Thoughts on Videogame Pacing

I was tweeted last week by a student working on a “Best Practices of Pacing in Action/Adventure Games” essay. He wanted my thoughts, and I am happy to oblige with this post in the form of a Q&A.

In exchange for me sharing my ideas, please comment here and share your ideas right back. Tell me your ideal videogame.

How does pacing affect the experience of a video game and why should developers spend a significant amount of time working on it? Why is it important?

OK, let me first put on my griping shoes and say that not all developers do spend a lot of time on pacing – at least, not consciously. I like the fact that you’ve taken its importance as the premise of this question, because it absolutely is important.

But pacing is like punctuation – if it’s working, you often don’t notice it. Sometimes, if pacing (or punctuation) is done in an unusual way… You might. And, as with my questionable ellipsis, you can see that being ‘interesting’ is often the wrong choice.

The importance of pacing isn’t limited to Action/Adventure. Valve’s Erik Johnson is quoted in Develop:

“A game like Half-Life 2 has similar kind of issues around pacing; when people had combat fatigue – after fighting on and on and on – we would try to break that up with other elements.

In Portal it’s trickier because you’re fighting their mental fatigue in the game.”


In other words, pacing isn’t about any particular experience within the game world – it’s about the player’s experience as a player. So puzzles have pacing just like combat does.

Pacing is important because gamers get tired, and gamers get bored. Monotony is a problem in any form of entertainment, but it’s particularly dangerous in an interactive medium. If you have a platforming section with tricky jumps, frequent deaths, and an annoying checkpoint, and the design forces the player down that path, you have turned the player from a willing participant in your game to an unwilling automaton, grinding through part of the level so he can escape.

It’s rare that we want to intentionally give players the emotional experience of grinding through something monotonous – so using pacing to figure out when to speed up the game interactions, slow them down, lower the adrenaline, or simply change the mode of play is important.

In short, good pacing helps keep players happy, playing the game, talking about the game, and buying the sequel.

Sound important?


Can you think of any games you’ve played (recently or a while back) which showed a great example of pacing being done right? Can you elaborate on your choice?

I would rather set this question as a request for comments below. Anyone want to offer some examples of this? In any genre, not just Action / Adventure.

There were actually a couple of Valve examples (God, I love Valve examples) in the above answer, but there are plenty more non-Valve examples. For instance – thoughts on the Uncharted series, anyone?


Are there any games you or your team worked on where you discussed why the flow/pacing of the game was executed the way it was? If so what conclusions did you draw from that?

Game flow comes up all the time, and every time, in multiplayer game design, such as the maps Certain Affinity produces for franchises like Halo and Call of Duty.

Is multiplayer game flow the same as ‘pacing’? I think that no, pacing is part of flow, but not the other way around.

For instance, FPS respawn time is all about pacing. How long do players have to wait before they can get back into the gameplay? Is this a punishment, or an opportunity? Is multiplayer pacing simply a necessary evil in order to enable good flow?

Public servers frequently have instant respawn turned on. I certainly understand the impulse to satisfy individual players, and not having to wait is satisfying for individuals, but it can be damaging to overall flow of a game between two teams. So you see how public server operators who think as players are opting to make solutions that work for individuals but can be damaging to the overall game design? This is exactly the sort of trade-off you have to consider as a developer.


In your opinion, what do you feel are absolute ‘musts’ for a game’s pacing? What is essential?

Pacing must be considered. Pacing must be applicable to the gameplay. Pacing must be considered from the player’s perspective first, but never forgetting the overarching game design. Pacing must be thought of as a whole, not as any single moment. And here is your quote from me:

Failure to think holistically leads the studios who constantly say ‘Make it bigger! Make it more awesome!’ to fail to produce good games. Games are experiences, and as such they must be nuanced, with highs and lows. An “all highs” approach might sound good in marketing materials, but it results in nausea. Don’t do it.


Do you feel that pacing in video games is something which will change in the future? If so do you feel that change will be radical or minimal?

This is another great question for the reader, since future predictions are notoriously unreliable and nothing I write here could come close to being authoritative. Having said that, my personal opinion is that augmented reality games using interfaces like the Oculus Rift and the Omni Treadmill will definitely result in a change of pace in action games and shooters.

Very few players want to run forever, when running means… well, actually running. I’ve been looking forward to this era since I was 10 years old and first started coming up with ideas for how my ideal gaming treadmill would work. Turns out I didn’t have to build one, it happened all on its own (well… with the help of wonderful people like Kickstarter, Virtuix, and Oculus).


So, I have two questions for the reader:

  • Can you think of games where you have loved the pacing of a moment, an area, or a game mechanic?
  • How do you think game pacing will change in future, and what will prompt that change?