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Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick
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Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick

May 12, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

Structure of Pacing

Whilst knowing the fundamentals of pacing is important, it is the way these fundamentals interact with each other -- how they are structured -- that is truly important.

The key to creating a well paced level is to provide moments of action interjected with calm - peaks & troughs as they are often called. Keeping at a trough for too long can become tedious and lack excitement -- remaining at a peak for too long can desensitize a player to the action, to the point where it becomes repetitive and boring.

I heard a fantastic analogy from a designer recently -- that pacing a level is much like composing a piece of music -- he liked to structure it as verse followed by chorus, followed by verse, etc.

I thought this was a really good way of looking at it, as music has much the same job to accomplish -- create an emotional response in a manner that changes over the course of time - the only difference is the level of interaction.

In a way playing a level is more like being a musician interpreting a piece of music.

So are there elements of music theory that could be applied to level pacing?

The main elements of a piece of music are:

  • Rhythm -- in music rhythm is the timing of particular notes. In gameplay this could translate as the timing of events that determines game pace.
  • Melody -- describes notes in a successive series to create phrases of sound. This could be comparable to a sequence of events in a level to create phrases of gameplay -- something that might be termed Flow in game design.
  • Harmony -- is the combination of notes of different pitches to create pleasing sounds, something that can easily be equated to combinations of game mechanics within a sequence to create a pleasing play experience. Some mechanics will gel well together and some will not -- much like musical notes.
  • Form -- the structure of a piece of music. Potentially this could be applied to the organization of gameplay events to form particular patterns.
  • Timbre -- the quality of the note. This is generally related to the type of instrument that creates it. This could be applied as the different types of mechanics used to produce the desired gameplay.
  • Dynamics -- refers to the volume or sound of a note. This could translate to game design as the specifics of a particular piece of gameplay, such as the numbers of enemies used in a combat sequence or the height and length of jumps in a platforming sequence.
  • Texture -- describes the amount that is going on in a piece of music at any one time. In gameplay this can simply translate as how many different things are happening at any one time.


The main element of rhythm that applies to level pacing has really already been covered -- tempo -- the feel of intensity that the player experiences from moment to moment, how fast they feel the pace of action to be.

Tempo can be altered during the course of a piece of music in a number of ways. There are specific terms used in music to address changes in tempo:

  • Accelerando -- gradually increasing (accelerating) the tempo. This is very applicable to level pacing as it is often the case that the average tempo of the level increases towards the end.
  • Calando - going slower than previously. This would decrease intensity of gameplay over the preceding section.
  • Precipitando -- going faster than previously. This would increase intensity of gameplay over the preceding section.
  • Ritardando -- gradually decreasing the tempo. This may not apply across a whole level, which generally will increase in tempo, but might occur after particularly fraught sections -- rather than simply drop the pace completely it may bring it down gradually.
  • Ritenuto -- slightly slower than the previous tempo, holding back. This might be used in level pace to punctuate a battle with a smaller skirmish before returning to a larger battle thereafter.
  • Stretto -- temporarily speeding up. This would be a change to bring up the intensity of the gameplay or raise the challenge for a short time.

These changes may be sudden or happen gradually. In level pace these tempo changes are likely to occur very frequently -- much more frequently than they would in a piece of music.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 6 Next

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