Time Limits

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An amount of time, either game time or real time, used in determining if players complete an action, reach a goal, stay in a certain mode of play, or finish a game session.

Many games put limits on how long players can plan or perform certain actions while other put limits on how long the game as a whole can take. By doing so they can guarantee that the game progresses according to some planned design or that the gaming activity will be concluded before a certain time. The latter can can also be used to create end conditions in game where there otherwise would be none. The measurement of time can be either in game time or real time, or both although limits in game time only influences rather than controls the length of play and game sesions.

Typically Time Limits indicate that something needs to be achieved before the given amount of time has passed but only can equally well have gameplay built upon avoiding certain events occurring until after a given Time Limit has passed.


In the racing games Sega Rally and Out Run gamers have a certain number of seconds to reach the next check point or lose the game. Reaching it in time adds time to reach a new check point, encouraging gamers not only to reach the point within the given time but do it as fast as possible.

Soccer matches have a time limit of 90 minutes (plus some extra time depending on the judgment of the referees) divided into two periods of 45 minutes. This limits how much physical effort the teams must be able to produce and makes it easier to plan tournaments and media coverages.

Chess tournaments typically have rules regarding Time Limits, both for making a move and for the whole time available for a player.

The final parts of campaigns in the Left 4 Dead series typically end with pitched stands where the gamers need to survive for a certain amount of time. Although the time is fixed it is not revealed until it is passed and a vehicle taking the PCs to safety shows up. In the survival modes games of the same series the goal for players to still be alive after 4 or more minutes to meet the goal conditions but in this case the time survived is shown clearly in the interface.

Ricochet Robots gives the other gamers a limited amount of time to find better solutions to the game's movement puzzles after one has been given by one of the gamers. This provides a chain of Time Limits in the game until all gamers fail to find a better solution.

The experimental art game 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness has one sole requirement to win: one has to be the only player in the world playing the game for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. No actions is required while playing.

Using the pattern

Time Limits are usually meant as something that one needs to complete an action or goal before is it becomes a failure, but Continuous Goals are exceptions to the rule.

The existence of Time Limits can be introduced implicitly or explicitly in a game. Basically all Real-Time Games or games providing the pattern The Show Must Go On have implicit limits on how much time one has available for some actions or before Penalties occur due to the actions of other players or Enemies but can be understood rather as conflicts or competitions with these adversaries. Even if these mechanics do not exist in games, social pressure from other players wishing to avoid Downtime typically creates implicit Time Limits in Multiplayer Games. In contrast, Time Limits may not exist in Single-Player Games unless explicitly designed for, but may also be needed to be mechanized in Multiplayer Games to provide Player Balance, commonly-shared Time Pressure, or time-limited Private Game Spaces. Linking any type of Time Limit to Game Over event or Player Elimination are very explicit ways of focusing players' attention to the Time Limits - and used in Racing Games such as the Out Run and the Sega Rally series.Time Limits can also be applied to Scenes, limiting how long they may take. Letting players have more time as the consequence of actions they have performed form the basis of Sustenance Rewards.

An archetypal example of a Time Limit is the need to hurry due to the presence of others in Races - one needs to finish something quicker than other players but the experience of Competition can easily overshadow the experience of Time Limits. If it is important that this implicit Time Limits are perceived by players as such other means exist. The simplest is to introduce explicit Time Limits to Races (as e.g. the Sega Rally series does), which is an example of how Time Limits can modulate the Races patterns in addition to being created by it. Another possibility is to make available Resources unavailable after a certain time, something that often occurs naturally with Shared Resources through other players' exploitation of the Resources (and in this fashion is an example of the Social Dilemma Tragedy of the Commons). Ultra-Powerful Events and Delayed Effects that are announced significantly before they occur but without measures when they will occur are yet another possibility. Receiving Damage after one has been in an environment for a certain period of time is a way to link Time Limits (or Delayed Effects) to Environmental Effects. Interruptible Actions with Development Time that offers Preventing Goals for others can also be perceived as having Time Limits since unless they are completed quickly the risks of not completing them may increase, and the likelihood of this perception can be increased by both Goal Indicators and Progress Indicators. The Time Limits in a game are usually easy to make explicit both from a diegetic and interface viewpoint, see those subsections for more details.

Time Limits can also be the effect of changes in Game Worlds, e.g. having to leave areas due to triggered Traps, dissolving Tiles, or countdowns for when Safe Havens no longer are safe. The pattern can also be used to guarantee maximum gameplay time spend on specific types of actions, e.g. Trading and Puzzle Solving.

Both how time progresses in the real world or in number of updates in the game state can be used as the basis for Time Limits making the pattern possible in both Real-Time Games and Turn-Based Games. It can even be used twice in Tick-Based Games, to limit the number of ticks available besides the mandatory use of limiting the length of each tick. Time Limits in Real-Time Games are however somewhat cumbersome to use in Self-Facilitated Games unless the measuring of the time is designed as an integral part of the gameplay since it requires a form of Attention Swapping between gameplay and game facilitation. Game Pauses in Real-Time Games can disrupt the effect of Time Limits in planning is a noticeable part of reaching goals and performing actions. For example, if players are allowed to pause the game in Tetris the natural stress that makes planning more difficult disappears.

Power-Ups and Penalties (e.g. Helplessness) are often used with Time Limits to balance the gameplay and provide more Varied Gameplay. Time Limits can be used with Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities to create Cooldown periods, but also with New Abilities, Improved Abilities, and Game Pauses to make Temporary Abilities or support Player Balance and Team Balance when player skill do not outweigh these. Invulnerabilities are often coupled with Time Limits due to the problems with Player or Team Balance with are likely to occur otherwise. When applied to Asynchronous Collaborative Actions, Time Limits can strengthen the likelihood of Tension and Guilting that may already be present.

Both Switches and Power-Ups are Game Items quite often modulated by the pattern. Time Limits do not only have to concern how long Power-Ups persist or how long an action lasts but can also be how long it takes before new Power-Ups appear or the action can be performed again, in both cases determining, in a sense, the interval for Renewable Resources to appear. Games which create Traces of action and events done during gameplay often have Time Limits on how long the Traces remain to avoid having the Game Worlds becoming overfilled with them.

Games in which modes of play or game instances do not have natural end conditions often use Time Limits as end conditions, e.g. in Soccer or some Quick Games. Games with Continuous Goals, such as Evade, Survive, or those being Preventing Goals, sometimes use Time Limits also in similar fashion to determine winning conditions. For example, in King of the Hill variants the winner is the first player to remain the king for a certain period of time, say three minutes, which also acts as an end condition for the game instance.

Time Limits may also be used to create Optional Goals simply be stating that goals that are reached within a certain Time Limit are provided with additional Rewards. One use of this possibility is to provide Handicap Achievements to reward Speedruns and thereby support more Challenging Gameplay. Another is to create Repeat Combos which basically consist of doing the same action several times within the Time Limit given. Time Limits before Reward Widgets are automatically retrieved make it an Optional Goal to do so oneself; these goals are typically done due to a desire to experience Clickability, a wish to get extra Rewards, or the strive for complete Repeat Combos. It also makes Grinding in respect to these widgets optional.

Game Time Manipulation can be used to let players have the possibility of re-using time and thereby either get more time or more efficient use of the time they have been given by the Time Limits.

Diegetic Aspects

Time Limits are usually quite easy to incorporate in the diegesis of a game since many real-time events typically have noticeable indicators before they occur. These can both be natural occurrences, e.g. rock falls or rising water levels, but also man-made ones, such as countdowns on explosives, which provides game designers with a wide range of possibilities to explain the Time Limits within the Game World presentation.

Interface Aspects

If Time Limits as to be explicitly presented to players in a non-deigetic way this can most easily be done through Game State Indicators. Progress Indicators are also possible when Time Limits are used in Delayed Effects. A slightly special case of this kind of modulation is to have Time Limits on the life time of Ephemeral Goals where the goal is available for the players only for a certain amount of time during the game. Note that these may be implicit in the sense that they do not have to show exact measures of how much time is available but can instead show approximations.


Time Limits make time a Resource for players, more specifically a Limited Resource due to the presence of a Resource Cap, and when the amount of time is little enough create Ephemeral Events. They automatically give players Limited Planning Ability (regardless if any planning is required) and thereby limit possibilities for Tactical Planning, and this can give game designs Challenging Gameplay and make the players have to accept Trade-Offs between which actions they want to perform, including evaluating the Trade-Offs themselves. This may also lead to Experimenting in which a player may try something without great hopes of succeeding but instead aiming at learning something for the next try. When used to control the contraction of Shrinking Game Worlds or limit how often Resources can be invested when situations, Time Limits create Tick-Based Games out of Turn-Based Games. For games that requires Player Physical Prowess the use of Time Limits puts a limit to the needed effort, or at least the needed endurance of the players. Generally, Time Limits can work against the possibility of Grinding in games since they can limit the amount of time a player can commit to some specific activity.

More specifically, Time Limits can be used for at least three different reasons: first, to create Time Pressure and Tension for the players related to achieving a goal or performing some actions in the game, e.g Aim & Shoot or Action Programming or moving away from Traps before they activate (which is not the same as having to move away from the effect it may have on the game environment); second, to limit the effect of consequences of player actions and game events, such as effects of some types of Penalties, Rewards, and Power-Ups; and third, to create Time Limited Game Instances, either to limit the lifespan of specific modes of play or to make Tied Results possible. This last reasons also supports Negotiable Play Sessions as well as Negotiable Play Sessions. Sometimes, Time Limits can have several of these effects at once, e.g. having Time Limits before each reduction in size of Shrinking Game Worlds created both Tension and Time Limited Game Instances. Given that Time Limits force players to consider if they want to try and perform some action or not before the time has run out, the pattern works against Pottering since they do not have a freedom to select freely when to perform various actions.

When the players have some Game State Indicator of how much is left of the Time Limit naturally creates Anticipation and sometimes Hovering Closures. One example of this is having Time Limits on how long Evade goals must be succeeded with. These typically create Attention Demanding Gameplay in themselves when they can be observed and this can make gameplay more Challenging Gameplay simply because of the Attention Swapping that may take place between checking the time and actually trying to play the game. Time Limits used for Turn Taking, and Game Pauses in general, limit the possible Downtime and one use for this is to make Hotseating feasible. Time Limits on game instances can also alleviate some of the downsides of Early Elimination as the eliminated players have a clear indication how long that game instance is going to last.


Can Instantiate

Attention Demanding Gameplay, Attention Swapping, Challenging Gameplay, Ephemeral Events, Game Over, Handicap Achievements, Limited Planning Ability, Limited Resources, Negotiable Game Sessions, Negotiable Play Sessions, Player Elimination, Resource Caps, Resources, Sustenance Rewards, Tension, Tick-Based Games, Tied Results, Time Limited Game Instances, Time Pressure, Trade-Offs

with Ability Losses or Decreased Abilities


with New Abilities

Temporary Abilities

with Rewards

Optional Goals, Repeat Combos

Can Modulate

Ability Losses, Aim & Shoot, Analysis Paralysis, Anticipation, Asynchronous Collaborative Actions, Continuous Goals, Decreased Abilities, Early Elimination, Empowerment, Environmental Effects, Ephemeral Goals, Evade, Experimenting, Game Pauses, Game Worlds, Helplessness, Hovering Closures, Hotseating, Improved Abilities, Invulnerabilities, King of the Hill, Multiplayer Games, New Abilities, Player Physical Prowess, Power-Ups, Preventing Goals, Private Game Spaces, Puzzle Solving, Quick Games, Race, Renewable Resources, Races, Resources, Reward Widgets, Safe Havens, Scenes, Shrinking Game Worlds, Single-Player Games, Switches, Tactical Planning, Tension, Tick-Based Games, Tiles, Traces, Trading, Traps, Turn Taking, Turn-Based Games

Can Be Instantiated By

Continuous Goals, Shared Resources, Delayed Effects, Real-Time Games, Races, Speedruns, The Show Must Go On, Traps, Ultra-Powerful Events

Development Time together with Interruptible Actions

Can Be Modulated By

Game Time Manipulation, Goal Indicators, Progress Indicators, Game State Indicators

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Downtime, Game Pauses, Grinding, Pottering, Self-Facilitated Games


This pattern was part of the original collection in the book 'Patterns in Game Design' (Björk & Holopainen, 2004).


Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.