Controlling Pacing Of Core Gameplay Mechanics in Multiplayer Games

By Filip Coulianos [01.04.11]

 A big part of being a level designer is working with pacing. It is one of the things they should be good at, to know about and to be accustomed with. However, in practice, the level design is completely dependent on core gameplay mechanics. This article has more of a reasoning character and will discuss how the core gameplay mechanics may affect the pacing curve in action multiplayer games and what influence the level designer has on the experience.

The approach I am taking in this article is to draw a basic pacing curve for a game in Deathmatch, Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead. I will look at how the core gameplay mechanics controls the pacing curve. I will also measure the games in what I call, in a lack of better words, "level of narrative". A game with weak narrative would be a game where the exciting things occur in a seemingly random pace. A game with strong narrative has peaks and shallows of excitement cleverly designed and measured to keep the players on the edge and stimulated throughout the game session.

I strongly advise that you play the aforementioned games to make it easier to follow the discussion in this article.

Case Study: Deathmatch (weak narrative)

A shot from Quake 3, one of the most prominent games with Deathmatch mode of all time.

Deathmatch is perhaps the oldest game mode ever in the history of multiplayer in the modern action genre introduced with Doom 1. The game mode Deathmatch isn't really game-specific as there are many games have more or less successfully shipped with it. There are no clear winning conditions for Deathmatch, instead all players single goal is to kill as many opponents they can for either a limited period of time, or until someone is first to reach a specific score. The levels generally have weapons and power-ups of different flavors present to control the flow and player movement in the level.

In Deathmatch, player kills a few times, and then she dies, gets the powerful rocket launcher, kills a few more players and so on. As the players spawn randomly and the rules of the game don't change, the pacing curve can be perceived as random:

A simplified hypothetical chart displaying a Deathmatch pacing curve. Y-axis shows excitement and the X-axis time in seconds.

Although the level designer has some control over pacing by adjusting map size and placement of weapons and power-ups, the pacing curve will still be perceived as random and will by default lack any narrative elements. Interestingly enough there are levels designed to contain some narrative elements to make the pacing curve more interesting. One of the most classic elements is perhaps that the level has a secure room with a red button inside. Pushing it will call a nuke, gas, flood or similar, that within 30 seconds kills everybody except for the players who are inside the bunkers. Although these "hacks" to the original gameplay appears to be very much appreciated by some of the Deathmatch players, it seems like the majority of Deathmatch players still prefer a more flat pacing curve and less narrative.

Case Study: Counter-Strike (medium narrative)

A shot from Counter-Strike: Source

Counter-Strike is a team based multiplayer shooter in which one team play as Terrorists and the other play as Counter Terrorists. It has, as of today, over 40 000 people playing at any given time and has been THE online shooter for PC for over 10 years, only to be surpassed by Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in popularity on the Steam network.

The game is round based and has two game modes. In the bomb scenario the terrorist's mission is to plant a bomb at either of two locations on the map while the counter-terrorists try to stop them. In the hostage scenario the terrorists has to defend hostages while the counter-terrorists has to escort them from the terrorists to the safe zone. If either Counter-Terrorists or Terrorists gets wiped out the opposing team will stand victorious.

The interesting thing about Counter-Strike is the four minute round game mechanic which simply ends the round and calls it a draw if a winning team hasn't been announced before then. This automatically forces the rounds pace to increase as it gets closer and closer to its climax; the final and decisive battle that concludes the round's winner, or the round ends with an anti-climax as the time runs out. This climax can however be broken as a dying player has to sit and wait until next round before playing.

A simplified hypothetical chart of a Counter-Strike pacing curve. Y-axis shows excitement and the X-axis time in minutes.

In the bomb scenarios, or "DE" levels, the planting of the bomb changes the rules of the game and a new winning condition for both teams are introduced. As the round continues everyone can hear the bomb tick faster and faster which in turn increases the pace of the game dramatically until the climax where either it explodes or gets diffused. This simple idea with the ticking bomb is extremely efficient and really puts the pressure on Counter-Terrorists to perform their outermost to stop the bomb from exploding, while the terrorists put switch tactics and lay up ambushes to prevent the Counter-terrorists from defusing the bomb.

The hostage scenarios, or "CS" levels, tend to be less popular than the bomb scenarios. The pacing curve here doesn't have quite the same dramatic change as the bomb scenarios have when the bomb is planted. This is because the ticking bomb feature isn't present. As this game mode is more about stealth the game doesn't announce that the Counter-Terrorists grabbed the hostage, which allows the Counter-Terrorists to sometimes sneak in and rescue the hostage without the terrorists realizing. Despite of the very clever tactics from the counter-terrorists side this cause a terrible anti-climax as the round ends without a dramatic buildup and a final decisive battle.

There isn't much the level designer can do to control the pacing of Counter-Strike. Instead the art of level design in Counter-Strike is more about on balancing and creating a solid ground for interesting encounters and tactics. Despite of this, level designers have come up with lots of wacky game modes that alter the narrative curve with varying success. "FY" is perhaps the most notable one in which the designers simply removed the secondary winning condition (rescue hostages or disarm bomb) and made the game all about killing the other team. This flattened the curve and weakened the narrative. None of these alterations has become more popular than the original game modes.

Case study: Left 4 Dead (strong narrative)

A shot from Left 4 Dead

Released in 2008, Left 4 Dead took everyone by storm as an extremely polished cooperatively played multiplayer title set in a modern era in which players plays as survivors in teams of four and has to survive waves of zombies (infected) while moving through a deserted city somewhere in the US in their search for rescue. In addition to the usual zombies there are "special infected" which can be described as "super zombies" with different unique abilities. The game comes with a number of campaigns which consists of five levels each. The game is linear, but the infected mobs are controlled by a game logic called the "director" to ensure that the gameplay experience is unique every time you play.

A typical Left 4 Dead campaign is split into five levels in which each ends with a big fight. The end of each campaign usually has an extra dramatic final battle right before the safe room. This works very well as the dramatic battles tend to put a lot of pressure on players thus creating a nice climax at the end the chapter. Each level is between 8 to 15 minutes in length.

A simplified hypothetical chart of a Left 4 Dead pacing curve. Y-axis shows excitement and the X-axis time in minutes.

So what can the level designer do to control the pacing in this cooperatively played title?

Valve introduced what they call "the director", which essentially is the game logic that controls the zombie attacks frequency as well as infected, and special infected, placements. According to Valve this system calculates the number of infected each attack and frequency on the attacks based upon the players accuracy, health and overall skill level. How well the director actually adapts to the players skill level has been discussed ever since the game came out, but it at least ensures a unique experience every time one plays the game.

In addition to the director the level designer has the ability to call on zombie waves as players run through triggers and where the zombie mobs should spawn, but in the end everything is up to the director. This is very interesting from a level designer's perspective as she no longer has full control of what should or shouldn't happen on a specific area of the map. Instead she has more of an overall control over the flow of events; where to create choke points, add meta challenges such as defend an area for a limited amount of time, et cetera.

The game also ships with a "versus mode" in which four survivors plays against four players playing as the special infected. The survivors mission here is to go as far as they can towards the safe zone while the players playing as the special infected can spawn wherever they want outside of the players sight and do everything they can to stop them. The levels are the very same as in the cooperative campaign. Once a round is over, either because of the infected team has killed all the survivors, or the survivors made it to the safe zone, a score is being calculated and compared between the teams. As Left 4 Dead was primarily designed with coop in mind this mode was more of an add-on to let the more competitive players pit themselves against each other and hasn't gotten any attention from professional gamers.


Even though the three game types have many similarities, they differ a lot when it comes to pacing in multiplayer. So what conclusion can we draw from the study of these three action games?

The pacing curve for Deathmatch is seemingly random and could be compared to many real-life competitive games such as soccer or basketball. This is because both teams are playing on equal conditions and have the very same goals. At any time the players could score, hence the randomness.

Because of the bomb and hostage scenarios, Counter-Strike has stronger narrative than the game mode Deathmatch. It is also far more competitive since it has very clear victory conditions and its round-based nature naturally creates a build-up and often a climax each round. It has also been the number one competitive game on e-sport events around the world for more years than any other game.

If one wants to have control over the pacing curve, the player's opposition and goals has to change over the course of the game. Left 4 Dead has so many rules that control the flow of the opposition that the pacing curve can almost be exactly what the designer wants it to be; this is true any other for coop experience as well. In addition to this, Left 4 Dead with its player versus player mode has definitely taken a step in the competitive direction (player versus player) but hasn't been picked up by any professional gamers. My question is: Can you make experiences with a strong narrative and still have them be strictly competitive?

Currently the trend for the big and heavy titles that are considered as strong competitors both on multiplayer and single player tend to separate multiplayer and single player and have them target different audiences with titles such as the Bad Company series, Call of Duty series and Medal of Honor.

But what about when you are making a game yourself and shipping both single player and multiplayer in the same box? How will the multiplayer pacing curve work together will the single player? Will they be similar, or are you focusing on different target audiences with the two? Should they perhaps even be sold separately? If your studio and Intellectual Property is strongly related with good narrative, a linear experience and a controlled pacing curve, then perhaps you shouldn't be adding Deathmatch (that has such weak narrative) just because people nowadays want multiplayer. Perhaps there are other games modes or scenarios that would work better? What would happen if one chooses a curve for multiplayer before designing the core gameplay mechanics? What sort of pacing curve could attract your target audience?

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