I am designing a hacking game, in which the player usually can take his time thinking about how to overcome the obstacles that he/she currently faces. However, I decided that besides coming up with clever solutions, hacking should also feel intense, and that the game needs some ways to put a time pressure on the player's decisions.

First such mechanic that I added reassured me that I am going in the right direction: Sometimes the player can trigger a network trace, which lasts X seconds and can potentially kick the player out of the network unless he/she reacts quickly enough and succeeds in evading the trace. I would like to add perhaps one or two more mechanics that would put the player under a time pressure, but I am a little stuck and always seem to come up with a variations on 'Countdown', i.e. 'There will be (a punishment) in (X) seconds, unless (some action is taken)', but obviously all those mechanics end up too similar.

In abstract terms — that is, without knowing the particular mechanics in my ruleset — how can I introduce a time-pressure on the player's decisions?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Is it a one-time puzzle game where once you solve the stage it's trivial to solve it again or more of an "action" game where timing and coordination play a part? \$\endgroup\$
    – AturSams
    Mar 22, 2014 at 14:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ The networks that the player hacks into are procedurally generated and he/she actually only has one attempt to go at each. If the player makes a mistake, the network disconnects him/her and seals the backdoor, so the player cannot complete his objective in the network, which may have consequences in the narrative layer. Hacking the network is essentially a puzzle, but with incomplete information (some subroutines are hidden etc.) and one that occassionally presses the player to react quickly to unexpected situations. \$\endgroup\$
    – mzi
    Mar 22, 2014 at 15:41
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I did not read the other answers yet but a big fat bonus for getting things done fast like a special ending would work out for me. Maybe you are following some lead. If you finish too slowly that person gets away before you can track her. Maybe your goal is to rescue X who's been kidnapped. If you do it fast enough you can make it on time but if not they die. \$\endgroup\$
    – AturSams
    Mar 22, 2014 at 15:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ A positive reward when you are quick rather than a punishment when you are slow is an interesting angle. I'll think about it! \$\endgroup\$
    – mzi
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe besides time-based decisions, if the player does "failure moves," or does not make moves that actively help him solve the puzzle, events are triggered that make the game more difficult. \$\endgroup\$
    – helsont
    Mar 22, 2014 at 18:21

6 Answers 6


When I read your question I immediately had to think of the GameBoy game Mario's Picross.

It's essentially a Nonogram game: You're supposed to find the right tiles in a grid identified by numbers (similar to how Minesweeper works, but with different mechanics).

By default, you've got 15 minutes to solve a puzzle, which is plenty of time. However, whenever you make mistakes, your time remaining is reduced (the more time you have left, the more you're losing).

This adds an interesting tension to the game: You'll want to solve it fast. You can take your time, think 5 minutes about the problem, and then start solving it. Or you can risk it and start straight away. If you make a mistake, you won't be faster or better compared to the slower approach, but you've still got the option to do so.

Depending on your game, I could imagine that some similar mechanic would fit rather well into it. It should fit the whole timed approach and the actual theme as well, without having to explain anything special: If there's some intruder, if he's doin mistakes, he might be a lot easier to spot.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I like this one, and it would connect naturally with my mechanics. Thanks! (I'll upvote when I have the rep.) \$\endgroup\$
    – mzi
    Mar 22, 2014 at 10:16
  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ That would make quite a lot of sense in the context of a hacking game: Enter a wrong password -> admin attention increases -> he finds you faster. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Mar 22, 2014 at 13:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Reminds me of the game Uplink \$\endgroup\$
    – chbaker0
    Mar 23, 2014 at 21:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ I did the same thing in my difference game: every time you click on an empty spot, you lose a few seconds. This was done more to prevent spam-clicking than to create tension, but the result is the same. \$\endgroup\$
    – o0'.
    Apr 14, 2014 at 11:41

Depending on the scenario / setting of your game, the following things could work:

Note: Those are just some quick ideas and not completely thought through!

  1. Perhaps you can weave in something like the following into the narrative: "Your hacker computer is having hardware issues since a few hours ago. It will only keep running for a certain time, before overheating. So be fast and stay away from brute force methods that stress your machine and so shorten the time before it overheats".

  2. If that hacking bit (at least in one of the missions) is a piece of work that lasts several days in game time (not in one session of course), there might be the risk that authorities silently recognized the attack (triggered by a high risk, high reward decision of the player) and started investigations. As a result they might be out to get you. So to put some stress on the player, you could work with sound, e.g. police sirens and which puts extra stress on the hacker, since he/she doesn't know if they are coming for him/her or just passing down the street. Some additional game element, such as hiding your hacking involvement might be implemented, so that the player (if he/she thinks he/she is about to be made by the police) can hide their involvement e.g. by deleting parts of their previous results. The in-game results could be time loss, but at the same time averting the game-over state.

  3. A similar idea: If you are always hacking away from home, that won't play any role. But if for special missions you are at a special location (had to break into some backbone data center or perhaps something a bit more likely), there might be security personnel wandering about. And if you hear them or see their flashlight cones wandering around, you have to stop typing in order to not be made, which in return costs you valuable time = enhanced stress level.

  4. In addition to my idea #2: If you hack an institution, the police would arrive physically at your location. If however, you hack another individual, more specifically another hacker, he/she might try to attack you in return, so you would have to fend of their attacks while still still keeping your own ones going as well.


I think that most of the ideas here are a great inspiration, I think it would help you more to try and pull yourself out of the game and stop thinking of it as "a mechanic to a game". Think of what pressures would occur in real world situation.

You end up with a number of solutions from this, some could be as simple as allowing the player to purchase new scripts that detects another user has logged onto the same machine, starting to view logs etc (started to investigate).

I would personally make the game react more to possible real life events. Say if a player takes on a simple hacking mission at the start, does it and moves on but forgets to remove the logs. You could later alert the player that there's news on TV of a breach and police are investigating. Meaning the player would need to start going back and covering their steps.

This makes the game non linear and more life like in my opinion and makes the player feel more freedom rather than following a defined course.

Just my thoughts, good luck with the game

  • \$\begingroup\$ With the occasional unexpected bonus when the security team decides to ignore or shut off the alarms, like the Target hack and countless others. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 24, 2014 at 3:12

As I recall (haven't played it in a long time) the old school Shadowrun game on Genesis had a twist on your network trace mechanic for more dangerous targets. Less risky hacking targets would simply kick you out of the network, but more dangerous targets could actually trace your physical location and then send goons after you. That would certainly ratchet up the pressure to be fast!

  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, IIRC this is how traces worked in the Shadowrun original PnP. I like it, and I want to have exactly that in my game as well! \$\endgroup\$
    – mzi
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:52

One of the old-school techniques from the world of writing is overlapping "fuses". You're sort of on the right track with the trace, but it lacks punch as it's the only 'clock' running.

Say, for example, there's a time limit to the overall segment - the player has 30 minutes to infiltrate a secured compound, hack into one of the systems, then find the commands to shut down the protocols blocking them from their primary objective.

Add a few patrolling guards to introduce yet another time crunch, as well as a physical threat, and trying to concentrate on the task at hand becomes much more difficult.

Or, possibly, triggering the automated security sets off a Halon dispersal system. There are respiration systems nearby, but they're intended for escape - only lasting a few minutes each. The Halon shuts off after 10-15 minutes (player doesn't know when), after which time security will storm the room.

The real 'meat and potatoes' in such games comes from trying to juggle multiple lesser challenges simultaneously, rather than dealing with a single monolithic one.


I think you are heading in the right direction as well. If you want time pressure, you need to add an aspect of a countdown or time limit. Deus Ex: Human Revolution has a similar concept to your ideas about a network trace. The hacking was a mini-game that you could undertake to open doors, safes etc. without having to search for the key or wait for the story to advance to the point of making the key available.

A hacking attempt starts out with the system unaware of your presence. You are 'jacked into' the terminal node of a network diagram. The goal is to subvert nodes along the graph to reach all of the server nodes on the graph. Each action you take has a time to complete and a risk of alerting the system. When you trip an alert, a network trace starts from server nodes and if it reaches your terminal before you complete the graph or voluntarily disconnect, then you fail and face the consequences. The trace was essentially a countdown timer, which made each hacking node suspenseful on its own and made the entire thing a race against the clock once started. Consequences were usually just having to wait for the system to reset, but occasionally an alarm would sound and guards with guns would come try to kill you.

You can watch the in-game tutorial for the hacking system. There were various upgrades you could buy with your hard-earned experience points to improve your hacking abilities, as well as some single-use items you could find that would help with difficult hacks.

The mini-game was fairly interesting to learn and a vast improvement over 'hacking' in the first two games of the series, but it became tedious by the end of the story line. If you spent enough points on upgrades, most systems became trivially easy to hack, while the hard ones remained very difficult to complete fully. If you didn't spend your points on hacking upgrades, hard systems remained nigh impossible to take down without blowing through stacks of the worm software items.

Also, as there were only a handful of node-types to overcome and only 4 specific actions you could take at any given time. Every hacking attempt would devolve into either throwing all your items at it or just attacking every node as quickly as possible to get to the end.

In particular, if you added more ways to prepare for and react to the network trace, you could make your game much more enjoyable than Deus Ex's version.

Adding more mechanics of time pressure could end up being too similar. One idea that springs to mind is that the player must maintain the integrity of their connection to the system. Taking some actions decreases this integrity, taking other actions might hold it steady or even bolster it. If the integrity reaches zero, the signal is lost and your hacking attempt ends.

From a broader perspective, you can look at time as a resource the player must manage. Adding other resource pressures can increase the intensity of the time resource. You could try limiting the number of actions the player can take (the actions themselves become a resource) or the rate at which they can be taken (having to wait for some focus or brainpower resource to recharge between actions).

Riffing on Phillip's ideas, you could simulate the resources of the attacker's machine. Launching one kind of hack takes up x% CPU and yMB RAM for z seconds, or running a trace evasion program takes up a chunk of resources continuously. You can only take additional actions when your machine has the CPU and memory available for it.

You could also add an aspect of timing to the user's actions. Make it so certain actions can only be taken or completed at certain times. Or make it so you have to click, hold and release buttons at specific intervals to finesse your actions. (Like sports games frequently do: click & hold for a power level and click at the right moment for timing. Here's is a field-goal kicking game that implements this mechanic.) The better the players timing, the more likely their action is to succeed, or the better the outcome of the action.

Finally, if you want to reduce the starkness of the network trace - where either you're getting counted down or not - you could implement a heat or suspicion activity. Think of Grand Theft Auto or Thief or Assassin's Creed, where doing suspicious or illegal things raises the attention of the guards. If you keep being bad, the guard will attack or pursue you. But if you actively do something to deflect their attention (hide in a shadow, duck down an alley way, blend into a crowd, etc.), they leave you alone. You could adapt this mechanic for an anti-intrusion system without much of a stretch.

Good luck and it sounds like you're onto a fun game!

  • \$\begingroup\$ BTW my game is actually very similar to hacking in DX:HR. For starters, the topology is the same -- the network is made up of conneted nodes, one of which is the 'entrance' and the rest representing either obstacles or rewards. Regarding resources: the player currently has to manage 'Tokens', which are necessary to run modules, which is all the various software that the player wants to run on the nodes. You start with some, but then have to generate more on your own as you go. Having the network periodically remove one of these tokens until they drop to zero would be a cool punishment! Thanks. \$\endgroup\$
    – mzi
    Mar 22, 2014 at 17:48

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .