Sticking With It Part 2: Progress and Pace

The other week I talked about why it’s getting harder to complete games. You can read the last post if you want, but the basic idea is that gamers are changing, and some games aren’t changing with them. On the game player side, you have two crowds; older folks with lives, bills, families and jobs, all of which detract from game playing time. You also have younger folks that are used to more stimulation and multitask more often. So you’ve got old fogies with a limited amount of time, and youngsters with limited attention spans.

Older gamers often play in short bursts. They need to feel like they’re achieving something in their small play sessions. If all they have is an hour, and they spend that entire hour on one level or stuck inside one dungeon, they could get discouraged and drop the game in favor of something that moves a bit faster.

Younger players need bells, whistles, and pats on the back. Often called the trophy generation, youngsters these days need to be rewarded for just about everything—don’t get offended youngsters, we made you that way—so they need to see that green bar of progress fill up periodically. They also need variety. This is the same generation that can play a game on their iPhone, watch TV, play Xbox and do their homework all at the same time. Too much of the same thing can turn them off.

Obviously these are generalizations, and there are pockets of players within and in between these two groups that my simplified characterizations don’t apply to. I do believe that the two demographics above make up a large part of the core game playing market. So how can a developer make a game with mass appeal, one that satisfies the needs of both markets?

Progress and Pace

As gaming grows, I think game makers are finding that progress and pace are both incredibly important in the game design process. That’s not just from a narrative standpoint either—though every good story, no matter the medium, also has measured progress and a carefully crafted pace. Game developers should aim for the two P’s in every aspect of the design. From level layout, to narrative, to gameplay and ability rollouts—the more areas that concentrate on the two P’s, the better. Below are a few games that do a great job at keeping you hooked through progress and pace—none are perfect, but many of them contain elements that I’d love to see other games borrow.

Call of Duty
This one’s a no brainer. Love em or hate em, Call of Duty games (since Modern Warfare) have shaped this generation’s multiplayer shooter experience. The persistent progress in multiplayer is addicting. Just about every action—even running—results in an experience reward. Every mission ends with a big green bar that fills up, inching the player closer to more guns, perks, and customization options. The singleplayer games also do a decent job of constantly pushing you forward. The levels are short, linear and full of explosive action.

Uncharted 2
I feel like just about every hour of gameplay in this game is book ended by enjoyable short cutscenes that move the story forward. Every gun fight, platforming sequence and puzzle is set up and ended with a bit of context. In this way, the game effectively ushers you between scenarios without abrupt old-school “end of level, press A to continue” transitions. An hour with Uncharted gets you excellent gameplay and a small chunk of the story. You’re always making progress.

Portal 1 and Portal 2
Both Portal games serve as masterful examples of progress and pace. The puzzles are broken up by short load times and transitional story bits. The second game introduces new mechanics or abilities every handful of puzzles while sprinkling narrative chunks as you play. The levels and puzzles are tricky, but never too difficult. Each gameplay session leaves you feeling like you’ve made a good amount of progress and that you’re the smartest person in the world.

Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit
Pacing is extra important in racing games. You don’t want to be stuck on the same course with the same car doing the same type of event for too long. Hot Pursuit divvies out bonuses and new cars at a decent interval and their auto-log feature tracks the progress of you and your friends and always keeps it front and center. You’re always beating or getting beat by someone on your friends list, and you’re always making some sort of progress.

Is it possible to write about Darksiders without also mentioning Zelda? Not this time. I think the developers behind Darksiders took the Zelda formula, and then ironed out all the progress and pace kinks. New abilities are unlocked at precise intervals, and those abilities unlock new areas of the game. New areas bring new story bits and cutscenes. Darksiders is admittedly better at progress than pace (a couple of late game puzzles and some forced arena battles slow things down), but it’s still a great game that’s hard to put down.

Those are just five relatively new examples; there are tons of other well-paced and well-measured games out there. Got any examples of your own? Drop them in the comments here, or on the GameSpot blog.