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Single Player Level Design Pacing and Gameplay Beats - Part 2/3

Category: Level Design
August 20, 2015

The following is the second part of a 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. Make sure you start with the first part of the tutorial series.

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 is pacing and how to use it in your single player level designs
  • How to avoid player boredom in your levels
  • How different gameplay mechanics can be used to vary level pacing
  • How to increase gameplay difficulty as the player progresses through the game
  • How to increase AI player encounters as you raise the intensity and difficulty of gameplay
  • Difference of pacing between film vs games and how to use that to your advantage (stealth vs combat)

This article is the second instalment in a three-part article that looks at pacing and gameplay beats in level design, using 'Killzone Mercenary' as a working example.


Pacing refers to the tempo and rhythm of the level and how the gameplay events flow. The pacing of a single player level is extremely important, yet tricky to get right as games are so interactive.

Pacing can be broken down into specific key aspects, but here I refer to pacing as the overall intensity of a situation or encounter. The level's intensity is represented as a line graph, where periods of greater intensity are higher and periods of calm are lower lines.

A fundamental rule in games design is that repetition equals boredom, so it is the different experiences and contrasts in intensity that will create a satisfying and compelling experience. One of the most important things to remember about pacing is that the troughs (or lulls) are as important as the peaks (or spikes).

A boringly paced level; it's flat and not varied:

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This pacing is better, as the difficulty increases with the player's skill over time, although it's predictable as it's not varied:

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A beginner may think that making a whole level of constant high octane action is the best way to go, but this will quickly become dull if there are no breaks in the action. After a short while a player won't be able to appreciate the high octane action if it's all the same; it will just be the norm (as well as most likely becoming tiring). Well timed rests or breaks will make the action moments feel intense again when they start back up.

This pacing is better as it includes rest periods for contrast, although the combat sections are too repetitive as they are all the same:

click on image to view full size

It's equally important to alternate between the different mechanics in your game to provide as much variation as possible. A game such as 'Uncharted' is an excellent example of this where they have a large set of traversal mechanics, stealth encounters and puzzle sections as well as a comprehensive set of combat mechanics. Not only that, but all these can be layered together in order to create a greater variation of activity for the player to enjoy.

Games like Uncharted have a variety of differing mechanics, which is great for pacing as the levels don't become repetitive and predictable:

Planning on where to use the differing mechanics can give a fresh and varied experience during the play-through of your level. In Killzone Mercenary, although we didn't have such an extensive set of traversal mechanics  as we were primarily a combat focused game (we were limited to crouching, sliding, jumping, and climbing objects such as ladders or pipes), we still included many points of traversal, exploration and puzzle solving in order to keep the pacing varied.

It is also important that you raise the difficulty (and thus raise the intensity) as the level progresses. This is because if the player is not challenged they will quickly get bored. Sure, a player might find the game challenging to begin with, but once they've got to grips with it, if the game doesn't keep challenging them as their skill level increases, this will cause them to lose interest. On the flip side, if you increase difficulty too quickly the player will find it too hard and give up. Raising difficulty carefully is especially important in games as players are usually repeating the same core mechanics.  If the challenge isn't increased with the skill level then the player will just be repeating the same actions, which of course equals boredom.

When you are thinking about increasing the difficulty in combat don't just think about enemy quantity. The obvious answer is to keep adding an extra enemy into each encounter, gradually upping the challenge. However, this will become too obvious to the player and when the game becomes predictable it also becomes dull.

It is also important to try and add variation in the pacing in order to reduce the predictability of the pattern within the level.  It is sometimes necessary to throw a tougher encounter with a new enemy at a player to keep them on their toes, or to give longer lulls or easier fights in order for them to experience something different to what they are expecting.

Combat Pacing in 'Killzone Mercenary'

When we were designing the first level of Killzone Mercenary the only enemy types we could use were the assault trooper and the shotgun trooper. All the other variations of enemy were slowly introduced throughout the other levels in order to keep player interest and to challenge them in different manners. We therefore had to increase the intensity of the combat encounters with a limited pallet, so we considered how to adjust the pacing of the encounters in more ways than just adding enemies.

The first encounter (out of the six main encounters in this level) was the very first of the game, so not only did it use just the assault trooper class but the movement of the enemy was also restricted by the lack of flanking options within the environment. The troopers themselves were not waypoint/navmesh restricted in any way, so they would always deal with the player well and wouldn't risk looking awkward if the player did something unexpected. I kept their potential cover positions to a minimum so they weren't encouraged to move around (as a moving target is harder to hit), and gave them no flanking options. This made this first encounter the easiest of the level, and thus a lower intensity.

The second encounter was inside the main building, although this was still only using assault troopers. Here I made the environment a much bigger arena with plenty of cover positions and flanking routes. This allowed the troopers to move around to their full capability and the player was more challenged than before.

The third encounter introduced the shotgun trooper inside the courtroom on a different floor, mixed in with the assault troopers. This further challenged the player to adjust to two different styles of enemy to make sure they weren't feeling that each combat encounter was the same.

The next encounter had a higher spike of difficulty than expected from the unfolding pattern as we threw in a turret for the player to deal with, as well as the two enemy types. The encounter after this one though was made to be slightly easier than what they might have expected as we rewarded the player with being able to use the turret themselves this time around. Also, we had bigger plans for the last encounter which would be more difficult, so wanted to balance out the pacing.

The last encounter was firstly waves of only assault troopers, but then towards the end we introduced a new vehicle as a kind of end level boss; the tank. This required a different method for defeating it (using the demolition charges) and thus was a different experience to the normal shooting, as well as a highly intense ending.

The pacing line graph of the combat encounters in 'Halls of Justice', providing a varied and fun experience for the player:

click on image to view full size

Differences in Pacing Between Film and Games

Looking at pacing in TV and films is particularly useful, although a designer must be mindful that films and TV are a linear experience; their events will always unfold at exactly the same speed and moment every time. In a game, the player is in control of how quickly they progress through an environment and so a designer must consider this as well.

For example, imagine a situation where there are three enemies in an area with no backup enemies that could arrive. If a player chooses an all-out combat method, that will take a much shorter time with a smaller spike of intensity than if they were to take a stealth approach where they took their time and remained undetected.  This stealth approach could also have a longer period of intensity, not from combat but due to the tension of trying to stay unseen. If you wanted to make sure that this section of the level was always a similar tempo, regardless of what method the player chose, then a simple option here is to include a backup wave of reinforcement enemies for the combat route.

All 3-parts of this series are below:

Further Reading

Examining Game Pace: How Single-Player Levels Tick: A particularly good article that takes a closer look at the elements of pacing, using the 'All Ghillied Up' level from 'Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare' as an example.

A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster: A book about the principles that make fun games, and discusses that when players get more skilled at a game the difficulty must also rise in order to keep their attention.

Beyond Pacing - Games Aren't Hollywood: An article looking at different styles of pacing, such as television and film, and how they relate to games.

Pacing - How Games Keep Things Exciting by Extra Credits: Video about pacing, using example from 'Star Wars: A New Hope' and survival horror games.

Video: Designing a New Emotional Experience in Journey by Jenova Chen: The end of this talk is of particular use, looking at the pacing of the entire game, and focusing on the contrast of the emotion for the finale, where catharsis was the emotional change from death to rebirth.


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

Uncharted 4 A Thief's End is the property of Sony Computer Entertainment America LLC ©2007-2015. Created and developed by Naughty Dog, Inc


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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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