[How did Sucker Punch's PS3 exclusive Infamous get its pacing right? Game designer Darren Bridges talks to Gamasutra about carefully gating progression, power acquisition, and superpowers that got left on the cutting-room floor.]
Pacing can often make or break a form of entertainment. There's the movie that by all means should be highly entertaining, but botches what should have been a smooth crescendo leading up to a climax, a book that reveals too much about the main character up front, or a song that is the same from beginning to end.
The same pacing issues happen with games all the time, whether talking from the perspective of story, gameplay, or otherwise. Sometimes, even the great games are somewhat flat experiences that pay little attention to doling out carefully measured spoonfuls of entertainment.
Sony-owned Sucker Punch’s PlayStation 3 game Infamous, however, manages to pay careful attention to pacing, turning up the fun dial ever-so gradually, drawing the player into the experience and coaxing him to keep playing in order to see what happens next.
Therefore, Gamasutra recently spoke with Sucker Punch game designer Darren Bridges specifically about Infamous’ well-measured pacing:
It's really clear, from both my own play experience and what I've read from reviews, that Infamous is particularly excellent in its pacing. The "fun ramp-up" is meticulously designed, doling out powers and unlocking areas and enemies in measured amounts.
Can you give some more insight into the design process from the perspective of creating a well-paced game in Infamous? What were the goals you had in mind in terms of pacing, and what are the keys to creating a well-paced game?
From the outset, our goal for Infamous to give players the experience of “becoming a modern-day superhero”. I highlighted “becoming” in that sentence because it is the single word that had the greatest influence on the pacing of Infamous. Cole McGrath, the hero of the story, starts as an unremarkable bike messenger, and ends up a demigod who can summon huge lightning strikes from the sky to destroy two-story tall superhuman enemies.
We wanted every moment of the game to reflect this progression from “average dude” to “super powered behemoth”. Consequently, we tried to instill a sense of progress in everything the player did. This included resolving the mysteries brought up in the story, taking over territory, turning on power grids, gaining new powers, upgrading existing powers, and fighting stronger and more varied enemies.
In addition, we emphasized improving your character through collectibles, building your heroic or “Infamous” reputation among the city’s inhabitants, and unlocking and exploring the three distinct islands that make up Empire City. We wanted the player to feel a constant sense of growth from beginning to end.
I am a big fan of action and superhero games (not surprisingly), and the biggest appeal for me is always the powers I get to play with. In Infamous, the hero’s powers are the primary tools of gameplay, and are consequently the biggest carrots that draw players forward through the experience.
Here are a few of the guiding rules we used to distribute the powers in Infamous:
-Make sure that each power you give the player is useful and adds something to the game that makes it feel fresh again. (Extra points for powers that encourage the player to look at the gameplay environment in a completely new way.)
-Make sure the player immediately has a chance to use a new power and understands what makes it fun and useful. New powers are worthless if the player doesn’t have incentive to use them.
-Make sure the most effective way to play is also the most enjoyable way to play. If you gave players a power where they could mash a button with their eyes closed to become invulnerable and slowly defeat all of their enemies, it would not be fun, but players would still feel forced to do it because it was effective.
-Revisit the power distribution plan frequently to protect the game’s pacing. As gameplay mechanics were tested and replaced, we often had to update the order and timing in which the powers became available.
Have you found that creating a well-paced game in an open world is particularly challenging? What were the particular pacing challenges you ran into with Infamous?
One of the big appeals of open-world games is the freedom they allow. We wanted to provide that freedom, but we also wanted to provide a guided experience that would keep the game interesting through its entirety rather than burning out early.
Our initial attempt at the superpowers macro design did not work well. We allowed players to purchase any of the powers whenever they wanted, giving them as much freedom as possible. However, we quickly realized that this design made it very difficult to create interesting combat setups or integrate powers tightly into mission objectives -- because we couldn’t rely on the players having any specific powers at any given time.
In the end, we decided to tie the power acquisition moments to specific missions in the story, and then to allow players the freedom to upgrade those powers in a good or evil direction.
During one of our last focus tests, we got feedback that there was not enough combat variety in the game. We had been playing missions one at a time as we developed them, and didn’t have the same perspective as someone who played them all back-to-back for sixteen hours.
To address this, we added several new types of enemy weapons and behaviors, and assigned a team of one designer (myself) and two gameplay programmers to go through every combat setup in the game. We rebalanced each battle with new enemy layouts, introducing new enemy types at carefully planned intervals. It was a big undertaking, but the game benefited greatly from it.
Do you think that proper pacing in video games is often overlooked? Do some designers equate pacing with "learning curve" or gradually-lengthening XP graphs?
During development it’s difficult to get a true sense for the pacing of the game until it is nearly content-complete. At that point, everyone is in a mad scramble to get the final details finished, and there isn’t a lot of time left to change the macro structure of the game.
Also, even if problems are diagnosed, the solutions may be too disruptive to implement with the limited time left. It’s definitely easy for pacing to get sidelined for the sake of achieving content completion or polishing other areas of the game.
As the distribution of super powers is one of the central pieces to Infamous’ pacing, can you describe superpowers that you decided to throw out and why?
Behind-the-scenes secrets ahead! Some powers got cut because they weren’t very fun, but several were good concepts that just didn’t make sense as player powers. These tended to sneak their way back into the game in other forms. One example of this was a power we called “Minionize”.
Cole could zap groups of pedestrians and take over their minds, forcing them to charge forward into the fray against his enemies and take the bullets that would otherwise be targeted at him. It was decidedly evil and very fun to watch, but it wasn’t as generally useful as the other powers it was competing with.
"Minionize" was way too cool to leave on the cutting room floor, however, and we eventually found a place for it: (mild spoiler alert) if you play the “Minions” evil side mission in Infamous, you’ll get to see exactly what this power feels like.