I'm in love with pacing. For example, I think the most important part of a survival horror game is not the enemies, graphics, or gameplay... it's the pacing!
Pacing does interact with those things, though. It can't really exist on its own. So I'm always keeping my eyes open for games with pacing I haven't really seen before.
Like KSP. Yeah, another Kerbal essay.
KSP's pacing is extremely unusual because it is completely player-driven... but still very compelling. I can't think of many games where the player is allowed to fine-tune the pace to this degree, and none where the pacing is still compelling.
The core of the pacing is KSP's mission flight gameplay - launching, coasting, adjusting, coasting, adjusting, coasting... it's a simple but compelling loop that keeps its vigor because every mission and every ship has its own parameters, and you can never see 100% of the mission. It's always a bit of a mystery exactly how much adjustment you'll need, exactly how long you should coast, exactly where you should land... and that's compelling. A simple, continually changing loop.
I was thinking about other kinds of gameplay that might have the same feel, produce the same pacing.
For a long time, I was stuck on the idea of physics. But KSP's physics are actually just constraints, not really ongoing challenges. I don't think I've had to deal with in-flight physics issues on rockets, landers, or space stations for at least 40 hours. It's just not a piece of the gameplay at this level. I generally don't even have launch physics issues, unless I'm trying a completely new configuration. It's all pretty pat.
No, it's not about physics. It's about traveling.
Could you make a game about swimming? Flying? Driving? Boating? These are all systems of travel... but none of them have the right coast-adjust loop. They're "always on", at least as they are normally implemented.
Well, we might be able to do something with a sailing ship. The wind in your sails, coast along. Adjusting needs to be more complex than merely turning, though, so you'd have to do something interesting to make adjusting interesting. Perhaps it involves accurately reading the wind, or dealing with sea currents, or perfecting the angle of the sail and the angle of the hull... well, it has promise, but it might be difficult to make it feel juicy. It's also problematic because the ship doesn't change much as play progresses, which means the loop will feel a lot more repetitive as compared to something like a space ship changing mass and dropping tanks.
But this is an interesting point: it doesn't have to be about travel. It just has to be something where you coast and adjust.
For example, maybe you can turn a 90s hacking movie into a game. Coasting involves letting your BBS, wardialer, and botnet operate as configured. Adjusting means changing their parameters, hacking new machines, and so on. You keep an eye on your BBS, your email, your scripts, and in doing so you identify possible opportunities and dangers before they happen. Adjust your setup to avoid them or tangle with them at an advantage.
It's rather singular, though. Unlike KSP's missions, there's no real payload/launch variation. You'll always just use your best stuff, and the configuration of your systems doesn't have the breadth of expression that KSP's payloads tend to have.
So I'm just trying to think of some other methods.
Science projects: let your research teams continue on their current trajectory with their current subexperiments, but adjust their allocation and direction when it becomes clear that certain directions are dead ends and others are more promising. The development you're aiming for would need to be very freely definable, though, to give it the same variation and complexity as a KSP payload.
Country/city building: let your city continue to develop with current policies and zoning, change them when you want to redirect. To make the looping work correctly, the price for adjusting policies and zones would be a lump sum for any amount of adjusting, so there's impetus to adjust it all at once. Each city (or country, or space base) would need to have a specific construction/topology that is interesting and some kind of target endgame, to make them as varied as KSP payloads.
Terraforming. Same as city building, but across the whole planet.
Raising fighters. Whether mons or football players, let their training regimen develop them in "coast" mode. Alter their regimen just before game to bring them into proper fighting trim. Tweak it again afterwards to not interfere with their recovery, then bring it back to the "long haul" regimen to raise stats again...
I wonder if anyone else gets what I'm aiming for, here.