I had this idea (not a new idea, let’s just say I found a way to quantify it with words) when I got up and paced around for a few minutes. It hearkens back to a Season Three episode of Extra Credits that discussed pacing.

I’m going to assume you’ve seen the episode and understand the basics of what pacing is about, so I can just talk about what I realized. I think a different episode discussed the concept of “mastery” in games, and I know that the episode about tutorials covered “setting the stage” and teaching game mechanics.

One core concept that applies across games as a whole (and indeed, every medium) is repetition. There are many things repeated in games, whether it’s movement, character names, swinging a sword, pushing a block, or firing a gun. These allow games to be roughly organized into genres like action-adventure, puzzle, or shooter.

Certain actions are going to be repeated throughout the game, and it’s vital that these actions receive the most attention when designing the game. Final Fantasy games often fail tremendously to deliver in story and character because one of their core gameplay mechanics is scrolling through tables of information.

Combat is supposed to be engaging, and you can tell the teams put a lot of effort into the graphics and the balance, which falls apart in the face of pages and pages of text. Imagine if you had to skim a timeshare brochure (without illustrations) every time you wanted to move a piece in Chess. That’s the Final Fantasy battle system.

Kingdom Hearts does this a lot better by hiding most of the spreadsheets from the player. The action in combat is far more intense and visceral.

The next important component is variation. In order to keep up with the mastery of the player, the game has to change things up by including new colors of pieces in matching games, like Bejeweled. Increase the number and type of pieces to increase the difficulty. Now, difficulty isn’t necessarily the goal of variation.

Variation is used to balance repetition. One of the basic steps of mastering a game is learning the patterns of its mechanical repetition, and learning the patterns of its variation. When confronted with a new puzzle or problem, the player changes modes to follow either the core mechanical repetition, or one of its variations.

Too much variation in mechanics breaks the repetition of the game and makes it a jarring play experience. These kinds of games attract the really hardcore players who will look past the difficulty of mastering so many variations. And then, sometimes the variations aren’t, really, where repetitive elements are disguised as variation.

Many games fall into the trap of introducing really, really interesting variation that is poorly balanced with the core repetitive elements. Look at physical weapon damage in comparison with the different elemental damage types in Diablo 2. The game’s variation involves introducing immunities to certain damage types, which completely invalidates some character builds that are encouraged by the game’s design.

The game says “specialize” in a damage type in order to become more effective, and then introduces an obstacle that not only can’t be defeated by the specialization, but due to the linear nature of the game, further progression through the obstacle is impossible. The player has reached an impasse.

That’s the third concept at play, progression. Like other forms of narrative, games follow a path of progression, from beginning, to middle, to end. To understand the context of a game’s later puzzles (and solve them), the player will need to have mastered certain gameplay mechanics.

Games where “button-mashing” is a viable strategy to the successful completion of the game (often found in fighting games) has failed in the area of progression. The player doesn’t need to master the game’s mechanics in order to move from one stage to the next, they only need to pound on the keyboard until certain conditions are met.