Downtime as a video game mechanic, and why it’s Important
Hyrule Warriors seemed like such a cool concept for a video game. Never having played a Dynasty Warriors game, it seemed like a no brainer and I picked it up on day one. A huge cast of characters, dozens of different weapons for each, and a story much different than what I normally expect from a Zelda game, it sounded incredible. And yet, after a few decent hours of playing, I stopped and never went back. I tried, but within minutes of getting into combat I was shutting the system off. The combat is all the game has to offer. RPG elements aside, there wasn’t enough variety in the first five hours of playing for Hyrule Warriors to actually hook me. Yes, there were cutscenes, dialogue, and character options, but these weren’t the breaks that I needed.
What is Downtime?
At first, it felt as if the gameplay was too repetitive for me to keep playing and I believed that for a long time. But a lot of games are like that, so that got me thinking: why did I not continue playing a game that I was enjoying, and that seemingly did nothing wrong? It has a little to do with something I call “downtime.” Now obviously downtime is pretty self-explanatory, but when I say downtime, what I’m really talking about is a mechanic present in all video games. Downtime is any break, pause, or safe zone available to the player in a video game. Much like a film, too much activity can make playing a video game tedious and unfun. This is why downtime can be such a powerful tool in the pacing of a game. For the most part, there are two kinds of downtime: active and passive. Passive downtime most commonly occurs every time you pause the game. (Except Dark Souls.)
Active downtime occurs anytime you’re actively engaged in the game, but the character is in little danger. Tutorials, towns, and even cutscenes all actively engage players. Take Mario 64, before Mario enters a level, he has an entire castle to use as a playground to allow the player to get used to his movement and jumps. Certain areas are safe for Mario in many of the levels, yes, but the castle hub world provides a true sense of safety and serves as a game long tutorial.
Some Additional Examples
A good example of bad active downtime is at the beginning of Destiny 2. It starts off great – a couple of cutscenes interspersed between gunning down enemies. Once the guardian’s ship is shot down is where trouble begins. The player is forced to hobble slowly towards the checkpoint for two or three minutes. I realize this was to try and add some tension, maybe some shock, but there are better ways to accomplish these feelings. A developer’s best practices and mechanics should be front and center. If this was the beginning of a tutorial, then using this to get the player comfortable moving is fine. All this did was create a boring and uninspiring start to the game.
In contrast, Final Fantasy XV also does the same thing, but efficiently uses its downtime to subtly communicate with new players. There are two instances of active downtime within the first five minutes of the game. The first appears right away when the player first gains control of Noctis. You can walk around and survey your surroundings, but there’s more to this tutorial than simply learning how to move. Final Fantasy XV changed many things about the franchise, an example being the changes to the combat to be more in relation to an action RPG. In this first sequence, Noctis’ allies can be seen attacking this giant hellbeast on their own. Within the first few seconds, you learn two things. One, that you may only be in control of Noctis, and two, this game is going to be different from most of what you know about Final Fantasy.
After a short cutscene, another instance of active downtime comes into play. The car the party is traveling breaks down in the middle of a desert highway. Noctis and crew have to push the car to reach their destination, and the developer makes you push the car. Not identical, but pretty similar to Destiny 2, but there’s a bit more going. The sequence is around the same length of time but takes away the controls instead of just continuing on with the gameplay. This sequence ends when the camera pans up revealing the size of Eos, as the title of the game flashes on screen in silence. Square effectively reveals how large their new world is and how different this game will be. A very cool way to open a game, even if you didn’t enjoy Final Fantasy XV.
Another fun way developers can use active downtime is by rewarding the player for one reason or another. I like to use Super Smash Brothers Melee as an example. After beating classic or adventure mode, the credits roll as they normally do at the end of a game. These credits are interactive though, as you can shoot each name as it flies by. In the end, it lets you know how many you hit. It’s a fun minigame that’s completely optional, but the developers added it anyway.
Downtime, simply put, is the space before, between, or after action the main mechanics of a video game. Used correctly, developers can convey emotion, thought, or reward the player for an accomplishment. A hub world would have fixed Hyrule Warriors for me. A fully rendered character simply walking around and interacting with NPCs is much more interesting than a bunch of menus. This would have been more work but would balance the rest of the game to flow better. A game not only has to be fun to succeed, it also has to flow together well. Making a great video game is about balancing the mechanics, gameplay, and downtime to create a fun and exciting experience for players.