New Game+: The pacing in video games

April 18, 2010

Very rarely is this discussed, but sometimes when playing a game, the length of the game will be completely unnoticed by some players right up until the end. If you find yourself playing through a game, looking at your final time and realizing it only took you six hours to finish something that felt like a longer venture, then you may have just played a game with poor pacing.

Certainly, pacing in video games is something that has come up more and more recently with the release of much larger games. And I’m not saying they are large in terms of their length, I’m merely referring to their size and scope, and just how technologically advanced these games are. Many recent titles fit this description, and many of them have excellent pacing. 

Surely, this does not (and some will argue should not) be a factor in terms of games like RPGs. I disagree, and find that a lengthy RPG that feels a lot shorter than it may actually be is one that fits particularly well in this category. I believe Mass Effect 2 is a perfect example of how to pace an RPG right. You could be off doing random side missions, exploring planets, or trying to win the loyalty of one of your newly recruited squad mates, and just when you think it may get old, you are thrown back into the main story by a mandatory mission. This brings the player back into focus of the main mission at hand, and these constant reminders give us a good example of how to keep the player attentive during long stretches of mining or galaxy exploring. 

On the other hand, most games that have had excellent pacing have fallen into the action or shooter category. The two best examples of games that had perfect pacing are two big PS3 exclusives, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and God of War III. Both are games you find yourself constantly coming back to and most gamers can attest to finishing these games in one or two sittings. Sure, they are short adventures, but what makes them so memorable are just how properly paced they are. 

Using God of War III as a primary example, the opening moments of the game are epic and massive in scale. So many things are happening on screen at once, and you find yourself fighting a boss within the first fifteen minutes of gameplay. This moment, however, is not even an hour long, and the action is dialed down completely once you get through it. Some players find this to be a problem, that the entire game should be that way, but stuffing the entire game with just set piece moments like those is exactly what not to do. It would get old, and you would find yourself stopping the game more often than you would otherwise.

Developers have to find a perfect balance between huge action sequences and slower, more toned down moments to keep the played from getting too bored. If they fail to do this, they end up with an experience that lasts eight hours, but feels like eighteen. If paced correctly, you’ll have a game that feels like four hours but is actually eight or ten hours. This is not a bad thing, as it also lends to making a game that is highly replayable. Like watching your favorite action film again, playing through a game like Uncharted 2 is an experience that should never get old. 

Although not all genres lend to this style of pacing (generally it only works well in linearly structured games), it still can be applied to other games. If a game takes ten hours just for things to really get enjoyable, RPG or otherwise, then you are playing a game that feels much longer than it actually is. Final Fantasy XIII is the perfect example of a game that, to me, feels much longer than it should, and drags on way too long in the beginning.

It’s hard to strike that perfect balance of action packed sequences and slower, possibly story driven moments, but developers have managed to do it. Mass Effect 2 is an example of how developers can take from other genres to make an RPG that is perfectly paced, but also full of content and many, many hours of gameplay. I’m not saying the next Final Fantasy game should play like Mass Effect, but there is a lot to be learned from how certain developers pace their games so gamers will never grow tired of playing them. 

Although paying $60 for a game that is apparently only eight hours in length seems like a bad decision, if it is a game like God of War III, it will be well worth the money. Pacing not only adds to just how enjoyable a game is the first time around, but also makes it that much more fun for future replays; it is one of the most important parts of what makes a video game great.