The Tortoise and the Hare
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!
Stubborn (and thankful)