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[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.]
"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?
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 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.
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.