Tuesday, March 1

On Gating Mechanisms

Back from a very relaxing and satisfying reading week, thank you all for your immense concern at me missing an update.  Really guys, I don’t know how I’d go on without you.  Seriously though, I never expected many people to read this blog, so the real irony is that I’m being sarcastic to no one because I have no one.  Ah well, doesn’t stop me from writing about what I love.
This week: Gating Mechanisms.  Gating Mechanisms are a design trick to make sure of two things:  1) That you spend at least the standard eight to ten hours playing a game, and 2) That you don’t go to an area before the designers want you to.  It’s a method by which games can be more reliably paced, not only in storyline events, but in difficulty.  It’s a way to ensure you actually explore the game, rather than blasting straight through it.  I’m sure there are many examples you can think of right away, for instance, the Legend of Zelda series is all about Gating.  Most often, you’ll find it impossible to advance without collecting the next item in Link’s increasingly silly arsenal (See below).   That’s what these mechanisms do, keep you playing until you hit the next marker.
Not Pictured: Dignity
Zelda’s style is not the best way to do it.  If you’ve played these games, then you may have at some point asked yourself that question:  “Why is there a random hookshot point on that cliff face?”  Well, because the designers don’t want you going there until you’ve progressed far enough to have acquired the hookshot.  Something designers need to be able to keep track off is the player’s health and power.  For instance, you don’t want a first level WOW character stepping into the realm of the Lich King.  Therefore, they blocked access to that area until the player is of a level where they can survive.  In a similar vein, Halo gave us the Regenerating Health trope of recent shooter games, which proved a huge boon to developers, who are now able to predict the amount of health almost every player would have when entering a given area.  Knowing that makes it much easier to design a steady and sensible difficulty curve.  While shooter games work well on this principle, other genres can suffer, and so Gating Mechanisms are used to ensure the same thing.
More of a masterpiece than anyone
wants to give it credit for.
Like all game mechanics, Gating Mechanisms are best used when they blend imperceptibly into the story and gameplay.  The best example I can think of right now is Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.  In FF:CC, you must pass through Miasma Streams: areas of a highly concentrated poison attuned to a specific element.  You must attune the crystal you carry to that same element to pass through, but the elements rotate every year, and the place where can attune your crystal does not.  This, unknowingly to the players, forces them to take different routes to complete their yearly quests and continue the story, causing them to explore and understand the world more fully.  There is a moment later on in the game that is another good Gating Mechanism, but I’ll leave you to figure that one out when you play it (and you should).
If you look at older platformer titles, or almost any game that goes on a level-by-level method (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare), then you can see that Gating wasn’t as necessary.  The designers knew that each level would start out close to the same, and the player could be depended on to often have completed levels with a mushroom or fire flower.  Also, the games were perfectly linear.  The start point was always the same, the endpoint was always the same, and so was the general path the player had to take, with a few warp-point-style exceptions.  This linear platformer didn’t need Gating.
On the other hand: Grand Theft Auto 4.  Great game, terrible use of Gating.  Rockstar was forced into using gating to give player something to shoot for outside of story or character progression: world progression.  This is the same reward used in MMOs, which we’ll get to in a moment.  The designers blocked of the bridges connecting parts of the city, and made it a near-death sentence to attempt to break through.  The police barricade could be well defined, but to have absolutely no connection between parts of a city is ludicrous.  GTA4 sells itself as a gritty and dramatically ‘real’ game.  Many aspects, such as car controls and their attention to detail (Future Article!) reinforce this.  Any city that needed to close down a bridge would open a tunnel, or a ferry, or some other method to make sure the citizens could get where they needed to go.  Worse, when the player sees that barrier, they know precisely that it is to stop them progressing.  Whatever excuse is given for that barrier being there four times is not going to even come into the player’s head.
One quick shot at MMOs before we wrap up.  MMOs, specifically WOW, are forced to use purely gameplay related Gates to corral the players, and they come in two forms.  The first is quite blatant, and that is the game flat-out telling the player their level is not high enough to enter an area like Northrend or Outland.  The other, and far better for possible story or other use is the strength of the enemies in a given area.  You must grind, you must stay and power up, just so you can see the next area.  This is one of many, many tactics a game can use to make you keep playing.
So, what are the bright sides to these last two problems?  GTA’s problem is something I think Rockstar ended up nipping in the bud pretty well in their western cowboy philosophy-fest (as opposed to their big city gangster philosophy-fest).  Unlike GTA4, the character is much less likely to run across these blockades, and the blockades themselves are more varied.  By phasing these Gates into the background the player might be pleasantly surprised, or better, not even notice when they unlocked a new area.  For MMOs, the problem is bigger.  Those games depend on players committing massive time to the game to keep up subscriptions (which I’m glad to see are disappearing), and as such, need to make sure the player has a need for that grind, endless though it may be.  MMOs more focused on story can give reasons for this Gating, and letting characters be more involved in the world itself would help immensely.  I’m interested to take a whack a Guild Wars 2, as it looks like this may be right on track with what they’re doing.
To summarize, Gating is an acceptable method of design, as long as it is handled with the care any mechanic gets.  Try not to make it obvious in implementation, but let the player fantasize about what lies beyond each gate if you want them to keep coming back.  Lastly, it’s okay to discourage a player with a small penalty for trying to bypass a Gate, but penalize too much and they’ll throw their controller away in frustration before you can even make them interested.


  1. In your article you discuss different methods of gating, listing some as better than others. From what I've seen, gating is usually more necessary in sandbox games, but there are few examples of great integration in these cases.

    Do you have any ideas of better gating mechanics that don't seem so forced, like in GTA and WOW?

  2. The first thing that comes to mind for well done gating in a Sandbox game is Fallout: New Vegas. Obsidian made a good choice in not having the game level with the player, which meant two things: the player would be able to get a better sense of the power they were gaining, and they could set up sensible gates.
    Early on in the game, your character learns they must travel to New Vegas, and the fastest way to do that is straight North. Going that way will eventually put the player right in the middle of a rock quarry full of Deathclaws, rather deadly enemies. This ends up forcing the player into a more circuitous route, but actually gives them a story reason that they can come back and deal with, or not, later on.
    It's in that last sentence that I think the real point about gating in a sandbox lies. A sandbox is all about exploration and doing what the player wants, not what the game forces upon them. A good gating mechanism in a sandbox gives the player reason to explore, and lets them choose whether or not to eventually deal with it.