Kenneth Chen

Kenneth Chen

Digital Media PhD Student

Kenneth is a doctoral student in the Digital Media PhD program. In his series “Kenneth on Games” he writes about his passion for games and game design.

Like it or hate it, modern shooters always seem to be defined by a fast time to kill (TTK), starting with the infamous Call of Duty series and even moving into Halo 5‘s Breakout mode. But this E3, Respawn teased a bit of work-in-progress footage from Titanfall 2, and I was a big fan of the first one. One of the most interesting things about Titanfall is how it twists the idea of TTK through the relationship between pilots and titans. From what we’ve seen so far, it seems like the sequel is committed to exploring this connection even futher.

The Consequences of Low TTK

I have a love-hate relationship with the modern FPS trend of low TTK, so let’s start with the bad. Low TTK is practically the definition of non-interactive play. How are you supposed to engage in any kind of tactical decision-making when you could be dead faster than a human could reasonably react? There’s no counterplay, there’s no improvement. All you can do is try not to get shot.

Look at pretty much any PvP game. What’s the most frustrating type of enemy, the one that gets all the new players to ragequit? It’s the snipers. It’s the assassins. It’s the ones who have a low TTK. Once you get to a higher level, you can start to see how to play around these situations, but when you’re starting out and something kills you out of nowhere, it just sucks.

And this is pretty much the defining characteristic of CODian design. It feels like you can delete anybody in almost an instant using practically any weapon as long as they are not aware of you, and vice versa. But then you just respawn instantly and go back into the fray.

Some designers have called this a “slot machine effect,” where every life in a CODian game is a roll in a slot machine. Sometimes, you’ll see someone first and you’ll get a kill. Other times, they’ll see you first and you die. Rarely, you’ll have many opportunities to see other people first and go on a big kill streak. But the whole system feels so random and disjointed that it becomes a slot machine.

This is a large part of how CODian design caters to casual players, and thus it is a large reason why the Call of Duty series has become so popular. Everyone rolls the same slot machine. Even a complete beginner can get a few kills as long as they just see the other guys first. Yes, you’ll have some bad games, but you’ll also have some good games, and you’ll also have some amazing games where you dominate the enemy team with a ridiculous kill streak. Skill is devalued so much that the game practically simulates randomness.

Other games approach this problem in different ways. Counter Strike just removes respawning for each round. Team Fortress 2 severely limits which areas you can respawn in so that people are forced to move through preset paths. Overwatch characters inflate their TTK with special abilities that prevent anyone from getting kills as quickly as you could in a CODian game (unless you’re playing McCree).

But then we come to Titanfall, which bleeds CODian design from its core. It’s got the fast TTK and it’s got the fast respawns and it’s got the team-agnostic maps. The titans are a really interesting way to mix it up with some unique TTK interactions, but for now let’s focus on pilots versus pilots. What is Respawn doing with them to avoid the slot machine problem?

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Titanfall 2 seems to extend its TTK by a slight amount. In this clip, we see the player taking down an enemy using a weapon called the L-Star. By my count, it took five shots to kill from short range, taking slightly less than 0.5 seconds (which is a fairly low ROF). For most CODian games, a weapon like this would kill in three to four shots.

Is two more shots that much of a big deal? From an outsider’s perspective, not at all. But when you’ve been weaned on CODian design and you’re used to fast TTK, it might just be barely enough for you to get out of the line of fire. And when you factor in accuracy and dropoff distance, if you’re not shooting someone in a 100% optimal situation that differential could get even wider.

The other important thing to note is that enemy pilots now display health bars. Games with low TTK have absolutely no need for health bars, because people die near-instantly anyway. If Titanfall 2 is implementing health bars, could it possibly mean that they want to stretch the average TTK long enough to justify the visual clutter?

Respawn won’t rock the boat too much. Even if TTK goes up, it won’t go up by that much. But even though I’ve spent so much time hating on low TTK, it’s an important tool in a designer’s kit. High TTK has problems too, and the original Titanfall struggled with some of them. Thankfully, Respawn made some interesting decisions on that front moving into Titanfall 2.

The Consequences of High TTK

Low TTK creates a cycle of “live, die, live again” where you get right back up instantly. It forces the game to have low respawn timers in order to balance out the pace of the game. But to put a positive spin on it… it enables games to have low respawn timers, which is generally better.

When you’re sitting and watching your respawn timer count down, it sucks. I said earlier that low TTK is the definition of noninteractivity, but you know what else is noninteractive? Waiting to respawn. Board game designers have already figured out that elimination isn’t fun.

Higher TTK naturally requires higher respawn timers. Otherwise, kills wouldn’t give you any kind of tactical advantage. You would spend a lot of time trying to take someone down, then they’re back up before you can leverage your momentum. This is a necessity of the design.

Some games will try to mask this by giving you something to do while you are dead. In Overwatch, you respawn in eight seconds, but realistically, it will take you ten to twenty seconds to walk back to the action. And then each character has little tricks they can do to move faster using their abilities, so you can feel a little sense of mastery, but in the end that’s not what makes the game fun.

Titanfall always had a unique solution around this problem. Titans have high TTK, but when a titan is taken down, the pilot inside gets ejected, basically acting like a second life with low TTK. This way, your titan can represent a significant force that’s difficult to take down, but when you get taken down you don’t have to sit there waiting for a long time to do something. You can still run around as a pilot and be useful. In this sense, the long respawn time is pushed into your titan’s build time.

Of course, this means that sometimes, it can take a really long time to get your titan back, since it technically has a long respawn time. This is where the slot machine effect comes in: if you’re on a kill streak as a pilot, you get your titan quickly, but otherwise you’ll be waiting several minutes. Titans eventually start to feel too powerful, and if a team manages to coordinate all of their titans to fall at the same time, they’ll stomp the match. High TTK and high respawn times means that payoff has to be adequately powerful.

So it seems that in Titanfall 2, the developers are lowering titan TTK and respawn time. You’ll get your titan faster and more often throughout the course of a match, but it will also die faster and overall be less impactful.

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We haven’t seen a whole lot of titan mechanics from gameplay¬†footage, but we can definitely see that they no longer have respawning shields. At one point, someone destroys a Scorch from more than half its health with a single Archer rocket. Termination kills (when a pilot is killed along with their titan, rather than ejecting safely) seem a lot more common. Titan TTK is lower across the board, and with it, titan respawn time is faster across the board.

It seems that with Titanfall 2, pilot TTK is going up slightly and titan TTK is going down slightly. Those are pretty good changes to make: they add more skill to pilot battles, and they make titans less dominating. You’re encouraged to be active and aggressive, rather than camping and staying safe. There are still too many changes that I can’t quite form an opinion on yet (namely, battery rodeos) but I’m still really excited. Hopefully, these changes will help Titanfall 2 form a community that lasts longer than the first one did.