Ephemeral Goals

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Goals that have a temporary existence, that is, they can appear and disappear during the gameplay; their appearance not known exactly at the beginning of games and failing them being possible due to causes other than players' own actions.

Not all goals in games are active at all points of gameplay. One category of such goals are Ephemeral Goals, whose defining characteristics are that they become available to players during gameplay and can become unavailable independent of players' actions. These goals do not have to be linked to the main goals of a game, and when they are not linked they let players choose between concentrating on one form or the others depending on their own preferences and the current requirements posed by the game state and other players.


Grand Theft Auto 3 allows players to perform certain missions when they have acquired certain vehicles, e. g. taking taxi assignments when driving a taxi. The time limited goals do not exist otherwise during gameplay and do not influence the main game except through rewards that change the amount of money the player has in the game.

Fahrenheit, Heavy Rain, and the Dragon's Lair series all have sequences of gameplay which consist of players having to do correct actions under time pressure - and at least the first time a certain part of the game is encountered the exact requirements can come as a surprise.

Many Tabletop and Computer-based Roleplaying Games use random encounters during the gameplay, e.g. early editions of Dungeons & Dragons and the Elder Scrolls series. These encounters are, as the name suggests, created randomly usually from a predefined set of characteristics. The archetypical random encounter is to defeat a group of wandering monsters or enemies.

Games such as FarmVille, CityVille, and World of Warcraft have quests and achievements that are thematically tied to holidays and other big events in the real world, e.g. Christmas, Valentine's day, world cups in Soccer, etc. These only become possible active around the time of the corresponding events in the real world and have to be completed not too long after the real world events end. CityVille also starts "combo counters" as soon as rewards have been retrieved, and collected several of these without any longer interruption between each retrieval results in additional rewards - this is found in Zombie Lane as well.

Many First-Person Shooters create Ephemeral Goals when gameplay requires that one tries to hindering players in other teams from achieving certain goals. Examples of this include intercepting briefcase carriers in Team Fortress 2, likewise intercepting flag carriers in some variants of multiplayer matches in the Quake series, and making survivors drop fuel tanks in some levels of Left 4 Dead 2.

Using the pattern

The two main structural design choices regarding Ephemeral Goals are when they should be introduced and when they should disappear. The introduction of these goals can either be by using Randomness or by observing the current game state. The latter is especially used to catch pacing problems and most common in roleplaying games moderated by Game Masters since they can notice Downtime for players. In both cases the Ephemeral Goals are usually Unknown Goals, either because their existence is unknown to players at the beginning of gameplay or because the exact nature of the goals, including when they will become known, is unknown. Games with Evolving Rule Sets often get Ephemeral Goals is a side effect of introducing new goals since their presences are unlikely to be known about by players before the update to the rule sets occurs.

Many Ephemeral Goals can be failed simply because some other player or Agent succeeds with them first, e.g. Power-Ups taken by other players before one reaches them oneself, but any Interruptible Action also creates Ephemeral Goals. However, many Ephemeral Goals disappear after a certain Time Limit have expired independently of other ways in which they can be failed. Ephemeral Goals can be modulated to be Optional Goals simply be not giving any Penalties at this point, but other Ephemeral Goals can also be optional, for example those which do impose Penalties (and thus are a form of Committed Goals) but allow players to ignore them in order to concentrate on the main goals of the game. Repeat Combos are examples of optional Ephemeral Goals based on Time Limits without Penalties while Quick Time Events are also based upon Time Limits but do have Penalties

Quests is a very common form of Ephemeral Goals. Another common way to introduce Ephemeral Goals into gameplay is to have a selection of Predefined Goals which are introduced either based on Randomness or some pre-determined cycle. This principle is found in games with Resource Generators that automatically produce game elements or Roleplaying Games that have random encounters. Ephemeral Goals can also be supported in games by allowing Player-Defined Goals to be defined during gameplay. These can either be encoded in the game system through explicit rules or be constructed outside the game system. In the latter case these goals automatically become Optional Goals as the definition then lies solely in the hands of the players.

Ephemeral Goals are often Preventing Goals in Multiplayer Games, simply because players striving towards such goals present themselves as targets from when they are first observed trying to reach the goal until the goal is reached or not longer possible to reach. In these cases where it may be difficult to provide specific Rewards related to the ephemeral aspect of the goal (except that preventing the other goal may be its own Reward). Games that want to acknowledge the possible Gameplay Mastery required to succeed with these types of goals may use specific Achievements - the Level a Charge and Fuel Crisis Achievements in Left 4 Dead 2 are both examples of this[1].

A way to vary a Selectable Set of Goals during gameplay is to have some of the goals in the sets be Ephemeral Goals that are only available at certain times.

Interface Aspects

To avoid players missing the introduction of Ephemeral Goals, they may be present through Modal Windows. Less likely to disrupt various types of Engrossment can however be achieved through having them appear as part of Dialogues or HUD Buttons.

Narrative Aspects

Having non-trivial Ephemeral Goals that do not tie into existing Predetermined Story Structures risks irritating players as strategies can be made obsolete and expectations of the immediate gameplay may be ruined. This problem can be mitigated if the rules for the appearance or disappearance of the goals are explicit and clear, even if the knowledge the players have about these goals is only that they may occur. Another way can be to make Ephemeral Goals into Optional Goals or packaging each of them as Minigames, as for example done with the taxi missions in Grand Theft Auto 3.


Ephemeral Goals provide Varied Gameplay in that they introduce, and remove, goals during gameplay. This can be the only types of goals in Unwinnable Games and can be used to avoid Grinding in any games. If not common, Ephemeral Goals can create Surprises when they occur, and if they are generated through Randomness they may provide Varied Gameplay between game instances and thereby also increase the Replayability of a game. Since they can add localized detail to gameplay, they can increase the plausibility of Alternative Realities and thereby Thematic Consistency through inserting elements into these realities that do not specifically have to with the main goals of the game. For the same reason they can introduce elements that can be misinterpreted by players and thereby create Red Herrings in Narration Structures.

Ephemeral Goals that are also Optional Goals offer a more Freedom of Choice as players can choose how many goals they want to try to complete. Ephemeral Goals that are not optional can be seen as subgoals of a goal with Dynamic Goal Characteristics.

As mentioned above, Ephemeral Goals often give rise to Preventing Goals for others in Multiplayer Games, especially when the Ephemeral Goals are created by players engaging in Interruptible Actions. To encourage players to strive for Preventing Goals based upon Ephemeral Goals, succeeding with them can be the requirement for being given Achievements specifically designed for these occasions.


Can Instantiate

Achievements, Dynamic Goal Characteristics, Ephemeral Events, Surprises, Red Herrings, Thematic Consistency, Unknown Goals, Varied Gameplay

with Multiplayer Games

Preventing Goals

with Optional Goals

Freedom of Choice

with Randomness

Varied Gameplay, Replayability

Can Modulate

Alternative Realities, Predefined Goals, Predetermined Story Structures, Selectable Set of Goals, Unwinnable Games

Can Be Instantiated By

Interruptible Actions, Evolving Rule Sets, Minigames, Quick Time Events, Player-Defined Goals, Power-Ups, Repeat Combos, Resource Generators

Can Be Modulated By

Dialogues, HUD Buttons, Optional Goals, Modal Windows, Penalties, Quests, Randomness, Time Limits

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With



An updated version of the pattern Ephemeral Goals that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. List of Left 4 Dead 2 achievements in the Steam Achievements system and percentages of gamers receiving them.
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.