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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited: Harnessed Pacing & Intensity
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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited: Harnessed Pacing & Intensity

November 12, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Former EA and THQ design director Lopez continues his analytical series by looking at pacing in games versus films and TV, explaining how careful planning can produce a perfect intensity curve for games. In the next installment of Gameplay Fundamentals, Lopez will focus on how to build a pacing structure which can sustain the interest of gamers over the course of your title -- focusing on nine key points that will improve pacing and increase engagement.]

My initial Gameplay Fundamentals article was oriented towards the macro concept of gameplay progression in a campaign or career and how environmental content should be planned and structured from level to level to support such a progression in all areas (mechanics, duration, ancillary awards, practical rewards and difficulty).

But the need to plan and structure environmental content does not only support the concept of progression; the structured environment plan is also very critical to the concepts of game intensity and pacing at both the mission and campaign level.

All of the more mature entertainment industries (movie, TV and books) successfully use structured intensity and pacing to build the ultimate experience, and we should look to them for relevant lessons on both emotional control and production efficiency.

The top Hollywood blockbuster movies, such as the James Bond films  have successfully been utilizing intensity and pacing structure for at least the last 30 years now, so we can learn a lot about their techniques for how they pre-plan and structure the action into their movies.

While movies and even written fiction have some strong lessons to teach the game industry about pacing, it is really the modern TV drama that lends our closest and most relevant comparison, where a single episode is akin to a game level, mission, or course, and an entire season to an entire campaign or career.

Just as the amazing teams on the top TV dramas 24, Prison Break and Lost carefully pre-structure the plot and shoot sequences to maximize the intensity and pacing, I believe that the games with the highest quality experiences (Ratchet & Clank, Splinter Cell, Halo, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, etc.) have carefully structured their single-player level content to precisely control the pacing and to ratchet up the intensity.

In fact, if we designers are hoping to deliver an experience as delightfully exciting and enjoyable as Lost, Prison Break, or 24, we need to begin during pre-production by pre-planning a carefully structured intensity and pacing plan for all environments, levels, or courses.

Then, as discussed in my initial article, we need to create an overall gameplay progression plan to ensure that the challenge and gameplay experience progressively increase throughout the entire campaign or career.

Predicting Intensity

Fig. 1: The Green Intensity Curve will produce the greater excitement.

To illustrate the benefits of structured intensity and pacing, let's look at an intensity graph. An average intensity graph for a single segment of entertainment (e.g. an episode of a show or a level of a game) would display an ever increasing curve, where the rate of growth is increasing over time (the black arc in Figure 1).

In practice, however, a perfectly arced intensity is impossible to attain since the intensity of entertainment is always fluctuating -- and a perfect curve is even undesirable since it lacks any contrast. Peaks in intensity occur during exciting events, and troughs occur during lull periods lacking in excitement or action. It is in fact the contrast between the two which makes the action super riveting, exciting and satisfying.

Although both graphs in Fig. 1 have the same building intensity overall, the green graph will provide a much more exciting and satisfying experience; the contrast between the peaceful calm and the intense action will punctuate and maximize the impact of the events.

In the green graph of Fig. 1 above, the intensity is the excitement magnitude of the event and the pacing is the frequency between similarly intense events (peak to peak or trough to trough).

In the real entertainment world, the term "pacing" is often used in a broader sense that encompasses both the rhythm of events and the magnitude of intensity, so we will follow that convention moving forward -- except where we specifically indicate the intensity component separate from the time and distance pacing.

Movie Structure

Any movie review which proclaims the experience is "a rollercoaster ride" is usually a good indication that the intensity and pacing are well structured and executed in the film.

So, how exactly does Hollywood structure the intensity and pacing for a blockbuster film? Simple -- they plan out a relative intensity graph which shows an initial spike, then a wave with incrementally increasing peaks and troughs.

Next they come up with the key action or excitement scenes which they order in terms of the magnitude of impact. Usually, they set these events to occur around the transition from one act to another; this event sequencing fits within the three-act structure (Figure 2) that includes a setup act (optionally preceded by a prologue), a confrontation act, and a final resolution act.

Fig. 2: A Blockbuster Intensity Graph

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AJ Beyer
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Very informative comparison between the genres of Movies, TV, and Games. I think Mr. Dinehart also has a very valid point and I cannot see how TV and movies can plan out peeks without taking into account story (except maybe "Lost"). I also find in my experience that written fiction tends to vary off of the commonalities found in movies and TV. Few of the books I cherish the most started with a peak, the tendency is to start lower on the excitement scale and build for a while until reaching a peak at the end of the first act. This seems to be ultimately a more rewarding experience for the consumer, although it can push away those not willing to trudge through the initial lull. This may be a good concept to try and use in a game because the longer and lower the lull in the beginning the more intense the relative peaks will be. For a prime example of the way this works see "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller. This may also be a way to make mid to low level mid game peaks seem by comparison more intense, and at the same time yield a higher euphoric for completing a high finale peak.

"A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller

Mike Lopez
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*** Note that this is a 2-part article, so the step-by-step guide will be posted in Part II next week. I have asked for this to be clarified in the descriptions. ***

Mike Lopez
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Good pont AJ but there are some great examples in written fiction which do start out with high intensity pacing. Robert Ludlum used to start off many of his books with high intensity action sequences and I would argue he had the ability to get the reader hooked faster than the majority of other authors within only 5-15 pages (which is why he was my favorite author). For an example read any of the first 3 Bourne Books (Bourne Identity, Supremacy, Ultimatum).

In games if you have not hooked the player in the first 5 minutes you are not going to convert the renters and demo players into buyers. Perhaps this is a sad commentary on American attention spans, but it remains a crucial fact of the business of making games.

Mike Lopez
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I agree completely that narrative needs to come early and be evolved with gameplay and hopefully that will be clarified in Part II. Too often the narrative is not evolved with the level design and comes either so late it has to be shoehorned into the gameplay or so early it does not leverage the level gameplay that emerges towards the end of the project.

Also this is a structured design process that I believe can be applied especially well to the single player modes of action and racing games with large level design content needs and so thus would not apply to other genres as you note (sports, classic arcade, puzzle, etc.).

Ironically I was a jr. designer building tables for Virtual Pinball. :)

Anne Toole
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Both a movie and a television episode will have those rises and falls in dramatic tension as you've illustrated, because a good story is structured that way. However, I would argue that one-hour television's move away from the 4-act structure to the 5 and sometimes 6-act structure has weakened some act breaks as well as made them way more artificial and like cheating. Sometimes they create false tension where there really is none simply to get a good act out. The last TV show I worked on had 7 acts, and many, many times I saw writers end acts by "cheating." For example, a character comes across someone who you didn't expect to be there and says "What are YOU doing here?" Then when the show returned, it turns out the person is just there to pick up something. My fear is that designers will end up doing the same thing in games and not focus on how story and writing can help.

Creating spikes in tension is possible using these "cheating" methods. Adding bigger bosses or more fireballs will create the illusion of mapping onto the ideal narrative arc you've mapped. At the end of the day, however, people aren't stupid, and they will recognize these as cheats unless these spikes in tension are grounded with REAL stakes tied to REAL story twists and turns. Thus, even if you carefully design the gameplay to amp up, people will continue to experience the disjointed structure of games you describe if the story isn't tied to the intensity arc. For example, playing Final Fantasy VII I've never heard anyone comment on their powers at higher level -- everyone remembers the moment where Aeris dies (I'm nice about no spoilers, aren't I?). The ideal situation would have been to make this an epic moment from both a gameplay standpoint and a story standpoint.

Mike Lopez
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Thanks, Stephen.

I hear where Anne is coming from. My belief is that there is far too much reuse of generic events in games these days and as a player I feel let down when I recognize the monotony of constantly repeated gameplay.

I think everything will be more clear in Part II next week, but the idea is to define and implement unique action events that stand on their own and that contrast with the intensity of the gameplay before and after. The intention is very much to prevent gameplay elements from feeling like cheap insertions and the way to do that is through action event diversity and pacing.

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Great article. Adding to what Mr. Lopez has said… a great Hollywood screenplay has additional elements not mentioned in the article. In order for intensity to ramp up, the story must provide a believable and sympathetic hero or Protagonist who becomes the player’s ‘avatar’. A great Protagonist IS the player. What happens to the Protagonist happens to the player on a deep emotional level.

To help make those intensity ramps work, Act 1, following the Prologue, should be the setup during which we find out who the Protagonist is, who the enemy are and what is the reality of the world we find ourselves in. By the end of Act 1, the Protagonist encounters a challenge which forces him/her to act in extraordinary ways, triggering a journey against insurmountable odds. Act 2 adheres to the ebb and flow outlined by Mr. Lopez with ever-increasing intensity. The end of Act 2 finds our character nearly beaten and so-near-yet-so-far from completing the mission as the confluence of seemingly unbeatable odds makes success seem impossible. A great Act 3 finds our character unlocking some hidden potential or discovering a tool or method for overcoming the adversities which allow him to rise above the challenges. Act 3, as Mr. Lopez so rightly noted, is all about the final confrontation and ultimate success of the mission. But Act 3 does not end with this ultimate success. Let’s not forget the dénouement, a critical element of a great screenplay. This gives the writers a chance to explain the remaining mysteries, resolve the conflicts and exact justice providing the player an emotional release. Are we done? Not quite yet. Let’s not forget the last moment’s cliffhanger – the eyelid opening on the dead or the return of the enemy’s vengeful tribe – to setup the sequel.

How do we achieve that emotional connection? Great dialog for sympathetic characters who respond in believable, admirable ways to the challenges they face. And, of course, great music, sufficiently interactive, which triggers the emotionally appropriate response in the player.

Mike Lopez
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Absolutely, Martin. The layout and changes in the space can and should be a key part in controlling intensity.

For those who did not attend Brian Upton's excellent GDC 2007 lecture on Narrative Landscapes, try to get a hold of the archive video (your company does buy those, right?). His exceptional lessons from theme park design and urban planning provide all the tools a team needs to manipulate this layer. While out of the scope of this article I do reference visual intensity control in Part II and provide a link to Brian's lecture summary.

Dave Mieluk
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There seems to be confusion here about the pacing of the game and the pacing of the narrative of the game. They are not one and the same, since players will sometimes take more or less time to complete a section of the game.

This is not an irrelevant distinction. There is probably little value to be obtained from maximizing tension that would be created if the game's narrative was a movie if the actual playing of the game does not create a similar tension profile.

This article, in my opinion, seems to take that blurry indistiction and run with it. Games are not movies or novels - it is important to remember this. Movies and novels can be successful in controlling tension only to the extent that they control the degree of interaction between the observer and the observed. Taken to it's extreme, the point of view advocated here would endorse the practice of removing interactive control from the user so long as the illusion of interactive control could be maintained.

Another way to look at it. Consider the relative tension levels across time as a child plays in a sandpit. Of course they do not rise systematically through time. Now suppose we interupted play periodically to tell the child another chapter of the story... we might get some degree of effectively rising tension... now go further and imagine that we decide when to tell the next part of the narrative depending upon the actions of the child... maybe you can see that we have probably lost too much control over flow of the narrative for any explicit attempt to control the tension to be meaningful. This last situation is somewhat analogous to the obstacle confronting a game developer when attempting to control the flow of tension in a game.

Lest my criticism be construed as simply to apply to cutscene based games, i'll just make explicit the breadth of the point. The flow of the game is controlled by the player whereever the actions of the player can alter the rate of progress of the game. Tautilogical, but it is the point. If the player can fail to conquer a level - if that is possible in the game - then that player can alter the temporial structure of the game, which intrinsically influences the flow of tension for that player with that game. If the player can spend time exploring a portion of the world you have created, then that player has also altered the temporial structure of the game. Whenever a player has any degree of control over the flow of the game, precise control of tension (as is practiced in cinemagraphic production) becomes impossible. It becomes a self deception to imagine it is important and a waste of resources to attempt to control it. When this article discusses the flow and pace of a game, the role of the player in regulating that pace is completely overlooked, whilst in practice the ability of the player to regulate that pace which has the largest implications for the ability or lack thereof for the designer to control the pace of the game.

I'm not trying to say that all tension management in games is mistaken... On the contrary, where it can be done, it should. However, there are theoretical constraints upon the ability of the author to control the flow of any interactive medium - these constraints are at their highest in the most interactive mediums, like games. The point that I initially set out to write about is that this article seems to take the wisdom of narrative design and attempt to apply it to game design way past the point where it continues to make sense...

Mike Lopez
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Whew! I though I was back in college there sitting in partial confusion through a class I had not studied for. :) I am glad I could provide food for thoughtful discourse.

I am not suggesting one can control the pacing perfectly for every player and I am a firm proponent of letting players play the game however they like. Will every consumer play the same and get the same value out of a structured level or mission experience? Certainly not, but we have all experienced the alternative of ill planned pacing and level structure in games and often that is one of the major factors causing a player to become bored with a title as the rhythm of gameplay becomes predictable and unmotivating.

All scientific discussion of theoretical constraints aside the question developers should ask themselves is whether they will be better off trying to structure the pacing and level content in a way that works for the majority of user play habits in the places we know they will eventually pass (i.e. in the missions of an open-world game). All 17 years of my experience tell me that the product will be better off with structured pacing and level content and in fact I wish I could go back and time and apply that to every one of my earlier projects.

I leave it up to the reader to decide for themself after reading Part II next week.

Saul Gonzalez
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I hope next week's article also makes more references to games that excelled at pacing and exactly which elements were responsible for that. I feel this topic is more complex than progression and concrete examples would help with visualizing the concept.

Bob McIntyre
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I am really looking forward to further insights on this topic.

Mike Lopez
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Part II comes out next Wednesday (November 26).