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Pacing a Strategy Narrative

July 4th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Akella, Design

“Pacing” is one of those words that critics use as sort of a catch-all to explain why a game doesn’t flow as well as it should. It can refer to stories or plots that climax too soon or too late, to mechanics that get in the way of whatever progress you are making in learning a game, to all kinds of things that interfere with that sense of enjoyment you get when you are lost in a game.

When we think of pacing in strategy games, we generally mean how well it spaces out tasks or shows you new things to move on. The whole “one more turn” thing is predicated on the idea that you have set up a game that has steadily delivered a feeling of accomplishment to the player and promises more of that feeling if the player is just willing to sit there till 2:00 AM making the trains run on time. Good pacing can be a slow burn (the Imperialism games) or a constant sensory assault (Age of Empires 3).

Pacing problems are more noticeable when games try to tell a story. Though the drama of kings and wars should make for a natural story-telling genre, the way that strategy games deliver the war machinery and diplomacy has proven generally ill-suited for story telling more elaborate than cut scenes in between mission assignments. When mechanics and narrative collide, the game usually wins in this genre.

I’m playing Disciples 3: Renaissance for review and it has major pacing issues. There is a lot of good stuff in the game, too, but the pacing prevents me from going back out of joy instead of out of obligation. Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.

One of the big problems for scenario design in story based campaigns is mission length. In a turn based game like Disciples 3, where you have to end turn and watch the enemy make its moves, all the while interrupted by tactical battles that can take a while to finish, the decision on how and where the player can best spend his/her time is a critical one. Completing one objective after two hours on a map only to find that there are now new objectives is a pacing problem for both game play (new objectives can mean that you have the wrong tools in your toolbox) and narrative (too long in one place means the story does not get told efficiently.)

Real time strategy games can have this problem, too. The first Supreme Commander game had maps that expanded and unveiled new things to deal with and each one made me groan in frustration.

But by and large, story based campaigns in RTSes are linked to the technologies available to you. So the missions grow in length and complexity at the rate you get new toys to play with. The default RTS mechanics of the story telling are generally in tune with good pacing.

This is a happy coincidence, since most of the problems with RTS story campaigns are related to repetitiveness or lack of good characters. Since they don’t have to worry about matching the mechanics to the tale, they can work on the puzzles of the mission scenarios. And maybe writing something interesting. (Someone. Please.)

So what is the sweet spot for a mission scenario’s length? Personally, any more than an hour and I get into some serious trouble staying interested, especially if I know that there are even more missions to come. Properly paced, an hour can seem like twenty minutes, but some games constantly remind you how long you are at something. (Turn counters are a good idea, but when I read Turn 50, my first instinct is to wonder how many more turns I have to play.) Disciples 3 is not well paced, so every hour feels like an hour. After a dozen plus hours in the game, I feel like I should be farther ahead than I am.


9 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol

    Last paragraph, did you mean to write Dominions 3?

  • James Allen

    I made the same Dom/Disc mistake a couple of days ago, just in reverse.

  • Troy

    Thanks for the edit, Scott.

  • steve

    Adding to the problems of pacing and length is that, particularly in strategy games, players play at completely different speeds. So we can design a mission that’s supposed to take 15 minutes, but some players will spend an hour or more with it.

    I wasn’t a fan of expanding maps in Supreme Commander, and managed to whine enough to have them largely removed from SupCom 2. Of course some fans complained that ops felt “less epic” without them, though I’m at a bit of a loss for what “epic” really means at this point. When we did have expansions, we made sure it was in an obvious direction, and that you wouldn’t suddenly have a new assault from a direction you’d previously left undefended. (Like you didn’t have binoculars or something, and didn’t see that enormous base to your south.)

  • Animesh

    When reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of the “Heroes of Might and Magic” games. I’ve long believed I’m playing these games wrong: the way I play them, there seems to be no pacing. I start a campaign, then sit here for a few hours just trying to get through th first scenario in the campaign! Of course, after that I give up and put the game in the “I’ll revisit it some day” pile. Is this a case where I’m playing the campaign wrong? Or is this in fact a case of bad pacing?

  • VRBones

    I’ve usually associated pacing as a term to describe good story (novel, movie, etc), and flow to relate to good gameplay, but both putting you into that in-the-moment, time-irrelevant state of mind. Would you use pacing and flow interchangeably?

    From my perspective I regularly enjoy good gameplay in strategy games, but never really succumbed to a storyline that was absorbing by itself. Then again, if push comes to shove I’d take gameplay over storyline any day.

  • JonathanStrange

    Do we judge “pacing” in reference to some “everyman” and his presumed style of play and the progress he would normally make? I seem to play in a conservative, step-by-step, extract as much for each setting before advancing way. Yet I’ve seen others; mostly on YouTube videos, who race through games that like the game would expire in ten minutes and they had no time to stop and destroy the roses.

    I usually assume Troy’s logical and methodical; if he says the pacing feels off, then maybe it is.

    But maybe he is. I dunno. We haven’t got the game YET!

  • LintMan

    I really loved the expanding missions in Supreme Commander, which is one of the things I really missed in SupCom2. While the details of the mission expansions are only “unexpected” on the first playthrough, I loved being able to try to anticipate what will happen next, and try to prepare for it.

    On the other hand, most RTS pacing drives me bonkers! I really hate the apparent law that seems to demand every RTS release its units and abilities for you to use in a slow trickle, one or two per mission, with the best ones saved for the final mission. Urgh! It’s so cliche and overdone at this point. And since I play SP only, I get screwed because it means I only get to use the coolest stuff for a tiny fraction of the game.

    They really, really need to find some other mechanisms to give a sense of progression – dynamic campaigns perhaps, or maybe RPG elements.

  • JonathanStrange

    Maybe if some of the early stuff was really cool in its own right?