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Single Player Level Design Pacing and Gameplay Beats - Part 1/3

Category: Level Design
August 18, 2015

The following is a very special 3-part tutorial series for single player level design. It is focused on pacing, gameplay beats and how to structure your level design narrative storytelling to a cohesive gameplay experience. All 3 tutorials were written and contributed to World of Level Design by Pete Ellis. I am very excited to finally share these tutorials with you from one of the industry's level designers.

All 3-parts of the series are linked below:

Following article was written and contributed by Pete Ellis, a level designer at Guerrilla Cambridge. Pete has worked on "Killzone: Shadow Fall" and "Killzone: Mercenary" games. He is currently working on "RIGS"; a competitive arena FPS title for PlayStation 4 which utilizes Morpheus VR headset. Visit Pete Ellis website and you can find Pete on Twitter.

In this tutorial you will learn:

  • What are gameplay beats and how to use them for level design storytelling
  • How to plan out your single-player level design story structure
  • How pacing and gameplay beats were used for single-player campaign in Killzone: Mercenary
  • How to use the three-act narrative structure from film in your level designs
  • How to pace your level designs
  • Ways to increase tension and intensity of your level
  • How to introduce boss fights and new gameplay mechanics
  • What are "hard-gate" sections
  • How to use gameplay beats to set up streaming options for optimizing frame rate and memory usage

Making a good plan for a single player level is extremely important. It is however, certainly at the beginning of your career, one of the most boring aspects. I remember when I first starting modding, and when I was studying at university, all I wanted to do was jump straight into the game editor or modelling package and start building! Planning was boring; it was the necessary steps you had to take to fulfill the course brief, a hoop you had to jump through.

It wasn't until I was a lot more experienced and had learnt more about design theory that I came to love the planning stage. No longer were my levels haphazardly thrown together in a jumble, but they became carefully sculpted experiences. How? It's all thanks to a well thought out level timeline.

Planning a level can have many differing methods and styles between developers, but I favour a visual level timeline. I will discuss how I create this using the opening level of 'Killzone Mercenary' as an example. I worked on many different levels as a designer at Guerrilla Cambridge but I took this first mission 'Halls of Justice' from initial concept through to completion, after working on it through the greybox phase with a friend and fellow designer Scott Sturrock.

Opening Level of Killzone Mercenary - 'Halls of Justice':

What does a timeline include?

The timeline can include as many aspects as you need, but ultimately the two most important things you should use it for is to plan the pacing and gameplay beats. The pacing can be represented as a line graph, or a bar graph if you'd prefer, but I find that it helps to keep it visual. This is how the level timeline turned out for 'Mission 1 - Halls of Justice' in 'Killzone Mercenary' (KZM):

click on image to view full size

The various colours and lines represent aspects such as the pacing and gameplay beats, as well as planned streaming opportunities using hard gates in this instance. The way to start creating your level timeline is to first plan out the gameplay beats, as these are the heart of the level and what is moving the narrative of the game along as a whole.

Gameplay Beats

The gameplay beats show the main events and activities that the player will undertake and how these are spaced out and timed in your level. This also covers the narrative beats; the storytelling within your level, as ideally they will be intertwined with gameplay.
We started out designing the levels of KZM in pairs, after which each designer took ownership of a level/s.

For Mission 1 we were given the main narrative and gameplay beats that the level had to include by the game director. These were, in order of importance:

  • Rescue Admiral Grey
  • Introduce a tank
  • Use a wingsuit flight sequence to show-off the power of the PS Vita

These were the main ingredients we were to use in the level, so we set about organizing them. To help plan the structure of the level, we looked at established structures of film.

Three-act structure

The 'three-act structure' is a narrative model that divides a film (or other media) into three parts; the setup, the confrontation and the resolution. This is a popular way of structuring many films, regardless of genre, as it is a tried and tested method for developing drama. It works well for setting out action films amongst others, so it worked well with KZM as it's an action game. Although it's generally used to plan out an entire experience, it also works on an individual level scale too.

The 'Three-Act Structure' narrative model:

The most important narrative moment in the first level is rescuing Admiral Grey; an admiral in the ISA army who had been captured by the game's antagonist, Colonel Kratek of the Helghast. As this was the objective of the mission, this event was placed at the end of Act 2 as the second plot point; to mark the turning point in the confrontation and to start the final resolution of extracting her.

The sequence of rescuing Admiral Grey was placed at the end of Act 2:

click on image to view full size

We could have placed it right at the end, marking the completion of the level, but the idea of the mission was to infiltrate a guarded building and then escape with the Admiral, so it made more sense to make the climax of the level be evacuating the target to safety. To add to this, the narrative was that Admiral Grey was going to be injured by Colonel Kratek prior to rescue, in order to portray him as an evil character that the player should feel negatively towards, and ultimately want to defeat by the end of the game. This meant that leaving with an injured Admiral would be a section of higher tension and intensity, and so this suited the pacing of a climactic end.

Admiral Grey is injured just before the player saves her, so the buddy character has to carry her out during the extraction. This removes him from helping during combat, which makes the difficulty of the encounters harder:

The second gameplay beat was to introduce the tank as an enemy vehicle that the player must defeat. The player could destroy the tank with the heaviest weapons, such as the rocket launcher, but these weren't going to be affordable until further in the game, and thus would only happen during replays or the challenge modes. We liked the idea of having to destroy the tank with the 'demolish-charge' item that was present in 'Killzone 2' and 'Killzone 3'. This would not only make the tank more unique than other enemies, but it would also mean the player would have to get close to it in order to destroy it. This would make it quite a tough fight, as it was armed with a turret and rockets, and so would turn it into a sort of mini-boss. As it was going to be the toughest part of the level it suited the ending climax best, as well as making it a sort of end-level-boss.

The tank 'end level boss':

To further support the tank being at the end, it fitted well with 'the gap'. This is a concept I learnt from a GDC 2010 talk given by the Naughty Dog game and creative directors, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, titled 'Creating the Active Cinematic Experience of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves'. This is 'the gap' between the player's expectation and the actual result, which creates a surprise for the player and a challenge both narratively and in gameplay.

In our level the player is leaving the Halls of Justice building with the buddy character carrying the injured Admiral. Instead of leaving the building when they reach the ground floor, a wave of enemies ambush the player and a tank arrives to stop the Admiral from escaping. This is the final challenge for the player, and one that isn't expected, thereby keeping the player's interest.

As we intended on destroying the tank with 'demolition-charges', this introduced a new gameplay beat to be included in our timeline. We needed to teach the D-charge mechanic earlier in the level so that players knew how to use it prior to facing the tank. This also had to be taught in isolation as it was a new mechanic for the player and any distraction (such as combat) would have hindered this learning.

As we didn't yet have a first plot point for the end of Act 1, placing the D-charge tutorial here was a good idea. We decided that this narrative beat would be that the player infiltrates the 'Halls of Justice' building successfully, but has to find out where exactly the Admiral is being kept by Colonel Kratek. The way to do this was to gain access to a security centre on one of the top floors and as this was going to be locked the only way to get inside was to blow the doors apart with the D-charge. This would then set up Act 2 for reaching the Admiral's location.

Placing the D-charge tutorial at the end of Act 1:

The sequence within the 'three-act structure' of learning D-charge mechanic and implementation:

click on image to view full size

The last gameplay beat we needed to include was the wingsuit flight that showed off the graphical fidelity of KZM and the power of the PS Vita. As this was a big 'wow' moment, graphically speaking, we decided it was best placed towards the start of the level.

Initially it was planned to be the dramatic opening to the level, but after further iteration this level was changed from being the second level, that it was originally planned to be, into the first. This meant that we also needed to include tutorialisation for the base mechanics (moving, aiming, shooting etc). As this was added fairly late into the development of the level, it made more sense to add an additional arena at the start of the level to include it.  It was felt that the wingsuit sequence would be a good ending to the initial tutorial and would accent that section nicely.

This also fitted well with a variation of the 'three-act structure' which includes a prologue before Act 1. Many action films, such as Indiana Jones or James Bond films, start with a high intensity sequence in order to start the film off with a bang and grasp the audience's attention and interest. The beginning tutorials were to start off straight into the action and the pay-off became the 'wow' moment of the wingsuit flight.

The wingsuit flight at the end of the 'prologue' in the variation of the three-act structure; this was a 'wow' moment for showing the graphical fidelity of KZM:

Streaming Opportunities

The level timeline was shaping up nicely, and we had the main gameplay beats mapped out in rough positions. As we brainstormed and planned the rest of the mission, we were able to fit extra elements into the timeline; the streaming opportunities.

It was important for us to plan these ahead of time in order to include streaming sections in an elegant way that fitted with the gameplay, rather than having to squeeze forced hard-gates into parts of the level that broke the flow. A hard-gate is a section which, once passed, the player can no longer get back to, allowing for it to be removed from the memory footprint.

The gameplay and narrative opportunities we identified as points where we could stream data in (for upcoming events) and out (for assets that were no longer needed) were these:

  • The wingsuit flight sequence
  • A rappel from the security centre floor to the floor the Admiral was held on
  • During the interrogation/rescue of Admiral Grey
  • A lift ride from the Admiral's floor, to the ground floor

The hard-gates placed into the level timeline that allowed for streaming opportunities:

click on image to view full size

These sections gave us opportunities for downtime that didn't feature any combat and were areas or situations that the player couldn't leave. The wingsuit flight and rappels, although both interactive, were animation paths, whereas the interrogation/rescue room and the lift ride were locked spaces. We knew the player would be in these sections long enough that we could slowly stream sections out and load new sections in, without having to compromise on the frame rate, or require freezing the game or loading screens.

All 3-parts of this series are below:

Further Reading

Creating the Active Cinematic Experience of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves GDC 2010 by Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann

Pacing and Gameplay Analysis In Theory And Practice: a good article that looks at the variety of activities between a successful game, 'Batman Arkham Asylum', and a game deemed unsuccessful pacing wise; 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

The 'Three-act' structure


Following article is copyright ©Peter Ellis 2015

Killzone™ Mercenary is the property of Sony Computer Entertainment ©2013.  Killzone is a trademark of Sony Entertainment Europe. Killzone: Mercenary is a trademark of Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC


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My name is AlexG. I am self-taught level designer, game environment artist and the creator of World of Level Design.com. I've learned everything I know from personal experimentation and decades of being around various online communities of fellow environment artist and level designers. On World of Level Design you will find tutorials to make you become the best level designer and game environment artist.

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