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Time and Punishment

What could we learn by examining the time penalties a game uses to punish its players?

Chris Bateman

July 30, 2009

7 Min Read

ClockWhat could we learn by examining the time penalties a game uses to punish its players?

Last year, I looked at the idea of reconsidering the usual split between “hardcore” and “casual” players in terms of a preference for punishing or forgiving games. Here's an extract from the piece entitled Redefining Hardcore & Casual:

Casual players are looking for games that are more forgiving – and along the same lines, more welcoming. They don’t necessarily want a big time commitment (but may still spend a lot of time playing a particular game), and they certainly don’t want to be punished for their failures – they want failure to be forgiven...

[Conversely the] gamer hobbyists contain a great many players for whom the “old school” sensibilities of the arcade game and the early home videogame are more desired – games in which you are up against impossible odds, where you will fail often, and be punished for the slightest misstep. Why are these games enjoyed? Presumably because punishing for failure makes success all the more vital to strive towards and so the threat of punishment adds not only excitement to the play of the game, but it intensifies the reward in fiero (the emotion of triumph over adversity) that is received when success if finally attained.

One way of exploring this notion of punishing games (versus forgiving games) is in terms of the time penalties that are implied by specific outcomes. In a forgiving game, the losses to the player for a mistake are usually minimal. In a punishing game, the player is risking their accrued progress for making a mistake – thus (provided the player is open to this style of play) increasing the excitement by adding risks to the play.

In the days of arcade games, of course, the player was consistently threatened with punishment – the loss of current progress within the level when a life was lost, coupled with the loss of all progress in the game when all lives were lost. In Nemesis, for instance (Gradius in the US) the player loses 2-5 minutes of level progress when they die, but they also lose up to 20 minutes of power up progress as well (as all their power ups are lost when dying) – a dual penalty. A full game takes 30 minutes, so this is the maximum penalty on offer.

When the “pump and play” era arrived with Gauntlet, suddenly the player was offered an alternative: instead of paying the time penalty, add money to continue. Many players did so, although whether the overall commercial health of the arcade was helped or hindered by this change in the design is less clear. (Many players paid to complete a game, then stopped – but before pump and play, most players put in one coin and then moved to another machine). Later still, Gauntlet Legends allowed players to record their character progress between play sessions – reducing the time penalty quite considerably.

Games consoles and the casual games explosion moved the design of games in both directions – more forgiving games appeared, but more punishing games were also developed. The more forgiving games such as Bejewelled or Bust a Move, the time penalties are comparatively low. In Bejewelled, there is no long term progress being tracked, so losing the game means simply ending the current game. This is a penalty of a kind, but it is not a time penalty, per se. Compare this with Bust a Move, where failure means repeating the current level. Since each level takes less than 5 minutes to complete, the time penalty here is always less than 5 minutes.

In the middle ground we have games such as Grand Theft Auto which ask you to repeat a mission if you fail. These missions can take up to 30 minutes to complete, so we can see here much greater time penalties being applied to the player. Many Japanese RPGs, including various Final Fantasy games, don't allow the player to save while in a dungeon (making the dungeons “more exciting”, provided you are willing to accept a more punishing game) – these games can be threatening an hour or more of time penalties for failure, and if you expect to fail a particular battle repeatedly it could be considerably more.

In the far end of punishment you have games which threaten permadeath – the complete loss of all progress so far. Steel Battalion, for instance, threatens that you will lose all your character progress if you do not eject in time – a time penalty that could be in the tens of hours, or even days. These styles of games are about as punishing as can be imagined and, unsurprisingly, games with these kind of punishing sensibilities do not sell in good numbers. (Steel Battalion sold fewer than 20,000 copies – although allegedly developer Inaba claims to have broken even on this project). The majority of players these days want the majority of their progress to be “banked” so it is not lost when they fail, and ratcheted progress is very nearly the industry standard approach.

An interesting point of comparison is Dynasty Warriors 6, which applies a different save scheme according to the difficulty setting chosen. On Easy, the player can save as often as they wish (reduced risk of time penalty), while on Normal the player can save up to three times on a level – they must decide where best to save. On Hard and Master, the player can save only once in a level (increasing both the risk of time penalty, and the size of the time penalty) and on Chaos no saves are permitted (for maximum time penalty, and excitement – provided the player is willing to play on those terms). While this kind of approach is not ideal for mass market players, who generally don't want to be troubled with questions such as “when should I save?”, it's an interesting approach for the game literate players to be able to choose how punishing they want the game to be in respect of lost progress.

Now the player doesn't generally think about these issues in terms of time penalties and punishment, but will make statements such as “I don't want to have to repeat the same bit of gameplay over and over again” (forgiving preference) or “if I lose nothing for dying, the game isn't exciting enough” (punishing preference). Perhaps we would learn something interesting about the nature of videogames if we could study players preferred games, and map the time penalties associated with them.

It seems likely that the games that succeed in the casual marketplace (the true mass market) will all have low time penalties – 5 minutes or less, while the games that succeed in the centre of the market (a mix of game literate players with many different play styles) will all threaten up to 30 minute or an hour time penalties, but usually with the expectation that the player will not have to pay these penalties often if at all. Finally, the most “hardcore”, punishment-seeking players will go as far as permadeath – the ultimate time penalty.

By examining games in terms of the time penalties they threaten, and the frequency of occurrence of those penalties (which of course depends upon the skill of the player), we have a potential semi-objective measure of the degree of punishment or forgiveness that a game offers. Even with the inevitable judgement calls involved in interpreting a particular game event in terms of a time penalty, this might yet be a more practical way of understanding one of the fundamental distinctions between players.

This article was originally posted on ihobo.com on 17 June 2009.

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Chris Bateman


Chris Bateman is a game designer, philosopher and writer, best known for the games Discworld Noir and Ghost Master, and the books Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Video games, 21st Century Game Design and Beyond Game Design. Chris runs International Hobo, a consultancy specialising in market-oriented game design and narrative and has worked on more than thirty digital game projects over the last fifteen years. Graduating with a Masters degree in Artificial Intelligence/Cognitive Science, he has since pursued highly-acclaimed independent research into how and why people play games. In 2009, he was invited to sit on the IEEE's Player Satisfaction Modelling task force, in recognition for his role in establishing this research domain. His most recent player model, BrainHex, is based upon neurobiological principles published in his paper Neurobiology of Play, and the BrainHex test has been taken by more than 75,000 people. His latest book is Imaginary Games (due 25 November 2011) with Zer0 Books, which adapts Professor Kendall Walton's prop theory to digital and other games, providing a robust argument which demonstrates not only that games are art, but that all art is itself a kind of game.

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