Are timers a useful game mechanic?

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One of the ways many developers used to increase difficulty or add a sense of urgency is to add a timer to the game. Even Sonic games give you an arbitrary 10 minutes to finish a level, and timers are still seen a lot in modern games.

Does this mechanic improve the game? Are there better ways to add the same sort of difficulty or pressure on the player?

Discuss! :P

 
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Just like your other thread, unless you are just being general, it would really help to see a specific game you are talking about—basically, are you asking this for a future game of yours, for just for fun? Because timers can be useful and bad.
Another variable is to think of what type of urgency/pressure you want on the player. As you said, a timer can offer this, or a set of achievements/tasks could also deliver this. That way, the player would focus on a specific thing each game—specifically something that takes the games game play and focuses on a specific part of it (like ’dont collect coins for Xseconds/Xmeters)

Thats all I got
EDIT: or (like my games and MANY others), you could increase the difficulty of a level as time goes on.

 
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A timer adds one dimension to the scoring system of the game, and if it runs backwards introduces one extra loss condition (timer runs out.) In terms of generalities that’s about it. Whether it’s good or bad depends on the game, and your perspective.

The original Prince of Persia gave you one hour to complete the entire game, with a kicker. The deadline was worked into the story (marry the bad guy or die, unnamed princess has one hour to decide) in a cliche but completely acceptable way. It was awkward in practice because there was no further penalty for dying than wasted time, and upon death you had to restart the entire level with everything reset and every enemy respawned. It was awkward because dying was therefore a variable problem: dying on the first jump was no biggie, 15 seconds lost, but dying at the very end of a level could be frustrating. And there were some pretty long levels.

The high scores for the game used only one variable for scoring: How much time you had left when you reunited with the princess after winning the game. If time ran out during any level except the last one you lost when you died or finished the level. If time ran out on the last level you could still win the game if you didn’t die, and would receive a score of ‘time has expired’, which I always felt was a nice touch.

 
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It certainly helps to have them explained into the story (if your game has a story).

eg. The end of Halo 1, you have started a reaction in the ship’s fusion engines and have 6 minutes to escape, before everything is blown to smithereens. It adds urgency and difficulty to a section which would otherwise just be driving through some corridors, but doesn’t feel simply tacked on, because you know why there is a timer and the consequences for letting it expire.

 
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Timers for timer’s sake is not the greatest idea (that is, an arbitrary time limit that exists for nothing other than to put pressure on the player). But can work, see Amorphous+

Telling the player there’s a time limit and then not enforcing it (Half Life, some RPGs, handful of others) is even worse. If the game tells me that “X needs to be done! We don’t have much time!” but the game allows me all the time in the world to go power-grind (for any reason) then the story isn’t matching the mechanics.

 
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Timers can be good and they can be bad. It totally depends on the game.