[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.
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.
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