[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.]
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?
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:
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 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
There are many
elements that increase impetus to move:
a threat from behind --
as long as the threat is significant it will cause the player to want to
move away from it.
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
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
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.
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.
pressure -- specific
forms of architecture promote movement. Walls that angle down, long
corridors, junctions, etc all have psychological impact upon the player.
desired object -- taking
away a desired object will often trigger the player into chasing after it.
leads the way -- having a
third party lead the player though the level will nearly always directly
affect the movement impetus.
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:
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.
movement -- a different
movement method may require more thought, such as scaling walls via
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.
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
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.
halts player -- just as
an NPC can lead the player, they can also halt the player or slow them
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.
/ 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.
exposition -- generally
the exposition of story will require the player's attention and will thus
slow movement impetus.
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.