A time limit is a cheap way to make a game more challenging

by | Sep 24, 2017 | Feature

A time limit is a cheap way to make a game more challenging

by | Sep 24, 2017

A time limit isn’t game design. It’s a cop-out.


So I’ve been playing a lot of Destiny 2 lately (see my first impressions). Like a lot of video games, Destiny 2 excels in allowing players to make choices about how they approach each encounter. You can hang back and play cautiously, popping off shots with you scout rifle, or you can run in guns blazing, fists flying, super charged.

 

But there is one activity in Destiny 2 that does not offer this same level of freedom: The nightfall strikes.

Nightfall strikes are amped-up versions of regular strikes, three-person cooperative missions that are designed to provide a digestible challenge for you and a couple of friends on a weeknight. This is in contrast to the raid, which can take hours or even days to complete as a six-person squad. At each weekly reset, Destiny 2 serves up a new nightfall strike with different modifiers that make it significantly more difficult than the standard version of the strike.

However, at least with the first two nightfall strikes (at the time of writing, I have not seen what the third one offers), the most challenging aspect was not the combat nor any form of puzzle solving. It was the time limit.

A time limit is a cheap way to make a game more challenging, particularly in a game that prides itself on cooperative play and player choice. How am I supposed to enjoy the process of problem solving and strategizing with my teammates if the goal is simply to get to the end as quickly as possible? Time limits have turned otherwise fun activities into frustrating, inflexible sequences of run, die, respawn, repeat. Nightfall strikes are now the video game equivalent of banging your head against the wall.

There is no more trial and error, no exploration of options, just rote running and jumping maneuvers until you stumble into success

No game offers complete freedom, of course, but games that offer increased player agency are usually applauded for doing so. This is the essential difference between a game and any form of passive entertainment, like a movie. Bungie has always been good about this, particularly with Halo, which allowed the player to pick from a wide variety of strategies and tactics. Even vehicular sequences were rarely a forced decision. As fun as the Warthog was to drive, a player could just as easily choose to go at it on foot. Time limits, when present at all, were used sparingly.

But Bungie’s precedent for giving players abundant control over their in-game fates extends even further, at least back to the days of Myth. Myth was a real time strategy game (or “real time tactical,” as the developer put it) in which you started out with a set number of units in your army. As the game progressed, your army inevitably dwindled, but even if you were down to the last unit standing, the game let you try to figure out how to get out of that mess.

This is why these Destiny 2 time limits feel all the more discouraging. I can appreciate what Bungie is trying to do: By applying a modifier to a mission they completely change how it is played, which creates a new experience out of existing material. I just happen to believe that a time limit is the wrong way to go about it. It removes the core Destiny experience of working with your friends to test and evaluate different approaches until you find a solution. Instead, you end up with a game where everyone is frustrated with each other and forced to apologize profusely every time they die because, welp, there goes another 15 seconds and now the magic rings are disappearing that could have given us more time, damn it! There is no more trial and error, no exploration of options, just rote running and jumping maneuvers until you stumble into success.

In week one, I tried across four attempts to finish the first nightfall strike with the same fireteam. We failed every time. We enjoyed the experience the first couple of runs, but the third and fourth were just miserable. Not only did we feel let down by not actually completing the strike, but we also felt cheated out of our time with an experience that stopped being enjoyable long before we gave up on it.

We fared better in week two. I completed the strike two different times, but it took four attempts each time and every attempt was filled with frustration. Multiple times we simply quit, mid-game, because we knew we’d wasted too much time. When we won, we didn’t so much as feel victorious as we felt relieved. Thank god we don’t have to do that again.

Now in Bungie’s defense, I should add that we are still in the relatively early days of Destiny 2 when it comes to this sort of high-level endgame content. The company has been very good about adapting to player feedback in the past (although, not necessarily my feedback, because who am I?) so I’m hopeful we’ll see better nightfall strikes in the future.

I get it that a time limit is an easy way to increase the challenge of a game, but it is also a cheap trick. It’s not game design, it’s a cop-out. Would it be more difficult to instead incorporate new puzzles into nightfall strikes? Sure. But this would, in my opinion, offer a much more rewarding experience for the player, and isn’t that what video games are all about?