Pacing

As mentioned in my last article on Quarriors, pacing is one of the most important factors in whether or not a game is fun. It’s an ethereal property that’s extremely hard to pin down. But players can recognize immediately when a game comes up short in this regard.

 

What is Pacing?

Pacing is the rate at which players make choices, experience something new or are rewarded.

A major pacing element in games with strategic elements is the frequency with which decisions can or must be made. Too often and the player can become overwhelmed and confused. Too rarely and nearly everyone will grow bored, simply waiting for something to happen.

Because all three factors outlined above intertwine and can break one another, pacing is much easier to get right in games where strategy doesn’t play a significant role. If players are making production decisions every turn, they might be receiving rewards too frequently. Too frequently? How is that a bad thing you ask?

Because limits are necessary to keep players engaged. If you give out the entire box of toys right from the word “go” then everything inside will almost immediately lose its capacity to be special. But if you get players accustomed to not being able to fly, then granting them that ability at the end of the game becomes a huge moment.

New experiences also have an ideal range they need to work within. It’s absolutely better to throw too many unique, interesting things at people than too few, but they also need time to digest that with which they are unfamiliar. If you’re playing an RPG and moving from one area to the next every few minutes, then the excitement of exploration is diminished and you never grow attached to any of the places you’ve been. However, given that producing content is expensive it’s fairly rare for a game to err too far on this end. Far more common is the opposite.

Many games grow stale after only a short period of time. After you’ve seen all of the distinct categories of enemies and earned all of the interesting abilities there isn’t much left to see. RPGs and action games can be particularly bad in this way, and once a game starts recycling character art you know you’re in trouble. “No sir, this slime is nothing like the last one you fought! It’s green and has 50% more hit points!” How exciting!

 

 

Why is it So Hard to Get Right?

Refining the pacing of a game requires extensive playtesting. And not just by anyone – the designer needs to be one of the people who spends the most time in front of the screen. Feedback from others is always valuable, but only the designer knows what his or her intentions were, and how well the execution on them actually ended up. Bad pacing is virtually guaranteed if a game’s designers aren’t spending significant time actually using the systems they’ve created. Not even the most talented individuals intuitively know the perfect numbers to plug into every equation.

Well, that seems obvious – you play the game, figure out what’s wrong, and fix it. What’s so hard about that? Unfortunately, game development schedules are often pretty tight from the get-go, and only become more so as the months fly by. Adding new Feature X that the boss requested, or fixing bugs with Feature Y almost always take precedent, and playtesting has always occupied the bottom rung on the ladder to begin with. It’s easy to make the argument that actually “doing work” is far more valuable than playtesting, but this is nothing but a trap with potentially catastrophic consequences. Ever played a game and said to yourself, “Wow… this is so bad. How could they release this?” The answer is probably that the designer didn’t play it enough, or possibly at all.

Another factor is that playing a game you’ve been working on is rarely fun. You’ve spent so much blood, sweat and tears building it and there’s no magic left for you to experience. But playtesting is part of the job, just like other unfun tasks like localization and fixing bugs. It’s a terrible shame if a game that could have been great flounders simply because someone was unwilling to roll their sleeves up and do a bit of dirty work.

 

 

The Road Map to Good Pacing

Playtesting is crucial but not a magic bullet in and of itself. What are you looking for during these runs? And how do you even get started? As is nearly always the case when solving design problems it comes down to establishing goals you’re happy with, and staying completely focused on them. You’re in big trouble if the designer only has a vague idea of what he or she wants from a feature or (gasp) the entire game.

Because pacing is such a tangled web you really need to be prepared when tackling the challenge. I always try to outline what I want from as many aspects of a feature and the game as a whole before digging into any details. For example…

How many units should players own at different stages of the game? How regularly do we want players training new units in the first twenty turns? What about in the last era? What production curve is required to get us there? How often can players increase this rate, and what means of accomplishing this do they have at their disposal?

And so on. This is just the tip of the iceberg. You can wind yourself up into knots with this kind of work, but it’s necessary. You never want to be in the position of implementing or tweaking a feature and thinking to yourself, “hmmm, I wonder what we might be able to do with this…”

This is particularly true with pacing. Another good example from the 4X strategy genre is map exploration. The first questions I ask myself might be…

How big do I want the map to be? At what point in the game does the player have everything explored? Are there temporary barriers like the edges of continents or mountain ranges? Is there any reason to go back and explore an area you’ve already uncovered? If so, could it be done with a special type of unit? Would that actually be fun, or just busywork?

Once I’ve decided on answers I now have targets to measure against. If I decided that I wanted the map fully explored 2/3 of the way through the game and the player’s starting continent 1/3 of the way through I can start making other decisions, such as what the movement rate of units should look like. I can also compare data from playtesting against these goals, and develop a concrete sense of what needs addressing.

Pacing is one of the fuzziest parts of game design, maybe second only to “fun.” To this day I’m still coming across new information and adjusting my style based on what I learn. But there’s no doubt that laying down your objectives needs to be task #1. From there the job gets tougher, but it’s never impossible.

- Jon

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4 Comments

  1. I have the new XCOM title on the brain, partly because it’s salient, but mostly because I want to enjoy it despite its flaws. Coincidentally, one of its greatest flaws is the strategic pacing.

    The game doles out tactical combat at very regularly scheduled intervals. As a result, there’s no sense that you’re having any effect on the world. Instead, you are assigned your monthly allocation of tactical combats. There’s no arc there, no climax or denouement. You simply plod along until the narrative ends.

    The lesson here is that that narrative pacing is just as important as gameplay pacing, and that sometimes it’s worthwhile to temporarily unbalance the game to create an engaging experience.

    Reply
    • Agreed, Alan. If a game is SO well-paced that it becomes predictable then you’re also losing out. I think it goes beyond narrative VS gameplay pacing. Like most things in game design (and life!) you simply need a balance.

      A Civ game where units always take the exact same number of turns to build might have some advantages, but the lost flexibility will turn away many players LOOKING for that kind of freedom.

      – Jon

      Reply
  2. valambrian

     /  November 17, 2012

    Interesting! I came to leave a comment about the original X-COM and found that Alan has picked the new game.
    What made it very difficult for me to finish X-COM games is the fact that as the games progressed, tactical combat was taking more and more of my time. By very rough estimate, it went from something like 25% in the beginning of the game to something like 99% at the end of the game. At some point, this very engaging, deep, and fun part of the game was starting to feel like a chore.
    It may be the case that Firaxis tried to solve this very problem by doling out tactical encounters at a steady rate.
    Jon, could you ask your insider sources whether this is true? I listened to several Jake Solomon’s interviews, but don’t remember him mentioning it once.

    Reply
    • I don’t have any inside information, but it could just be the same affliction nearly every grand strategy title suffers from – a tight, snappy first half followed by a lagging, bloated second. It’s SO common that maybe the right answer isn’t to “fix” the problems but simply make the game shorter, so that the experience wraps up before you start grinding on unfun bits.

      Speaking of the inevitability of pacing causing issues – this is actually one of the elements Persona 4 really nailed (something I’ll be writing about at length later this week). The game has both a narrative, structure and a large degree of freedom. It’s really a brilliant design.

      – Jon

      Reply

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