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Pacing And Gameplay Analysis In Theory And Practice

August 3, 2011 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4


Comparing the data from the two games, we can draw quite a few interesting conclusions. The first and most obvious one is that Wolverine had much more combat with more than four enemies. We can also see that the average combat sequence in Wolverine is a lot longer than Batman. In Wolverine, the fight sequences could be up to 10 minutes long, while in Batman, the longest was five minutes.

Looking at the variation, we can see that in the chapter "Snow Landscape" in Wolverine, the game only switches between combat and roaming back and forth, while Batman always keeps a good variation. Boss fights in Batman are also a lot more evenly spread out through the whole game, giving more interesting variation and more frequent "wow moments" compared to Wolverine, which seems to squeeze almost all the boss fights toward the end of the game.

Even though Batman and Wolverine appeal to slightly different audiences, we can still use this method to compare them. Just by a quick glance, we can draw interesting conclusions and see patterns that suggest that Wolverine is more repetitive -- which we actually can confirm by reading reviews, as they often use the word "repetitive" when describing Wolverine.

In Practice

Instead of analyzing others' games, you could use this method the other way around -- by creating a chart first and then building your levels using the chart as a framework.

You can then let play testers play through your work while timing them, and then listen to feedback on how they experienced the levels -- and compare that to how they progressed through the game.

In a personal project I called "Project 25", where the goal was to create a single player experience as true to Half-Life 2 gameplay as possible, I used this method to first analyze Half-Life 2 and then create a chart to serve as a framework for my layout of the levels.

It greatly helped me when drawing the first floor plan, as I had a pacing chart to follow; it was also useful during play testing. I could see exactly how the testers progressed through the levels and then use that data to create the average player progression, and compare that with my target completion time.

By timing the players and watching how they behaved when playing, I also made some unexpected discoveries that helped me to further improve the gameplay.

One of them was during the early stages of Project 25, when it became obvious that the final battle was way too long. For some testers it surpassed 12 minutes and many showed signs of fatigue and frustration as they died after such a long stretch of intense arena combat, only to play it through all over again. Luckily I timed this, and solved the problem by having two attack waves to give the players a bit of a breather in between the intense fighting.

If you would like to read more about Project 25, you can read an article about it on Gamasutra sister site GameCareerGuide.

Final Words

If you decide to undertake this analysis, I strongly advise you to play through the game and cut away the parts where you got stuck or died to create the progression from the view of the "ideal player". This data will of course be somewhat skewed when you use yourself as test subject. However, the rise of "let's play" videos on YouTube solves this problem, as people from all over the world upload video captures of themselves playing through various games, and it is a great source for collecting more accurate data.

As I discuss this method amongst my colleagues, some tend to be very reluctant to embrace it -- while others react very positively to the ideas.

Those positive about the method have quickly found applications for it in their own work. One area where the method got picked up quickly was in the pitching process during dialogue with publishers. With the help of these pacing charts, my colleagues gained an efficient way to communicate and to determine what type of pacing the publishers were looking for.

On the other hand, those being reluctant wrongly see this as an attempt to measure "fun". I don't believe we will ever be able to measure how fun a game is by using only one method, but to be a good storyteller, you really need to know how stories work -- and the same goes for games.

I'm certain that studying games using many methods will greatly expand our knowledge and understanding of what makes games fun. I'm sure that we one day will be able to look back to this time, congratulating ourselves for how well we did -- and living in an era where we, as game, developers have since matured.

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Aaron San Filippo
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Thanks for this article, great analysis.

I actually worked on the Wolverine game - and yeah looking back, we were *very* combat heavy. We had this focus on combat from an early stage - we wanted to really nail that Wolverine character, and so we minimized the puzzle-solving/platforming bits to a great extent. I think we accomplished that (and the reviewers agree) but I think we (wrongly) assumed that if we added enough depth to the combat with combos and special finishers etc. that it would add enough variety to keep people interested, and that people would find the most efficient methods to kill their way through the battles. There were some serious pacing issues, for sure, but we think that perhaps a bigger problem is that we simply didn't create enough variety in our palette of game mechanics. The boss fights, roaming, and combat that you name as separate mechanics, for all intents and purposes felt about the same to people after awhile. We never invested in the stealth aspect; we didn't have the Wolverine equivalent of Batman's Gargoyles - the slow, thought-out sequences to break up the action. In the end, we probably would've been better off simply shortening some of these combat sequences significantly.

Jeffrey Touchstone
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I also worked on Wolverine and I your analysis is pretty spot on. I think one of our biggest mistakes was that we kept filling a lot of our "roaming" areas with more guys. So some levels ended up having way too much combat. What we needed was more contrast between activities in order to make individual events feel special and unique.

Rodney Brett
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Good insight, Aaron. I felt that Gears of War 2 suffered from similar issues. You don't want to necessarily have every level be a "balls to the wall" epic action sequence that doesn't let you go. Sometimes, extended story narrative, perhaps interactive narrative, helps to break up the repetition as well. I feel that it's actually better to create a shorter game(maybe 8-12 hours) than to rehash the same content in an attempt to pad the game length. Capcom does this a lot with some of their games, but I think it's a cultural thing. As far back as I can remember(I'm 36), they've always been known to repeat bosses with slightly different textures, etc..

Steven An
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Fantastic article. We should give these charts a name. Let's say, "Coulianos Charts" :) As you conclude, they are a great way to visualize and communicate the pacing of a game.

Could you elaborate on why you think it's better to do these as an "Ideal player"? Frustration, time spent being lost, and trial-and-error are a huge part of the gaming experience. Some games, such as Limbo and Demon's Souls, absolute embrace it, and for other games it's an issue. In any case, I would think that it's important to include these in your charts.

Also, I would love it if game reviews provided these charts in some form! One could perhaps get an idea for the pacing of the game and then decide if that suits their tastes.

Craig Timpany
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Well, I've heard them called 'Beat Sheets' as well. :)

Aurelio Provedo
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I was thinking about this while reading the article. It sounds wrong to me to ignore pace-killers and bottlenecks such as areas that are too hard or confusing. Those things are going to alter the way the average or target player FEELS the pace of the game, so they should count, IMHO.

Great and useful article, BTW! I'll try to put these charts to use some time in the future for sure ;-)

Filip Coulianos
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Yes, that is a very valid point. The idea is that if you are resourceful enough you should do focus tests with a group of people, including the areas each individual got stuck in, and use their average progression data.

However if you don't have the resources and is about to do it yourself then it has proven much more useful to cut away the areas where one got stuck as the data got more comprehensive as a whole.

Robert Boyd
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Interesting article. I'm not sure it applies to all genres of games though since some games only really have one type of gameplay for their entirety (like say Bejewelled or your typical 1 vs 1 fighting game).

Luis Guimaraes
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Bejewelled *might* be a bit random (as does Left 4 Dead?), but fighting games (and other multiplayer games) rely heavily on good pace to work. You, as the designer, can't say how everything will be, but can certainly tune the experiences to push for the best pacing and balance possible, or else, the game will face the consequences of not doing it well.

Filip Coulianos
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Absolutely, i agree with you. This method only works for linear games.

Steven An
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I would guess that these more focused games - where there is one primary gameplay style - rely on the depth of that game play rather than variety. This works if the depth is actually there. It also seems like such games are typically less expensive.

But other games, and I would guess most AAA games, such as Batman, are more "mish mash" games, where it doesn't go into a single style into much depth. It's more of a sample platter rather than a whole entree. Just different styles of games. (Although in Batman, you can go into depth in the challenge rooms).

Daniel Cook
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I think you can use this technique for other games as well. However, you need to look at it more from a statistical perspective.

- % of time spent on various activities

- Variability: How often does the activity switch up?

- Length of a run: What is the longest amount of time players are in a specific activity?

I do a lot with procedurally generated world these days and if you have a few thousand players running through your game, you can gather metrics that tell you this sort of information.

The side benefit of the procedural generation is that by tweaking a few variables you can make major changes to the pacing in a short period of time.

take care,


Luis Guimaraes
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Everything with a clear start, middle and end is linear in nature. That's why racing, sports, fighting or multiplayers games can also be analyzed and tuned that way.

Tynan Sylvester
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This is a practically grounded and useful design idea. Thank you.

Ronildson Palermo
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Pretty sweet article. I recall reading an article on Uncharted which described they used similar methods to decide level segments which would be worth developing or putting in the game at all.

Craig Timpany
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Did you see the top-down map of the entirety of Half Life 2? Strikes me as something that might come in handy pulling it apart to see how it ticks.

Brooklyn Waters
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Great article! Thanks.

Stephen Elkins
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I've been using a similar system for a few years now when I'm creating both individual levels and to help track the overall flow/pacing of a game, though I've always used the term Beat Chart.

I've found they can be extremely useful in the early conceptual stages for pointing out potential deficiencies/issues in a level(even before the white boxing stage has been started) and can help save a lot of iteration time later on.

If you plan for them and create 'Mini Beat Charts' for individual areas within a level they can also quite easily be used for open world/non-linear levels too.

Paul Taylor
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Total Win,

Nothing is perfect, so I'm sure if one tries, this too could be faulted, but in the end it's up to the designer to choose the correct tools. This is one of the tools I'll be carrying around in my pocket in the future!

Keep up the good work. :-)

Nat Loh
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great article. would be awesome if there was a repository of all beat-sheets for every game out there. you could probably create a meta-game out of it players would race to get their beat-sheets in first and the closer your beat-sheet is to the aggregated average values of all users' data, the higher your score multiplier would be (kind of like youtube and the Let's Play videos where your "score" would be the number of views and subscribers accumulated). Of further interest would be to cross reference this data against player interest / game intensity pacing charts to see how to two correlate to each other.