Definition: Cadence


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.

In Anticipation

Most of the time involved in playing any game is spent waiting.  In a turn based board game each player waits for the others in sequence.  Even in a timed chess game the actual portion of the game spent moving a piece from one square to another is much less than the time spent waiting for your opponent or considering your own move.  A play clock in football allows for 40 seconds of inactivity between plays that often last less than 5.  A  tennis match can stretch for hours, with time eaten up not just between volleys, but as one player waits for the ball to be returned (or not) and then moves into a new position and waits for the fraction of a second it takes the ball to reach him.  Even in an intense bout of Street Fighter, the actual portion of time spent pressing buttons and taking meaningful game actions is suprisingly low.

Take all the time you want

It could be argued, then, that most of what we call gameplay consists of waiting.  Not passive, disinterested idleness, but active, focused anticipation.  One key to understanding why a game is fun lies in analyzing the type of anticipation it creates and how a player experiences that expectant state.

Anticipation of the Unknown

The player has no idea what might happen next.  While every experience begins with this form of anticipation, it is the least desirable.  The power of the mind is its ability to creatively construct predictions, of the future, of the underlying nature of reality, of the internal state of another person, and when it starved of information it becomes inactive.  “Anything can happen” is not a statement of possibility, but of unintelligible chaos, and it is a very uncomfortable place to be.

Anticipation of Result

Heads or Tails?  Rock, Paper or Scissors?  Red or Black?  Who wins, who loses?  This type of anticipation occurs when we have a stake in the outcome, but no control or predictive insight.  We are wired to make sense of the world, and when something resists, it itches.  In the absence of actual patterns, people invent them, which is the basis for superstition and our utter inability to intuitively comprehend randomness.  Engaging curiosity in this way is a useful tool, especially if failure is not punished, but if it never pays off it turns to frustration.

Anticipation of Evidence

We know the hero is going to save the day and get the girl.  Screenwriters understand that their audience wants a comfortable trope and if they violate this tacit desire the focus groups will force a re-write.  But we don’t know how, when everything looks impossibly bleak, the hero will turn the tables.  We are anticipating the moment where the pattern is revealed, the hidden trump card appears, and our faith in the Hollywood formula is proven correct.  This kind of anticipation is present in puzzle games where we know there is a solution, but we aren’t sure what form it will take or how we will discover it.  Nothing is more infuriating than a puzzle we know we are intended to solve, but can’t.

The World before Walkthroughs

Anticipation of Action

This is the primary form of anticipation found in games.  The player knows that soon it will be their moment to act, has a model for making predictions, and is excited to test that model against reality.

  • Queued Action – The simplest form of anticipated action.  The player knows what they intend to do and are merely waiting for the opportunity to execute.  As soon as the game begins, I will move my Queen’s Pawn forward two spaces.
  • Queued Reaction – Preparing to respond to an event, either in the environment or initiated by another player.  Because there is only one prepared action, the response time will be as short as possible.  The instant they stick their head around the corner, I’m going to open fire.
  • Multiple Queued Reactions – Mentally preparing for multiple possible events and focusing on distinguishing between them quickly.  If the ball comes to me, I’ll catch it.  If it goes to the outfield, I’ll be the cut-off.  If it goes toward first base, I’ll cover second.
  • Inductive Prediction – Trying to guess what an opponent will do and act preemptively at the right moment.  (David Sirlin calls this Yomi, or “knowing the mind of the opponent”.)  I bet they are going to try a jumpkick, so I’ll throw my fireball to catch them on the way up.
  • Deductive Prediction – Using knowledge of a player’s available actions to reduce the number of reactions that must be prepared.  He’s carrying the sniper rifle, so I bet he isn’t going to rush my position.
  • Forced Prediction – Performing an action for the sole purpose of forcing another player to make a predictable response, with the intention of capitalizing on it.  In fencing this  is called a second intention and happens when you are driving an opponent to react to your attacks instead of taking the initiative themselves.  I’ll fire at his feet with my rocket launcher, which will force him to jump into the air and leave him unable to dodge my second rocket.

One important aspect of game design is intentionally inserting gaps in the action to allow for the desired anticipation.  A simple game that has too few possibilities or happens too slowly will fail to fill the time between actions and become dull or predictable.  A game that is overly complex or happens too quickly will cut short the player’s anticipation and feel out of control or chaotic.  Giving the player control over the pacing may encourage them to over-think their actions.  A small change in the cadence of a game, or providing more or less predictive information, is often enough to change type of anticipation, which is a powerful tool for adding gameplay variety.  Understanding and tuning anticipation is crucial to crafting a fun experience, because once anticipation is gone, boredom sets in.

GDC 2010: Design in Detail V

The second way to develop a sense of balance about paper designs is to look for anticipation. (Anticipation really isn’t the right word for it, maybe “Imperfect Predictability”?) If you make players guess, they won’t see the point and will quit. If you don’t give them a chance, they will feel controlled and quit. Balance means probable, but not inevitable, future events. This allows the player to anticipate them.

Don’t your players into ridiculous movie villains.

David Sirlin ( is a SF Champion and a game designer (and just happened to be in the audience when I gave this talk at GDC.) He calls this concept Yomi.
In an action game like Halo you don’t want players to engage in this kind of second-guessing. It will paralyze them from acting and end up in random guessing. The Sniper Rifle has one purpose; you know what someone with a sniper rifle is going to do. The role prevents you from guessing by allowing them to anticipate what is going to happen. If they are expecting an event, they can process it more quickly and follow the action better.

Successfully sniping confers no benefits. As designers, we throw around the term “Feedback Loop” a lot, but they are not always good because they lead to a game being overly predictable. Anticipation requires uncertainty, and feedback loops work against that.

The best thing about roles is that they help you keep things manageable by breaking the design into workable parts.

If you are using roles, make sure players always have other options. The Sniper Rifle is never your only option, so the entire balance never rests on one weapon. By using multiple gameplay channels you reduce the difficulty of your balance problem.

If you break up the balance into groups that do not require cross-balancing your problem becomes simpler. I won’t say that monolithic is always bad, just harder.

The Sniper Rifle is not on every map. This limits the number of possible interactions that need to remain balanced.

Imagine somebody is holding a gun to your head… There is too much to do, what are you going to cut! What are you going to do? How can you get control of your scope? By making the hard choices…

What are the hard choices in the paper design pass? Which mechanics will you emphasize? How will you engage the player’s imagination?

Producers, please insert your fingers in your ears at this time. Some of the best advice I ever got was “Once you are done, cut half” and I have never regretted doing this. I’m not going to say “Kill your babies” Now that I am going to be a dad, the term doesn’t seem appropriate anymore. How about “Put your babies up for adoption”?

To be continued…