Theory & The Case Study: Gates in Over the Next Dune

I’ve been considering whether to try out gated player abilities in Over the Next Dune. Gating player capabilities would be a substantial change, and unusual for a cooperative game. On the other hand, gates are a commonly-used, proven mechanic. It’s not a trivial decision.

Let’s start at (what I think is) the beginning. Why would one ever use a gate, instead of just letting players deploy their capabilities whenever they want? I can see two reasons:

1. The gate leads to interesting decisions. Mark Rosewater likes to say that “restrictions breed creativity.” Limiting the player’s access to a capability forces the player to think about when to use it, and to find alternative solutions when the capability isn’t available or shouldn’t be employed.

As a quick example, think about Barrier in League of Legends: a protective shield that isn’t available for a few minutes after being used. Since access to the Barrier is limited, players have to make tough decisions about precisely when it will do the most good. They also have to find ways to conserve the Barrier for those key moments, and to protect themselves when the Barrier is “on cooldown.” If players could just throw up the Barrier all the time, those decisions would be lost–and no other decisions would appear to replace them.

2. The gate prevents an ability from dominating gameplay. In some ways this is the inverse of the previous rule: the gate is in place because unlimited use of a player ability makes the game less interesting. RPGs often use gates in this way; powerful abilities would make the early game trivial, so players can’t access them until later.

(There’s also a third reason–to help monetize the game. However, that opens up a can of worms that I’m not looking to address right now.)

Those both seem like good reasons to include gates. Yet, they aren’t universal in cooperative games. Pandemic‘s Scientist doesn’t need to do anything to be able to cure a disease with four cards instead of five; that ability is always “on.” Shadows Over Camelot‘s Sir Bedivere can trade cards in for new ones without earning the privilege. Clearly, gates aren’t for every power or every game.

What considerations, then, militate against gating player powers? Ironically, I find it much easier to think of why a designer would want to limit powers than why the designer wouldn’t. Perhaps that says something about me. 🙂 Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. The game is unplayable when the ability is not available. Most RPGs don’t limit your capacity to walk around. In fact, I’m not aware of any at all that do. That’s not surprising, because if the player can’t move around the world in an RPG the player can’t do anything at all. Limiting walking would tend to destroy people’s ability to play the game.

2. The game needs something, and the ability provides it best when it is constantly available. League of Legends needs a way to ensure that games move toward their conclusions. A big part of ending a game of League is damage output; players and teams need damage to destroy the opposing team’s defenses and ultimately the enemy base. Thus, the game needs to ensure that teams have reliable access to damage output. If no team can damage objectives, the game cannot progress (setting aside really grindy strategies like letting minions do all the pushing–let’s not go down this road).

League’s need for guaranteed damage is met by “auto-attacks.” Every character can punch, swing a sword, fire arrows, or has some other freely available mechanism for inflicting damage. Since they’re costless, auto-attacks guarantee that the game cannot stall completely. Regardless of the team composition or overall situation, both teams have the theoretical ability to bring down objectives and end the game.

3. You want to encourage a behavior. If players should be doing something in a game, designers can incentivize it by letting players do it no strings attached. Ikaruga, for example, is a “bullet hell” game in which the player(s) can switch colors to absorb enemy fire. The color-switching mechanic made the game an instant classic. Having no limits on switching colors was a good design move, because it encouraged players to try the mechanic out early (desirable because color-switching was the game’s innovative feature) and to do it often thereafter (important because it helped players progress and kept them hooked).

So, two reasons to use gates and three not to. What do they mean for OtND?

To date players have three capabilities in the game: moving, tricking searchers, and rescuing other players. Moving should not be gated. The game is unplayable if players can’t get around the board.

Tricking searchers also should not be gated. It is, at least arguably, the most interesting aspect of the game. Keeping it freely available encourages players to interact with this important mechanic.

Rescuing is already gated by the need for several players to work together. That proved necessary to stop rescuing from dominating gameplay. However, the current limitations appear sufficient; I don’t think more are needed.

What about additional player abilities, then? Things like Pandemic’s Scientist and Shadows’ Sir Bedivere, that are outside the core rules of the game? Do they need to be gated? Should they exist in OtND at all? Let’s take that up next time.


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