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Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick

May 12, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[In this in-depth article, veteran designer Davies looks at games from Call Of Duty 4 through Dead Space to analyze the art of game level pacing.]


"Pacing" is a word bandied around a lot when talking about level design, but it is actually a very complex concept to pin down. Just how does the pace affect the player's perception of the level and what is it that sets a well paced level apart from a poorly paced one?

The Fundamentals

With these questions ringing in my ears I was determined to try and delve a little deeper into just what constitutes level pacing, but I found very little literature on the subject. Instead I decided to focus my efforts on breaking down the core elements of what determines pace itself.

In doing so I identified several key aspects of game pace:

  • Movement Impetus -- the will of the player to move through the level.
  • Threat -- the notion of danger.
  • Tension -- the atmosphere and mood of the level or perceived danger which is reflected in the player.
  • Tempo -- the level of actual action currently being experienced by the player.

Movement Impetus

Movement impetus is the will or desire of a player to move forwards through a level. There are several ways in which the player can be pushed into moving or stalled from pushing forwards in order to affect the movement impetus and thus the pace of the action.

There are many elements that increase impetus to move:

  • Introduce a threat from behind -- as long as the threat is significant it will cause the player to want to move away from it.
  • Present an objective ahead -- dangling the carrot is one of the most effective methods of encouraging movement. A clearly defined goal is vital in creating this urge to follow it.
  • Impose a time limit -- quite obviously the restriction of a time limit will encourage the player to not hang around. Too many imposed time limits can be extremely frustrating however.
  • Narrow physical options -- limiting the space in which to travel -- i.e. long corridors as opposed to open spaces, limits the amount of choice available to the player and in turn increases the speed at which they tend to move.
  • Draw the eye -- items of interest will pull the player towards them. Judicious use of these will help to pull the player through parts of the level. Bear in mind that once they reach the item of interest they are likely to pause at that point.
  • Architectural pressure -- specific forms of architecture promote movement. Walls that angle down, long corridors, junctions, etc all have psychological impact upon the player.
  • Snatch desired object -- taking away a desired object will often trigger the player into chasing after it.
  • NPC leads the way -- having a third party lead the player though the level will nearly always directly affect the movement impetus.

Continual movement keeps the tempo high, but it is undesirable in many ways. Often players want time to take stock, catch their breath, formulate a plan or even just soak up the atmosphere -- it provides a break from constant travel. Also in production terms continual travel often requires much more real estate in which to move -- this is both a production risk and possibly a technical issue.

Conversely there are also many elements that decrease impetus to move:

  • Wow moments -- stunning scenery, dramatic actions, impressive vistas or other elements that halt the player for a while.
  • Obstacle -- something blocking the progress ahead will decrease movement impetus and force the player to find a way around or a way to clear the blockage.
  • Altered movement -- a different movement method may require more thought, such as scaling walls via handholds.
  • Introducing a threat ahead -- a group of enemies ahead, a flaming pit or any other potential threat will slow the player whilst they plan to deal with it, then execute said plan.
  • Increased tension -- when tension is particularly high (usually through a high perceived threat and good atmosphere) then the player will often be fearful of moving quickly. Dead Space is a classic example of this -- many players tend to move slowly to ready themselves for sudden attacks.
  • Multiple Routes / Open World -- choice requires thought and thought slows movement impetus. Multiple routes and open world games offer a plethora of choice. Perhaps the ultimate example of slowed impetus is the moment when a player exits the sewer in Oblivion and sees the huge expanse of the world before them. It takes a moment or two just to take it all in.
  • NPC halts player -- just as an NPC can lead the player, they can also halt the player or slow them down.
  • Taking stock of inventory (collecting items) -- whenever a player encounters an item they are likely to slow down to investigate. Complex inventory systems will also require management that will slow movement impetus. Further still -- having collectible items in the first place will encourage exploration.
  • Dialog / Roleplay -- moments of dialog with NPCs or getting into the character will generally require more involvement from the player, and will thus slow movement impetus.
  • Story exposition -- generally the exposition of story will require the player's attention and will thus slow movement impetus.

Constantly slowing movement impetus can also be dangerous, as it can prevent the player having a feeling of progression. A balance needs to be struck in providing a sense of movement and accomplishment and allowing the player time to themselves to explore, soak in the atmosphere or to take stock of their situation.

Threat (Actual Danger)

The pace of the game can also be increased by the sense of peril that is experience by the player. The more threat the player believes they are under, the quicker their pulse, the more nervous and often more panicked them are.

Threat can come in many forms -- each form having a different feel of pacing. For example combat tends to be more frantic and higher paced than traversing an environment, even though the end result -- death -- could potentially occur in either situation.

Generally the level of threat felt by the player is determined by whether the threat is being caused by an external force -- an enemy, an encroaching hazard, etc, or whether is a danger that will result from the player's own mistake. Threats from external forces tend to have a much higher level of pace than those that will result from a player's mistake, as they have time to gather their thoughts and create a plan when they have control.

Proximity of a threat also has a huge influence on the feel of the threat. An enemy at a distance is not nearly as threatening as one very close by. This is something that stealth based games can really use to their advantage (and is something that can also build a great sense of tension).

Adding a time limit to a task automatically increases the level of actual danger, as the control the player has over the game world has been reduced -- there are now limits placed upon them which can induce a level of panic.

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Tom Newman
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Good study! I was glad to see CoD4 used as an example, as this is is probably the most refined single player experience for the genre.

One point I took from this article that really makes me think, is using the language of formal music to describe level design - not that musical analogies work in all examples, but that music has a language to describe these things, but gaming does not. With (video)gaming being only a few decades old, this is understandable, and does not need a forced correction, but it will be very interesting to see how the language of game design evolves in the future years. For now, however, I think musical terms make a great analogy.

Aaron Casillas
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"certainly some more scientific studies of heart rate" not only your heart but a study of numbers and pleasure. I've found in my own personal experience that there is a direct correlation between the speed a player is running at and the perception of space. Thus data to divide up a space, encounters and landmarks et al...tied to pleasure/stimulus expectations...and not forget the division between positive and negative gameplay space. Last but not least of many notes, is the sound of no combat at all! The music of violence has a tempo and a space!

Steven Conway
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Thanks for an interesting read Mark; Csikszentmihalyi's theory of Flow may be of interest to you.

Jeromie Walters
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I have to say I think the correlations to musical concepts were a bit of a stretch, but overall this is a very well-written article on level pacing and I learned a lot from it. Thank you for your insights!

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Here's another thing you have to keep in mind, difficulty of the actual game and checkpoints.

Many of your Threat analysis moments just take the moment into consideration, but what if the player is playing on very easy just to see the story? Then all threat moments of low+ are actually very low. All the tension moments of low+ are actually very low. Movement impetus is always very high.

Now if the player is playing on very hard then any moment, doesn't matter what is happening threat is very high and tension is very high. The only time in that situation when threat and tension are not very high is right after they see a "checkpoint reached", but 1 minute later they have something to lose and their movement impetus is in danger, and thereby the entire pacing of the game is in danger. If a player dies and in a battle and is set back to a checkpoint the movement impetus actually goes in reverse.

So I think difficulty and resurrection methods also have a very large part to do with pacing. If your game is designed for pacing I think it would be in your best interest to not include any difficulty sliders at all. It would also be good to come up with a resurrection mechanic that won't impede the movement impetus by too much.

Everyone that plays your game isn't going to be the same skill level anyway so I think even with the same difficulty for everyone, not everyone will have the same pace. This is a hard solution to fix for an interactive media type, pacing that is, because of the vastly different skill levels that will be playing your game. So I think the answer is in pacing by mechanics that aren't governed by player skill at all. Keep in mind that perceived threat is part of player skill, if they are good at the game or if it is on easy nothing you can do visually or with sound is going to give them the perception of threat. Also keep in mind pacing mechanics like items laying around could very well be ignored entirely by someone that is good or playing on easy because they don't feel they need them at that point.

Carl Trett
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The musical analogy is one that I try to use in every level I make. I draw flow diagrams before I start anything else. Basically a beat chart that is the backbone of my musical piece/level. I then fill all the valleys, troughs and mountain peaks with little musical bits that I feel capture the flow and carry the movement from the previous experience to the next. I guess I try to 'visualize' the levels as a sound-scape of experience more akin to a song than a story. It can be difficult to convey these notions in drawings but simple wave patterns seem to work when describing to teammates what structure the pacing will take.

Planer line drawings of the flow can help people get a sense of what to expect and strive towards. Dotting the spline with symbols representing experiences described by a simple legend can further aid you in taking your musical score from your noggin to the team.

Maybe it just helps to visualize your levels like an Opera piece. If you can internalize the level in your head and especially in your inner ear, then I believe you start from a much more solid and palatable footing.

Cheers, for writing this. I especially like that you took the extra time to create the breakdown of the CoD level. Watching the video and reading your notes side by side was very helpful in picking out the importance of things that may have seemed purposeless without this exercise.

Soeren Lund
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Excellent study and article. The analogy to music provided me with an extra insight into how a perceived pace could be explained to others. Thanks.

Brandon Davis
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Great article! Small segue on music and gaming. Music bears the same significance to gaming, as it did/does to silent movies. Pacing in silent movies is also very much like pacing in video games. Levels in 'the silents' is not as obvious as it is in gaming, but it's still very much an embedded dramatic function.

Chris Proctor
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This article is really useful overall, I'll definitely be referring to it later.

One point of disagreement though:

"Introduce a threat from behind -- as long as the threat is significant it will cause the player to want to move away from it."

Well, in my experience players always first move _towards_ a threat, even a significant threat, unless it's an obviously unbeatable environmental one on the order of rising lava.

And you haven't mentioned the most significant way to guide a player through a level: leaving a trail of enemies for them to kill (of course, this doesn't necessarily apply, some games with progression through levels don't _have_ enemies I suppose, but it's common enough to be worth mentioning).

Theo Tanaka
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Very good article, congratulations for your study. I really enjoyed watching the gameplay video and reading your notes (at the same time remembering what a great level is "All Ghillied Up").

I like to think that levels are pieces of music, and the game (the whole single player campaign) is an album or an opera. It's not just the level that should have a carefully crafted pace, but playing through all the levels should create a good sense of rhythm and integrity. It's not just a matter of creating different levels; each subsequent level should have something to do with the previous one, giving something to the player that ticks him to keep playing the game. If the levels are not crafted together, the player loses interest if the levels are repeating themselves, or gets confused, and consequentally bored, if the levels are totally different from one another.