Complex Time Simplified pt.1
Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 2:29PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Dynamics, Learning, Motivation, & The Mind, Skill, Super Mario Bros.

What do we do in the face of overwhelming timing complexity? Sometimes we are crushed under the beats. Sometimes we unconsciously ignore what we have yet to learn. And other times we find one simple rhythm to follow and work our way from there.


Just listen to these rhythms. 2nd song starts @ 2:50. 3rd @ 7:11

It's hard to imagine a game that uses the dynamic of space (2D/3D) and not the dynamic of time as well. Turn-based gameplay is very easy to understand largely because progression is player controlled and numerous actions can be executed one at a time (individual mechancics) before the turn ends. These features create very clean gamepaly experiences. However, real time is a entirely different machine. Even when it bends under slowdown or bullet time, time marches and everything else moves with it dozens of times per second. This real time dynamic naturally creates very fluid actions and reactions and therefore very complex gameplay. This article series will focus on how we embrace and simplify the complexity of real time. 



Real time easily facilitates multiple actions occurring simultaneously within a game. The simplest way we simplify the chaos of all the simultaneous action is by ignoring some elements in order to focus on others. In terms of what catches our attention the most, we, humans, tend to key in on patterns or consistent elements. When a stimulus is regular it's easier for us to identify it, make predictions about it, and move on to something else. Strangely enough, when exposed to two or more regular, simultaneous rhythms complex rhythms emerge, which are much more difficult to resolve.  
Here is a familiar non-game example. Pat your head and rub your stomach. Do it now. What do you notice? Well, if you struggle to execute this seemingly simple task you probably ended up rubbing your head and stomach or patting them both. The reason this task is tricky is because doing different actions with each hand naturally creates different rhythms, which makes doing both at once a complex timing challenge. (Remember, we designed the game TIMING so you can measure just how good you are at various timing challenges).
With a little practice I'm sure you can get a handle on the ol' pat-and-rub. When you do though, you'll probably pat and rub at the same rate. This is because we have a natural tendency to simplify complex timing challenges by syncing rhythms together. Try switching back and forth between a pat-rub and and a rub-pat without hesitation for an added challenge. For another example, pay close attention to your stride the next time you listening to music while walking. I find it very difficult not to adjust my gait to match the music.   
Here's an interesting way to simplify complex timing challenges in video games. If there are two independent static timing challenges that make up a complex timing challenge, you can simplify the beats by thinking of the two rhythms as a single accelerating timing challenge. Basically, by focusing on the space between both rhythms you can focus on one possibly irregular rhythm versus trying to wrap your mind around two independently moving rhythms. This technique is sort of hard to explain. I understand it both mathematically and musically. Perhaps you'll understand it best visually. Watch the video below.
Playing on two games at once is complex. But the player seems to have simplified the task by focusing on game/hand and having the other trail a half beat behind.
This technique works well for many linear or static music-rhythm type timing challenges. However, static timing challenges in other genres can be simplified in a similar way. In Super Meat Boy or Donkey Kong Country Returns the movement of enemies and the timing of the level elements are fairly static. Because the level challenge is the same every time you play, the emergent timing challenges are the same as well. Of course there are some levels with missiles, multi state enemies, or player activated transformations that can alter the timing challenges in a dynamic way. Still, many challenges are completely static.
In a music-rhythm game players must time their actions to the beat of various timing challenges. But in 2D platformers, moving hazards use the dynamic of space to sweep out a moving danger zone creating organic timers. If your character touches a hazard is then you're punished. I've explained before in an article titled Shapes & Space why analyzing the positive and negative spaces in a platformer is so important. To briefly reiterate, players can move safely through the negative space and must navigate around the positive space of solid objects/hazards. So getting through a platforming timing challenge is much more complex than acting on the beats. It's the opposite. You have the freedom to act in all the spaces between the "moving-beat" represented by the hazards moving through the space. 
Who's getting more action? Mario off the beats? Or the kid on the beats?
Because the interaction between player and the beat is reversed, the strategy for simplifying the timing challenge is reversed as well. Instead of reorganizing the beats into new, possibily complex, yet easier to process super structures, for complex 2D platforming timing challenges that involve many different timing elements, players simplify the challenge by finding a static solution-rhythm. Though there are many different possible paths to take in a 2D platformer (a very emergent interactive system), players only need to find one path or solution-rhythm and tweak it as they go along. This process may involve trial and error, which is a brute force way of solving timing problems, but it works. 
Here are some examples of levels with very complex timing challenges. Notice how easy it all looks because the player has already found the solution-rhythm, sweet spots, and/or safe zones.  
Music-rhythm games are some of the most straight forward (linear, non-dynamic) timing challenges you'll find in a video game. Creating timing challenges in 2D/3D space opens up the design for a lot of emergent solutions. But when there's interplay in the design that alters the timing challenges based on how two or more elements interact the variation of the timing challenges reach a new level. In terms of direct player versus player interplay that affects the potential for players to act in real time that is measured to a very fine degree, no genre does it better than fighting games.
In part 2 we'll look at how the emergent timing possibilities of a fighter are simplified, how it evolves, and why it works the wame for virtually all real time fighting games. 
Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (
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