Pacing is an infuriatingly intangible component of art. The concept refers to the feeling of progression of an artistic experience, like a novel, a movie, or a video game. Good pacing should reflect the intended mood of the piece, thus slow and fast pacing can each be effective or ineffective. For instance, comedic movies are fast paced because they try to maintain a sense of high energy which coincides with the effective pacing of most comedy, while the Lord of the Rings trilogy is slow-paced because the movies try to create a large sense of scale and distance as befits an epic. There are principles and data points which can enable an artist to create a piece with better or worse pacing, but due to the intangibility of pacing, they only vaguely contribute to whether or not the pacing in a product ultimate functions as intended. At the end of the day, whether or not video games in particular have a good sense of progression, is largely up to “game feel.”
The only artistic medium I can think of that faces the same issues in terms of length and pacing as video games is literature. While length variance is non-existent in paintings, and virtually all films are somewhere between 15 and 200 minutes, literature contains an enormous range in length, from 100 word children’s books to 500,000 word epics. Likewise, there are online flash games which can be completed in thirty seconds, and open world RPGs which can easily absorb over 200 hours in a single play through. And while theater and films are both designed to be watched in single stretches where pacing can be tightly controlled by the content creator, literature and video games have to contend with the challenge of pacing their products while the consumer can start and stop the experience at his own discretion.
The principles and heuristics which underlie pacing are also similar in literature and video games, but ultimately the issues are likely more complex in the latter than the former simply because there is more variance in the content and user input in video games than in literature.
I’m not an expert on writing novels by any means, but I can conceive of quite a few pacing factors involved in writing a long-form story. Typically readers consume the story in chunks of time likely ranging from 15 to 45 minutes (a guess off the top of my head based on pre-sleep reading time and commutes), and since people like to experience cohesive arcs during sessions, authors will tend to produce single or multiple story chapters which can be neatly read within this time limit. But of course determining how many words an individual can read in that chunk of time is quite difficult. The author has to take into account multiple variables including the reader’s speed (probably a function of education, age, and innate ability), the complexity of the writing, and various content factors (ex. descriptions are read more slowly than dialogue). Then these chapter chunks have to be organized within a larger novel, the length of which has a considerable impact on the overall tone of the novel (ie. quick read, immersive epic, tiresome tome, etc.), not to mention on whether or not any particular individual will finish the novel, or even buy it in the first place.
All of those literature factors can be applied to video games, but it is my conjecture that the factors would contain more variance and therefore be more complex within video games than literature. For instance, gamers also have typical game session lengths, but they tend to vary much more widely, and even more so by genre and gameplay type than book genre type. Of course I don’t have any data to prove this, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assert that the reading habits of the average pulp sci-fi novel fan isn’t that dissimilar to the habits of the average romance novel fan, at least not compared to the differences between the average FPS military shooter fan and the average grand strategy game fan. The content and manner of reading sci-fi and romance are simply more similar than the content and manner of playing an FPS and grand strategy game.
This level of complexity, combined with the fact that video games are a much younger medium than most others, and therefore has fewer historical data points, means that video game developers face a considerable challenge when determining game length and attempting to create a good sense of pacing for the players.
There isn’t much I can intelligently prescribe to video game developers about game pacing because it is too complex and subtle of a topic for me to wrap my mind around in an integrated manner. I could write down a few dozen random properties which affect game pacing, but I would rather describe a few particular games which I thought were particularly well paced, and why:
Final Fantasy X
I don’t have much experience with the Final Fantasy series, having only played X, XII, and the fifteen minutes of X-2 I could stomach, yet Final Fantasy X is one of my favorite games of all time, and a masterpiece of pacing.
FFX is an epic in the original sense of the word. It is a sprawling adventure with lots of characters that takes place across almost the entirety of a stunning world and concerns lots of big ideas about altruism (not positive ones), faith (ditto), and how societies are changed by disasters. Its plot is basically about a road trip through a world in which an outsider is introduced to all of the meaningful elements of a truly unique realm as he assists a team attempting to temporarily halt a chronic calamity.
As much as I love all of the individual elements of the story, what really sells it all is the sense of gradual progression. Every time the team arrives at a new area, they typically spend at least two or three hours exploring the locale before moving on. They meet people, learn their customs, usually deal with a local problem, and then commence on their journey. The game developers showed remarkable finesse by using this formula, yet maintaining a sense of overall continuity which prevents the game from feeling episodic. The locales and events are different enough, and the overarching story is strong enough that what could have been a series of disjointed adventures feels like a single, integrated journey.
All of the game’s pieces are collected in a perfectly sized package of about 30 to 40 hours. It’s a relatively story-dense game for a JRPG, yet it has enough gameplay intensive sections to avoid feeling overstuffed. As a result FFX feels long enough in terms of narrative, gameplay, and their synthesis, to qualify as an epic. Consider that the longest movie series (Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Wars, etc.) only clock in at 10-12 hours. Likewise, according to this analysis, only a handful of the longest popular novels can approach 30 hours of time-input for the average reader, with the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy taking only about 27 hours to read. FFX is not only longer and more immersive than most epic movie series or books, but it manages to be so while balancing an enormous story and interwoven gameplay with a remarkable level of skill.
If Final Fantasy X is a perfectly paced epic, then Supergiant’s Bastion and Transistor are the perfectly paced video game equivalents to short stories. At 4 to 5 hours apiece, the games are packed to the brim with immersive narrative elements, including the trademark omnipresent narrator. While such a length would be considered anemic for a classic $60 AAA title, 4 to 5 hours is just fine for a $20 indie game on Steam.
When I first played both games, I considered whether or not they would benefit from a longer reimagining of maybe 10-15 hours. As much as I love every part of the content (the characters, the story, the odd gameplay), neither Bastion nor Transistor would work in such a format. Both games are simply too busy. The artwork is so lush, the environments so detailed, the gameplay so nuanced (well, at least in Transistor’s case), the atmosphere so heavy, and the narrator so… constant, that I could easily see players becoming fatigued with it all after a few more hours of either game. Making a 15 hour Supergiant game would be like making a three-hour Guy Ritchie movie, or an hour-long It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode (the hour-long Christmas episode was one of the show’s worst).
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
There is no literature or film equivalent to the pacing challenges faced by a game like Skyrim. Its content is (de facto) endless. I tried looking up average play time statistics but found widely varying results, usually between 100 and 200 hours (I think mine was a little over 225 hours). Despite Skyrim’s enormous length, it would be a mistake to call it an epic a la Final Fantasy. Unlike FF, its gameplay is highly fragmented between two primary quest lines, hundreds of side quests, and a seemingly limitless assortment of potential minor tasks. These various gameplay elements don’t combine into a single integrated narrative, but rather present disparate elements within an enormous sandbox.
Finessed pacing within a sandbox is a near impossibility. There are too many uncontrollable factors, especially given the massive array of options always available to the player. Even trying to make quest lengths coincide with expected play session times is extremely difficult given how the game’s open ended nature encourages longer and more variable sessions.
Rather than focus on traditional narrative pacing, open world games like Skyrim, and especially MMOs like World of Warcraft, instead opt to give the player a steady drip of minor rewards which can be aptly described as “addictive.” This method of pacing isn’t quite unique to video games, some novels and tv shows replicate a similar strategy, but no other medium can make the rewards as satisfying as video games since only games tie the reward drip directly to player input.
Skyrim may not be an elegantly designed game, but you’d be hard pressed to find a Skyrim player who hasn’t experienced the “just ten more minutes” urge when he is right on the cusp of another in-game achievement. As a result, the 225 hours I poured into Skyrim felt remarkably brief for such a sprawling experience. I can’t say I remember every minute goal I pursued in Skyrim but I can say I enjoyed each one enough to play for just a little bit longer.