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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 4 of 5 Next
 

8. Initial Level Construction. Now, the level designers or world builders should proceed with the initial level construction, using the target specifications and framework from the Intensity & Pacing Plan finalized in the previous step.

  • The level builders and/or mission scripters now know where the key level events should be placed and roughly how far in time they should be spaced apart. Compensating for projected average player deaths and event completion times, they can turn the time metrics into distance (assuming the player avatar speed is locked down or close to final).
  • These key designers also know where in time to build in relaxing lulls, dialogue-points, or scenic vistas to reduce the tension after the resolution of a major intensity event.

    Using the projected distances between the action events, they can also determine where to place these lulls -- although less precision is needed with placement of lulls than with the action events (just make sure they are close to that event).
  • As they build out the level, they will fill the sections in between each lull/action event/lull group and the next with the reusable portions of gameplay in such a way that they help build the intensity up to the next big action event (e.g. a sequence of battles with progressively more henchmen or more challenge).

    They must also be very careful during implementation to make sure that the intensity of any reusable sub-events does not surpass that of the next key action event so as to preserve the intensity target trends from the Intensity & Pacing Plan.
  • When working in an Agile Development environment, begin the first pass with a small set of levels that are adjacent (say levels 1-4 if there are enough personnel for four level teams). For the second stage, initiate the initial implementation for a second set of levels (say 5-8) and do a full round of iteration on the first set. In the third stage, initiate the initial implementation for a third set of levels (9-12), and complete another round of iteration on sets one and two (levels 1-8). Continue this method until all levels are working with initial implementation of all the key events.
  • Note that if the project is more than two thirds of the way into production without completing the initial implementation of all levels/missions, then a full round of level/mission cuts should occur immediately, and the Intensity & Pacing Plan should be reworked. If cuts are necessary, then this signals that the ongoing estimates from the leads have been inaccurate, and thus an even more conservative level of cuts should be made at this point (ideally cut 30-50% more of the unimplemented levels than the schedule predicts there is time to implement).
  • Level designers should also utilize the lessons of theme park design and urban planning to affect pacing via the level layout. Those of you who attended Brian Upton's excellent GDC 2007 lecture on Narrative Landscapes will have a great perspective on this. Visual pace can be created to coincide or contrast with the pacing of the action to add to the highs and further enhance the lows in intensity. Geographic elements such as sight line reveals can and should be used to help release tension after a high intensity event, just as claustrophobic sections and mental edge barriers can help heighten tension leading into a major action event.

9. Review & Iterate. Throughout level production, the creative leaders and team leads must review the in-game levels and compare them to the Intensity & Pacing Plan targets and trends. They must then schedule appropriate time for the levels to be iterated on in order to adjust the events to come closer to the targets. These reviews are also the best time support and ensure the accuracy of the Gameplay Progression Plan.

  • Review the levels with those building them, and re-rate the intensity of the in-game main action events (keeping the previous ratings out of view so as not to bias the results).
  • Compare the event intensity ratings to the target specifications from the Plan. Where an intensity rating is different from the target value, adjust the on-paper design specifications, along with the level designers responsible for mission construction. Consider: adding, building up, removing, or minimizing elements such as enemies, hazards, explosions, or moving geometry. The idea is to evolve the event to bring it closer the intensity and timing targets from the Intensity & Pacing Plan. The pacing trends also must be maintained.
  • The event ratings for an in-game level will also need to be compared to the ratings for the other levels that fit around it in the campaign. You will need to ensure that the first key action event of the level is larger in intensity from the one in the level before it -- and that the last action event of the level is larger in intensity from the level before (Figure 8 above).
  • Using the design specification changes, create and prioritize a change list of tasks and communicate those to the producer, project manager, and appropriate lead for each level.
  • Once deep into production (say 80-90%), then any functioning Dynamic Difficulty system(s) can be leveraged to ratchet up the intensity further for the highest action points and to lower it during the intensity lulls for finer adjustment controls to the intensity of each event.
  • Allow the level designers enough scheduled time to complete another full iteration to all the levels based on the change-list of tasks.
  • Repeat this review, adjustment, and iteration cycle throughout production (at least every 4-6 weeks) and even into post-production for final tuning. It is imperative that these reviews continue throughout production so the team can track their progress towards their Intensity & Pacing Plan target trends and to avoid a costly and time-intensive overhaul near the end of production that might otherwise likely result in costly throw-away work.
  • Every three or four months, the levels should also be reviewed by the whole design team and ideally even shown to the whole development team in order to allow everyone to give feedback, and to ensure the range of viewers and opinions is as wide as possible. This also helps gain buy-in from the entire team and lets them feel as if everyone has contributed to the creative process from brainstorming to Final.

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