Game Design: Consistent Pacing

Not too long ago, I talked about padding in games, and how it’s not always beneficial to stretch out experiences for players just so that you can say that your game has “100 hours of content”. This week, I’ll examine one of the core reasons why; pacing. Pacing is crucial to any gaming experience, tabletop or digital, and it’s really one of the things that is heavily dependent on the designer of a game’s careful and deliberate design.

One of my favorite tabletop games is Shadowrun; even though it’s changed a good deal mechanically since I started playing it I still consider it to stick true to a lot of the guiding principles that I loved it for and I think it’s a pretty well done game. However, I’ve grown dissatisfied with my last couple campaigns I’ve run on it because it’s turned into “Planninghalt”, as I like to call it, on account of the amount of hesitancy and FUD that I’ve seen in players for no reason other than the fact that Shadowrun is a notably unhappy place and  that bad things tend to happen to people who haven’t made any mistakes they could have avoided. This is a consequence of the narrative, but this is the same thing that can happen in many games; in a traditional JRPG, for instance, players may go back and fight countless unnecessary fights just to buy that one shop item they want to be sure not to miss (that they can come back for later and will be obsolete after the next town), which is a consequence of both narrative and mechanics, and, of course, something where the mechanics become arbitrarily difficult and cause difficulties or are simply not engaging; such as the minigames in any of Bioware’s games from Knights of the Old Republic to Jade Empire or sudden difficulty spikes or drops.

The main way to prevent narrative breaks in pace is to remove uncertainty. This is not to say that you must be follow tropes and conventions to the extreme, but rather you must assure or warn players before major events happen. For instance, roguelikes have often included a “level feeling” for each floor of a dungeon; this lets players know if they’re going to find something incredibly rare or dangerous (or both). To a certain degree this is undesirable, but you can use foreshadowing and recognition (“I’ll be back shortly” as opposed to “It will be a while before I can return”). There’s nothing wrong with explicitly telling players that there will be no going back, and giving them due warning (“Doing that may trigger an alarm.”), especially if it’s appropriate for their character to know such a thing. Remember that the goal is to remove fear, uncertainty, or doubt, not to explicitly spoil the upcoming events. In an environment of exploration, make it clear when it will be impossible to return, or when paths are being permanently blocked off, and when it will be possible to eventually return for the player to explore to their heart’s content. Mandatory points of no return may still break the pacing of your game, but at least when they are delineated the player will not have to treat every potential point of no return as such. Of course, adding a chapter or level select feature will mitigate all of these concerns, but also breaks pacing for mechanical reasons.

The second form of breaks are hybrid breaks. In many cases, such as Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, hybrid breaks occur when it becomes clear that the next confrontation will be a scale of magnitude greater than the previous, and the player goes to prepare. The important thing to note about the hybrid break is that it is not necessarily disastrous; it is an informed decision based upon FUD. One can use this, with care, to encourage the player to explore additional game content, such as side-quests or free exploration zones, but it is important to remember that this can also become boring to the player. Hybrid breaks tend to be unenforced; it is the player’s perception that they are unready for the next challenge or want to go back to explore, rather than their belief that they would fail or would miss out permanently on content if they were to continue.

The final form of breaks are mechanical in nature. This is simply when players reach challenges that are not currently capable of being solved by their skills or the capabilities of their character. These come in the form of locked doors with missing keys, or foes that can devastate the player’s current retinue. In order to bypass these, they are forced to go back and look for the solution; either improving their skills by practice, going back to find the item they need, or improving their character’s abilities. A game that has cheat or debug codes often includes them to mitigate these mechanical barriers, whether the codes themselves meant for general use as a difficulty modifier or for testing purposes. The important thing to consider about mechanical breaks are that they are very likely to be frustrating; while narrative breaks and hybrid breaks rely in part on the player wanting to find something they would otherwise have missed, mechanical breaks fall outside this jurisdiction; they prevent the player from accomplishing their main objective for no reason other than that the game doesn’t think they are ready.

Poor narrative exercises often look like mechanical breaks. For instance, if a player is told that they need to gather six knots of firewood in order to continue, they’d usually go and do this. Unless the goal of the game is firewood collecting, it likely serves little narrative purpose; Beowulf does not gather his own firewood on camera (at least, within the framework of the narrative, if we wanted to be picky). Either he brought it along with him, got it off camera, or had someone else get it for him. Minigames are a prime sign of a mechanical break, though this is not always so; they are often easy enough to cause little trouble to the player but still cause inconsistent pacing. An example of a mechanical break that is not devastating would be the first boss fight in Demon’s Souls, where the player is fully intended to die, and is forced to do so or, by incredible skill, succeed (then die shortly after). Note, however, that this serves a narrative purpose, even though to the player it at first seems either like a brutal punishment or a sudden jump in difficulty.

Of course, avoiding gaps alone does not achieve an objective of consistent pacing. For instance, it’s possible to have a game that focuses heavily on combat, such as the Syndicate reboot, but not actually capitalize on it at all times; during one scene the player may be hacking jet bikes and enemy aircraft while using a minigun and diving between cover, and in another they may be using a pistol against a horde of foes that are below thought on account of how easy they are to defeat. This is not necessarily bad; Syndicate pulled this off relatively well by allowing the player to use a wide array of tools to dynamically adjust their abilities to their situation, meaning that players could utilize their full extent of resources on high-challenge situations, and enjoy a decent experience on the easier stretches by simply not having the player use all their resources. In this case, voluntary crippling served to provide a buffer between the padding and the crunch. It’s important to remember at this point that once you have avoided breaks, consistent pacing is not necessarily something that you need to get perfect, merely consider. You may want to have low-difficulty, slow scenes that show how powerful the player’s character has become, then adrenaline-filled boss fights that push them to their limit, and it’s probably better to do so. Some of this requires knowing how players are going to be rewarded, which is crucial to the design process, but that’s something a little outside the scope of this discussion.

Padding and crunch are essentially what will define your game in the memory of your players; will they remember falling asleep at their desks while playing, or the intense battles throughout? Will they have distinct memories of both? You, as a designer, get to make that decision. Padding is not something that game designers typically “market”, but it has a couple advantages; it’s cheap and it allows the players to recover. From a development and writing standpoint, padding has little going on. The challenges to players are minimal. The most recent Tomb Raider has zones where you can return to hunt and achieve maximum completion. In addition to giving players a chance to get more materials to craft upgrades with, it also lets them unwind from some of the very intense scenes in the game, being a well-utilized source of padding. Most of these scenes are identical to the normal play environments, and didn’t require any additional effort to create because elements of the padding were included within the combat-heavy crunch sections of the game, creating a synergistic relationship that enhanced both parts; the ability to explore and find stuff may have not taken precedence over the combat, but it showed the correct path through areas by tossing shiny things in front of the player.

On the other hand, you have crunch. Crunch is difficult to create, because if you have too much of the same it will become padding; it requires creating engaging experiences and challenges for the player. The easiest way to do this is difficulty; a crushingly difficult boss fight will create a sense of anticipation and anxiety that the player then channels into a fight against their powerful foe, feeling triumphant upon victory. In addition, it’s where you risk running into mechanical breaks; the designers of Skyrim obviously didn’t want the final fight against Alduin to cause too much angst, because as it stood it was so easy that it hardly posed a threat and falls well into the “padding” category as far as gameplay experiences go, a piece of what was intended to be crunch that was over-analyzed and turned into one of the least satisfying experiences in a 100+ hour game that excelled at providing plenty of crunch. This concept is what motivated the concept of leveled environments, both in MMORPG’s but also in games like Oblivion, Fallout 3, or Skyrim, though these quickly turn into padding when viewed by a skeptical player; crunch is more than just difficulty, it should be accompanied by narrative meaning.

Next week, I’ll write more about rewarding players, and distinctive styles with which to provide opportunities for players to enjoy their experience and be directed through it.

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