Managing pace in an arcade game

Whilst there are still a number of things to address with Invaders from Mars (not least my ability to actually play the damned game), I’m happy that there is enough in there to provide a fun and challenging experience. So naturally I’ve got one eye on a new project.

As I’ve written before I’m considering slowing the pace down a little and concentrating more on exploration and the technical challenges of scrolling map content. To begin with I need to effectively scroll tiled content through the player window and ensure that all sprites move accordingly. There is nothing worse in a game than sprites that appear to drift or shift when they ought to be rooted firmly to the floor.

Invaders was an exercise in throwing as much on to the screen and giving the player as much to think about as possible. It was a technical exercise and in most cases worked fine. The most important thing was I could easily throw numerous sprites around and even with collision detection every frame the performance didn’t degrade below unplayable. For my new game I will not be presenting quite as many sprites.

In the past I have always considered “pace” to be a purely visual thing. The concept was simple; if a car is belting down a street at 120mph then obviously the pace of the action was high. I’ve since discovered that this is not entirely true and that a more accurate definition of pace is the number of choices a player has to make in a given timeframe. 
In the movies you could say that McQueen’s chase scene in Bullit was a scene of incredible pace. The car is moving at high speed and the streets are narrow enough to create the satisfactory illusion of speed. In reality if Bullit had had few or no split second decisions to make the pace of the scene would have been rather pedestrian. The viewer would have become bored since there were no challenges. When you challenge the on-screen character the viewer becomes challenged in a similar way. By reducing the amount of time the character has to make vital decisions we naturally increase the pace.
The same dynamic can be applied to games.

With Invaders I deliberately hurled all manner of bombs and lasers at the player. Given the size of the playing area the player had very little time to react. They also had only one option. Shoot !
The by product of this dynamic was that the pace was consistently high. By contrast the bonus stage that appears mid way through the wave appears pedestrian by comparison giving the player a well earned breather whilst notching up a greater score.

So I would conclude that managing and increasing pace in a game is vital. You don’t have to litter the screen with bombs to increase pace or for that matter challenge the player, you just need to give them vital time-critical decisions to make.

The next game will be a shooting affair. I will also line up hordes of monsters to be wiped away. This is my style of game. But there will be other challenges for the player rather than simply avoiding missiles.

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