Pacing
Planning various activities and events for the player to experience during a level

What is pacing?

Pacing is the general order and rhythm of activities and events in a level.
Single player levels tend to require strong pacing. If players are confused about what is happening or what they can do in a level, then that may indicate a pacing problem.
An effective pacing plan should address:
  • Scope: What can the player do in each level?
  • Hierarchy: Which parts of the level are most important?
  • Causality: Why does the player do (this activity) before (that activity)?
  • Information: What do we tell the player and when?
  • Intensity: When should the player pay more attention, and when do they rest and recover?
fancy looking pacing / plotting chart used for Journey (2012) from "Designing Journey" talk at GDC 2013

Beats and variation

What happens in your levels? What are the various moments and places that define the experience?
A beat is a small self-contained chunk of a level. A single area, event, activity, or element.
We can liken these beats to musical beats in a song. When performed together, these beats form a melody and rhythm. They can be understood separately, but also as part of a whole. To make beats more interesting, music composers arrange beats in different ways to create variation:
  • pulse: establish a regular recurring pattern of beats, like a heartbeat; establish a meter
    • example: end every level with a distinctive exit door
  • accent / stress: emphasize or intensify certain beats
    • sometimes the exit is difficult to find / reach
  • rest: incorporate periods of weaker beats or silence, sensitize audience to accents again
    • sometimes the exit is easy to find / reach
  • motif: a short recurring sequence of beats
    • sometimes the player fights a boss before reaching the exit
  • variation: repeat a sequence of beats, but with different melody, rhythm, etc.
    • some levels have multiple exit doors
  • syncopation: go off-beat; the basis of modern pop music
    • halfway through a boss fight, another boss appears
    • sometimes a false exit door hides a monster
    • final boss destroys the exit door; now there is no escape
    • player gains the ability to create their own exit doors
stressing different beats in music theory (metric, rhythmic, syncopation, anticipation) from "Melody in Songwriting" by Jack Perricone

Set pieces

A set piece is an especially elaborate beat with a unique concept or memorable activity.
The practice of set pieces comes from film production, where big budget movie projects often commission big expensive scenes that require unique sets and complex planning -- an intense spectacle that the audience will remember.
For example, Hollywood blockbuster action films are essentially a series of set pieces -- big elaborate fights, chase sequences, or death defying stunts. The rest of the film exists primarily to connect these set pieces together in a semi-coherent way, and provide some rest for the audience between these intense set pieces. Blockbuster action games work much in the same way.
But set pieces don't necessarily have to be big explosive action sequences. Comedies feature hilariously embarrassing situations, romances might emphasize a first date or wedding, dramas may feature tear-jerking confessions or betrayals, murder mysteries end with a detective recounting the true events.
Any scene in a film or game that feels important, memorable, or expensive, is probably a set piece.
still from the memorable Lobby shootout set piece from the action film The Matrix (1999)
still from the memorable dance scene set piece from the film Pulp Fiction (1994)
In games, a set piece is usually:
  • Expensive, requiring many unique art and animation assets, and constant iteration. Not easily scoped down nor repurposed, so inherently risky to produce.
  • Unskippable, tied closely to the project's core pillars and main experience goals. Why spend so much time and money making something if the player might miss it and blame the game?
  • Heavily scripted and somewhat linear / on-rails, to ensure a reliable experience.
    • If the set piece can play out three different ways, then it is now the equivalent of three set pieces, and thus three times as expensive to make.
The level design for a set piece usually involves:
  • Boss fight, big puzzle, or choreography -- something with a lot of level scripting.
  • Arena typology, a large room to trap the player until they complete the encounter or cutscene.
  • Hero props, unique environment art assets to make the level feel particularly special.
In any given project, try to design and plan for at least one set piece. These sequences anchor the rest of the project. Ideally, this set piece should be something you are very excited about, something you can't wait for players to experience.
If you're dreading the work of building out a set piece, or worse, you don't want any players to actually play through it, then you probably shouldn't do it.
If you are learning a new toolset, then don't plan a huge epic set piece. If you're new to game development, then gauging the scope of a set piece may be difficult until you have more experience. Remember: the best set piece is the set piece that you actually have a chance of finishing and releasing.

"Pile of beats" approach

Combat-based projects and puzzle games can benefit greatly from designing many beats separately, and arranging them together later. The workflow looks like this:
  1. 1.
    Conceptualize, layout, and blockout one isolated battle / puzzle.
  2. 2.
    Playtest and iterate on the blockout, until it has proven either promising or a bad idea.
  3. 3.
    Repeat steps 1-2 until you have prototyped dozens of battles / puzzles.
  4. 4.
    Arrange the best beats based on common (or contrasting) elements.
The first person puzzle game Portal (2007) was prototyped as a series of disconnected puzzle chambers, and only congealed into a coherent campaign of levels after the designers selected their favorite puzzles. The puzzle element icons displayed on each test chamber's introductory placard are left over from this "pile of beats" process.
screenshot of test chamber sign in Portal 1, with icons showing the different elements present in this puzzle

Teach, test, twist

Teach, test, twist is a common 3-beat pattern in level design:
  • Teach: teach the player about a game activity
  • Test: test whether the player can repeat and recognize the activity, with prompting
    • later in Portal 1 chamber 10, the player must perform a deeper fling
  • Twist: twist the frame of the activity; with less prompting, can the player recall it?
    • in Portal 1 chamber 12, the player must fling from increasingly taller heights
    • in Portal 1 chamber 15, the player must "double-fling" in mid-air
    • then Portal 1 chamber 18 ends with an "infinite fling" challenge
    • note how these "twist" beats are spaced out, and aren't immediately after the test
"teach" and "test" beats in Test Chamber 10 of Portal 1, walkthrough let's play video

Critical path

Pacing design assumes that we can influence, predict, and constrain what the player can / will do in the game. The critical path is the core progression of beats that every player must experience to "complete" the game, whatever that means.
Critical paths can take a variety of forms:
  • For encounters, a critical path might be the ideal strategy to defeat a boss or enemy.
  • For puzzles, the critical path is the solution to the puzzle, or at least the most satisfying one.
  • For flow, the critical path is the ideal route every player must traverse to complete the level.
For more on critical paths as player movement, see Flow.

Plotting and documentation

There are several ways to outline and document the beats of a level:
  • Beat sheet, simple text list of beats
  • Flowchart, diagram of how beats connect to each other
  • Intensity plot, segmented bar graph of beats plotted against a player metric

Beat sheet

In film and TV screenwriting, a beat sheet is a list outlining the major scenes and plot points. We can do something similar for plotting beats in level design: write a list of major events, scenes, and levels.
Write the beat sheet on paper, in an online doc / spreadsheet, or as a project board with arrangeable cards. Then write ideas for set pieces, scenes, levels, boss fights, etc. as paragraphs / rows / notecards / post-its, and then rearrange these beats to form a coherent outline.
  • In a group, it's important to talk and think out loud, in-person or over a call
  • Some free online project board tools: Trello, Notion, Miro, Codecks
  • Ideally, use an IRL board / wall, so you won't need to worry about a browser tab
In the photo below of an internal planning pinboard used for The Last Of Us (2013), Naughty Dog designers rearranged different levels, story moments, and themes throughout the entire arc of the game. This "beat board" helped them plan out the pacing for the finished game, which differs greatly from the plan detailed here.
internal pinboard for planning The Last Of Us (2013) by Naughty Dog from V&A Videogames (2018)

Flowchart

A flowchart is a visual diagram of a process / program with lines, arrows, and branches. It visualizes the logic of the beats' connections. This is good for puzzle games or non-linear levels with multiple possible strategies and event chains. Use flowcharts when cause and effect matter a lot.
Sketch the flowchart on paper or a whiteboard, or use an online whiteboard / flowchart tool. We recommend Miro.
  • Keep the flowchart as simple as possible. Use few words and omit minor beats. If it feels like spaghetti, then it is too complicated and you should simplify it.
  • Try to make the flowchart "flow" in one direction, e.g. from top to bottom, left to right.
  • Shade boxes different colors based on the beat type.
  • Instead of one big flowchart, break it up into several smaller flowcharts.
flowchart design documentation for a stealth boss encounter in Dishonored, by Dana Nightingale

Graph

To plan pacing in more detail, sequence the level in terms of a player metric and visualize the plot as a graph.
For pacing the levels in Half-Life 2: Episode Two and Left 4 Dead, Valve designers sorted beats into four categories:
  • Explore, walk around and navigate the space. Often the start and end of a level.
  • Combat, fight enemies.
  • Choreo, some dialogue or choreographed scripted sequence. Used before or after combat, to help signal when combat begins or ends.
  • Puzzle, find an item stash, unlock a door. Used to space out combat sequences.
Because these are action-based shooters, these designers focused on intensity. On the horizontal X axis, they plotted time in minutes. On the vertical Y axis, they plotted intensity with a simple numerical scale from 0-100%, 0-5, or 0-10.
intensity graph for White Forest Inn encounter in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, GDC China 2014
But what does "4 out of 5 intensity" mean? The intensity score is just a gut feeling that emerges from knowing the game and observing playtests. It's not a hard science.
For each project, you must devise your own categories and metrics. How do you define "intensity"?
In Journey, intensity is not necessarily the same thing as game difficulty.
For example, the death of a beloved character might be a low difficulty cutscene with no player input, but it would still have a high emotional intensity. In this sense, intensity is better understood as suspense, the player's stake, or engagement in the game experience.
internal spreadsheet for Journey (2012) by thatgamecompany, from V&A Videogames (2018)... note multiple rows for different experience goals, and the intensity bars at the top

Pacing advice

Start slow and quiet.

Half-Life (1998) famously began with a mundane 6 minute tram ride. Begin your game or level with something low intensity, like an introductory cutscene or some low stakes exploration. It sets the mood and allows time for worldbuilding exposition. Even high action shooters like Doom or Quake begin with quiet rooms where players can test their controls and "warm up" before launching into combat.

Alternate highs and lows.

Players adjust to prolonged periods of high intensity. Any intense boss fight will feel like a slog after 10+ minutes. To keep it fresh, use occasional downtime as a contrast and palette cleanser, otherwise the player will simply go numb. Don't try to force the player to be "on" all the time.
After high-intensity boss fights, cutscenes and low-intensity areas feel like rewards. Or your core mechanics can encourage the player to rest and return to town, e.g. to sell loot, repair equipment, turn-in quests, etc.

Avoid maximum intensity final bosses / encounters.

Thatgamecompany read about Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey monomyth and liked it so much they called their game Journey. Other designers look to classical narrative theories like Three-Act Structure, Gustav Freytag's Five-Act Structure, and Aristotle's Poetics. These traditional narrative theories conclude with a falling action / "denouement" / defeat of the final villain that must feel like the inevitable result of the climax, or else it robs the climax of its impact. Some examples from games:
  • the final boss of Dark Souls has lots of health but a relatively simple combat style with obvious tells; it feels challenging, but it is far from the most difficult encounter in the game
  • the final puzzles in Portal 1 and 2 feature foreshadowed simplistic solutions, they are definitely not the most difficult puzzles in the game
  • the final level of Half-Life 2 features low stress overpowered unbalanced combat encounters while the main villain monologues about their inevitable defeat
diagram of a typical five act plot structure by StoryboardThat... the vertical axis is better understood as "suspense" rather than "intensity"
This is a useful way to think about pacing, but there are at least two problems with adapting classical narrative theories for level design:
  • These theories were originally about suspense / narrative stakes, which isn't truly analogous to the typical level design problem of pacing game difficulty / intensity. It also doesn't map very well to progression or learning curves, there is rarely any "falling action" to a player's accumulated resources or understanding of game systems.
  • These are classical narrative theories that many writers seek to avoid. Using these patterns can often feel rote or formulaic.

Multiplayer pacing

Pacing in competitive multiplayer games emerges more from the overall gameplay loop and game mode rules. In battle royale games like Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, Fortnite, or Apex Legends, the match becomes more exciting with the last few remaining players trapped in a very small area. But where exactly will these last few players fight it out, and when? Each match is different, we cannot script or plot how the match will play out.
For team-based games like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, or Overwatch, level designers must carefully pace the travel times between spawn areas and chokepoints. If a certain team has unfair access to a chokepoint, then the map can feel unbalanced. Here, pacing is more a direct function of the map flow, layout, and metrics.
much of the pacing in multiplayer maps like League of Legends (left) or de_dust2 (right) depends heavily on travel time, layout, and flow

Open world / nonlinear pacing

In open world games, the player can often take multiple possible routes toward an objective. Designing a single path is not useful because we are purposely trying to allow the player some freedom in making their own path and progression. But as with multiplayer pacing, open world games minimize scripted pacing, so layout and metrics are our main tools for planning how quickly the player will traverse the level.
For the open world stealth game Assassin's Creed, level designers built blockouts and then planned missions as a series of concentric circle overlays. Each stage / segment gets gradually smaller and denser as the player approaches their objective. As the player gradually solves their way through each layer of the enemy's defenses, each segment escalates the sense of challenge and danger.
open world mission diagram with safe observation area in green and high security objective area in red, for Assassin's Creed, by Phillippe Bergeron for GDC 2016: "Level Design Workshop: 360 Approach for Open World Mission Design"

Against pacing

As with any game design document, the usefulness of a pacing plan varies from project to project.
  • docs quickly go out-of-date and require maintenance
  • many projects are so big that one document can't capture the complexity anyway
    • big studios and teams maintain internal wikis; dozens / hundreds of design documents
  • you can't playtest a document; a design document never survives reality
Again, our advice here is to be pragmatic: an initial plan is important because it gets everyone on the same page with shared language. But once you're actually making the game, pay attention to the game you're making, instead of the imaginary game you planned.

To review...

Pacing is the ideal order and rhythm of activities / events in the level. A beat is an activity / event.
  • Single player levels usually have clear critical paths and big setpieces.
  • For encounter-heavy games with combat and puzzle systems, a pile of beats approach works well -- build a bunch of encounters and puzzles first, then arrange them after, maybe into a teach-test-twist pattern.
  • Multiplayer pacing emerges more from layout rather than authored events.
  • Open world / non-linear pacing needs a looser "zone" approach.
Pacing design documents may include:
  • Beat sheet: written outline, a list (or board) of beats
  • Flowchart: visual outline with arrows and logic
  • Graph: graph the beats based on a player metric, like "intensity"
Like any other design document, pacing docs can quickly become obsolete and irrelevant as the design evolves. You can either update the docs, or ignore the docs once they're no longer useful.

Further reading on pacing

  • A lot of industry theory about pacing / plotting comes from film and TV screenwriting, where Robert McKee's influential book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (1997) looms large. Critics argue that McKee's methods result in stale formulaic storytelling, but for better or worse, it's hard to deny his influence.
  • The narrative design field has spent much more time thinking about pacing than level designers. Anytime an author talks about "plot", they're talking about pacing, and you can relate their insights to level design.
Last modified 1mo ago