Gameplay Fundamentals Revisited: Harnessed Pacing & Intensity

Former EA and THQ design director Lopez looks at pacing in games versus films and TV for Gamasutra, explaining how careful planning can produce a perfect intensity curve for games.

[Former EA and THQ design director 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. In the next installment of Gameplay Fundamentals, Lopez will focus on how to build a pacing structure which can sustain the interest of gamers over the course of your title -- focusing on nine key points that will improve pacing and increase engagement.]

My initial Gameplay Fundamentals article was oriented towards the macro concept of gameplay progression in a campaign or career and how environmental content should be planned and structured from level to level to support such a progression in all areas (mechanics, duration, ancillary awards, practical rewards and difficulty).

But the need to plan and structure environmental content does not only support the concept of progression; the structured environment plan is also very critical to the concepts of game intensity and pacing at both the mission and campaign level.

All of the more mature entertainment industries (movie, TV and books) successfully use structured intensity and pacing to build the ultimate experience, and we should look to them for relevant lessons on both emotional control and production efficiency.

The top Hollywood blockbuster movies, such as the James Bond films  have successfully been utilizing intensity and pacing structure for at least the last 30 years now, so we can learn a lot about their techniques for how they pre-plan and structure the action into their movies.

While movies and even written fiction have some strong lessons to teach the game industry about pacing, it is really the modern TV drama that lends our closest and most relevant comparison, where a single episode is akin to a game level, mission, or course, and an entire season to an entire campaign or career.

Just as the amazing teams on the top TV dramas 24, Prison Break and Lost carefully pre-structure the plot and shoot sequences to maximize the intensity and pacing, I believe that the games with the highest quality experiences (Ratchet & Clank, Splinter Cell, Halo, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, etc.) have carefully structured their single-player level content to precisely control the pacing and to ratchet up the intensity.

In fact, if we designers are hoping to deliver an experience as delightfully exciting and enjoyable as Lost, Prison Break, or 24, we need to begin during pre-production by pre-planning a carefully structured intensity and pacing plan for all environments, levels, or courses.

Then, as discussed in my initial article, we need to create an overall gameplay progression plan to ensure that the challenge and gameplay experience progressively increase throughout the entire campaign or career.

Predicting Intensity

Fig. 1: The Green Intensity Curve will produce the greater excitement.

To illustrate the benefits of structured intensity and pacing, let's look at an intensity graph. An average intensity graph for a single segment of entertainment (e.g. an episode of a show or a level of a game) would display an ever increasing curve, where the rate of growth is increasing over time (the black arc in Figure 1).

In practice, however, a perfectly arced intensity is impossible to attain since the intensity of entertainment is always fluctuating -- and a perfect curve is even undesirable since it lacks any contrast. Peaks in intensity occur during exciting events, and troughs occur during lull periods lacking in excitement or action. It is in fact the contrast between the two which makes the action super riveting, exciting and satisfying.

Although both graphs in Fig. 1 have the same building intensity overall, the green graph will provide a much more exciting and satisfying experience; the contrast between the peaceful calm and the intense action will punctuate and maximize the impact of the events.

In the green graph of Fig. 1 above, the intensity is the excitement magnitude of the event and the pacing is the frequency between similarly intense events (peak to peak or trough to trough).

In the real entertainment world, the term "pacing" is often used in a broader sense that encompasses both the rhythm of events and the magnitude of intensity, so we will follow that convention moving forward -- except where we specifically indicate the intensity component separate from the time and distance pacing.

Movie Structure

Any movie review which proclaims the experience is "a rollercoaster ride" is usually a good indication that the intensity and pacing are well structured and executed in the film.

So, how exactly does Hollywood structure the intensity and pacing for a blockbuster film? Simple -- they plan out a relative intensity graph which shows an initial spike, then a wave with incrementally increasing peaks and troughs.

Next they come up with the key action or excitement scenes which they order in terms of the magnitude of impact. Usually, they set these events to occur around the transition from one act to another; this event sequencing fits within the three-act structure (Figure 2) that includes a setup act (optionally preceded by a prologue), a confrontation act, and a final resolution act.

Fig. 2: A Blockbuster Intensity Graph

The Anatomy of a Bond Film

To illustrate the value of a pacing structure lets look at a typical blockbuster example -- say, any of the James Bond movies. A Bond movie starts off with a prologue at some high intensity scene (usually 007 is tying up some major loose ends on some previous mission).

Next, after the resolution of that prologue scene, it transitions into the opening title introduction, after which there are some peaceful exposition scenes with lots of dialogue and limited action (James gets the new mission briefing). Then the intensity increases to the next action scene (a new peak, but much lower in intensity than the prologue), after which there is another lull occurring around the start of Act II.

The intensity of the scenes builds from the lull until another major action scene hits that is more intense than the previous Act I peak and that signals the end of Act II (the top henchmen often confronts Bond here). In some cases, there will be a series of increasingly intense events during the third, confrontation act, or perhaps just a series of obstacles to be overcome during one longer action scene (the villain often gains the upper hand here).

Finally, the climax occurs towards the end of Act III (Bond cunningly regains the upper hand) with only the final resolution to finish off the movie in a riveting action scene like only a Bond movie can deliver (the villain is killed in some clever way, and in a final calming lull, Bond gets some quality alone time with the girl).

Some critics say Bond movies are formulaic, but that doesn't seem to have inhibited the growth of the franchise any over the past 46 years, and most fans leave the theater every two years giddy and satisfied.

I am far from an educated screenwriting expert, but I do know there are more precise rules in film to deliver the most satisfying experience -- but that level of movie detail is out of the scope of this article.

Suffice it to say that Hollywood has the ability to control the emotions of the audience and lead the viewer on a rollercoaster ride of excitement. Sadly, they fall short on this level more often than not. But when they get it right, the result is pure movie magic, and the majority of the Bond films are a true testament to that magic.

TV Structure

Fig. 3: Intensity Graph for an episode of a TV drama (note the increase in intensity peaks)

Similar to their movie counterparts, the creative teams behind 24, Prison Break and Lost plan multiple action events into each 42 minute episode. They also sequence these events based on their own deliberate intensity ranking, in order to control the order of events and therefore the pacing and intensity of the episode.

They control the intensity based on the magnitude of impact and the ranked order of the action events. They control the pacing based on the duration between action, creating a rhythm to the events.

For a typical episode, they place one of the more exciting events at the front (often a resolution to the cliff-hanger from the previous episode) and the most exciting event or plot twist at the end to serve as a climactic cliff-hanger. So, an intensity graph for a single episode may look something like a sine wave with an initial spike and drop and then an ever-increasing amplitude (Figure 3).

Fig. 4: Increasing Episode Pacing & Intensity

Since television is advertising-driven, these dramas tend to utilize multiple intensity spikes as mini cliff-hangers and insert a commercial point in order to keep as many live viewers as possible riveted to their seats during the break (allowing them to charge more for their commercials).

The creative team may also sequence the events together in shorter and shorter duration within an episode in order to increase the pace of excitement along with the magnitude of the intensity (Fig. 4 -- with increasingly shorter/faster frequency and taller amplitude).

With or without duration changes, the result of their pacing and intensity structure is an amazing roller-coaster ride of an episode that keeps viewers riveted to their seats each week (and keeps the advertisers forking over top dollars).

If the magic behind the intensity and pacing for a single episode of 24, Lost, or Prison Break is impressive, then the continual increase over the entire season is sheer unadulterated genius, and the results are simply spectacular; many would argue the first few seasons of these series demonstrate the best in TV drama history.

In the same way the creative teams sequence the events in an episode by this deliberate intensity ranking, the team also ensures that those sequenced events increase in intensity from episode to episode. They also ensure that the cliff-hanger events are bigger, the plot twists more surprising, and ideally that the contrast between the intensity peaks and troughs are larger each week (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Relative Intensity Graph of a TV Drama Series (Amplitude Increasing for Greatest Contrast)

From episode to episode, the creative team may also sequence the events together in shorter and shorter duration and ending at a shorter extreme than the previous episode (Fig. 5) to increase the pace of excitement along with the intensity, making each episode feel more hectic and rushed than the one before.

The team behind Prison Break was particularly good at delivering this in Season 1, but pace increases have not been so noticeable in latter seasons (perhaps because it made the initial pilot episodes feel a bit slow).

With or without the increasing pace, the result of the well-executed pacing and intensity plan is a season progression which is ultimately engaging, satisfying, and market successful. This structure is the TV equivalent of a campaign structure that designers should strive to achieve.

Game Structure

Fig. 6: Lack of Structure = Arbitrary Career Experience

A modern game team who relies on the mechanics and game systems or A.I. alone to control the pacing outcome will fall far short of the pacing and intensity of the top games, TV shows, or movies.

Those not carefully planning will produce a more arbitrary and flat sine wave of intensity without any predictable and desirable patterns of action. The rhythm of such a game will become fairly predictable, and these games will soon begin to bore players.

For a game level, mission, or course, an unplanned / on-the-fly construction process will always deliver a series of events without any predictable pattern of pacing or intensity within the game level. The opportunity to deliver the most high-octane experience will be lost (Figure 6).

The system-driven and environment-constructed events will still occur and create intensity peaks and troughs, but the height of the peaks will vary erratically and the duration between the events will be unpredictable. So, any beneficial rhythm of pacing/intensity will be lost, as likely will the player's attention.

To create a heart-racing, nail biting, roller-coaster ride of excitement in a game, we need to first organize a level plan with a carefully structured series of events, prior to the construction of the level, mission or course (i.e. during pre-production).

It is not necessary that all or even most of the micro elements be planned out into an über-detailed design at this stage, although some teams prefer to do so by early production and there are many merits there. What is most important is that the key gameplay, action, and story plot events are ranked, ordered and spaced out to create an experience that is continually increasing in intensity (the peaks of the graph), and either consistent or increasing in pace (Fig. 7 shows a consistent pace).

Fig. 7: Structured Level Content Dictates Pacing (the mission starts between the first peak and trough)

It is neither realistic nor necessary to execute a game level to perfectly match the graph targets at every point. What is most important is that we sequence the events to match the peaks as close as possible. We should order the high intensity events so they are growing, and either at the same rate or so they speed up in frequency (the waves are the same length or shorter).

The trough lulls should be hit, but do not need to be spaced out or ordered in intensity as perfectly as the peaks. So, the bulk of the effort should be made to match the peaks in both magnitude and timing, and to alternate those peaks with lulls.

For events that cannot be moved and reordered (e.g. plot points), either the event can be reworked to adjust the impact to meet the ideal intensity target, or the events around it can be similarly reworked to preserve the appropriate trend.

With such a basic peak/trough structure in place, I would assert that the feel of a level designed to hit only those highs and lows will deliver 99% of the euphoric satisfaction.

A good starting point during early to mid pre-production is to get the whole team together to brainstorm a massive blue-sky list of exciting gameplay events, without concern for the cost of building them and without any limits on the story or the settings.

It is important to plan out a number of unique action events for each level (three minimum) so the gameplay does not become too repetitive with recycled portions (e.g. continuous waves of henchmen).

For a campaign with 15 levels or missions, plan on thinking of, say, 60 total unique events (some extras are desirable to add flexibility). Also list five or so generic events or activities that can be reused in a vast number of ways (say with differences in type, density, and orientation of NPCs and dynamic objects).

Since coming up with such a large number of gameplay events is seemingly such a daunting task, it will help if the team can brainstorm a series of environment locations first (again without concern for cost or story) and then go back and associate event ideas with those locations.

Note that most events need not advance the game's plot, so the majority of events should just be conceived around interesting animated geometry, or some spectacular visual wonder in the level (Halo style).

Alternatively, it could be something else that is unique about the IP's universe -- without the need for some complex scripted or unique AI driven event every time.

In most cases, early planning of the levels and events will even help shape the story to come and improve writer input. It will provide the framework for the writer to work within, and will result in a more efficient turnaround from script draft to draft to final.

Any external writers that you are working with will surely appreciate the clarity of the framework and structure. They can then see the context of the gameplay and come up with the best story and dialogue that enhances that gameplay the most.

They also will be euphoric that they do not have to guess how the dialogue will fit with gameplay.

The main complaints I hear from professional game writers is that they have to completely redo the script multiple times to fit evolving level gameplay. This most often can be prevented by nailing down the structure of levels prior to implementation.

So, once the "Intensity & Pacing Plan" has been completed, how do we know that our initial intensity ranking will be proven to be accurate in gameplay? Simple -- we make the order of magnitude the criteria for success, and we continually review content progress and iterate on the work.

During each iteration, the level designers will be massaging elements to increase/decrease the intensity of each event. This should enforce the desirable trend targets, along with the elements of gameplay progression discussed in the previous article.

By reviewing for all the criteria, the structure will be upheld through the typical level iteration process -- without having to devote any extra time at the end of production (where time is most limited and changes most costly) to re-focus on pace or progression.

This will improve the quality of the gameplay, and it will significantly reduce the level content schedule risk by clearly establishing the targets that the levels are aiming to achieve.

It should also prevent brutally costly throwaway work, since the schedule is easier to hit. In the end, the experience will be significantly more satisfying.

[In the next installment of Gameplay Fundamentals, Lopez will focus on how to build a pacing structure which can sustain the interest of gamers over the course of your title -- focusing on nine key points that will improve pacing and increase engagement.]

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