A pattern of beats and rests that describes a recognizable rhythm and creates a sense of repose or resolution
But first, a verse:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Poetry has cadence,
And so should your gameplay.
What a terrible poem! Any second-grader could write a better one. It isn’t the content; if I simply wanted to argue that gameplay, like poetry, should obey rules of meter and form, it wouldn’t offend your sensibilities. The poem is bad because the cadence is wrong. Instead of resolving the contrasts set up in the first half, the second half breaks the rhythm and leads to a jarring and abrupt end.
In the same way, the wrong cadence can take a good game mechanic and make it feel awkward or even abrasive. A gun that fires slightly too fast and ends up degrading into a buzz. A melee combo that is a touch too slow and never feels like it flows smoothly from one hit to the next. The boss monster whose sweeping tail attack is a little too regular, making it feel robotic and gamey.
There are a few basic components to cadence, and usually just taking the time to notice them is enough to know how they should be adjusted.
- Tempo – The speed of a cadence, often described by the number of beats per minute. A good rule of thumb for finding tempos that feel good is to use the same ones found in music. For instance, the rate of fire of the Halo Battle Rifle is almost exactly the same as the BPM of Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust.
- Regularity – Some cadences need to be extremely consistent, like a metronome. The ticking of a clock or the firing of a machine gun sounds mechanical and precise because there is no variance in the cadence. Others need a slightly irregular rhythm, like footsteps or a series of punches. Slight variations in the timing leave a more organic impression.
- Acceleration/Deceleration – Known in music as Accelerando and Ritardando, this describes the way in which a cadence changes from one tempo to another. Very slow changes in tempo create tension, like a train departing a station. Quick changes in tempo will attract the players attention, and are great for helping them to anticipate an attack or other event.
- Style – Some cadences have short, crisp beats (called Staccato), while others feel blended, like pulses (called Legato). Varying the styles of cadences can change the mood or provide contrast between two game elements. Having one gun that fires short, separated bursts of bullets and another that emits a continuous wavy beam, for instance, would allow players to choose their own style, and give them a deeper array of options.
If a game mechanic or other element fulfills its intended role, but still feels unsatisfying or mysteriously broken, try changing the cadence to reinforce and amplify the experience.