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Life is a subway

05 August 201804:32PMlifegames

There's this recurring concept in video games called a 'cooldown'.

The idea is that you can only push something so far, repeat an action so many times, before you have to wait for it (sometimes literally) to cool down.

As a gameplay mechanic, it forces you to think strategically about time. You have to plan your current actions, taking into account how much you've already used, and how much you're likely to need in the immediate future. Depending on how the system is set up, that calculus can get pretty deep pretty quickly.

One of my favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in Mini Metro.

mini metro

In Mini Metro you're building a subway map, trying to link stations together to get passengers to where they want to go. If you have too many passengers waiting at any given station, that station is "overcrowded". If it stays overcrowded for too long, your subway closes down and the game is over.

The first thing I love about this is that it's cumulative. Once you clear the crowds at a station it doesn't reset immediately. It takes a while to cool down. Meanwhile, people are still stopping there - and if it overcrowds again, the timer picks up from where it left off. So if you've got a station that overcrowds once, it's not really a big deal - but if there's one that overcrowds regularly, your fuse gets shorter and shorter and shorter until you deal with whatever's causing it. Incidental overcrowding is fine, sometimes even a useful buffer. But chronic overcrowding will drive your subway into the ground.


The other thing I love about this is the way it lets you know that a station is overcrowded. Every stop has a little meter wrapped around the outside, which gives you a really good way to know how healthy your network is at a glance. But if ypu're zoomed right in, adjusting one particular part of the map, you're going to miss those telltales. So overcrowded stations also pulse, ever so gently, in a way that's visible and audible no matter how far you're zoomed in. It's subtle - so subtle you might not even notice you're noticing it - but it's enough to let you know something's wrong.

cooldown timer

One of my other favourite implementations of a cooldown mechanic is in the way I've come to think about work.

I could happily sit here and draw parallels for days, but the point I want to make is actually pretty simple.

There will be parts of life where you have to run yourself down a bit - deadlines, due dates, disasters. It's okay, even useful, to let things get a bit overcrowded, but you have to let them cool down afterwards

An important part of that is learning to feel when your stations are overloading before it happens. There's no dial winding upwards or increasingly urgent pulses in your peripheral vision to remind you. It's complicated by the fact that when you're busy, the last thing you have time to do is stop and think about how you're feeling.

It's not something you can do quantitatively either - say, setting yourself a three-project-limit - because the resources at your disposal and how they're structured and how good you are at using them are changing and growing constantly.

growing and changing

It's something that you have to do purely by feel. By learning to read those telltales. It's something I'm still working on, and it's hard, because by the time you start to feel tired or burnt out, it's already game over.

game over

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