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How to Use Game Mechanics for Effective Pacing

Figuring out the pacing of your title is always difficult, but today's post looks at how the mechanics dictate how long or short of a game you can make.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

February 1, 2017

6 Min Read

One of the hardest challenges of designing a game is knowing when to end development/the game. We've seen games come out way too soon with unfavorable reviews and broken design. Just like how there are games that take forever to come out and the time didn't translate into greatness. Today's post is going to be more on the philosophical side of things, and examine how much you can get out of your game mechanics.


game mechanics

The Talos Principle

Measuring Game Length:

Before we get started, it's important to point out that we're going to focus on mechanic-heavy titles with an actual end. Narrative driven, sandbox or grand strategy title are not parts of this discussion. The reason why is that mechanic-heavy titles have an intrinsic amount of content you can show the player.

In a perfect world, we could have AI's that procedurally design new content and systems for video games and provide endless replayability. However, in the real world, games have to end at some point.

There's the common belief that more is better when it comes to games, but that's not always the case. If a game only has 5 hours of content, stretching that to 20 will bore players. There are some commonly used ways of extending a game that you can use: Boss Rush, bonus levels and DLC.

Game mechanics

Super Mario 64 (wikipedia)

No matter how great your game is, it will eventually have to end

No matter how you design your game, there is a limit on how much you can use a mechanic. Before we talk about that, we need to explain how your game should be presented.

The Path to Mechanic Mastery:

Any mechanic in any title goes through three phases of understanding: Beginner, Moderate and Expert. These three phases should be represented in your game in line with the progression model. The progression through your game is like a test on your mechanics.

Starting out, the beginner phase is the tutorial. This is where players are given the easiest examples of your mechanics. A good example of this are games that present a mechanic in a safe environment where the player can't fail.

The Moderate phase is when the player understands the mechanic and can now use it reliably. The Moderate phase usually makes up the bulk of your game's design.

The Expert phase is when it's time for the "final test" for the player. This is when the player is shown the hardest examples of this mechanic (outside of post game content) and must get through it. Just about any game's final set of levels can be examples of this.

Good game design dictates that you should have all three examples in your game. There is no de-facto length for this, but every mechanic in your game should be represented this way.

game mechanics

Portal 2 (Youtube)

The player's understanding of your game's design must grow over the course of the game

The final test is very important to the player, because this is how they know they've mastered the mechanic. With that said, no matter how well you design your game, there will always be people who will fail.

Your job is to give every player the greatest chance of succeeding at your game.

The pacing fails when these three phases are out of whack.

Missing the Mark:

When a game fails to provide a balanced set of pacing, we can trace it to one of two issues. In some cases, developers will go through the beginner, moderate and expert phases too fast. What ends up happening is that the player has seen everything mechanics' wise, but the game will rehash things. Unless you're coming up with new ways of using the mechanics, the player will start to feel bored and want the game to end.

The other point is when the developers fail to provide the expert phase for their mechanics. In these cases, the player feels like something is missing or they feel cheated by the developer. Due to designers pushing to get as most of their game lengths, this issue doesn't happen in the traditional sense.

You can still have an 8-10 hour action game that never fully develops its mechanics. In this case, the game can feel like it can end at any time, as the challenge or progression is not growing.

When it comes to getting the most of our mechanics, it's important to understand the difference between unique and general.

Unique vs. General Mechanics:

One of the key factors in determining how much you can get out of your game design comes down to the mechanics you use.

General mechanics are those that give you a lot of leeway in terms of providing new challenges around. In the Mario series, Mario's jumps are general mechanics that play off of the environment and obstacles. How you play the game never changes, but what you're doing to complete each level does.

Unique mechanics are typically those that dramatically impact how the game is played or explored. Some examples would be the portal gun, the tools of the Swapper, or the time powers of Braid. This mechanics are the major selling points of their games and not easily copied.

Mechanics that are unique are limited in how much you can get out of them. The reason is that unique mechanics are so specialized that they supersede the environment in a sense. The portal gun for instance gets around any environmental obstacles not exclusively built to block it. Once you run out of new ways to block the player, the portal gun beats everything else.

game mechanics

World of Warcraft (youtube)

General mechanics are easier to stretch content around than unique ones

This is why general mechanics or abstracted gameplay provide longer game lengths, because they can be stretched out easier.

It's important to note that unique mechanics aren't inherently better or worse for a game. There have been some amazing games with unique mechanics on the short side.

The big point about unique mechanics is that you should never repeat game sections with them. You can get away with that to some extent with general mechanics, but it's very easy to tell when a game is being padded out.

Measure Twice, Cut Once:

Understanding the pacing of your game mechanics is important for producing a cohesive title. Not every game needs to be stretched to 30+ hours of content, just as you should give your mechanics time to breathe. No matter how great the core gameplay loop is of a title, eventually you have to wrap things up.

Can you think of any games that went on for too long, or those that came up short? Let me know below.

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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