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A good starting point during early to mid pre-production is to get the whole team together to brainstorm a massive blue-sky list of exciting gameplay events, without concern for the cost of building them and without any limits on the story or the settings.
It is important to plan out a number of unique action events for each level (three minimum) so the gameplay does not become too repetitive with recycled portions (e.g. continuous waves of henchmen).
For a campaign with 15 levels or missions, plan on thinking of, say, 60 total unique events (some extras are desirable to add flexibility). Also list five or so generic events or activities that can be reused in a vast number of ways (say with differences in type, density, and orientation of NPCs and dynamic objects).
Since coming up with such a large number of gameplay events is seemingly such a daunting task, it will help if the team can brainstorm a series of environment locations first (again without concern for cost or story) and then go back and associate event ideas with those locations.
Note that most events need not advance the game's plot, so the majority of events should just be conceived around interesting animated geometry, or some spectacular visual wonder in the level (Halo style).
Alternatively, it could be something else that is unique about the IP's universe -- without the need for some complex scripted or unique AI driven event every time.
In most cases, early planning of the levels and events will even help shape the story to come and improve writer input. It will provide the framework for the writer to work within, and will result in a more efficient turnaround from script draft to draft to final.
Any external writers that you are working with will surely appreciate the clarity of the framework and structure. They can then see the context of the gameplay and come up with the best story and dialogue that enhances that gameplay the most.
They also will be euphoric that they do not have to guess how the dialogue will fit with gameplay.
The main complaints I hear from professional game writers is that they have to completely redo the script multiple times to fit evolving level gameplay. This most often can be prevented by nailing down the structure of levels prior to implementation.
So, once the "Intensity & Pacing Plan" has been completed, how do we know that our initial intensity ranking will be proven to be accurate in gameplay? Simple -- we make the order of magnitude the criteria for success, and we continually review content progress and iterate on the work.
During each iteration, the level designers will be massaging elements to increase/decrease the intensity of each event. This should enforce the desirable trend targets, along with the elements of gameplay progression discussed in the previous article.
By reviewing for all the criteria, the structure will be upheld through the typical level iteration process -- without having to devote any extra time at the end of production (where time is most limited and changes most costly) to re-focus on pace or progression.
This will improve the quality of the gameplay, and it will significantly reduce the level content schedule risk by clearly establishing the targets that the levels are aiming to achieve.
It should also prevent brutally costly throwaway work, since the schedule is easier to hit. In the end, the experience will be significantly more satisfying.
[In the next installment of Gameplay Fundamentals, Lopez will focus on how to build a pacing structure which can sustain the interest of gamers over the course of your title -- focusing on nine key points that will improve pacing and increase engagement.]