Six Pillars of Game Design: Time Index

Welcome to the second article in a six-part series about our Pillars of Game Design!

At Coalition Game Studios, we evaluate games in six different areas that we believe are the fundamental qualities of good games.  Awareness of these six pillars can deepen your understanding of the craft and improve your ability to create a player experience.6-pillars

Games, of course, are a frontier.  We are exploring new ways to entertain the world as the industry continues to grow.  There can never be a true metric for evaluation that fits all games.  Their very nature defies uniformity.

As such, I believe that these Pillars of Game Design should always be considered, but they should be considered differently for each individual game.

Today we take a look at our second pillar: Time Index.

 

What is the Time Index?

Ever sit down to a game and just want it to be over?

Ever sit down to a game and find yourself with plenty of time to play on your phone or go stir the spaghetti sauce?

You may have been a victim of a poor Time Index.

Time index is a measurement of a game’s length–both perceived and actual–as compared to the experience that it provides.

The quotable Mark Rosewater put it best when he said, “Games should be over before players want them to be,” and I completely agree with this.  If you want a game to be over, you’ve been playing it for too long.

sand-timerTime index problems are very common among newer designers and new designs alike.  It can be difficult to know the correct length for your game, and just as difficult to blindly navigate your way towards that length through iteration.  Reaching the correct length for your game requires a great deal of deliberacy, and shouldn’t be ignored during your design process.

It’s important to understand that you cannot design a game where it would be appropriate to ignore its time index.  Some of our other pillars are quite flexible, or relative to the game’s model; time index is not like this at all.  If your game is or feels too long for the experience it provides, then you should never consider it to be your final iteration.

 

“Actual” Game Length

When we refer to actual length, we’re talking about the hard time that the game spends at the table.  “That game took 42 minutes.”

Game design requires ego.  We don’t mean this in a bad way–really, creativity is just an expression of your ego on the world around you.  To create and to share, you have to believe in your heart that what you are making will contribute to the collective…even in those times when you’re experiencing that familiar self-doubt.

This creates a bit of a problem, because, as designers, we’re subconsciously predisposed to favor our own games.  It’s natural to want your game to last, and it’s natural to delight in watching friends and family and strangers drift through your dream.

gamelength

How many people walk away because they see “60”? Is your game’s extra 30 minutes worth it?

That said, we as designers are poor judges for how long our games should be.  Even for more experienced designers, who have developed the self-discipline to remain objective during iteration, this can be difficult for us to gauge.  Therefore, we must resort to other methods beyond our feelings to make the best determination regarding game length.

One way to do this is to set a goal early on in your design process–preferably before your prototype gets to the table.  Think of yourself as a player, or a consumer, or even a potential publisher.  From only a brief synopsis of your game, what would you expect that game’s length to be?  What would you want it to be?

Also, as much as we love our heavy games, it’s a harsh reality that shorter games are more accessible, and greater accessibility means a potentially less exclusive audience.  In most cases, it is best to shorten your game as much as possible while still preserving its core experience.  We can all stand to be reminded, brevity is the soul of wit.

 

“Perceived” Game Length

Perceived length is quite different from actual length.  Here, we’re talking about how long the game feels to players.

We run into problems assessing this, because it’s not something you can objectively measure, and you can’t set goals for it like you can with actual length.  In fact, if you want to make sure your game doesn’t feel too long, the best approach is just to design a great game.

That’s probably not the answer you were hoping for, especially if you’re a newer designer that’s come here for guidance.  I can’t offer you a single solution for fixing how players feel about your game, but I can offer some general design tips that can affect this aspect your time index.

challenge_vs_skill-svgAim for “Flow”

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi–no, I didn’t just make that up–theorized that the human mind can fall into what’s called the Flow State, wherein we become so immersed in an activity that we become energized, focused, and experience gratification at deeper levels.  Facilitating Flow State deserves an article all on its own, but it’s important to talk about here because of Flow’s primary side-effect: it causes people to lose track of time.

Flow occurs at that sweet spot between challenge and user proficiency, but it’s up to you as a designer to make sure your game doesn’t get in the way of that happening.  Support Flow by minimizing jarring interruptions in gameplay, and keeping the game centered on what engages players.  A common complaint in Star Wars: Rebellion, for example, is the combat.  Players depart the game to resolve a battle with dice and cards, becoming wrapped up in an unrelated decision matrix.  When they return to the main board, they lose Flow time in reacquainting themselves with the game state.  If you must interrupt your game to resolve a procedure like that, try to make the interruption as brief as possible.  Keep focus on your game’s core decisions.

Minimize “Down Time”

We’ll define “down time” here as game time where one or more players do not have any meaningful decisions to make or input to offer.  Even if it is interesting or strategically advantageous to pay attention to the game state during down time, the reality is that not all players will feel inclined to do so.  Many players have surprisingly short attention spans–even if we don’t appreciate that style ourselves, we still have to acknowledge it when we’re designing games for everyone.

Down time has, unfortunately, been a reality of board games in the past, and that reality has echoed through to the present.  However, trends in the last decade show that we’re finally starting to outgrow designing down time into our games, and it’s paying off.

Give your players meaningful ways to interact, or engage them with an evolving game state.  Draw them in so that they know their input and decisions matter, even when it’s not their turn.  Perhaps move to a model where your players act simultaneously.  If your players can safely leave the table, come back later, and not have missed any decisions, then your game can be better.

Streamline your Turn Structures

Ever read a rules manual where they use a long outline to show you the different steps and phases involved in the game turn?

turn-order

Look familiar?

There are many games like this.  In fact, the model is tried and true, especially for unapologetically heavy games.  The development phase, the planning phase, the main phase, the combat phase, the cleanup phase…we’ve heard it all before.

However, recent and popular games are breaking away from this .  In Scythe, for example, you choose a single action during your turn, and execute that action.  Trim your game’s procedures and turn structures so that your players’ path to the core experience is as unobstructed as possible.  Remove any extra steps, phases, or tasks that you can–it will pay off.

Make your Clock Transparent and Reliable

This is the difference between downloading with and without a completion bar.  With the completion bar, you have a rough understanding of what’s going to happen.  Without the completion bar, there’s a certain anxiety that we all tend to feel.  Is this working?  Is it even moving at all?  Should I restart it to make sure?  How much longer?

These are anxieties that you don’t want your player to have.  Make sure that your game’s ending conditions are clearly outlined, and that players have information–even imperfect information–as to when that end will come.

killdrMake sure that you have control over when your game ends.  If players are too much in control of the game’s clock, then they may be faced with an unpleasant decision: should I prolong the game, or should I lose the game?  We see players ask questions like this when playing games like Munchkin or Kill Dr Lucky–two games that often overstay their welcome at the table.

 

 

Design Exercise

Go to your shelf and pull down one of your favorite games.

Consider what it would take to redesign the game to be 25% shorter.

Where do you feel you could begin making cuts?

What do you feel should be absolutely protected as part of the game’s core experience?

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the post. Looking forward to the other 4.

    The arc of the game should, I think rise upwards towards the VERY end. But some game have a very small dip on the last few turns when it is clear that some players have won/lost, and just need to wrap up the round to end the game. How do you fix that?

    • This “dip” you’re talking about isn’t uncommon.

      Designing a tense and engaging game is much like writing a tense and engaging story. Some games seem to lose their momentum towards the end. Five Tribes and Axis and Allies come to mind as games that putter out, but for very different reasons.

      In Axis and Allies’ case, this is (partly) a time index issue. There just isn’t a reason that the game should last until a victory is certain, much less far beyond that point.

      However, with Five Tribes, the drag isn’t due to the game’s length. I quite enjoy Five Tribes, but the decision matrix actually narrows and becomes less meaningful as the board is slowly depopulated. The last few turns can just feel like they’re stalling out.

      The problem you’re describing, however, is a dynamic. It’s the result of players losing the feeling that they still have a chance to play the game in a meaningful fashion. You can either structure your game to provide gratification in other ways than winning, or you can give players the means (real or perceived) to remain competitive from any position.

      Take Dominion for example. When you play Dominion, you feel gratification every time you put a strong hand together. The sum of your intuitive choices in the game led to that moment, where you can combine your assets to acquire something valuable. This feels good even if you’re not winning.

      Likewise, Dominion effectively conceals its score until the very end. It’s possible to count points as you go, but that’s a bit outside of the social contract implied at the tabletop. If you don’t know who’s winning, then you’re more likely to feel like you’re still able to take meaningful actions in the game space.

      Dominion has some of its own issues, but is a fair example in a vacuum. Also, each of these solutions comes with its own design challenges and possible consequences, so use with care.

      Hope that helps!

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