[Starbreeze Studios level designer Filip Coulianos shares a method for analyzing the pacing of games, and applies it to two superhero titles -- X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Batman: Arkham Asylum -- to see how differently-paced games can create very different results in players.]
We have always asked ourselves what great stories are made of; as a consequence, many refined methods for analyzing and creating good stories in traditional media have been developed. As the video game medium is only a toddler, no reliable toolsets exist yet. However, the question remains: what makes great games?
I asked myself this very question a few years back, as I wanted to know what really made Half-Life 2 such a great game from a pacing and gameplay perspective. I started trying out different ways to analyze and to measure the gameplay -- but what started out as only a series of simple tests turned out to be something much more interesting.
This article begins by explaining the method. Further on, I compare data from two games, how they are paced differently, and what resulting consequences there are. Finally, I will show you how you can use this method to lay out a framework in the early stages of creating your own games.
The basic idea behind this method is to explore gameplay progression by breaking down the game into its distinctively different gameplay elements. Once this is done, time the player as she is playing through the game, and finally assemble the data into a chart.
Looking at this chart, we can then see what types of gameplay are most present in the game, where the player got stuck, if any section of the game is too repetitive, and so on. So let's dive right into it and have a look at Half-Life 2: Episode 1 as a case study for this method.
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 is a first person shooter; it's the first episode in a series to serve as a sequel for Half-Life 2. The player takes on the role as Gordon Freeman and is accompanied by Alyx Vance to fight the alien race known as the Combine.
Let's start out with thinking about what the player actually does in Half-Life. Except for shooting and killing enemies, the player solves puzzles using her gravity gun, drives some vehicles, and finally listens to character dialogue, both narrative and instructional.
The combat can be divided into two camps; first we have low-key combat, where the player is basically moving through corridors, occasionally stumbling upon enemies. Let's call this "roaming". Then we have the more heavily scripted areas that Valve calls "arenas". An arena is usually an enclosed area where the player has to fight off a large amount of enemies in order to proceed. An arena combat sequence is usually a lot more challenging and faster-paced than a sequence of roaming gameplay. A boss fight is a typical arena battle.
Below is a boiled down version of the five gameplay types I defined previously:
• Puzzles: Non-combat sections where the player has to solve a logical puzzle to proceed.
• Dialogue: Non-combat sections where either pieces of the story is being revealed, or the player gets new weapons.
• Arena: Enclosed and heavily scripted areas in which the player faces multiple enemies and/or a big boss and must kill them all in order to proceed.
• Roaming: Areas in which the player simply travels through with enemies scattered around to keep the player somewhat on the edge.
• Vehicle Ride: Areas in which the player drives a vehicle.
With these definitions in place, it's time to play through the game. For each new game play element, take a note and set a timestamp. Let's go through the first 10 minutes of the chapter "Direct Intervention", where the player's mission is to prevent the reactor core of the citadel from exploding, and describe what happens.
0:00 – 1:00 The player fights off a few guards guarding the Reactor control center. A typical corridor fight with just a few enemies to entertain the player should be considered roaming by our definitions. (Roaming)
1:00 – 2:00 The player and Alyx get to the console, and she talks about the mission ahead as well as activates the lift that allows the player to proceed. As Alyx only talks in this section, this should be considered cinematic. (Cinematic)
3:00 – 5:00 The player has to use the gravity gun to shoot power orbs into sockets, activating bridges to progress. As this section is strictly puzzle solving without any combat, it is defined as a puzzle. (Puzzle)
5:00 – 10:00 The player fights off occasional Combine troops while making her way to one of the stabilizers that is required to prevent the reactor from overheating, and activates it by the press of a button. Further on, the player has to fight off some more Combine troops, progress through a corridor and avoid energy balls flying towards her at great speed, and then fight off some more enemies. This section presents different types of challenges, but all of them are low-key and not puzzle-like. Therefore this section is considered to be roaming. (Roaming)
Let's put these notes into a simple chart and see what we have. Each cell in the chart represents one minute of playtime, the color represents what type of gameplay is present during that period of time. The chart is supposed to be read from left to right:
While the data we just collected doesn't tell us very much, it helps us understand the basic principles of the method. In the next section I will talk about how you can use this method to compare two games' gameplay variation, and how you can spot problematic areas within a game using the data collected.