August 6th, 2010

Erstwhile Concept Art

Jam Timer

I have to bring this idea up quickly, because Tim Rogers almost touched on it in his latest column, and I came up with how to implement it twenty years ago. My life has clearly been leading up to this moment. I'm hoping he'll actually read this -- I'll attempt to draw his attention to it on Twitter, I managed to divert Wil Wheaton for a moment the other day and I'd like to get a streak going -- and he'll be like, "aha! That's the last piece of the puzzle, the bit that I knew was there but couldn't put a name to." And he'll thank me for it, and I'll play it off all cool-like. "No worries, bro, we all gotta take care of each other." Push-ups all around.

I've actually put some of this idea into a book called Were[wolf] Robot which I started writing in the 2006 Nanowrimo and haven't finished yet, so it's not like this is the first time I've ever gone on record with it. Just the first time publicly.

Sometime shortly after I played Super Mario Bros., I became enamoured with the concept of the "timer". No, you can't lollygag, you have to get to the end of the level. The music speeds up if you're taking too long, which really puts the fear of the gods into you. The first time I got a Starman during the fast-music phase was an experience.

I thought to myself, wouldn't it be neat if there were other effects of the timer running out, aside from simply losing a life? I wanted to come up with a bunch of other timers that would affect the game. Unfortunately, the first one I came up with was so good, I stopped thinking about it afterwards.

I call it the Jam Timer. What happens is, you're in an open area, like the mall. As the timer runs down, more and more people enter the area. At first, they're like pillars in the way that you have to dodge around. Gradually, a certain chaos emerges, turning the lines of people into shifting walls, forming a natural maze you have to navigate. When the timer hits zero, the area is so completely jammed (a-ha) that you, and the innumerable crowd, simply can't move. Minus one life, or maybe just game over, as you prefer. A more descriptive but less interesting name might be the "Crowd Timer". But the word "jam" is definitely more exciting. It's like, JAM!! And then you jam. NBA Jam. (This could've been about whether it's more fun to win with demoralizing slam-dunks or precision 3-pointers, but I think we all know the answer to that in our hearts.)

Of course, rereading my little mess of six-year-old game design philosophy, I already see where the flaws might go. Why should there be a timer? Why can't the crowd just arrive naturally, why do we need a heads-up display? The same reason we need a clock telling us how long we have to get to the next checkpoint in any given Outrun/Cruisin' racing game, or how long we have to kick the other player in the crotch in a fighting game: when you add a visible clock to a timing element, you give a situation a palpable tension that a "natural" flow doesn't have. Compare the situation of "I have to get through this mall before it jam up" to "I have to get through this mall in one hundred and seventy-three seconds or it will jam up!"

Also, there's the pesky problem of simulating a whole crowd as it obstructs your path. That's just logistics, though. We can probably sort that out. What's important to me here is giving an essential mechanic a name and a graspable screen element. It seems to me that this aspect is the most necessary part of the process. Now that we know how to represent our concept with a number, we can program it. This was not an insight I would've had as a child. Awesome! I'm maturing. 38 days to go.