I know a lot of gamers out there don’t have much patience.Travis Touchdown, No More Heroes
One of my rules as a Game Designer is that it’s important not to waste the player’s time. Perhaps in the days before the internet, designers could afford to be lax and force the player to work at their pace. Nowadays, however, there are endless digital distractions available and games need to be designed to keep a player’s attention. If you don’t respect your players’ time, they’ll go find someone who will.
I’ve tried to follow this rule myself as I build Super Space Galaxy. Star Control II is a major inspiration, but it had a much slower approach that I’ve tried to avoid. Getting closer to a planet from its solar system could be deliberately cumbersome, even if reaching it eventually was inevitable. For my own game, I’ve taken the more modern approach and let you approach planets in a much more no-nonsense fashion. Planets are spaced artificially close together and I’ve minimized any travelling time.
When I do take time for something, it’s for a purpose. Descending into a planet takes about 12 seconds, but this serves a number of purposes. It gives a clear sense of transition, and, of course, conveniently masks what’s actually a loading time as the terrain is written in! About the slowest thing you’re likely to experience is travelling across the galaxy, but that’s something I did to communicate a sense of distance and the fuel-cost of travelling across the galaxy.
I’ve even implemented a kind of meditation feature into the game’s parks that forces the player to wait for a full minute, but this, too isn’t just there to pad time. I’ve already found the wait to help me relax and genuinely change my mental state, which is just what I hoped for. Ultimately, I hope that none of the game’s more time-consuming elements count as wasting the player’s time.
It might seem that ‘don’t waste time’ means to always keep the player close to frantic action, but this would be a mis-reading of the rule. A stand-out example is the legendary ladder-climb from Metal Gear Solid 3 in which the game’s hero, Naked Snake, must climb a ladder for almost three minutes.
In a more normal game, something like this would be very poor design. In Metal Gear Solid 3, however, the long ladder-climb is still remembered as an effective and pivotal moment. Why? The context is important. Snake has just defeated The End, a gruelling but unconventional boss fight that can itself drag on for more than ten minutes. The game’s story has just given them plenty to think about, and they may want to process everything that’s happened so far. That’s why the ladder-climb, accompanied by a special version of the game’s theme-music, is so effective for the game’s pacing. Video games are full of ladders, but this one is truly special. You couldn’t simply put down a long ladder in any other game and get the same effect.
The MGS3 ladder is so beloved and famous that references to it have been added by players to Elden Ring at the foot of many tall ladders. The consensus seems to be that that strange, memorable ladder climb was one of the game’s best moments.
I think this shows that what counts as truly wasting the players time can be very complex. The MGS3 ladder isn’t dangerous and nothing is particularly at stake when you climb it. The ladder-climb could easily have been shortened or skipped over. The player doesn’t have any choice about how they climb the ladder so there’s no player agency to be found. As I’ve mentioned before, not all of a game’s action takes place within the game; what happens inside the player is also important. What might seem like a time-wasting climb up a long ladder becomes an engaging experience after all.
Like a lot of Game Design principles, then, the idea that you should avoid making your players impatient is more of a useful guideline than a hard-and-fast rule. What counts as truly time-wasting can be complex or even subjective. In rare cases you might even want to make your players feel impatient. If you are going to break the rules, though, make sure it’s for a good reason!
Thanks for reading,