From Overwatch to Attack on Titan, I've been playing games with intense action. These games maintain my interest and keep the excitement coming by doing some smart things with their pace and design. We'll break it down in this video.
More often than not, we think of games in active terms. Examining games, it is tempted to ask, "What can I do?" and treat that as the most important question. Can I run? Can I jump? Can I swim? What spells do I have? Can I ride the chocobos? The language of a game is very much defined by what is or is not allowed. Examining what can or can't do, we are able to tell what sort of interactions the game values and, through this, get a clearer picture of what the game wants to say. What we do is so incredibly important that we often don't pay as much attention to what we don't do.
Playing games can be a long process, demanding a strong pace in order to retain interest. What dictates a strong pace? Well, I think it's the things we don't do. The moments in between action where we reset before the next big burst of excitement. These pauses, these breaks can be as short as a few seconds or significantly longer but the effect is the same. A confident pace is established by giving the player moments where they can think and take in the current experience.
Let's examine this in a few close cases. First, we'll consider melee combat in Nioh and The Witcher 3. Both games emphasise an approach where you let an enemy attack first and then respond. The pause between your attacks is often spent resetting position or taking a defensive posture. This divides combat into active and passive modes of interaction. The balance of these interactions creates a dynamic pace, drawing us into the moment and demanding our focus. The tension created by acting and waiting creates an engaging experience.
It is important to note that attacking is relatively quick in these games. You expend a few attacks before resetting. Far more time is spent waiting for the right moment to attack. Similarly, you are given tools to reset and remain in a passive state until you choose to press an advantage. In Nioh, these primarily comes from dodging. The Witcher 3 does this but also offers you tools to reset combat back to a basic state if you get overwhelmed. My preferred method is upgrading my shield spell so that it heals me and explodes. I recover health, knock back enemies and am free to reposition myself.
Moments where you reset are crucial to pace. They're like punctuation marks. I've just started playing Attack on Titan for the Playstation 4. The combat in that game can get particularly frantic but the game manages to avoid overwhelming the player by giving them the ability to leap back and focus on a new target at any given time. In fact, this is basically essential if you want to take down an enemy efficiently. If you note the ways in which I attack the big scary titans in this video, a pattern emerges. Attack a body part, reset and refocus, attack, reset. It's like a percussive chain, made all the more interesting for the moments when I am not attacking.
These limitations are sometimes imposed by games themselves. I love playing Tracer in Overwatch and her entire playstyle is predicated upon setting a tempo. You need to watch how often you teleport and recall. These abilities are tied to a cooldown period and while that exists largely for balancing purposes, it also forces a Tracer player into a certain pace.
Pacing extends beyond these micro moments however. Consider the pace of a Counterstrike match. Moment to moment play can be crazy but the initial pistol round exists largely to set a baseline pace for the broader match. In a game like Overwatch, respawn timers don't just manage the flow of teammates and opponents, they also set up times where you have to travel a distance back to the objective. There is a lull in the action before everything picks up again. That lull is crucial. It is the thing that makes pace possible.
Time spent between high action allows reflection and stresses the game world as a real place by giving us time to connect with it and ground ourselves within it before we do anything drastic. In those extended moments between monster hunting, The Witcher 3 is inviting me to see Temeria, Novigrad and the wide countrysides as extant places. It gives greater context to my behaviour and it comes during the large portions in between any real actions.
A strong pace draws you in and makes you focus. It binds you to a world and gives weight to your actions. Pace comes from limits. It's not what you do. It's what you're not doing.