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[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:
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.
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).