Game Design Elements #1: Timing Skills

So I was thinking about how games are made. When you make a game, your perspective can be so much different than the person who is actually going to play the game. Its inevitable. So when you look at a level and think “this is so obvious”, the player comes in and can be totally lost. So the question is this: how do you, as the game designer, think like the player? This goes beyond simply thinking about what you personally would like to see in a game; I’m talking about how the player’s perspective differs when subjected to the pressure of gameplay or the heat of the moment… things the game designer can’t always see, at least initially.

I think part of that is trying to explore the different skills a player is going to use, and how you play to those skills. How does a game unlock potential in both itself and the player? It has to push the player to utilize their abilities, right? So let’s talk about one of those skills seen in many, many games: timing.

Bear in mind, of course, these are my personal observations.

Element Overview

When I say timing, I’m not necessarily referring to subjection to a time limit (though it can be the case). I’m talking, more specifically, about the player’s ability to use the right move(s) at the right time. Its, in essence, the unity of those two facets. I think its also important to think about the anti-attribute of timing: hastiness or impatience. You’ve probably seen it before where you want to rush through some game’s level but get hammered because you keep getting blindsided by otherwise obvious obstacles. In such a case, you could have been a victim of your own bad timing. As an example, classic NES Mega Man was notorious for such things (enemies leap up from bottomless pits, for example, right before you jump over them), and in such an instance timing can even come down to when the game itself times its own actions, and the player’s ability to recognize and identify that.

So what’s my point? Making the player utilize timing causes them to “stop”, if only momentarily. Its not necessarily a momentum destroyer, per se, but rather seizing a window of opportunity or “threading the needle”. And as usual, making that opportunism flow properly in your game is the trick.

Element Incorporation

It seems to me that it comes down to managing your aforementioned windows. If you want your game to tap this skill, know when and where to place those windows the player has to take advantage of. At the root level, I can separate three different concepts:

–Basic Looping Windows: Essentially, something that has its window open and close with some regularity. This could be something as simple as a spiked block that goes up and down out of the ceiling. Basic, but it can break the monotony of a level by making the player shift, if only slightly, their momentum (like if they have to stop running). Of course, they should be used in moderation; overuse them and slap them down all over the place and they can become the source of monotony themselves.

–Trigger Windows: Think falling platforms that descend into a bottomless pit. That’s the idea of what I’m getting at. Their windows are locked into a perpetual state UNTIL you trip the figurative switch (shoot a button, get too close, etc.). At that point, the window’s sequence falls into a (sometimes one-way) sequence of open(s) and/or close(s) until it hits either a final state or slips into the next waiting state. You may need to jump from the falling platform to the next one before it falls (window closes), or maybe you need to wait for it to drop you down to a hidden area under a cliff, paying attention to not overshoot your destination (closed to open to closed again).

–Adjustable Windows: Instead of a one-shot “trigger”, these windows can be adjusted by the player. Going back to our platform, maybe it only falls when being stood on and rises when otherwise. You could even consider this to be more “natural” events, such as the period of time when a player is wall-sliding and able to wall-jump. This one is probably a bit more open to interpretation with no real hard rules (not that any of these really have hard rules), but its worth mentioning.

Obviously, its not always as simple as delegating “opens” and “closes” at specific points in time. Often multiple forces are at work in a game. That being said, that’s the beauty of it: orchestrating windows into a strong gaming experience.

Element Optimization

How do you get the most out of your windows? Essentially, think about how multiple windows coincide. Here are some ideas:

–Time Limit: When you impose a time limit on the player, that’s a window in and of itself. It means, sooner or later, that particular window is going to close. That means capitalizing on a group of obstacles’ “open” states is that much more important. If a particular obstacle stays “closed” for long periods of time, shooting through when the window is “open” can become imperative to beat the clock. Trigger windows can become especially prevalent, where a player’s hastiness (again, an anti-attribute of good timing) can shoot them in the foot.

–Outside Manipulation: Other obstacles, though not technical windows themselves, can influence the player’s ability to make an open window or even manipulate another window’s sequence. For instance, if well-timed jumping is a necessity in your game, a periodic, upward breeze that lifts the player off the ground can disrupt rhythm. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic (and often it probably shouldn’t be)… just enough to lightly unbalance the player and necessitate a correction before a more serious error occurs.

–Clever Window Combinations: When it comes down to it, how do different combinations influence the player? Do you have a trap enemy right before a closing door? Do two obstacles mix together to create a smaller opening? Think about it. This one relies on being creative.

At the same time, there are some things I can think of that you might want to avoid:

–Razor-Sharp Margins: This isn’t always bad, but I think you have to use them in serious moderation in a lot of cases. If the window opening is only a tenth of a second long, how realistic is that? Is the player going to have to replay an area twenty times just because they didn’t have absolute perfect timing? Play to a player’s skills, not necessarily a static or memorized pattern. Again, they can be used, but don’t abuse them.

–Physics Mismatch: Make sure that the physics and controls of your game play to your window margins. If the player is a little more “floaty” or controls are a bit more complicated, make sure the level design accommodates this. In other words, like the above, make sure that you aren’t tightening the margin of a window’s openness excessively.

–Thematic Identity Crisis: I’m repeating myself a little, so let me key in on some points I haven’t really touched on. For instance, if you have a puzzle game where the focus is to solve a puzzle (duh), focus may be delegated more to problem-solving, so windows may not be so action or time intensive. On the other hand, if you are running a hard-nosed action platformer, don’t break from the mood and present a ten-window puzzle with an obscure path through. This really applies to most games: stick to your game’s focus and don’t break character.

Closing Thoughts

To end, if you have an NES with Mega Man 2 nearby, why don’t you hop on it and give AirMan’s stage a try. When you do, pay special attention to some of the timing elements this stage utilizes:

  • How you account for the drills on the large, pink robo-platforms (Basic Looping Windows).
  • How you account for the enemies that come out of the sides of the robo-platforms.
  • How the above two coincide (Clever Window Combinations)
  • The lightning robots riding on the clouds, how you tackle them, and moving from platform to platform.
  • The fight with AirMan. Pay attention to his tornado shots, but in particular pay attention to when he starts blowing/moving you and the tornadoes around, and how that affects jump timing when dodging his tornadoes (Outside Manipulation).
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