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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited: Harnessed Pacing & Intensity
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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited: Harnessed Pacing & Intensity

November 12, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

In the same way the creative teams sequence the events in an episode by this deliberate intensity ranking, the team also ensures that those sequenced events increase in intensity from episode to episode. They also ensure that the cliff-hanger events are bigger, the plot twists more surprising, and ideally that the contrast between the intensity peaks and troughs are larger each week (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Relative Intensity Graph of a TV Drama Series (Amplitude Increasing for Greatest Contrast)

From episode to episode, the creative team may also sequence the events together in shorter and shorter duration and ending at a shorter extreme than the previous episode (Fig. 5) to increase the pace of excitement along with the intensity, making each episode feel more hectic and rushed than the one before.

The team behind Prison Break was particularly good at delivering this in Season 1, but pace increases have not been so noticeable in latter seasons (perhaps because it made the initial pilot episodes feel a bit slow).

With or without the increasing pace, the result of the well-executed pacing and intensity plan is a season progression which is ultimately engaging, satisfying, and market successful. This structure is the TV equivalent of a campaign structure that designers should strive to achieve.

Game Structure

Fig. 6: Lack of Structure = Arbitrary Career Experience

A modern game team who relies on the mechanics and game systems or A.I. alone to control the pacing outcome will fall far short of the pacing and intensity of the top games, TV shows, or movies.

Those not carefully planning will produce a more arbitrary and flat sine wave of intensity without any predictable and desirable patterns of action. The rhythm of such a game will become fairly predictable, and these games will soon begin to bore players.

For a game level, mission, or course, an unplanned / on-the-fly construction process will always deliver a series of events without any predictable pattern of pacing or intensity within the game level. The opportunity to deliver the most high-octane experience will be lost (Figure 6).

The system-driven and environment-constructed events will still occur and create intensity peaks and troughs, but the height of the peaks will vary erratically and the duration between the events will be unpredictable. So, any beneficial rhythm of pacing/intensity will be lost, as likely will the player's attention.

To create a heart-racing, nail biting, roller-coaster ride of excitement in a game, we need to first organize a level plan with a carefully structured series of events, prior to the construction of the level, mission or course (i.e. during pre-production).

It is not necessary that all or even most of the micro elements be planned out into an über-detailed design at this stage, although some teams prefer to do so by early production and there are many merits there. What is most important is that the key gameplay, action, and story plot events are ranked, ordered and spaced out to create an experience that is continually increasing in intensity (the peaks of the graph), and either consistent or increasing in pace (Fig. 7 shows a consistent pace).

Fig. 7: Structured Level Content Dictates Pacing (the mission starts between the first peak and trough)

It is neither realistic nor necessary to execute a game level to perfectly match the graph targets at every point. What is most important is that we sequence the events to match the peaks as close as possible. We should order the high intensity events so they are growing, and either at the same rate or so they speed up in frequency (the waves are the same length or shorter).

The trough lulls should be hit, but do not need to be spaced out or ordered in intensity as perfectly as the peaks. So, the bulk of the effort should be made to match the peaks in both magnitude and timing, and to alternate those peaks with lulls.

For events that cannot be moved and reordered (e.g. plot points), either the event can be reworked to adjust the impact to meet the ideal intensity target, or the events around it can be similarly reworked to preserve the appropriate trend.

With such a basic peak/trough structure in place, I would assert that the feel of a level designed to hit only those highs and lows will deliver 99% of the euphoric satisfaction.

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