GAME MECHANICS AND PACING

Tips on how to not waste your player's time.

So, you’re making a game. You build the maps tile by tile. You name the characters. You write the epic story. You program the weapons and armor. You make the badass battle animations. You choreograph the awesome cutscene where the MC beheads a villain with an envelope opener. You balance your awesome battles. You give the characters stats. You always create your encounters to be a challenge.

“The game is perfect!” you say. And in your mind, it is. It does everything that you think an RPG should do.

But maybe it’s not as perfect as you think it is. Maybe people don’t enjoy the combat. Maybe they find the battles tedious or boring.

“They’re just wimps!” you tell yourself. “The game is challenging! They just don’t like things that are hard!”

Chances are, however, that this isn’t it either. Chances are that your combat, and possibly your entire game, is badly paced.

I am here to tell you why this happens and how you can prevent it.

Go with the flow.

I’m a fan of story-telling techniques through the use of game mechanics. By integrating your mechanics with you narrative, it makes the player feel closer to the story. These aren’t just things happening to a character on a screen. The player is IN the scene and these things are happening to them.

This isn’t something you can impose selectively, however. It happens whether you want it to or not. And all kinds of factors can influence how the player is approaching or interacting with a scene. This means that factors you might never even think about while you are developing your game are influencing absolutely everything about how your player is absorbing information about your narrative.

You need to think about everything that conveys information to the player, and the manner in which they are acquiring it. Some of these can be obvious things, such as font size and style, text speed, the walking speed of the player’s avatar, the game’s palette and other graphical choices. But those are only surface elements. Other things, from dungeon length, to the length and difficulty of encounters, can interrupt your game’s narrative if you aren’t careful.

What I’m talking about here is a game’s flow, and if you don’t know what that is, flow is how the game’s narrative fits together. Think about how someone tells a story. If someone is good at telling a story, they will present all the relevant information you need only when you need it, and probably doesn’t weigh their story down with irrelevant tangents or pointless information. Someone who is bad at telling a story might be incoherent, might forget to mention things, or tie scenes together in an illogical manner. That’s bad flow. Don’t do that.

The flow of a game’s narrative must make sense and be logical. Some of this is obvious, such as scenes logically following from each other. There is actually a style of writing known as modular storytelling that doesn’t follow a coherent narrative, but often consists of self-contained vignettes that may or may not fit together in a larger perspective. But you need to have some pretty serious stylistic justification to get away with that sort of thing. If your narrative is choppy and disjointed, it’s probably just going to confuse and irritate your player.

“But Solitayre, I thought we were here to talk about game mechanics! Story is stupid!”

No, you’re stupid. Also, I’m getting to that.

Adventurus Interruptus

I know your type. You’re one of those gameplay people, aren’t you? You probably think every single enemy in the whole game must be handcrafted through statistics and abilities to provide the a challenging yet reasonable battle for your heroes to face. That’s great. Really. There are absolutely lots of places in a game where you want challenging, well-crafted opponents for your heroes to fight. But there are some places you might not WANT to do that.

Did you know battles are a part of your game’s story? They are! Sure, we can assume that every giant rat and flying spaghetti monster we slay outside the starting village while squirreling away the cash to buy that super sweet LONG SWORD aren’t very important to the game’s narrative. Creatures like that are just game abstractions, they’re there for the player to fight, use his SWEET MOVES on, get stronger. We can assume no major revelations or life-altering epiphanies will happen in the midst of a battle with two dire bunnies and a ninja who lives in a medieval fantasy setting for some reason.

But you can’t treat all enemies like that. Some enemies are part of your plot. And if implemented badly, they can damage your plot, and damage your game. Let’s look at an example.

Evil Baron Nefarious has kidnapped the hero’s childhood love interest, Damsela, and is forcing her to marry him! That bastard! Our Hero, Heroy, decides he needs to go kick the Baron’s ass and save his love interest from this horrible fate. He and his comrades kick in the door to the Church shouting “I do!” even thought the priest didn’t ask if anyone objected yet. They feel kind of silly, but that doesn’t matter. Baron Nefarious sends his guardsmen to stop Heroy from ruining his wedding! The guardsmen come in three separate waves and Heroy will have to fight them all before facing the baron himself, who has been honing a secret EVIL TECHNIQUE especially to kill that pesky Hero with.

So, which of these two scenarios is more compelling in this situation?

A. Heroy engages a battle with the guards. Each guard is a challenging opponent who will take many hits to defeat. These battles go back and forth for upwards of ten rounds as Heroy slowly whittles down each guard, probably being forced to heal several times over the course of the battle. He will repeat this encounter two more times as he fights all three waves, before facing Baron Nefarious who is a very challenging boss who might kill Heroy with his secret technique and force him to reload his game and replay this entire sequence again.

B. Heroy mows down each of these guards in one or two hits. Heroy absolutely plows through them. Each battle is over quickly allowing Heroy to rapidly advance towards rescuing his love. The guardsmen are powerless to stop him. Baron Nefarious challenges Heroy to a duel, but he and his secret technique aren’t actually that much of a threat and Heroy bests him easily to rescue his beloved.


Scenario B is probably more narratively compelling even though the enemies in this situation are complete wusses. Why? Because the actual act of fighting battles is not the point of this scene. The point of this scene is Heroy rescues Damsela like a badass. If Heroy had to spend five minutes with each wave of guards, that would disrupt the scene’s flow. Who cares how strong these guards actually are? Heroy is pissed and they are in his way. Dispatching them in one hit gets the point across. Heroy is kicking the guards’ asses. That’s what needs to happen here. Having each guard be a trial defeats the point of that. Having each guard take forever to kill would distract the player from what’s going on in the larger context. If Heroy actually loses any of these battles, the moment is ruined and the scene will lack any of the same impact when they sigh and reload the game.

What about the Baron? Surely he must be a worthy opponent! Well, sure, but you can convey that narratively too. Because you see, you probably don’t actually want the player to lose in a sequence like this. This is the middle of a cutscene/action sequence, and if the player dies here, he has to do the whole thing again. You don’t want that. Putting a super hard boss at the end of a scripted sequence is usually bad design (I’m looking at you, Xenogears.)

So how can we make the Baron a badass without actually making the player lose to him? The Baron has an aforementioned SECRET TECHNIQUE OF EVIL. If this move actually had a serious chance of killing the player here, that would be bad. The player shouldn’t lose in situations like this unless they’re being stupid. So what can we do?

1. Baron Nefarious telegraphs his attack. “I’M ABOUT TO HIT YOU WITH MY SUPER EVIL TECHNIQUE!” (Translation: “Defend, stupid!”). The player knows the attack is coming and can take proper precautions.

2. The super evil technique is non-lethal. Maybe it drops Heroy’s HP to 1.

Both of these situations are good, because they create tension and the illusion of danger without actually putting the player in danger. In the first situation, the player will guard. In the second, he will heal himself. If they don’t do those things, they deserve to lose!

Using these techniques, we can have game mechanics enhance the game’s narrative instead of interrupting your game’s flow.

“But Solitayre! Enemies should always be well-crafted encounters designed to challenge your player. Why even play your dumb stupid dumb game otherwise?”

You again. You’re the problem. Yes, you. Go sit in the corner.


Variety is the spice of life.

There are lots of reasons to have weak, throwaway enemies. Not ALL enemies should be like this, probably. But having some variety in the level of difficulty in your enemies is a good thing. And again, one of the reasons is pacing.

The player might not want to have to undergo a hellish trial worthy of being chronicled by Alighieri every time they go into a battle. Sometimes they just want to drop one of their strongest area spells on an enemy group and watch them all drop dead. Or maybe they don’t want to spend five minutes jackhammering the attack key while waiting for the battle to be over. Sometimes they want to be Rambo and just blow everything away. It is okay to let them do this sometimes.

There is a psychological effect behind this, too. If every single enemy in the game advances at the same rate of strength as the player, the player won’t notice much difference in encounters from one area to the next. The player won’t feel like they’re making progress. This can be frustrating. Varying up your encounters can not only break up monotony but give a greater sense of progress as the player occasionally runs into an enemy they can annihilate easily instead of all enemies being of equivalent strength and challenge. There are lots of ways to spread out and pace your encounters. Each area might have a pack of really weak enemies that can be dispatched without effort. There might be groups of enemies designed to be a moderate challenge. There might be a single enemy who is quite powerful. Clever designers can mix and match these creatures to create more interesting encounters.

There is plenty to be gained from varying the difficulty of your encounters, both for the sanity of your players, and for story purposes. Let’s go back to Heroy for a minute. Let’s say Heroy was raised in a remote mountain village where he acquired a reputation for being a badass. This reputation was enough that the king wanted to hire Heroy for some task that starts the plot.

Heroy sets out for the castle, fighting monsters on the way. If these monsters are designed to give Heroy a hard time, I’m going to wonder what it is that makes Heroy so badass. Why is he strong enough get the king’s attention? He’s having trouble fighting rats! If Heroy dispatches the enemies around his starting home village with ease, it makes him seem much more competent. He has already mastered this area’s wildlife and it will feel justified as he moves out into the world and challenges greater threats. There is plenty of time for you to ramp up your difficulty. Don’t feel like you have to balance every encounter be a hassle just because. Do you have a reason for why you want to make everything so hard?

So, where DO you put the hard stuff? The dungeons are the places to put your challenging, thoughtful encounters. And not the first tutorial dungeon, either. That place should be easy, to give the player a sense of mastery for clearing it. If they walk out of the tutorial dungeon beaten to all hell, they’ll feel like they don’t know what they’re doing.

Once the player has played enough of the game to get a sense of how to play, what techniques work, what items are useful, once they’ve had a chance to get their equipment in order, to figure out their party’s strengths and weaknesses, that is when you can start populating your dungeons with your fiendish encounters. The player will walk into a dungeon expecting enemies and bosses, so you can feel free to bring the noise. The player will appreciate that you gave them the opportunity to figure things out before manhandling them, and they’ll approach these new challenges with confidence. Don’t manhandle your player right out of the gate. Nothing is more likely to make someone give up on your gate then a game over in the first twenty minutes.

Don’t waste my time.

This is the golden rule. This is the maxim. You should really, definitely think about this part. Yes, even you.

Don’t waste your player’s time. Twenty years of grind-heavy, repetitive RPGs and MMOs have made it acceptable for games to waste your time. I don’t want to waste my time. Your game shouldn’t make me waste my time.

Every time you make any decision in your game, whether it’s adding a battle or a puzzle or making the player backtrack or anything like that, ask yourself this: Is this adding something to the game or am I just wasting the player’s time? If the answer is the latter, you should probably adjust the sequence. Your game, and its pacing and flow, will be better as a result.

But that’s not all! All kinds of stupid ideas designed only to waste the player’s time have been floating around the game development hivemind in the guise of “stylistic choices.” Here’s a list of some of them and why they’re terrible and you’re terrible if you use them. (And you are.)

1. Slow text speed.

I honestly can’t fathom why anyone ever thought this was a good idea. Somewhere along the line, it even became acceptable artificially insert pauses into your dialogue to draw it out.

Some of us can read fast. You are punishing us for being able to read fast. If you want to break up your dialogue, be willing to go the extra mile and break it up with something besides vacant pauses. Even little things like having the characters move around while talking can make a huge difference!

2. Slow walk speed.

This is a big one. People love to throw around slow walking speeds as some kind of legitimate gameplay mechanism as though it can enhance the game’s setting, mood, tone, or atmosphere. “They need to be walking slow here, so they can appreciate all the work I put into building these maps!” No, if I feel like I want to appreciate your rigorous tileset/light map endeavors, I am free to take my own time through the map if I wish. You forcing me to do so is putting your priorities over the player’s. You could get away with a really slow walking speed if the maps are small and well-constructed enough that I won’t notice (some games have done this!) but if I ever have huge amounts of empty space to traverse you can bet this is the first thing people will notice and complain about.

“But Solitayre, slow walk speed is a legitimate tool that I should be allowed to use for certain purposes! You’re dumb and stupid!”

You’re right. When used properly, slow walk speed CAN be used as a narrative tool. But probably not for the reasons you think it is. The primary use for slow walk speed would be for the purposes of building tension during a certain scene. The heroine is alone in a dark room, and there’s a killer! Slow walk speed would be an excellent choice to increase suspense in this situation. But using it always, on every map, all the time, is not only annoying, it makes the legitimate usages of this technique ineffective.

3. Pointless backtracking.

This is another common way to pad play time, by making the player traverse the same few locales over and over again. If you’re going to make the player backtrack, at least add something novel for the player to do en-route. Are there any new events along the way? Have the player’s abilities allowed for opening new passages or revealing new treasures? Are there any shortcuts that can be opened now? Backtracking is an opportunity for you to toy with the player’s expectations! Just forcing the player to pointlessly replay sections of your game is just boring.

4. Random chance.

This convention has been around pretty much as long as role-playing games have. It’s often an easy way to pad play time. MMOs are full of this. Collect 20 “whatevers” to complete this quest. This item is only dropped by the “whatever man” which has only a 1/20 chance of appearing in a certain area. Also, the “whatever man” only has a 30% chance of dropping the “whatever!” Voila, you’ve instantly wasted three hours of the player’s time. Each time they find one of those vaunted “whatevers” they feel like they’re making progress! But they’re not. You’ve just tricked them into thinking they have. You monster.

This happens in single player games too. Any time you have an xty percent chance to succeed at a given task, whether making a potion, disabling a trap, or opening a lock, you’re really just saying “There’s a chance that doing this was a waste of your time.” This is especially true if failing a task forces them to fight a battle or complete some other task for failing what was essentially a dice roll.

“But SOLITAYRE!”

You again? What now?

“Random chance has been a staple of RPGs for twenty years. It’s dumb and weird that you would think this is bad!”

People used to think slavery was a good idea. Then they realized it was terrible and wrong, and stopped doing it. People are capable of realizing that an idea they thought had merit is actually stupid, and moving past it. This is called “progress.” Saying that something should remain the same because it has always been that way is basically the worst way you could ever frame an argument, because you aren’t appealing to logic or reason. You’re just appealing to the status quo.

I’m not saying that if you like random chance, you support slavery, but I’m not sure how you can sleep at night.


You cannot get there from here.

Ever been wandering around in a game not really knowing what you’re supposed to be doing? There are two things that might have happened here.

1. The designer did a bad job of telling you where you were supposed to go.
2. The designer thought making you wander around and figure out what to do on your own was a good idea.

But it’s not!

It’s your job to tell the player where to go to get to the next part of your epic plot! If the player makes an honest effort but can’t figure it out, that’s not their fault, it’s yours. Let your player know where they’re supposed to go or what they’re supposed to do, or who they have to kill/talk to/both. Any time the player is wandering around bored and not knowing what they’re supposed to do is bad, and you should do everything reasonable to minimize this.

Honestly, I see a lot of developers who seem to expect the onus of understanding their game to be on the player, and any problems they have are because they didn’t understand the author’s intentions. But it isn’t the player’s job to decipher your ideas. It’s your job to make your intentions and ideas clear to the player. If they can’t figure it out, they’re probably not going to like your game, and you won’t have anyone to blame but yourself!

There are lots of reasons someone may or may not like your game. But chances are you are going to think it is your mechanics or your writing that will make or break your game. Pacing might be something that never even crosses your mind. I hope that now, you realize what an important and essential tool this is in your game design arsenal.

Go forth and wield this tool for justice.

Posts

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author=Darken
you earlier made a post saying you couldn't see why anyone would like YM


Which I did NOT conclude with a "oh well, it's just that whoever likes it is some kind of 'lower common denominator'." statement.

The only feeling I wanted to express was my confusion since I didn't find anything enjoyable at all in a game that is praised by pretty much everybody.
Where was the lower common denominator statement made? All I see was a quote saying Dark Souls is not for everyone, kind of like how you said YM is apparently for everyone but not for you. There's no elitism between the two comments.

dammit, why do I keep getting notifications for posts on this article??

kentona, save meeeee...
author=Darken
Where was the lower common denominator statement made? All I see was a quote saying Dark Souls is not for everyone, kind of like how you said YM is apparently for everyone but not for you. There's no elitism between the two comments.

I read the Dark Soul description as "This game is for the TRUE GAMERS who don't need everything explained! The others don't deserve it!". Or at least as pandering to those who think like that.
But I'm probably biased against those kind of things, so it's entirely possible he didn't mean it.

@Sauce: You cannot run away.
Max McGee
with sorrow down past the fence
9219
Cozzer, I think you may very well just have fully and completely misunderstood what I meant by Lowest Common Denominator.
I support difficult enemies. I support high encounters. However, I do not support heavy grind. Level 1-15 should be hard to achieve because the starting enemies WILL kill you if you do not learn the strategy, but the idea of requiring a character to fight 100+ enemies to gain five levels is completely wrong. In fact, I would venture to say that if less than 50 creatures provide 15 levels, you're probably okay.

Also, I believe experience gains should be micromanaged to prevent camping on low-level creatures. Make a common event to award semi-randomized exp based on the total number of creatures, and an estimated creature party level. As the character's average level begins to overshoot the creature's reduce exp appropriately (you do this by awarding exp outside the battle for battle victory, and shutting off exp for death or fleeing). There should be at some point where now and then, you find you are killing creatures with single hits. It happens.

Now, here's the tricky and/or annoying part. You character may have found or stolen a rare weapon or armor that lets them wipe the floor with the party. You can literally drive yourself insane trying to adjust stats. So don't. Mix things up, and try to avoid homogenous creature parties. Some creatures should be magic weak, and some should physical weak. Some might have a specific element weakness, and some might almost behave like a puzzle. Don't be afraid of the occasional hard creature that turned out easy for another player. The same dungeon may be absurdly easy despite your best efforts.

In simple terms, the A & B scenarios are really just part of the same scenario. Short of deliberately dumbing down creatures, rather than seeing it as your (the author's) narrative of the story, the point of encounters is actually the PLAYER'S narrative.

Let me explain. Anyone seen Naruto? We have Rock Lee, the no-talent character who succeeds by repeated training (grind). We have Sasuke, the natural talent broad-based character who uses a mix of physical and magic, and basically owns everything (this is a player who understands the value of a mixed party). We have Shikamaru and Sakura (straight up magic strategist types), and then we have Naruto (he's described originally as almost a hack-and-slash type, but he mixes in the occasional surprise technique here and there).

If your game is well put together, it should resemble less of a gradual curve and more a stairstep pattern, where challenge suddenly rather than gradually ramps up. This keeps players surprised, and it also makes sure that overleveling isn't the catch-all approach. You need to make it playable to a strategist, and still difficult for the grinder (get rid of 0 damage at both ends, and introduce some bosses that play much easier if you understand the creature).
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