Adding Urgency to Gameplay

Posted: May 23, 2011 in Game Design
Tags: , , , , , , ,

There are some times in games where the usual gameplay just doesn’t cut it. The game designers want to add a sense of urgency. They want to raise the stakes, and if the player doesn’t act immediately then they will fail their objective, whatever they may be. The most common way to add some urgency to a game is to add a timer, and if a player doesn’t complete an objective in time, its game over.

Although it will depend on the game, and exactly how the timer is handled, but I’m usually against timers in RPGs, Platformers, FPSs or any sort of action game. There are a couple of reasons or this. One is that usually if you fail you have to replay a long section over again. it can really suck if you are seconds away from completing your objective, but run out of time, and have to replay a 10 minute timed section over again.

Although I would usually prefer to have no timers at all, I can occasionally stand them is they are very short, so that even if you fail, you don’t have to redo a bunch of stuff. Another time I wouldn’t mind timer is if they are optional, for the sake of giving the player bonuses if the complete them, but are not necessary to complete the game. The only problem is that optional timed challenges don’t really add urgency to the storyline, since they are optional.

How can we add more urgency to games without timers? I’m going to bring up two sections from the Halo games. Halo:CE and Halo 3 ended in very similar ways. Crazy shit was going down and you had to get the hell out of there really fast, so you had this epic driving section. Halo:CE did what I’ve been arguing  against this whole post, it put in a timer to try and make the section more urgent, and it didn’t really work for me.

Halo 3 ended it in a very similar way, with a crazy driving section, but it didn’t have a timer. It created player urgency in a much more visually appealing way, the place you were driving on was slowly falling apart. Losing because of something that is clearly visible in the level always feels more fair than because of a number counting down. From a gameplay perspective its not a whole lot different than a timer, but its better to clearly see what caused your death.

Having the level fall apart is a great way to add urgency to the game, and Halo 3 isn’t the only example, I mostly just used it to contrast it with a very similar section in a previous game in the series. Uncharted 2 comes to mind with a few section that have urgency because they are being destroyed. There was a section on a train, where a helicopter was destroying cars on the train, and you had to keep moving froward quick enough, to avoid being blown up.

Of course making levels completely destructible may take a lot of work, and not everybody can do this. Or maybe the story in the game is such that it just doesn’t make any sense to have large scale destruction. Well there is another trick you might try to add some urgency to the game. Make an unkillable enemy to chase the player.

Now I understand that unkillable enemies might be pretty frustrating, but can work really well if done well, and used sparingly. In Uncharted 2, there was a section where Drake was being chased by a tank and had a long section where he had to run from it, until he found an RPG-7(many of them actually) and blew up the tank. DeadSpace had a section with a  regenerating enemy, they could be slowed down by shooting its limbs off, but eventually they grew back, and it couldn’t be killed by normal means. The great thing about sending really tough enemies to chase the player, and was used to great affect in both Uncharted 2 and DeadSpace, is the payoff the player gets when the finally have the means to destroy this tough enemy.

In conclusion, I’d say timers are pretty bad ways to add urgency to gameplay. If you really want the player to go quickly, put something in the gameworld, either through destruction of the level, or adding powerful enemies, or something else that is actually part of the gameworld, to force them to go quickly. The only time I might consider timers to add urgency is a circumstance it would make sense in the real world, like a bomb about to go off.

Please leave any comments about what you think about these methods for adding urgency to a game, and mention any ideas not in this post that you can think of. I almost forgot to add, having NPCs constantly pestering the player is a very very bad way to try and add urgency. Its completely fake urgency, so the player will just ignore it and take their time if they want to, and its just annoying. Never do this.

Happy Victoria Day!

  1. Haychen says:

    I already mentioned this to you, but I figured I should also comment this here for the benefit of others:

    I feel like Square Enix handled timers pretty well in Dissidia Final Fantasy, as the timers there(about 10 seconds long last time I checked) presented a challenge and didn’t have any penalty for not, say, killing a level 15 enemy in 10 seconds when you’re level 8. Instead, it gives you an incentive to try and get this reward, with no real penalty.
    Unless you count the disappointment of not getting an award as a penalty xD

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