I have been thinking a lot about content gating in games lately. I’m not even talking about the most obvious content gating that exists right now in the free-to-play/microtransaction world. That gating is pretty clear. Either you have to pay to get the content, or the game is designed with extreme luck factors in place that strongly incentivize paying at least some money to clear content gates. I’m not really a microtransaction guy, but I am strongly an episodic content guy. Regardless, free-to-play/microtransaction content models don’t really play into my discussion here today. I only bring them up as to acknowledge that I am familiar with them and the intricacies that they possess.
I pause here to note that I haven’t heard people discussing how much this is akin to the arcade experience of old, when it is very similar. The price point might not be a quarter any more, but it is usually $0.99 for most things. These tiny purchases usually allow you to continue playing, just like popping another quarter in the machine would do that arcade. Many of the extremely popular free-to-play tablet and phone games really are games that would be otherwise at home in an arcade. I said years ago that this was the future of social and popular gaming, so it’s nice to see my theory borne out. I just haven’t heard this parallel other mentioned in casual conversation, or even by the people I know within the industry, and that just seems weird to me that people aren’t jumping on the obvious. Anyway, this doesn’t have any bearing on my actual topic here, it’s just an anecdote.
Having a lot of spare time on my hands just after running a LARP means I spent a lot of the last two weeks thinking about LARPs, what goes on in them, video games and tabletop games, thinking about novels and movies and their storytelling, and things that you aren’t done in modern LARPs in which I participate that do occur in video games and/or tabletop games. In the last two weeks, I have spent a lot of time reviewing, modifying, and adding to various crafting and magic systems within the LARP I assist with, Dust to Dust. In a haze of free association brought on by post-surgery opiates, I ended up thinking of the Bane mechanic in Everquest. There were two very different implementations of this same mechanic, and I still think both of them are pretty cool. One was for magical spells, the other was for weaponry.
The spell implementation was pretty straightforward. It was introduced during a three-faction expansion, and the two Bane spells were handed out by the more powerful factions to do battle with the other. Each was a quest that was a long and complicated chain, and it involved the spell research system that the game possessed. The spell created dealt an extremely high, for the time, and consistent amount of damage to creatures of the specified type, but consumed a spell component that had to be purchased from a vendor. This added damage was not insignificant, and outfitting your wizards with this spell significantly helped with the really egregious end-faction bosses such as Lord Vyemm (Vulak was a joke pre-Ring and we all knew it, Vyemm was the real thug) and the Avatar of War. Anything to shorten those fights made a huge impact. Now, this spell was only for wizards, so it wasn’t something that was a show-stopper if you didn’t possess it, but it meant you had to be that much tighter as a raid.
This is an example of soft gating.
Ok, this is a minor example of it.
I just went with this as a first example because I like the idea of questing and researching spells that do more damage to a specific type of creature, and having that handed out by the arch-rivals of those creatures. A better example would be all of the Mega Man series and the melee weapons I mention above. In the Mega Man franchise, all of the different bosses have extreme weaknesses to a certain type of weapon that you procure from a different boss. Air Man can’t hang with Leaf Shield, Crash Man can’t hang with Air Cannon, and so forth. This type of setup strongly encourages you to play the game in a certain order to tweak the difficulty in different ways. Sure, you don’t have to defeat Metal Man early on in the process, but not doing so makes your mega-life exponentially more mega-difficult. Do you really want to try and get past the timed death LASERs on the Quick Man stage without Time Stop? I sure don’t. This is relatively straightforward soft gating. Do X before you do Y before you do Z. You can attempt Z without Y or X, but you will either miss things, or find the challenge level increased.
The melee Bane mechanic in Everquest really got off the ground in the Raiders on the Moon expansion, Shadows of Cat People, errr Shadows of Luclin.
We’re Raiders on the Moon
We’ll even loot harpoons
We’ll die and wipe
’til we get things right
and empty boss’s tombs
There were several bosses that were immune to melee weapons. Immune to anything but weapons specifically created to harm them. These were Bane weapons. They had minimal damage on their own, but if you were fighting loyal minions of these guys, the weapons became immensely powerful. If you were fighting the leaders of these factions, it was the only way to harm them in melee. The weapons looked something like 8 damage, 20 delay, 15 Bane Seru. This meant if you were fighting a Chump of Seru, the weapon was really 23 damage, 20 delay. If you were fight Lord Inquisitor Seru, it was 15 damage, 20 delay. In order to obtain a Bane weapon, a Blacksmith had to create it and you had to gather the components for it. It was not a fast or easy process. Now, this sounds like something that you absolutely HAD TO HAVE to defeat this encounter, but that’s not true. Spells and arrows did damage to him normally. Arrows didn’t start get fancy until Planes of Power, so I guess they didn’t figure that out sweet arrow mechanics until then. Anyway, this also meant that weapons that cast spells on hit, called procs, could damage him. What you ended up with was guilds that were bleeding edge tending to use this second method because their player skill cap was so much higher, while everyone else really needed the Bane weapons to push them over the edge.
I thought this particular implementation was great because it included different weapon sets, and relied upon crafting. Any reason for players not to have a single best option all the time is good, in my opinion.
Now that I’ve given a few examples of soft gating, it’s fair to wonder what exactly separates soft gating from hard gating. To me, something is hard gating is it is either a) tuned to be “unkillable” but is still required for progression or b) is not available at all until certain events are completed or time requirement is met. Some examples are level requirements, limited attempts, and the slow release of content via world questing, such as Ahn’Qiraj, Sun Well, or Icecrown Citadel. Level requirements are self-explanatory, though I wish that games moved away from the “max level is everything” methodology that has become the norm, but that’s a rabbit hole down which I am not chasing in this post.
The difference between soft and hard gating is that in soft gating you still get to attempt the encounters, learn the fights, and possibly pass them if you are inventive or skilled enough so that you can overcome the limitations. Keys, attunements, and required gearing fall into soft gating in my opinion, due to the fact this stuff already exists within the game, and you are taking actions in order to achieve next steps. You can certainly attempt encounters without the proper gear, and a lot of times ways are discovered to defeat them, they are just more difficult. Warhammer Online had an implementation of “requires X gear not to die”, and it’s about as compelling as you imagine. Not even in the slightest. Keys and attunements are a sticky wicket, but I’m not one of the people that feels they are a burden. In fact, as long as you have solid inclusion and catch-up mechanics, keys and attunements are excellent for gameplay. It’s a natural separation of skill that helps to create striation where it might not otherwise exist in instanced content. Creating striation also encourages socialization. Players end up making friendships and connections with other players because networking is desirable in cases where striation occurs. When reputation matters, people worry about acting like assholes.
In hard gating, content is inaccessible through in-game means. Sometimes, it is limited in such a way that you can access it temporarily, but then it later becomes inaccessible. It also refers to encounters that are so punishing in that attempting them and losing is tantamount to a huge setback. It also refers to content that simply isn’t able to be pursued.
By necessity, tabletop games and LARPs have to manage their scopes. Unfortunately, that second to last point of hard gating comes into play quite often just as a result of the game mechanics. Death, especially total party death, can be a career ender. Worse than that, LARPing comes with a significant monetary investment in the way of costuming, decorations, and props. Coupled with that is the social pressure that has developed that anything combat engagement that is done in less than perfect conditions is simply too risky to consider. Not only will lives be lost, but whatever you carry with you will be lost. If you repeatedly go against the grain, you will also lose the esteem of your peers, and their support. Of course, I think a certain amount of tension is a good thing, so mixed bag there. There are games where dying and gear aren’t so much a concern, but then to provide a credible threat everything must be of a power level or risk that is career ending. Otherwise, it’s not much of a risk and it isn’t taken seriously.
Pursuit of content might actually be the bigger issue. In a tabletop game, it’s pretty likely that the players might care about different things, or have long reaching goals. In a LARP, that’s a guarantee. Even if you have a small game of twenty people, it is completely unreasonable that everyone cares about the same things, no matter how you design the setting. Given these disparate interests, it’s awfully hard to allow every single area of interest equal air time every single event that you run. In this regard, if a story isn’t advancing, it’s a hard gate because it typically can’t be pursued. Of course, even stories that do appear on camera are often hard gated. They can’t be pursued on a free timetable, and often it is a story that takes place over multiple events.
This precisely LARPing is a Live Action activity where bodies and time are resources that have to be managed on the production side. This isn’t to say that soft gating is off the table. On the contrary, I think soft gating should be more of an approach that gets used. However, it requires a different set of problems and a different set of stories than what typically gets told in a boffer LARP. It’s not exactly a new idea, but it is one that isn’t used that often. There are many different ways to approach them, but the key ingredients are accessibility, progression, and communication of intent and risk. Depending on the staff, the inclusion of as many soft gating encounters and stories as you can provide would greatly increase the feeling of agency within a boffer LARP.