Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick

By mark davies

[In this in-depth article, veteran designer Davies looks at games from Call Of Duty 4 through Dead Space to analyze the art of game level pacing.]

Introduction

"Pacing" is a word bandied around a lot when talking about level design, but it is actually a very complex concept to pin down. Just how does the pace affect the player's perception of the level and what is it that sets a well paced level apart from a poorly paced one?

The Fundamentals

With these questions ringing in my ears I was determined to try and delve a little deeper into just what constitutes level pacing, but I found very little literature on the subject. Instead I decided to focus my efforts on breaking down the core elements of what determines pace itself.

In doing so I identified several key aspects of game pace:

Movement Impetus

Movement impetus is the will or desire of a player to move forwards through a level. There are several ways in which the player can be pushed into moving or stalled from pushing forwards in order to affect the movement impetus and thus the pace of the action.

There are many elements that increase impetus to move:

Continual movement keeps the tempo high, but it is undesirable in many ways. Often players want time to take stock, catch their breath, formulate a plan or even just soak up the atmosphere -- it provides a break from constant travel. Also in production terms continual travel often requires much more real estate in which to move -- this is both a production risk and possibly a technical issue.

Conversely there are also many elements that decrease impetus to move:

Constantly slowing movement impetus can also be dangerous, as it can prevent the player having a feeling of progression. A balance needs to be struck in providing a sense of movement and accomplishment and allowing the player time to themselves to explore, soak in the atmosphere or to take stock of their situation.

Threat (Actual Danger)

The pace of the game can also be increased by the sense of peril that is experience by the player. The more threat the player believes they are under, the quicker their pulse, the more nervous and often more panicked them are.

Threat can come in many forms -- each form having a different feel of pacing. For example combat tends to be more frantic and higher paced than traversing an environment, even though the end result -- death -- could potentially occur in either situation.

Generally the level of threat felt by the player is determined by whether the threat is being caused by an external force -- an enemy, an encroaching hazard, etc, or whether is a danger that will result from the player's own mistake. Threats from external forces tend to have a much higher level of pace than those that will result from a player's mistake, as they have time to gather their thoughts and create a plan when they have control.

Proximity of a threat also has a huge influence on the feel of the threat. An enemy at a distance is not nearly as threatening as one very close by. This is something that stealth based games can really use to their advantage (and is something that can also build a great sense of tension).

Adding a time limit to a task automatically increases the level of actual danger, as the control the player has over the game world has been reduced -- there are now limits placed upon them which can induce a level of panic.


Tension (Perceived Danger)

Tension occurs from the belief in an unknown danger and can be difficult to achieve, but the result of achieving it can be incredibly immersive. Tension works particularly well in creating the right pace for a horror game.

In order to create tension the right atmosphere must be created. A world has to be crafted that the player can invest in, believe in and ultimately become immersed in. Audio can help a great deal in building tension. Music in particular can create tension by playing to well known triggers that people have learnt from years of films and TV shows.

In truth, whilst tension is created from fear of the unknown, the threat must be known in some way. Take the game Alien Vs Predator, which I feel has possibly the most tense introduction level of any game I have played.

Throughout the level your motion sensor blips and flashes as threats apparently come near you. However, this sequence heavily relies on the player's knowledge of the films to know that the flashing blips on the radar could potentially be the deadly aliens.

To achieve tension when you don't have the luxury of a well-known license to rely on, then you need to show the potential consequence of the threat, or the threat itself in some form. Dead Space does a very good job of building up tension without the player immediately knowing what the threat is. As soon as they board the Ishimura it is plainly obvious that something is seriously wrong.

Tension can also be achieved through a known threat in stealth games. Instead of a fear of the unknown, the tension comes from the fear of being discovered. Games such as Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell utilize this fear well by forcing the player to engage in tense scenarios with enemies in close proximity.

Tempo

Tempo describes the level of intensity of action -- how much concentration is required by the player to achieve their goal. Low tempo gameplay tends to be that which requires serious thought and contemplation -- generally puzzles. High tempo gameplay is generally gameplay that requires fast reactions and split-second decisions. High tempo action often induces stress or panic and often at its highest level might be termed "frantic".

There is always a sure-fire method of creating high tempo no matter what the situation -- by imposing a time limit -- or what could be called "Forced Pacing".

Tempo in Movement

Tempo when moving around the environment is determined by the mechanics of the game and the environment itself.

Explorative movement tends to be low tempo, as the player has time to look around and determine their own route.

More acrobatic environment traversal can often be higher tempo. It really achieves high tempo when there is a great sense of flow in the design. A great example of such flow is the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time -- the mechanics and level design merged to create patterns of flow that had high tempo.

Tempo in Puzzles

Puzzles by their very nature tend to be low tempo -- the only real way to create a high tempo puzzle is to add a time pressure. This tends to make them the ideal method of reducing the pace of gameplay as a counterpoint to high paced action like combat.

Tempo in Combat

Combat is usually high tempo as it will require split-second decision making and requires high levels of reaction. The tempo itself may change dramatically over the course of a battle.

General Skirmishes

A general battle against a group of enemies in a game tends to follow a bell-curve pattern. The tempo of the battle builds to a certain tempo before it hits a turning point, where the more the player removes the incoming threat, the easier it becomes to take out the remaining threats.

For example, a Left 4 Dead horde encounter follows this pattern -- the initial build up of enemies increased fairly rapidly up to a maximum number and a frantic tempo, before the player manages to destroy enough to turn the tide of the battle. At this point the lesser numbers make it easier to kill the remaining zombies and the tempo drops off.

Boss Fights

Boss fights tend to have much more of a crescendo feel -- they are generally eased into the first part of the fight, but as they start to chip away at its health it begins to attack with more and more ferocity, until the final phase where it is particularly dangerous. Of course once it is defeated the threat has been completely eliminated the tempo drops to pretty much nothing.


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

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:

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.


Flow (Melody)

Melody in reference to music describes the pattern of notes. We can apply this to level pacing as the pattern of game mechanics that make up a sequence -- more suited to the term flow.

There are several terms used to describe aspects of melody in music that could be applied:

Harmony

Harmony is the combination of notes to create a pleasing sound -- a chord for example. In terms of game pacing this might be interpreted as mechanics used in unison to create pleasing gameplay. Certain types of gameplay tend to fuse well, others are so different that they are discordant -- they don't work well together and feel wrong.

Form

The form or structure of a piece of music describes the manner in which it is assembled -- breaking it down into constituent parts.

The most common musical structure is the Strophic form -- verse, chorus, verse. This could quite easily apply to pacing: choruses tend to be louder, more impactful sections between quieter and more relaxed verses. This is very similar to the peaks and troughs ethos of many games' level pacing.

There are however other structures used in music that might also be applicable. Rondo (to return) plays a different melody each verse, but returns to one main theme each time. Other structures are very much like mini narratives, such as Fugue or Invention, which tend to have exposition, then development and then finished with recapitulation. Variation has a main theme that is played slightly differently each time.

There are certainly some elements of musical structure that might well translate well to the feel of level pacing in a game.

Timbre

Translating timbre to game pacing is really describing the quality of the gameplay as its constituent game mechanics -- it defines exactly what is required of the player.

An examination of timbre is to break down the individual game elements and see exactly how well each one is performing. Polishing even the smallest mechanic can have a drastic impact on the feel of the whole sequence.

Dynamics

Dynamics pertains to the specifics of the mechanics themselves -- how many enemies in a fight, how aggressive the A.I. is, how many shots are fired, how much damage is caused, etc.

There are a couple of terms applied to music that can also be applied to pacing:

Texture

Texture can be used to describe the complexity of what is happening at a given point. A rich texture may be a sequence of gameplay that has many different things happening all at once. However, gameplay with too much complexity can become disordered and unreadable. Sometimes a simple texture can be more pleasing.

There are several musical terms that can be applied:


Case Study: Call of Duty 4 "All Ghillied Up"

As an example of how pace could be controlled in a game I examined a video of one of the best levels in one of my favorite games. The level is really a master class in forced pacing -- I suspect that most people's playthrough times are very similar -- certainly for earlier parts of the level.

(Click here to watch.)

This study examines a small 10 minute section of the beginning of the level, showing how the threat, tension, movement impetus and tempo change quickly over the course of the scenario. The level uses the very clever tactic of a scripted AI buddy to literally drive the pace at every moment during the gameplay. It isn't generally possible to do this in most level designs, but it is a very efficient method of controlling the pace.

Throughout the whole of this 10 minute section the tempo is never extremely high, as there is little in the way of fast paced action until much later in the level, but the pace was maintained constantly by having either threat, tension or movement impetus high at every point.

There are constantly repeating gameplay elements throughout (as there always tends to be in FPS games) -- movement to a point, then waiting before eliminating a threat, returning to movement once complete (which could quite easily be described as Tremolo -- rapid alternation between two mechanics).

0:18 -- Arrival

Threat: Low

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

0:40 -- First Contact

Threat: Medium

Tension: High

Movement Impetus: Low

Tempo: Low

1:29 -- Move Up

Threat: Low

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

1:40 -- Go Around

Threat: High

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: Medium

Tempo: Low

1:53 -- Four Tangos

Threat: High

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: Low

Tempo: Low

2:15 -- Go

Threat: Low

Tension: Low

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

2:35 -- Guard in the Tower

Threat: High

Tension: High

Movement Impetus: Low

Tempo: Average


3:12 -- On the move again

Threat: Low

Tension: Low

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

3:45 -- Helicopter

Threat: High

Tension: High

Movement Impetus: Very Low

Tempo: Low

4:06 -- Let's Go

Threat: Low

Tension: Low

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

4:24 -- Enemy Patrol

Threat: Very High

Tension: Very High

Movement Impetus: Very Low

Tempo: Low

6:05 -- Move Slow

Threat: Medium

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: Medium

Tempo: Low

6:55 -- The Lake

Threat: Medium

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: Medium

Tempo: Low

8:33 -- Onwards

Threat: Low

Tension: Low

Movement Impetus: High

Tempo: Average

8:55 -- Stay Back

Threat: Medium

Tension: Medium

Movement Impetus: Medium

Tempo: Average

Conclusion

Pace is talked about a lot in regard to game design, but it is still poorly defined -- searching the internet for relevant topics brings up virtually nothing.

As we develop as an industry we need more critical analysis of our work. Whilst we can easily develop our own terminology and draw our own conclusions, it is worth examining other fields of cultural analysis and apply them to our field.

Perhaps we could even adapt musical notation to some form of written system to define the pacing of a game?

I believe there is plenty more that can be discovered about pacing in games -- certainly some more scientific studies of heart rate, etc whilst playing games might unearth some real revelations about what makes the pace in games so emotionally involving and also what simply does not work.

References

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_theory

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