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The Impact of Dead Time in Video Games

Dead Time may not seem that big a deal to video games, but it's a sign of poor design that every designer should take note of.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

February 1, 2018

5 Min Read

Time means a lot to us, and is something that should never be wasted; all the more so when we’re talking about our leisure activities. With video games, it is a never-ending challenge to keep people engaged; sometimes when they are supposed to be doing something else.

We’ve talked about grinding before and how it can kill someone’s interest in playing, but we’re going to talk about the next step tonight. It’s time to talk about “Dead Time,” and how a game really grinds to a halt.

Purgatory Problems:

Dead Time in its official definition is: Time in which someone or something is inactive or unable to act productively. For video games, it is the time the player is not actually doing something that moves the game forward. Often times it’s when the player is not interacting with the core gameplay loop of a title.

The easiest way to explain Dead Time is that if removed from the game, it would have no bearing on the actual gameplay of a title. Dead Time exists in every video game ever made, and can range from seconds to minutes at a time.

The simple act of waiting in-between loading screens is an example of Dead Time. What makes this concept important to explore is the subtle impact it has on the game and the player’s attitude. If the player is constantly experiencing Dead Time, it can drag the pace of a game down dramatically.

Before we start talking more in detail, there is one vital point we need to talk about. Most cases of Dead Time are seconds at a time in video game. You may ask yourself, “What is the problem with Dead Time?” because of that. One instance of Dead Time is not going to damn your game, but all these seconds start to pile up. If the player experiences 10 seconds of Dead Time every minute of play, that time starts to add up.

How to Spot Dead Time:

There are two big areas where Dead Time can occur and where you can spot it. The first has to do with the core gameplay loop of your title. Any time spent away from it is obviously time lost. Even the simple act of restarting a level or section can experience Dead Time.

In Super Meat Boy as an example, an understated smart design choice was to minimize the time restarting after dying. There is zero time lost in between deaths, and the player is right back in the action. As a contrast, in the original Super Mario Bros, the dying theme takes about three seconds to play and a total of seven seconds before the player has control again. Just imagine if those games were reversed; Super Meat Boy would become a lot more frustrating to play.

The second area is quality of life or accessibility additions. Anything you can do to make the game easier or less confusing to play can impact dead time. This can include, but is not limited to: Auto sorting gear, easy to identify icons, dynamic UIs that show the player what they need, and many more.

What makes this group very hard to spot is that there is no simple fix here. This is where listening to your fan base and testers come into play. If people are having a hard time doing something, or there are multiple complaints about a specific feature, then you should take a look at it.

For our example, I want to touch on Diablo 3 vs. other ARPGs. APRG design is about giving the player tons of loot to look through and see what is the best for their character.

 This can lead to minutes at a time of the player stopping what they’re doing to try and parse all the gear they collected.

In Diablo 3, the game has all those stats, but also condenses it all down into three primary categories: Power, Defense and Life. I can tell within seconds if a piece of gear will give me a boost or not.

Trimming the Fat:

Dead Time in of itself will not doom a game from the offset. Most people probably don’t even realize what Dead Time is in a video game. However, just because they can’t explain it, doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.

If you’ve ever started to feel bored while playing a game, chances are Dead Time could have been a factor. Too much or too frequent cases of Dead Time can bring a game to a crawl. Remember this: Dead Time is never a net positive in a game. Any time that you can remove it or mitigate it will lead to a better game experience.

Also, we have seen cases of developers using Dead Time as a part of their F2P experience. Systems like “pay or wait,” long animation delays, or confusing UIs and currency models are not good for games.

Spotting and removing Dead Time requires a careful eye towards game design, and making use of play testers to spot any annoying elements or pain points in your game.

Can you think of games that were ruined because of Dead Time? And can you think of examples of games that smartly mitigate it?

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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