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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited, Part 2: Building a Pacing Structure
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Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited, Part 2: Building a Pacing Structure

November 26, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 5 Next

2. Prioritization. After the group brainstorming session, consult the team leads for task/time guesstimates to each location and event. It may take the leads a week or so to distill the major tasks, meet with key team personnel, and determine better estimates.

  • Evaluate your project schedule and resources with the team leads, and estimate the number of levels and scripted action events (using brainstorm examples) that can be safely constructed. Take the number of levels possible, and then cut both lists down by 10-20% to ensure you are conservative in your estimates and to reduce schedule risk.

    Consider cutting these back even more when also building a new engine and new tools with your game. The conservative estimates also help emphasize a commitment to focusing on a smaller set of content that can be built to a higher degree of polish and quality.
  • Next, rank the level locations in terms of coolness and bang for the buck. A setting that is 10% cooler but takes five times as long to build is probably not a great trade-off, so this step ranks the relative value. Make sure the number of levels is narrowed down to a conservatively manageable set for the available resources and schedule, but keep the list of all locations intact for the moment.
  • The team leads need to make a mutual commitment that the order of priority may shift during production, but as the project progresses levels can and will be cut from the bottom of the prioritized list up as the project schedule and personnel needs determines. This risk is the reason why coming up with a high-confidence level number estimate makes sense.

3. Story Framework. Figure out the high-level story and campaign sequences (separating out the cutscenes from gameplay) that will provide the best experience. Skip the details and dialogue, and just do a high-level outline of the plot points and how they pertain to each location, along with a high level of mission objectives.

  • Note that action plot events will be of relatively high intensity while dialogue or travel events will be of relatively low intensity and that contrast is in fact desirable and useful.

    • Boy Meets Girl (dialogue)
    • Boy Chases After Girl (action)
  • The advantage of starting with high level plot events is that it is easier to move some of them around to best fit within the Intensity & Pacing Plan and/or a specific level location.
  • Next, take the key plot points from the story outline and rate the perceived level of intensity on the same relative scale (dialogue heavy plot events will fall in the low intensity category and will contrast quite nicely with a scripted action event). List this plot-specific event table in chronological order, but keep it separate from the generic event table.

4. Level & Key Event Sequencing. Using the top bang-for-the-buck action event ideas, have the core creative team do a different rating in terms of perceived intensity (just vote on which concepts seem more intense and rate them on a relative scale of say 1-10), then order the events into a table of increasing intensity.

[Note that your relative scale may need to be wider if you are planning a large number of levels, but this makes it harder to manage. It is always a safer development practice to focus on a smaller number of environments that can be polished to a higher level of quality.]

  • Next, add a column to the generic action table and mark which level locations each event could potentially work with. In a new added column, mark which level location(s) would work best for each action event.
  • In the generic action event table, add a location column and assign at least three action intense events per location to roughly fit the three ascending peaks in Figure 7. At the same time, whittle down the set of locations to the number previously decided, basing the cuts on the levels which do not work as well with the action event ideas and, to a lesser extent, on which locations provide the lowest bang-for-the-buck appeal.

    Once the locations are set, you can hide the columns for Potential and Ideal Locations, or delete them entirely (assuming you have a reference backup). Move the Location column to the far left and group the rows with matching location entries in order of ascending event intensity. Do a manual sort of the location groups to roughly demonstrate increasing progression of the events within the level.

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

  • In the generic action event table, rearrange the levels so the intensity events increase from one to another to form the initial Intensity & Pacing Plan. Order the levels so that the intensity of action events builds from level to level as in the Table below (values in blue), with each high peak being the climactic action event of each level. Some additional event swapping can and should occur here, in order for the Intensity & Pacing Plan to best fit the ideal targets shown in the graph.

    The following table is a fictional example of a first pass Intensity & Pacing Plan with both ideal and projected intensity ratings for the action events. The projected ratings are the perceived gut-feeling intensity values voted by the group to the event concepts. Note that the example values used are fairly rough. The anomalous trend outliers are marked in red and purple. The latter values may be acceptable under a more relaxed trend as per the next item.

  • Simpler Trend Options: A simpler and perhaps only marginally less satisfying trend option is to focus only on the intensity targets building from level to level (blue values) and building within the level, but not to be so concerned with the magnitude after the first event of each level as long as the values are increasing.

    Under this model, the purple values would not need to be considered anomalous, although large value deltas >20% could still be considered questionable. An even more relaxed trend option would allow initial level intensity values for the first action event to be equal to or greater than the one before in which case there is a smaller amount of anomalies to consider (but again, you trade off even more overall experience satisfaction to gain the added structure simplicity and flexibility).

    The best approach is to start with the strictest trend criteria and ideals, using a steadily increasing trend as in the table above and as graphed in Figure 8. Then, if you are experiencing diminishing returns on iterations (multiple iterations with only marginal improvement towards the target values noted during Step 9) during mid production, decide if you wish to relax the criteria a bit to make the targets easier to hit.

Figure 8: Intensity Curve Over 4 Levels (fixed pace increases)

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