Pacing and Games

What are your thoughts on pacing and structure in videogames? (Not when it comes to cutscenes, but based on pure gameplay)

Okay, I’ve been thinking about pacing, and the obvious observation is that pacing in a video game is way different from a movie or an act of theater. The instinct perhaps is to think of pacing in terms of how developers laid out their content, like here’s a fast section, here’s a slow section, here’s a variety section. I think it’s worth investigating rather the different modes of interaction and how fast those are perceived as. Is the player reacting to an enemy? are they allowed to proceed at their own pace? Are they controlling a character or sitting in menus? Are they allowed to trigger a different phase of interaction? I think more consideration should go to the literal pace in terms of action frequency too. The other major factor is of course the difficulty curve.

One thing I thought of was Persona 3. My brother hated me for playing that game, because I spent ridiculous amounts of time sitting in the velvet room fusing personas and he hated the music, then we began ironically mocking the music, and we ended up loving the music. That’s obviously very slow paced, however you’re allowed to exit that mode whenever you want, but you need to engage with that mode some time because there’s natural pressures that eventually require you return there. Not to mention there’s natural pressures to either engage with after school activities or work through that month’s dungeon. Turn based RPGs as a whole are rather slow in pace because of the menu combat. You are not demanded to make an input quickly, you are allowed to wait and select what you want, and animations for attacks take a long period of time to watch, during which you cannot interact. ATB systems have less of this, but you still need to wait for meters to fill reasonably often.

Then there’s Dark Souls. Dark souls during combat encounters does not allow you to pause, and you are required to make an action to end the combat encounter. Enemies tend to stay still most of the time, so if you’re not being attacked or followed right now, then you’re usually free to sit around and do whatever, which can involve actively looking around the environment, or messing with menus.

Then there’s Metal Gear Rising, where you have natural cycles of playing missions, which involves a lot of combat, broken up by running to the next combat area, then a stealth section, then a part where you uncontrollably walk slow and aren’t allowed to do anything, followed by a skippable cutscene. Every mission’s end returns you to a menu which you can access at any time, but it’s inconvenient, where you buy stuff in menus, but the buying tends to go by quickly because there isn’t that much to actually consider. There’s a few small sections of exploration, but they’re skippable, allowing you to rush to the next combat encounter.

So what’s a game with bad pacing? Assassin’s creed is the first one that comes to mind, because you’re asked to go out on some assassination missions, then you need to return to the home base after each one to talk to the dude. During all the walking and talking sections, you’re not allowed to do anything, including skip it. These happen among other unskippable cutscenes all the fucking time.

So what’s a game with bad pacing that doesn’t involve unskippable cutscenes or their equivalent? How about, MGSV? Ehhh, that has unskippable helicopter rides in every time you start a new mission or want to faff around on the map, plus it has them when leaving many missions, so maybe not the best example of avoiding unskippable cutscenes. Most of the main mission content is fine, but a lot of faffing around on the overworld suffers from pacing issues I think, because transportation takes forever, you end up collecting a ton of stuff which isn’t terribly interesting. I think that if you’re trying to play stealthy/nonlethal, the alert phase of many stealth games is a pacing issue, because players need to sit still in a hidden location for a while, however there’s no real way to remedy that which I can think of, beyond what earlier MGS games already implemented, having the alert pass faster if you’re better hidden. The caution phase having a visible timer can be a pacing issue for worse players who don’t realize it’s relatively safe to move around during that phase and are trying to be optimal by just waiting it out. The caution phase should definitely stay in, but maybe not display the timer visibly or have some other measure to coax novices out of hiding.

I think Crysis Warhead had better pacing than the original Crysis, neither having unskippable cutscenes, but it’s been too long since I played Crysis to remember why. Crysis is a longer game, and slower, but again, can’t totally remember why they’re different precisely.

Actually, the collecting things pacing issue comes up in a lot of stealth games or similar, like Thief, Deus Ex MD, and others. However they also serve a rather valid point of design, to encourage players to visit guarded places and take risks. However having so many damn collectibles, all of which need to be moused over, and if you die you gotta do it over again, that’s a pain. That’s a reason to put quicksave into your game, even though I hate quicksave normally. If I didn’t have it in these games, then I’d waste an even more colossal amount of time just picking things up, or frequently on hard parts I’d start out needing to recollect things every single time I die. Dark Souls solved this by having collectibles be autosaved on pickup, but it wouldn’t necessarily work for all these games.

Maybe for a Thief style game you gotta steal something, then at some point after the steal it actually gets permastolen, the idea being that you gotta steal it and get away with it instead of just doing a suicide run for the item like many dark souls players do? Of course sticking these collectibles in bigger less frequent chunks is also nice. Reducing the amount of item management overall is nice for pacing.

So far I think the key elements of good pacing pacing are making the distance between important chunks of content relatively short, limiting the amount of busywork that needs to be repeated when a player dies, limiting how much inventory management actually needs to be done on a regular basis, giving the player opportunities to rest between encounters which they can take advantage of at their discretion, varying the length of periods they need to remain continuously engaged for, and of course, avoiding unskippable cutscenes like the plague. I don’t think variation, in the sense of totally alternative modes of play, like puzzle vs action, are really totally necessary. I think plenty of games get along fine without that sort of thing. I think it’s more about giving the player the option to take a breather here and there and considering how much of a breather the player is given before they need to do the next thing.

This is related to the commonly held idea in psychology that attention is a limited resource. The talk Attention vs Immersion by the Naughty Dog Dev goes into this a little, saying that players need chances to build their attention back up after it is depleted by action. That’s perhaps the nice part of equipment systems like those in Dark Souls or Nioh, or the upgrade systems in stylish action games, that they provide regular smaller tasks you can do regularly that are not as demanding of your attention. They are not strictly necessary to be performed, just helpful in the long run. Players can spend longer or shorter periods on them and choose when to engage with those at their discretion. Things like equipment limits, such as in DXHR, DXMD, Elder Scrolls, or Demon’s Souls make it so the player eventually needs to tend to their equipment or they literally cannot continue.

The pause button is a big feature in relation to pacing. When you have a pause button, the player can opt to take a breather whenever they want for however long they want. I think this is most important in games that have a continuous unstopping progression, like arcade games, anything with a time limit, or tetris. Pause buttons are nice. They are convenient. They are an important part of User Experience. However I also defend the decision of games like Dark Souls and Nioh to not include pause buttons.

This is certainly inconvenient and a hit to user experience, but I think that it is interesting to avoid giving players an easy way to recover their attention during encounters, to be allowed to push the player on tilt and not give them a means to center themselves and think things over. This also means avoiding giving players a way to “pause buffer”, a technique involving repeatedly pausing that allows players to effectively slow the rate at which the game plays, either to augment their reaction time, or their sense of timing to hit more precise timing windows. The other thing is that in dark souls and nioh, you’re frequently given chances to stop at little to no risk to yourself, because enemies don’t really patrol levels that often, and you can just stand around once you killed an enemy and do whatever. The encounters are spaced out so stages aren’t one long continuous fight and so there is space between groups of enemies.

Also I’ll grant one special exception in the bad pacing department to that ladder in MGS3. I can’t hate that ladder.

Difficulty curves feel like they’re a big element of pacing, but I now think they’re really more their own topic. I think that periods of uninterruptible engagement should get longer in correspondence with the level of difficulty, ramping up to say a boss encounter, which is a long period of continuous engagement, then either directing the player to something slower paced that they can spend a fair amount of time on, or having just some space to chill out before the next encounter. Going back to a menu screen is also acceptable. Once a fighting game match is over, you go back to character select. Between rounds you’re given some time to reorient while the next round is announced, and you’re usually allowed to skip some of that reorientation time too.

I tried connecting game speed and action frequency to pacing, since I mentioned it at the start, but on further research I think they’re just totally separate issues.

Regarding pacing, what do you think of games that put time restrictions over the entire playthrough? Games like Fallout (which has one major time sequence) and Majora’s Mask. (which has many smaller time sequences) I recall you answering a question about this before, but you didn’t really go into detail.

I can’t say much for Fallout because I never finished it, but often times the game pressured me into playing more recklessly, despite that I usually don’t; I typically take my time with most games and play them thoroughly, but Fallout had me skipping some sidequests and generally just rushing through. This later resulted in many encounters that I was hopelessly unprepared for later in the game. Not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. Looking back on it now, I’m sure I had way more time than I thought I did. Just the idea of that timer made me play the game faster.

I have a lot to say about Majora’s Mask, but honestly my thoughts on it are scattered. I’d have to replay it and at that point, I may as well turn in it into it’s own little piece and send it your way. I do think it brought a lot to the table in terms of pacing and structure and I would love to hear your thoughts on it, even if you hate it.

I think timers don’t work very well unless you replay the game a lot or there’s a way to return to a save point (like Persona 3 & 4). Most people don’t replay games. Basically when you have no idea what you’re doing and there’s a time pressure, you tend to flounder and rush and not have a very good time. The thing about a time pressure is that it’s so abstract that you can’t really tell if you’re wasting too much time and need to move on or not.

Majora’s Mask gets around this by letting you reset the days whenever you want. I think time pressures over the whole game don’t really work that well unless it’s the type of game you replay a lot, like for example a roguelike, or it has some other type of reset mechanism with minimal penalties for resetting. Majora’s Mask has a billion key items, and they let you bypass a lot of the puzzles and other obstacles easily to get to the part you were last working on. I think the dungeons also stay persistent across cycles, but I don’t really remember.

Persona 3 & 4 also mostly get around this by giving you regular save points and a full save state system, so you can retry as you like from any previously point in time. However if you only use one save, it’s very easy to get trapped underleveled close to the end of the month and be incapable of grinding enough to beat the current dungeon, because when in a dungeon you have limited resources based on what you had when you went in, and leaving the dungeon (and advancing the game by a day) is usually the only way to restore those resources. So you might need multiple days to grind that you don’t have time for.

The other thing about time pressures is they’re trivial for experienced players, because they can get so far ahead of the clock that it might as well not be there.

I think a more sane and intuitive solution is to introduce a more tangible time pressure. For example, the rising water in the Ginso Tree in Ori and the Blind Forest. It rises at a steady rate, but if the player gets ahead of it, it will catch up with the player. This means that if the player screws up too much on any one part, they have a strong chance of dying, no matter how far they are, and they need to keep moving at a reasonable pace. Kirby Return to Dreamland has levels like this as well, where you get chased across the screen by purple that steadily advances, and you can move faster, it’s not a pure autoscroller, but the purple can never be further than the edge of the screen.

Obviously these only really work on constrained sections rather than a whole game, but you could implement things that are similar in principle. Mirror’s edge has the cops steadily appear as you wait too long in any given chase area. You could theoretically have an open world game where the number of monsters or something steadily increase and or spread their area of influence until the whole world is overrun. Or you could have release valves like the majora’s mask solution.

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