Theorycrafting – The Importance Of Pacing In Videogames

Pacing is one of the most important aspects of game design in my opinion and is one of the biggest challenges you will face when designing your game.

So you’ve solved a problem and you’ve decided how you’re going to motivate players to play your game but how can we engage them? I talked about engagement beforehand but In that video I mainly talked about the commonly used systems that many games use to build engagement. Now it’s time to get more in-depth and talk about pacing. Pacing is arguably the biggest factor that decides whether or not your game will be engaging. While it isn’t the only factor, pacing can make or break a game depending on how well it is implemented.

Now I have previously brought up the terms: real-time, synchronized time and turn based. These terms will be very important in this video as they are ultimately what will govern the style of pace you want for your game. The hard part comes with deciding how you want to pace your game as not all games have explored these terms and for good reason. A racing game could never work as a turn based or synchronized time based game because its core mechanism revolves around reaction time and dexterity which contradicts a turned based style of pacing.

Nevertheless, pacing is a science which has yet to be fully explored, much like many other aspects of game design. I can however point out fundamental flaws in games where the pacing and the nature of the game contradict one another. Real Time Strategy is essentially a flawed genre for this reason. While it is important to use time as a means of adding tension, a game that has too many things to manage will contradict its real-time pacing.

However, if we separate the nature and the pacing of Real Time Strategy, we can clearly see that real-time and strategy are not incompatible by nature, hence why it is not the genre, rather it is the games that are commonly labeled with the RTS genre that I have issues with. Real Time and Strategy could possibly work together but it would come at a cost. If you’re going to make a game work in real time, it needs to be adaptable to real time gameplay. Too much management can compromise a real time game and as such the inputs required to execute strategic choices need to be as straightforward as possible so that players can feel comfortable playing your game.

One could argue that Final Fantasy XIII is closer to that of a Real Time Strategy than a Turned Based Strategy and they wouldn’t be wrong. The ATB bar is very similar to that of a unit production timer that you would usually see in a traditional RTS. On the other hand I would argue that games like Grandia are closer to turn based, as the game pauses when you are about to enter a command.

Final Fantasy XIII’s biggest flaw was the fact that it was forced to implement an auto battle option in order for players to keep up with the pacing of the gameplay. As such, players would use that option over actually picking skills manually because of how its real-time influences the game’s rules, as auto battle is arguably the most efficient option due to the fact that picking skills manually forces them to navigate through menus which wastes valuable time.

In a turn based game, this would never be the case as the game pauses when you are navigating through the menu which makes sense as navigating menus is a meaningless activity that has absolutely no connection to the player’s strategic choice. As such, while Grandia may have an ATB gauge, the game works completely differently to Final Fantasy XIII as the decision-making process isn’t governed by real-time, Final Fantasy XIII’s is.

This is what greatly differentiates the two. You could argue that Final Fantasy XIII was received poorly for this reason, because it didn’t work. The question is, could it work?

Well that depends, are you willing to narrow down the number of choices in order to have a tighter level of control in your game to make up for it? The problem is, doing so could actually turn your game into an action game because even action games have some decision-making involved, it just isn’t as noticeable. There is a fine line between action and strategy that can be crossed if developers are not careful.

This is where games labeled as RTS are flawed, as the outcome is often influenced more by the number of actions per minute rather than the decision-making process. Take Warcraft 3’s four versus four for example. Due to the fact that large battles favor massing powerful units, certain units such as the Banshee become false choices as they are lesser units designed to support more powerful units. This makes the decision making process weaker. Most players will use Frost wyrms, fiends, chimeras, hippogryphs, siege engines, mortar teams and bats depending on their race.

Because Warcraft 3 suffers from a lot of balancing issues, the outcome of a 4V4 game is usually influenced by what races are on what team but if you were to play in an all undead mirror game, the team with the most combined action per minute wins. As such, Warcraft 3 is not a strategy game anymore, it is an action game.

Then we have synchronized time. Synchronized time is where time moves when the player inputs certain actions. In other words, the pacing of the game can vary from slow to fast depending on how quickly the player acts. While this might seem like a good thing at first, it’s important to remember that synchronized time changes the rules considerably from real-time and unlike turned based, it wouldn’t really work in a multiplayer game.

In addition to all this, it is important to note that certain genres just wouldn’t work well with synchronized time because it would contradict their very nature. Games like Mount And Blade, Valkyrie Profile 2, Mystery Dungeon and Superhot all use synchronized time in some shape or form.

Now that we’ve covered the basic pacing methods, it’s time to refine them. In order to do this we need to find an answer to a more complicated question, “how does the pacing of a game differ between two games which use the same style of pacing?”

Since this is a lot to take in, I’m going to aid you in the process of solving this issue and as such I have come up with a guideline, not a be all and end all… but a guideline on how to decide what style of pacing you want your game to be so that you can clearly understand what this process involves and how important it really is.

This guideline focuses on two aspects of a game which are polar opposites. In terms of racing games for example, supporting mechanisms make up these two opposite ends of the spectrum. One one hand you have games which focus on control and on the other hand you have games which focus on building up speed. I can safely say that all racing games need both mechanisms to function but one is usually going to outclass the other. This is where the decision-making process comes in.

Now the guideline suggests that games on either end of the spectrum are going to be niche… however for the sake of brevity, let’s say that this guideline is used to judge how good a game is. Lets say games on opposite sides of the spectrum are the best games in their genre.

Lets use first person shooters as an example. On one end of the spectrum you have games like Arma and Half Life. On the other end you have games like Quake and Painkiller.  Now that’s not to say that Arma and Half Life are the same because they’re very different but so are Painkiller and Quake. Each game has its own identity which separates it from the other. What these games share with one another is not the style of gameplay but rather the pacing of the game. In Half Life you spend a good portion of the game roaming the maps, hunting for ammunition and solving puzzles. In Arma you spend a lot of time positioning yourself in strategic positions as well as carefully aiming your weapon.

Quake and Painkiller on the other hand has you firing off bullets like there’s no tomorrow and you will be moving very quickly through levels, dodging bullets and other hazards like a god. Now there’s no secret that Painkiller was heavily inspired by Quake 2, you could even argue that it is Quake 3’s true single player campaign as its mechanics are very close to that of Quake 3’s. The level structure however is different. Painkiller is more linear, with large, open arenas to fight in, Quake is more contained and maze-like. Once thing is for certain though, both games are fast and will require a lot more reaction timing to master, Arma on the other hand requires more precision. While both games require a form of dexterity, it is merely the way in which players utilize their dexterity that differs and this completely changes not only the pacing but the entire nature of the gameplay experience as a whole.

As such you can clearly see how important pacing is, pacing can transform games. As a result, you have to be very careful with how you decide to pace your game. Does it fit in with your vision? This is the hardest question of them all because you might have the vision for the perfect game only for it to be ruined by poor pacing. As such you have yourself a dilemma. This is why pacing is so difficult because you don’t want to waste valuable resources trying to make a solid game only for it to fall apart because you realized that the pacing and the vision do not fit together. Then you have to re-think everything all over again and scrap the project.

To alleviate this issue. It might be important to pick the style of pacing first before you pick a vision, it sounds counter-intuitive but believe me, you won’t regret it. This will narrow down the scope of your vision drastically but this also helps you make a more calculated decision when it comes to designing your vision. Afterwards all you have to do is make sure the vision and your style of pacing work in tangent. In order to do so, you need to come up with creative mechanisms, ideally ones which kill two birds with one stone. Remember that the less mechanisms your game relies on, the less you will have to put in your game and the more simple and accessible your game will be. In addition, dealing with too many mechanisms can be costly and time is precious so it is very important to be creative with your ideas in order to hit that sweet spot.

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Grandia 3 Review

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So after years of waiting, we finally got Grandia 3 in the UK via Playstation Store. It was a hassle to access the US Playstation store but regardless, I have finally finished it and quite frankly I’m quite glad I got to experience this game, even if it is a bit rough around the edges. What do I mean by this? Well it is pretty much the opposite of everything that made Grandia 2 so great in the first place.

Allow me to elaborate. When this game was first released, people were in uproar about it, some consider it the death of the Grandia series, others just consider it to be a mediocre title which was nothing more than a disappointment. Hey, that sounds like the perfect game for me to review. So I picked the game up and gave it a go. How bad could it possibly be?

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First of all, I would like to talk about the visuals of this game since they are a considerable improvement from Grandia 2. The world of Grandia 3 is certainly a looker, not the best looking game I’ve seen but it has certainly been given a makeover that stands out if you’ve played any of the previous Grandia games. It feels great to actually play a Grandia game with such great visuals. Sure Grandia 2 Anniversary Edition improved on the visuals somewhat and made them a lot easier on the eyes and actually made them quite likable but Grandia 3 really has a fresh new style that is unlike any of the previous Grandia games.

One thing I would like to note is that Grandia 3 feels like a much more open-ended game than Grandia 2 but don’t let this fool you, the game is every bit as linear as its predecessor though to be fair, you are able to backtrack this time around thanks to the game’s flight system which allows you to freely roam the world map in a similar way to Lost Odyssey in the sense that it is very restrictive and in a lot of ways kinda pointless considering the linear nature of this game.

Grandia 3 Flying around is kinda pointless

For a theme centered around freedom to roam the skies, you’d expect the game to deliver that feeling of freedom in its structure but sadly this is not the case, instead when you approach certain areas, you merely get a text box telling you about it, kinda like in Mass Effect. It’s such a shame since there is a huge world out there to fly around in yet you only get to explore a small portion of it. It’s such a shame really.

While we are on the topic of the game’s theme, let’s get straight to business and talk about the games laughable story. Where do I even begin? For starters after having played the legendary Grandia 2, it is easy to see how this game has come to receive such a negative reception. You would think that after playing a game like Grandia 2, the story would be exciting and fresh, sadly this is not the case this time around, the story of Grandia 3 is about as exciting as a baked potato.

Grandia 3 Trying really hard not to make a dick joke

Trying really hard not to make a dick joke

While Grandia 2 went off the beaten track with its protagonist, in Grandia 3, you are presented with Yuki who follows just about every single cliché in the book as a JRPG protagonist. His only standout feature is his love for planes… not that I consider that a good thing, rather It comes across as obnoxious more than anything else. Typically the game starts off with the protagonist, Yuki getting scolded by his mother Miranda for being too obsessive over his hobby.

But believe me, Yuki doesn’t get any sympathy from me. After crashing his plane like an idiot, he is left stranded in the middle of a forest a couple of miles from his hometown and encounters a young girl named Alfina… you know what this means don’t you? That’s right, get ready for some boy meets girl action in the form of yet another bland, uninspired romance that contributes absolutely nothing to the plot… hurray!

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Little did I know that the entire build up of Yuki’s character was about to capsize from here on out. Now Yuki must escort Miss Bigears to a place called Arcriff, a place of worship dedicated to communicating with the guardians. Sound familiar? Anyways the story starts getting duller and duller from there.

Put simply if you’ve played any JRPG, you’ve seen Grandia 3’s storyline already. It pretty much deflates into a quest for macguffins once you reach the halfway mark and by that point, the story never really evolves past that until you face the big bad evil thing at the end.

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To make things even more insulting, the only two redeeming characters leave the party early on in the story. This cripples the story as they are replaced by two dull characters who barely have anything to offer in terms of personality and they are mostly cardboard cut outs. In fact, these characters are so bad that you could remove them from the game and it wouldn’t change a thing.

Now in a game like Grandia, this is particularly worrying since the Grandia series has always revolved around its interaction between characters and with a cast of characters as dry as oatmeal, its efforts to focus on character interaction are pretty much wasted.

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The nature of the Grandia series remains unchanged however. Grandia 3 follows the same formula as the previous games. Its focus on NPC interaction is still an all you can eat buffet of narrative and the dinner scenes return to add more flavor.

You can tell that Game Arts were trying to focus on building a strong narrative as they continue to use the same tools that made Grandia 2’s story so engaging, it’s just a shame that the characters and the plot of Grandia 3 are so sterile otherwise it could have made for yet another memorable and engaging storyline.

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Where the game truly shines however is in its battle system. Like the previous Grandia titles, Grandia 3 uses an active time based (ATB) battle system with a heavy emphasis on changing the flow of battles through cancelling enemy attacks and manipulating the IP gauge to intercept enemy turns.

Grandia 3 enhances the system by rebalancing the game’s difficulty to make for a more challenging experience. In addition, the game adds new aerial combos in an attempt to mix things up. Sadly while aerial combos have their uses early on in the game, their effectiveness diminishes later on as enemies are given insane amounts of health and this tends to make many of the boss fights a slog.

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Fortunately many of the boss fights are varied, some of which can be quite difficult to figure out at first. The game keeps things fresh by offering plenty of devastating abilities to be used by both the player and the enemy. It is important to stay on your toes in all battles as you are usually outnumbered by multiple enemies and if your characters are widely spread out on the IP gauge, you may find yourself in a compromising situation if you make the wrong move.

Thankfully the game offers a wide assortment of abilities in the form of moves/magic to bolster your arsenal. Every ability is useful, you just need to find the right one for the job. That’s JRPG combat 101 right there and while many JRPG’s forget the significance of this, Grandia 3’s combat focuses heavily on making the player’s choices feel important. Add to that the need to manage SP more carefully (due to the lack of SP restoration items available) and you have a surprisingly deep combat system which offers plenty of variety to keep things fresh for the entire duration of the game.

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Character Management is different this time around. New moves are learned via leveling up rather than with special coins. Moves are enhanced at random. I personally dislike this as it can sometimes screw you over in battles since attacks will be pulled off instantly when a new secret method is learned (the process of leveling up moves) which can ruin a potentially well-timed cancel. I also dislike the randomness of move leveling. Grandia 2 gave the player total freedom with learning moves which led to several balancing issues, however this method is still preferable to the method used in Grandia 3, at least in my opinion.

Magic is pretty interesting this time around. While the spells in your arsenal are more-or-less the same, the method of learning magic has drastically changed from that of Grandia 2. On one hand it complicates the progression system, on the other hand it is a more balanced system that prevents players from acquiring high level spells too early. Magic eggs can be dropped by most enemies and are surprisingly very common, they can be used to enhance the effects of spells or they can be consumed to learn new spells. Abilities work the same way allowing you to equip skill books to increase the potency of specific skills or consume them to learn new skills. These can be equipped at any save point.

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In addition, there are higher level eggs available which can easily be acquired through mana egg fusion. This allows you to access powerful magic when you wouldn’t normally be able to. It is important to note however that characters have a set magic level depending on how high of a level they are. As such the system is balanced and you can never learn spells that are too powerful. To some, this could be seen as a bad thing, however mana eggs can still be equipped to increase the potency of spells to make up for this allowing you to grow stronger should you wish to.

Ultimately when comparing the gameplay of Grandia 2 and Grandia 3, Grandia 3 comes on top just by a small margin, this isn’t to say that Grandia 2’s gameplay was bad, many of the fundamentals that make Grandia 3’s gameplay so great were lifted straight out of Grandia 2, they have just been improved this time round which is expected of a successor. Sadly it is difficult to call Grandia 3 a true successor to Grandia 2 as it falls short in the department Grandia games are known for, story.

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Personally, I do not often prioritize story in videogames. Grandia 2 was an exception for me and I honestly didn’t expect Grandia 3 to be anything quite like Grandia 2 but the combat is ultimately what won over my interest in this game. While I disagree with some of the systems used in Grandia 3’s character management, the combat itself is actually quite engaging to say the least. As such I cannot say that my experience with Grandia 3 was as bad as many people make it out to be. To be honest I quite enjoyed it.

The music is what sealed the deal for me, despite this games shortcomings, it still has a solid soundtrack, not as good as Grandia 2’s but a solid soundtrack nonetheless. Add to that the eye-catching visuals and you have yourself an enjoyable game. That being said, I can understand the negative reception this game has received, as a Grandia game it is pretty weak and its linear story focused structure limits its potential. Add to that a couple of irritating songs and a few lackluster dungeons leaving you with just another run-of-the-mill JRPG which just falls short of being yet another classic PS2 RPG.

Grandia 3 Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the evilist of them all

Truly a work of art! Oh wait, that’s a mirror, never mind…

So all in all, Grandia 3 is not as bad as people make it out to be, while it is far from being a true successor to Grandia 2, it is still worth the experience. If you can find the game for cheap, give it a try. It’s not a bad game, just don’t expect too much out of it. Put simply if you’re starving for some JRPG action and you’ve played all the best, you aren’t doing yourself a disservice by playing this game, you should be able to find some enjoyment out of it. While this may come as a surprise to you all, I actually had a hard time tearing this game to shreds as much as I’d have liked to.

I really didn’t expect to like this game. Though the story may have been laughably bad and cringeworthy at times, I’ve definitely experienced worse (*cough*White Knight Chronicles*cough*). It gave me some good laughs at least… seriously what is with the blatant similarities between the story of Grandia 2/3 and Devil May Cry 4? Even the voices for Yuki and Alfina return to play the same roles in Devil May Cry 4 as Nero and Kyrie… plus why does the villain look so much like Ganondorf and why does he wear black patches on his face? Seriously dude, grow a beard or something. Plus what is with that wannabe Arngrim guy named Kornell? Why is he such a doofus? What is his purpose in the plot besides being comic relief? We may never find an answer to these questions. All I can do is give the game its final score.

Grandia 3 Could he possibly be evil

Seriously who the fuck is this guy!? What is his purpose in this game besides just being there?


Story/plot: Pretty Bad
Visuals: Good
Gameplay: Great
Music: Good
Lifespan: Decent Length
Would You Replay? No

 

Overall: Satisfactory

 


 

Value: £15.00

For a more in-depth look at the story, watch this video: