Keeping Pace

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Image by csullens via Flickr

Christmas approaches, which, apparently, means two things. First, I’m – hopefully – about to get a lot of new games, which should last me well into 2012. Second, I’ve been on a new game diet of starvation proportions, to the point where I’ve done some shameful things.

How shameful? I’ve been playing the Everquest II Free to Play and the Warhammer Online Endless Trial.

Ok, honestly, whether this behavior is shameful or not is, of course, not the point (even though it is shameful, of course – these games are sad for a multitude of reasons that would take forever to get through). Instead, it led me to think about pacing.

Pacing? Yes, pacing. As in, the pace at which you progress through the game, where pace includes not only the speed, but also the magnitude of the encounters, among other factors. For example…

So you’ve just finished spending an inordinate amount of time customizing your character, and you appear in the game world for the first time. Ever. Conveniently, an NPC clearly designated as a quest giver stands before you (only to be obnoxiously obscured by a pop up tutorial window explaining the complexities of WASD character movement… sigh).

Your first quest is predictably straightforward – go kill some mundane number of very weak enemies. This quest leads you to another quest – or maybe multiple quests at the same time. And then these quests lead to more quests, eventually leading you to a larger quest hub, where you are given more quests…

And so it goes.

The problem is that there’s no real pacing. Each quest leads immediately to another quest, which leads immediately to another quest, which, of course, leads immediately to another quest. This structure gives no natural opportunity for the player to take an in-game break. Therefore, many players will opt for the out of game break instead.

I doubt this is what the designers had in mind.

It is incumbent on the game designers to craft a flow to the gameplay where players don’t feel inexorably pushed from one (rather meaningless) task to the next. The how of it is, of course, the crux of the matter. It’s not as though a quest can simply instruct the player to explore, or craft, or take screenshots for a while – at least not without perpetuating the cycle of failed pacing.

Interestingly, linear single player games might have an easier time with pacing than their more open ended brethren. Sure, in Skyrim you can go off an explore, sans direction, for a while. But if you’re like me, you’ll end up drawn back to a quest sooner rather than later, as I don’t want to somehow travel past the main story line through my exploration. I figure the game will send me to most of these locations eventually, anyway – when I’m supposed to be there.

Whereas in, say, Call of Duty, the game can intersperse fierce action sequences with relatively benign exploration periods. Especially considering that the linear level structure generally grants the player explicit knowledge of which direction advances the game, linear games definitely have a pacing advantage.

There may not be a definitive answer to the pacing issue faced by open world and massively multiplayer games. However, I’m confident that the deliberate step by step quest method is not the answer. I’m doubtful that the periodic overflowing quest hub is the answer, either.

My suggestion? Let’s backtrack a bit towards the (original!) Everquest method, to the MUD method, where a game drops the player into the world with a knife, a kind word, and a pat on the rear… and maybe an obscure directive that killing rats near the docks is a good way to prepare yourself for heroic adventures. As long as you’re patient. Very, very patient.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying let’s go all the way back. Just… a few steps in that direction. It certainly would be a refreshing change, at the least.

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