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The Tortoise and the Hare

November 22, 2012

Dear Reader,

One thing I’ve been pondering a lot recently is the idea of pacing.  Pacing in one of the more subtle decisions that game designers make compared to, say, art, sound, or mechanics, but it is perhaps one of the most important.  As a tie-in with the community posts, it’s also one of the elements that many players disagree on.  For that reason, pacing in MMOs is incredibly important compared to single player games where players can decide on an individual level how quickly to proceed with content.  Still, I think it’s often overlooked, which has been incredibly detrimental in several recent MMOs.

At its more basic level, pacing is about how quickly challenges come at you.  The goal is for the challenge and pacing to exactly meet your top capabilities; when they do, you experience flow.  Flow is the feeling you get when you are “in the zone,” when you stop perceiving the outside world because the game has you totally and completely engaged.  We’ve all had those moments when we’ve blinked, looked at the clock, and been shocked; “Holy crap!  Is it that time already?”

This means that games can be too fast paced or too slow paced.  When they’re too fast paced, it often leads to players feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.  When they’re too slowly paced, it leads to players feeling bored.

The most likely candidates for games that are too fast paced include first person shooters and real time strategy games.  If you’re not of that age just yet, eventually you’ll find that while you completely understand the strategy behind a real time strategy game, you simply can’t operate fast enough to beat the computer on certain difficulty settings.  It’s not a coincidence that that you don’t find champion Starcraft 2 players over a certain age (in fact I believe the oldest is my age, 32).  Similarly, first person shooters can be too fast paced if enemies spawn too quickly for the player to handle them.  This, too, can be age related, since as I’ve gotten older I’ve had more and more trouble getting my crosshair precisely where I want it to retaliate.

On the other end of the spectrum are games that are too slowly paced for their audience.  This is most common in puzzle games and role playing games.  Since a majority of our conversations here revolve around MMOs, this is the more common of the two problems; in fact, the last three major MMOs that came out have all suffered somewhat from this.  In its most recent one-time event, many GW2 players complained about the pacing of the final battle.  I was there and agreed; some of the “reinforcement phases, ” players had to kill 100 veteran (elite) mobs.  It was painfully slow, so slow, in fact, that I got bored and went to do a jumping puzzle.  That took me some time, but the event was still going on, so I went afk for a few minutes.  When I got back the same phase was still going on.  It was far too slowly paced.

Many of the complaints about The Secret World were about pacing, as well.  The quests took too long, and the individual battles took too long.  There was also a difficulty issue there, where people complained about how hard the game was, but the pacing was a factor there; if you could plow through 2 or 3 monsters a minute, the game would have been better recevied because it would have been more fast paced and would have had to have been easier, too.

Star Wars, too, had pacing issues; I’m a lover of literature, of narratives, but even I got bored at times by some of the more drawn out narratives.  I like having story in a game, but sometimes the story can overwhelm the gameplay to the point of turning the player off.  I think this happened in Star Wars for a lot of people.

And that’s the fundamental problem with MMOs; people want the game to progress at different paces.  Some people love Star Wars for its narrative pacing.  Some people love The Secret World for the longer, more in-depth combats and quests.  Some people probably loved the grinding of the Ancient Karka’s reinforcement phases in GW2 this past weekend (though I haven’t heard of any).  In a single-player game, there’s often features to help fix the pacing – skipping cutscenes or easing the difficulty for better battle pacing.  In an MMO, things have to be kept relatively equal for everyone.

As a result, we sometimes see problems between the subcultures of WoW who value pacing differently.  Overall, a lot of the slower paced activities are actively looked down on by fast-paced players.  They equate pacing with skill, when in fact different skills are utilized by different pacings; more visceral skills, like reflexes and accuracy (aim or rotation accuracy), are often more fast-paced skills, whereas tactical strategy is often a slower-paced skill.  Both are important, perhaps equally so, but rarely do we see slow pacing player looking down on fast paced ones.

Most MMOs handle these different tastes by incorporating multiple activities for people of various paces.  The fastest paced people might prefer rated PvP or hard mode raidng.  Slightly less fast might prefer heroic dungeons, regular raids, or regular battlegrounds.  Less fast paced people might prefer crafting, achievement hunting, or questing (including dailies).  However, when you begin to force people to do differently-paced activities, like, for example, making hard-mode raiders do dailies or heroic dungeons to maximize their hard-mode potential, you run into problems.  People complain, are rude to one another, and generally chafe.

How can we solve this?  I’m not sure in a game like WoW we can, other than simply segregating the communities, which is the antithesis to community building.  However, due to WoW’s success, many other games try to build environments with tons and tons of differently paced activities and have been much less successful.  It may simply be that games need to focus on one spectrum of pacing or another and not try to please everyone.  I don’t think anything we can yet conceptualize will be as big as WoW was, which, as I’ve written before, was as much a fluke of timing and familiarity was it was design.  When we instead design games to niches, like GW2, TSW, SW:ToR,  DDO, AoC, LotRO, etc, they might not make as much money, but most are still successful and have a much more loyal and happy audience.  That should be the goal of designers, not breaking as big as WoW, but being profitable and pleasing, and I think focusing more on pacing can help that.

On a final, separate note, I’ll be taking off the rest of the week to celebrate Thanksgiving.  Thanks to everyone who makes this blog what it is: the readers, the commentators, and the many other bloggers who inspire me to write.

Thanks to Larisa, who mentored me early on to get me started.
Thanks to Kurn and Rohan, for introducing me to game blogging in the first place.
Thanks to Kamalia, Riorel, Rades, and Vidyala for taking the time to remind us to stop and smell the roses.  Seriously, each of you deserve great credit for your creativity in various forms, be they transmog, postcards, lore, or visual arts.
Thanks to Windsoar, Issy, Syl, and Ophelie for being so supportive of me since early on.
Thanks to Navi for bringing pet battles to my attention – I got a rare Spawn of Onyxia on my first try, btw (:  Also remind me to buy you a new lunchbox.
Thanks to Apple Cider Mage for revealing a different lens through which to think about games.
Thanks to Bravetank for being brave – seriously – for writing about what it was like to play through her eyes.
Thanks to Hugh, Rebecca, Johnnie, and Ross at MMOMeltingPot, for working to bring the community together.
Thanks to Tobold for being a model of consistent updating – that’s seriously something I sometimes struggle with, but I know if he’s come up with stuff for 4000 posts, I can figure out something to write about.
Thanks to BBB for sharing his son’s experiences with WoW for a completely different perspective on things.
Thanks to Doone, Rimecat, Shintar, Mhorgrim, Krel, Kaleedity, Balkoth, and Coreus for always driving the conversation forward with interesting and engaging discussion.

I’m terrified with this list because I’m sure there’s people I’d like to thank that just aren’t occurring to me right at this second.  To all of you who richly deserve thanks that I’ve forgotten, thank you for forgiving me for having a bad memory!

Sincerely,

Stubborn (and thankful)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2012 6:42 am

    I agree that pace is important and that a overly ‘slow’ gameplay pace can lead to player boredom – I’ve read plenty of posts along the lines of “I’m so bored with MMO combat” of late.

    But I’d say that I see there being two interlinked elements here: pace of gameplay and pace of progression which are not always linked.

    SWTOR is a good illustration of this, the leveling pace was super fast by older MMO standards catapulting players into an (arguably) inadequate endgame far too quickly for Bioware to react. But the gameplay for the most part was not so fast paced – combat was standard tab-target and hotbar affair. Sure you could deliberately overpull to tax yourself or go do raiding to have some more frantic moments. But the general PVE questing was pretty relaxed if you geared up and didn’t go specifically looking for trouble.

    Guild Wars 2 generally feels like a faster pace of gameplay to me personally since it’s more action oriented with the active dodging. Fights can be very intense if you’re in a big event. But this is still a very rapid pace of progression game and there have been complaints about this. For a complete contrast a game like LoTRO has a very slow pace of gameplay and progression at least compared to more modern games.

    My point is, as you stated already, that building community isn’t easy given the different preferred playstyles of different players. I would only add that pace has more than one facet both (or maybe all?) of which can reflect different preferences in playstyle.

  2. November 22, 2012 10:24 am

    Thank you for that…that’s really lovely & very much appreciated. In return I’d like to thank you for your wonderful insights & the wisdom you bring to the community.

  3. November 22, 2012 11:59 am

    Thanks so much for the nice words. :>

  4. November 22, 2012 2:36 pm

    Always a pleasure to read you :) our similar professional backgrounds (and therefore often similar situations to end up in!) have made me chuckle or smile in self-irony on many occasions. enjoy your weekend, buddy!

  5. November 23, 2012 4:58 pm

    Aw, shucks.

    And yes, I think throwing people from different communities together with contrary goals causes a lot of chafing.

    That said, I think there’s still “good” ol’fashioned jerks out there, but a lot less than people think.

  6. November 24, 2012 6:16 am

    But don’t you thnk that faster combat when fightng your standardquest mobslead to questing being nothing more than a shopping-list? after all there is nothing really threatning or challenging you and as such at least I get bored and do prefer longer individual fights à la TBC, As for games being too fast paced let us not forget that the success of WoW was built on its previous incarnations which arguably where very slow paced indeed.
    Yes onemight get bored if one tries to rush through a slow paced game but if it forces you to play it slowly and actively discourages rushing most people will “bend like the reed” and I think enjoy the game more. After all that what most people look in MMOs (and games in general) according to me; a game with longevity.

    • November 24, 2012 11:54 am

      Oh, I completely agree; I enjoyed the pacing of combats in The Secret World, which needed a little more patience and timing. I was just describing what a lot of people complained about. I finished the Secret World, which is becoming less and less frequent for me (finishing a game). I just refuse to play things I don’t like any more, so for me to finish a huge MMO means I must have really enjoyed it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. whatever permalink
    November 25, 2012 10:27 am


    Star Wars, too, had pacing issues; I’m a lover of literature, of narratives, but even I got bored at times by some of the more drawn out narratives. I like having story in a game, but sometimes the story can overwhelm the gameplay to the point of turning the player off. I think this happened in Star Wars for a lot of people.

    EVERY FRIGGING QUEST is a narrative. And most require a moral choice!

    Can’t we just have Zed the groundskeeper who hates the mutant beavers who have taken over the river and wants you to kill the (presumably evil) beavers? Really, when the actual enemy faction shows up it’s a relief! Cause you get soldier quests where the soldiers have clear, simple goals and the frigging conversation choices are way less annoying! Blow up the enemies big guns! YEAH!

  8. whatever permalink
    November 25, 2012 10:35 am


    SWTOR is a good illustration of this, the leveling pace was super fast by older MMO standards catapulting players into an (arguably) inadequate endgame far too quickly for Bioware to react. But the gameplay for the most part was not so fast paced – combat was standard tab-target and hotbar affair. Sure you could deliberately overpull to tax yourself or go do raiding to have some more frantic moments. But the general PVE questing was pretty relaxed if you geared up and didn’t go specifically looking for trouble.

    Difficulty was low. Very low. As in never die unless you jump off a cliff low. And I was doing above level content for the first time and still not dying until I pushed things really hard while my companion was off selling trash and I was tired and still barely died. Once. Only combat death on a level 19 character not boosted by account or shop. At that point I was doing stupid stuff to see how far I could push it before I died.

    • November 29, 2012 4:49 pm

      Yes, the lack of difficulty of many of the modern MMOs is a startling difference from the old ones. The term “loot pinata” is becoming more and more appropo at the low and normal ends of PvE. I think, too, this leads to a lot of disillusionment in players of all calibers; it’s hard to fool yourself that you’re accomplishing something “meaningful” when it comes so easily.

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. November 26, 2012 11:22 am

    Well, here’s the king of late replies but in my defense I went internet-silent when I left work on Wednesday and just concentrated on being for a few days. It’s remarkably cleansing.

    Thank you for raising interesting enough points to engage those of us out in the readership.

    Pacing is another one of those topics. Did you ever see Cranius’ Darrowshire homage? Can you imagine any MMO using that story structure now? Subquests on multiple continents. Lot’s of running and finding, leading to a fairly epic end. It felt meaningful at the time, at least to me but I also liked the Alliance quest chains to expose Lady Prestor.

    • November 29, 2012 4:52 pm

      I haven’t seen it, no. I’ll go look for it when I get home tonight. I can see it, though, or the possibility for it, and I think that “convenience” pendulum is slowly starting to swing back in that direction with games like The Secret World and DayZ. MMOs have gotten too easy and too convenient, and the loss of engagement, meaning, and immersion is the terrible result. Remember the Un’Goro Linken quest chain? That, too, led players all over the place – and the payoff was a lousy trinket at the end. Because that wasn’t REALLY the payout, was it? It was completing a pretty epic quest chain. We’ve lost that now in our convenience-store games in favor of faster travel, more bag space, and less waiting for dungeons. It’s one of many things we’ve lost.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  1. Easy Quests Make for Lazy Druids and Stop Nagging Me « Tome of the Ancient

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