GameDev Protips: How To Improve Your Indie Game’s Pacing

Pacing is an often overlooked aspect of games that is critical to delivering a strong experience. If your game maintains low tension in its entirety, then it will be incredibly boring. On the other hand, if you consistently pump the tension higher and higher, players will experience the “too much of a good thing” effect in which they get used to the stimuli, making it less effective. Because of this, the ideal curve is one that is varying and increasing, but how do we manage to create that? Below are some things to think about when designing your game’s pacing.

If nothing else, your game should always have a strong start. Go big, or go home. If you start off with the relatively mundane things, you’ll fail to hook a large portion of your audience and you’ll lose those players for good. At the same time, you have to make sure that you bring that strong beginning back down or else you will set unreasonable expectations for your game’s tension baseline, and failure to meet these tension expectations will introduce disappointment in a lot of cases.

Once you’ve got the beginning down, you generally just should repeat the pattern until you reach the climax. Just keep your tension oscillating so that things never become predictable and remain entertaining. Your climax will be different, however. The climax should be the highest point of tension in your game, and immediately after that tension should drop sharply, probably back down to your baseline. Failure to give the audience closure will lead to a lot of frustrated players, as was very clearly displayed by players’ disdain for a certain BioWare game’s ending.

Well, now you have a general idea of what the tension curve looks like, but what methods are used to create that curve? When we’re talking about tension, that tension can be modified with various methods of engagement, be it through sadness, satisfaction, or something else like curiosity. It’s important that the methods of engagement that you’re using are appropriate to your genre. Although you will get a strong curve using a huge amount of action in your survival horror game, you’ll fail to create the correct type of tension that your audience is looking for and will, again, disappoint it. While I can’t give you an exact answer as to which methods are appropriate for which genres, just make sure that you aren’t going too far off course.

Up to this point we’ve just been talking about macro level pacing, but this pacing should also apply to everything below that, including individual levels and even individual moments in the action of your game. Have you ever played a shooter where the gunplay just didn’t feel as good as another? That’s likely due to the pacing curve being messed up. For example, you pull out your gun, creating tension, line up the shot, leading to a tense stagnation, fire it, performing the climax, then let it go back to rest, taking the place of the resolution. That format fits the curve exactly, and it’s what can make or break the “feel” of games. In general, the pacing should fit every part of the game in one way or another or else the experience will feel clunky or awkward.

Important Takeaways: Pacing is something that is often overlooked by many developers today, and it’s critical for delivering a strong gaming experience. The pacing curve required is a very specific oscillating one with a dramatic drop off, but how do you go about creating that? First, you bring the players in with a strong beginning. Next, you let the action taper off a bit to set a reasonable baseline for your game. After that, you repeat the same format, having rising tensions reach a certain point where an event occurs then allowing the action to lull off. This will continue until you reach the highest point of tension in your game, the climax, upon which there will be a dramatic drop in tension afterwards, your resolution. All this being said, creating that curve won’t matter if you’re not doing it in the right way. Make sure that you’re using the appropriate methods of engagement for your genre in order to create that tension. While you’ll get a strong curve, if you use the wrong methods of engagement your fans will not properly appreciate the tension that is being created because it isn’t what they’re looking for. All of these concepts about the pacing curve apply to every individual part of the game, from the game as a whole to the little individual moments in action, so make sure you consider this curve in everything you make.