Typically, when we plan out player ability distribution over the course of the game, we need to walk a fairly fine line. When players start a game for the first time, they need to learn a lot of different things at once. We need to give the player enough abilities/weapons/options so they can have fun early on, but we also don’t want to overwhelm them with too much shoved on them all at once. That’s where the pacing of opening up new abilities comes in.
After a player has played the game for a while, we can safely assume they have internalized the rules up to that point. Once the players know the basic game rules, we can start introducing more complex skills or abilities that build on that basic understanding. When you look at the kind of skills, weapons, etc. that get introduced later they tend to be tools that are noticeably more complex than the initial abilities a player is allowed. This is why most FPS games start with simple weapons (e.g. pistol, rifle) before introducing more complex behaviors (trip mines, grenade launcher, slime gun, plasma rifle).
Increasing complexity also informs the decision to gate specific types of content and areas within the game behind new abilities/weapons/etc. Newer, more powerful weapons allow for enhanced killing capacity and damage dealing. New abilities might allow for new means of environmental traversal. This process causes the world to open up more for the player and feel larger each time they can take on a new area.
How far into the game players receive these abilities depend on the game’s core design pillars. In some games where freedom of exploration is a design pillar, we’ll distribute the abilities fairly early and then design the rest of the game around having them - Breath of the Wild is a pretty great example of this. In others, we want a fairly linear progression through the game, escalating the tension in the game encounters like in Doom 2016 where you can’t obtain the BFG9000 in the campaign until the 8th mission of 13.
Remember, we want to build tension throughout the player’s overall game experience. We want to raise the stakes through new abilities and tougher challenges is probably one of our most important tools in doing this. Choosing the pacing for abilities, weapons, etc. in these games is a delicate balancing act of avoiding overwhelming the player with too much, trying to craft a good player experience, all while trying to maintain certain core design pillars and keeping the player experience varied and interesting. Pacing is an enormously important aspect of the overall game experience.
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