Gamasutra is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited, Part 2: Building a Pacing Structure
arrowPress Releases
June 25, 2022
Games Press
View All     RSS
If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited, Part 2: Building a Pacing Structure

November 26, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Former EA and THQ design director Mike Lopez continues his analytical series by looking at pacing in games versus films and TV, explaining how careful planning can produce a perfect intensity curve for games.

Continuing from his previous installment, Lopez sets out nine fundamental points that will allow you to developing an Intensity & Pacing Plan for your game -- a document that will help you craft a game with consistent, entertaining pacing and reduce wasted work.]


I am continually surprised that many game developers in this day and age still utilize a very old-school, haphazard on-the-fly method of level design. When questioned, they argue they can produce a quality campaign with this technique.

The reality, however, is that the cost of continually reworking levels and missions until a user-appealing structure is realized is extremely prohibitive. Ultimately the end results will always be a rougher progression that falls far short of a riveting experience.

Because both film and TV have the luxury of significant extra film footage, and the flexibility of editing, these linear mediums have the advantage of relatively quick changes to pacing which is quite effective, but these are luxuries that are not available to the interactive nature of games. The only way to get there efficiently is to plan ahead.

I myself have worked on and with many highly experienced and talented teams (Road Rash 3D, Bond, Scarface, Baja, etc.) in the past who, due to a rushed or arbitrarily-ended pre-production, first generation engine/tools woes and/or over-confidence thought their situation was different -- only to end up throwing away almost all of the missions, levels and/or courses deep into production. The level/mission production team then had to start over on a massive body of work with only a fraction of production time remaining.

I only wish those projects could have benefited from these freshly-solidified processes. These talented teams have always regretted the time and cost of throwing away work, and the level/mission production teams have all had to scramble to get the new content built with often too little time left for adequate iteration and tuning, making the quality suffer further.

Even world-class teams with vast resources like the BioShock team (2K Boston/Australia) suffered through the cost and pain of massive throwaway (in their case, I believe all of the missions were entirely redone in the final nine months, and I suspect much of the level layout and content was redone as well).

The cold, hard lesson we must all see is that teams that over-confidently think they can avoid those mistakes using old-school, on-the-fly level design methods are destined to repeat the same highly costly content throwaway mistakes that much of the industry has been making for at least the past 10 years.

For the top high-profile titles of today, that throwaway easily translates into millions of development dollars wasted (enough to probably implement every design feature from your wish list) and often results in large delays and costly ship windows missed. It is time we all stop repeating the same unstructured level process mistakes and learn to utilize pacing and intensity processes like the older, more experienced, and more efficient entertainment industries (film and TV).

At a high level, the entire pacing structure encompasses three major bodies of work:

  • The Intensity & Pacing Plan is a structured level plan with set intensity magnitude and trend targets for the events in each level and over the entire campaign (Steps 1-7 below).
  • The Initial Level Implementation is the first pass of production for each level, where the level team will be using the Intensity & Pacing Plan as a blueprint (Step 8).
  • On-going Level Reviews and subsequent Level Iterations will be conducted to better match the intensity, timing, and gameplay progression targets (Step 9)

As these three bodies will encompass the bulk of design production, they must be led by one of the senior design leaders (ideally the creative director, lead designer, or lead level designer) and also monitored and supported by all the key design leaders.

9 Steps To Achieving A Mind-Blowing Pacing & Intensity Structure:

1. Brainstorming. Assuming the team is not locked into a precise level sequence (e.g. a movie recreation), get the entire development team together ideally for a full day Pre-Production Kickoff off-site to brainstorm (note that with a second day off-site, the team could further work on design/tech/art goals, IP goals, production processes, and pipelines).

  • More people participating in the brainstorm means more ideas, but it might make sense to break a large group into smaller sub-groups to ensure more people have a voice in the process. These types of large scale sessions also generate great creative and motivational buy-in within the team.
  • First, start the brainstorming with a session on specific settings for the levels. Try to come up with two to three times as many locations as you plan to implement. List, discuss, and record all the ideas openly without qualification or judgment. Get everyone to list the level locations in order of intensity and appeal.

    Mayan Pyramid Complex, Cambodian Temple, Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling
  • Next, brainstorm a list of high-action events. These events may be focused around the locations (say a Halo-style level hub with animated or unique geometry) or instead around the universal themes of the IP (like a vehicle chase in a James Bond game).

    Shoot for five or six events per level, so that you can later whittle those down to the best of the best. If you cannot even come up with three events, chances are the location may not be so interesting to build a level around. Separate out or flag the location-agnostic action events that will work anywhere in order to signify that their position could potentially be shifted to another level as necessary. Get everyone to list the action event ideas in order of intensity and appeal.

    Event Examples:
    Earthquake topples temple structure, cliff side collapses, dam breaks and wave rushes through canyon, soldiers repel on lines busting through glass wall to quickly outnumber the player, fuel depot explodes and causes cascading explosions along pipeline, person or vehicle chase through tunnels, cascading car explosions ending in fuel tanker explosion, outrun the lava flow, pillar topples over, stone arch collapses, suspension bridge starts to unravel, barrel explodes a hole in wall to reveal a squad of enemies, etc.
  • To round out the session, come up with a list of, say, five to seven generic events which utilize main mechanics, which could easily be used with minor variations (i.e. combat with x henchmen, vehicle chase in a different setting, or repurposed puzzles.) This will be a short list of items that will be used to flesh out the rest of the levels in between the key action events, and by definition these will not be as exciting or unique as the key action events identified in the previous brainstorming session.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Related Jobs

Treyarch — Playa Vista, California, United States

Associate Systems Designer (Zombies) - Treyarch
Immutable — APAC, Remote, Remote

Game Economy Designer
innogames — Hamburg, Germany

Java Software Developer - Rise of Cultures
innogames — Hamburg, Germany

Game Designer - Forge of Empires

Loading Comments

loader image