As for there being no guaranteed upside to sacrificing game time for powerups, I would argue if there was no upside to the powerups than you've created poor powerups. The whole idea being that if used correctly the powerups should give the player more points than if they hadn't used them and instead opted for more time. The choice thus becomes when to use the powerups to maximize their effect and maximize the player's score. Since score can also reward the player with additional time, a well used powerup can in fact increase the length of game time rather than decrease it.

    Finally, the Daytona example was merely to point out that there have been games that have rewarded the player with actual time for playing successfully.

  3. Something I'd want to discuss is how currency becomes valuable to a player.

    In the instance of your concept, time is the currency, and is used to buy power ups. However, time is also constantly fleeting, and I'm assuming time is at least one component of play (if time runs out, the game is over; another stream may be hit points). So now, the idea of spending time for power ups/weapons is seen as an investment with potential risk factors. Do you sacrifice 5 seconds for the chance to earn 10? What are the odds? How can the skilled player recognize a good opportunity to use an investment?

    It all becomes very economic, and I wonder if we can even approach this concept from a financial/economic perspective.

    Maybe power ups can fluctuate in price as they're used; using a supply and demand model to determine pricing. Taking the time acceleration cost from your multi-shot power-up a step sideways, maybe there's an item that requires actual time investment, where you activate it, but won't be able to use it for another X seconds, much like a mutual fund, though the return may not be measured in time specifically.

    I think the idea of currency itself has the potential to be explored much deeper than elementary buy-sell model used in most games. And making comparison to real world models is a fantastic way of generating deep thought and design considerations.

    Thanks for the article, very thought provoking.