Changing Gameplay Priorities

As a book, movie or television show progresses, it's not unusual for things to evolve and change. Characters grow and plots thicken, and the audience's concern evolves as well; what seemed like a catastrophe at the beginning of the season is small potatoes compared to what's come after as the stakes continue to rise. Video games are no different, but in addition to an evolving story, they add another layer: deep interactivity. As the game progresses, the way the player interacts with the game often evolves in the same way that their relationship to the story evolves.

This occurs in many different ways. For example, early in the game the player character might be fragile and low on resources, and the game is mostly about rationing out scarce resources and surviving tough situations. However, as the game progresses, the character's resources and capabilities grow, and the game becomes more about choosing the correct tactical option out of an array of items and abilities instead of trying to conserve scarce resources.

This is often achieved by introducing new game mechanics or systems, such as a system of magical spells or Limit Breaks that alter gameplay. It can also be achieved by removing limitations on the characters, such as providing more plentiful ammunition for more powerful guns as the game progresses. Or, instead of altering the player's capabilities, the game might have the opponents step up their own tactics and capabilities as the game progresses, forcing the player to adapt to new situations and use tools they would otherwise ignore.

Used properly, this keeps a game fresh and fun over the course of its play time and allows players to experience the growth and change their character is going through on a more visceral level. Used poorly, this causes a game to become muddled or confusing, or worse, Unwinnable, as players realize that the skills they've honed and abilities they've sunk skill points into in the first half of the game are totally useless in the latter half. This is often the case in a Disappointing Last Level that doesn't contain the things you need to make certain abilities beyond "hit it with a stick" work, like friendly NP Cs for social abilities or poorly-lit environments that lend themselves to stealth action.

See also One Stat to Rule Them All, when either in defiance of or as a result of this trope only one of your many statistical scores matters, and Crutch Character, where a certain party member is a priority at low levels, but becomes less desirable as the game goes on. Also compare Magikarp Power, where a character or tactic starts out intentionally weak, but if you persist in its use it becomes a powerhouse. A very common subtrope is Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, where the game changes drastically because one type of character or strategy grows in power at a much faster rate than others. Early Game Hell is often a form of this.

Compare Gameplay Derailment and Emergent Gameplay, which are about the metagame changing as players figure the game out instead over the course of a campaign.

Video Game Examples:

Action Game
  • Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped has an interesting version of this that isn't present in the first two games. The first main chunk of the game consists of reaching the end of levels and obtaining crystals. After obtaining the running shoes, however, the game becomes all about completing challenges and time trials for 100% completion.
  • In Dynasty Warriors, early game you'd want to maximize your characters' health and defense in order to survive. But as soon as better weapons and higher levels start rolling in, you'd want to maximize your attack efficiency and/or musou power in order to kill enemies faster. This is both for the Guide Dang It treasure acquisition missions and for the fact that enemies can combo-kill/musou you on any defense in harder modes anyway.
  • In Klonoa the early game is a kind of easygoing, simple platformer with a few little wrinkles and hidden areas. By the end of the game, however, the focus is almost entirely on tricky timing puzzles and multi-jumps that require snagging new enemies in midair and using them as fuel for jump combos. Comparing the flow of the first and final levels, they almost look like different games. And this isn't even to bring up the hidden bonus level, where you spend more time with your feet off the ground than on it.

  • The Legend of Zelda and all of its various sequels and remakes go about this in the same way. Early in the game you are fragile and lack the tools to overcome challenges. The entire game world tantalizes you by presenting you with doors you can't open, chasms you can't cross, and enemies you can't reasonably defeat. As you progress through the game and find heart containers and magical tools, more of the world becomes open to you, until you can go wherever you want at whim.

Eastern RPG
  • Most Final Fantasy games gradually introduce game mechanics. Often, this includes something like a system of magic or various limit breaks which can drastically change your priorities.
  • Final Fantasy Tactics has an odd kind of bait-and-switch. Early in the game, generic Wizard units will stomp all over most maps, only accelerating as you reach mid-game. Suddenly, in the late game, the whole focus changes to Special Units granted to you by the story who can do everything your generics can, but better, and physical attackers who can take a hit or two become much more useful than your fragile casters.
  • Early in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance you want your characters to have good strength, magic, defense and resistance. By the end game, all you care about is speed and accuracy as more or less your whole army has attacks that can kill or disable an enemy in one shot.
  • Those who enjoy the collecting and trading aspects of Pokémon might be shocked to find out how differently the game is played between other people. Using a haphazardly level-grinded team with decent type coverage (or a single max-level Legendary Pokémon, along with the gym badge that will make it obey you) is more than enough to breeze through almost all in-game battles, but raising a team to seriously compete against other players and in postgame battle facilities (which both disallow trainers to use items mid-battle, by the way – so much for those Full Restores you splurged on!) requires so much micromanagement, from IV inheritance to EV allocating, that it's like playing a different game entirely.
  • In the early game of Golden Sun managing Djinn is very important and very difficult, because of the way the game assigns new Djinni that you find. Come endgame, you have enough Djinn to keep summoning various gods over and over again, and it's much easier to line up the correct numbers of Djinn for massive stat boosts.
  • Early in Secret of Mana your characters must carefully ration healing items and level up their weapon skills, and boss fights can be quite brutal due to the game's limited inventory system. After acquiring magic, however, healing becomes trivial and most fights consist of stunlocking your opponents with spells until they explode. Magic dramatically changes the game.
  • Early on in Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale the game essentially boils down to keeping only the most profitable items of each kind in stock. However, as the game progresses, vending machines, customer requests and value fluctuations dramatically alter your purchasing habits. Late game, it's important to keep a huge selection of various goods on hand, because one failed sale will break your combo and squander your experience bonuses.
  • In Kingdom Hearts I, the big change comes when you learn Cure magic. The game can be easily divided into "pre-Cure" and "post-Cure" sections. Healing magic is so overpoweringly useful that it single-handedly makes Magic Points the most important stat in the game. This is true of most of the series, but only in the first game is the difference so large and Cure learned so late.
  • This is used as a deliberate gameplay mechanic in Eternal Sonata: at specific points of the story, your Party Level increases, unlocking new battle mechanics but increasing overall difficulty by removing things that assist you. For example, initially you have an infinite amount of time to plan out your turn, and the actual turn timer only counts down when you're moving or attacking. On higher Party Levels, the amount of time before the turn timer starts counting down is first reduced to 3 seconds, then 1 and at last none, the total turn time doesn't stop counting down if you stop attacking or moving and it goes down from 5 to 4 seconds. On the other hand, you also gain the ability to greatly power up your special attacks and chain them together. What this means is that gameplay shifts from spamming special attacks whenever you have a chance to use them since they do more hits than your normal attack combo and you can use 2 during your turn, to using them at the end of your turn to make them stronger via the combo you've built up, to possibly forego using them entirely until you've built up a sufficiently lenghty combo so that you can chain multiple ones together. Finally, once you enter the Bonus Dungeon, the number of special attacks you can chain together is doubled, but whenever you start chaining them together, the placement of the buttons changes around randomly, meaning you're likely to screw up the chain by pressing the wrong button.

First-Person Shooter
  • In S.T.A.L.K.E.R., you start off as a barely armed and armored chump, and the best way to play is to stay safe and avoid combat of any kind while performing menial sidequests for decent equipment and some money while exploring. Later on after a few plot-important missions, combat and stealth take first place, and money and equipment are of little to no concern since you find so much stuff on the enemy stalkers you kill and on the stashes said enemy stalkers have mapped on their PDA's. The latter always has equipment in full condition and at times more advanced than anything the shops have for sale, so there's barely any need to do any shopping save for repairing your gear.

  • The early part of Elsword is about allocating skill points, practicing your play style and leveling up. However, the game gets less forgiving as you go, and you eventually need to focus on crafting powerful equipment and socketing them with the correct stats.

  • When you first start playing League of Legends the focus is very heavily on offense, causing the whole game to be a blindingly fast damage contest. This makes "pub stomper" champions like Lee Sin and Master Yi ungodly powerful, and heavily snowballing champions like Katarina and Akali can be very hard to stop. As players learn more about how items work and how to use crowd control, however, the game becomes much more about solid defenses, teamwork and utility. Suddenly champions with highly variable kits are more important than champions who simply do a bucket of damage.

  • Tetris:
    • Modes and games where the game speed gradually increases dramatically shift over time, especially when the fall speed of blocks comes to a point where blocks will spawn on the stack, otherwise known as "20G"note . In the early game, you have more freedom with how to stack since pieces fall so slowly, but at higher speeds, especially 20G, the "terrain" of your stack becomes a very important factor; while a poor stack in the early game simply means awkward piece placement for certain kinds of pieces, badly-done stacking at 20G will hamper your pieces' movements very badly.
    • In Tetris: The Grand Master 2: The Absolute PLUS, the T.A. Death mode starts off with a race to level 500note . Reach 500 in 3 minutes and 25 seconds or less and you get the M rank and continue playing. From there, reaching level 999 will award the Grand Master rank. Since the second half of the game has no time restrictions, the focus shifts from speeding through the game to pure survival. In other words, while many games favor an early-game defense and a late-game offense, T.A. Death favors the opposite.

Real-Time Strategy
  • In the MMORTS Utopia, while your province is under 1000 acres, you concentrate on defense, train mainly basic units, and must divert a lot of land to sustaining your economy. However, once you pass that size, it becomes more viable to direct all resources into military strength and train only elite units.
  • Dawn of War: Dark Crusade and Soulstorm:
    • In the campaign, it's best to focus on building up requisition to buy garrison units and structures (especially in Soulstorm, which no longer remembers the buildings you placed on a previous attack/defense of a province) rather than attacking to gain more honor guard units. Later, when conquered provinces are sending you more requisition you can buy honor guard units with which to attack more efficiently.
    • Similarly, the best starting wargear isn't the flashy gun or glowing sword, it's the True Sight and speed-increasing gear that makes the commander more useful in Early Game Hell.

Third-Person Shooter
  • Early on in Warframe, players learn to rely on Warframe powers for damage output instead of their relatively weak weapons. However, as they progress through the game, a few things happen that shift focus away from damage-dealing powers and towards crowd-control powers. First, players accumulate stronger mods, which beef up weapon damage significantly and make the Squishy Wizard Warframes far more powerful. Second, the enemies' health and armor keeps increasing, and while weapons can scale with them, the damage from Warframe powers can't keep up.

Turn-Based Strategy
  • In early-game Disgaea, every stat is about as important as it sounds. In late-game, the only stat that matters is the one you use to deal damage. In addition, magic and special abilities are almost useless in the early game with a few exceptions, due to the cost of using magic and restoring your spell points. In the later game, your magic use is much less limited.
  • The early going in the old Roguelike game Wizards Castle involves fighting only the easy monsters (kobold, orc, wolf) and seeking three key treasures of the eight available: Blue Flame, Opal Eye and Pale Pearl. Once the player has the Flame and the Eye, books can be opened with impunity; books sometimes will max out Strength and Dexterity stats. With enough gold on hand, the player can buy Intelligence potions until smart enough to cast Fireball spells on gargoyles and dragons. Ideally, the player can level up to comfortably confront all the monsters, and even assault the Vendors. Finding the Orb of Zot, the quest's ideal, can almost become secondary to conducting a killfest.
  • In early-game Fire Emblem you tend to play much more cautiously. Since your low-leveled characters can't take many hits and death is permenant, you need to bait and lure enemies one-by-one, and check enemy movement ranges carefully, to ensure you aren't overwhelmed, while making sure to weaken enemies enough for your lower-leveled characters to finish off. Once your characters start leveling up, upgrading classes, getting better weapons and raising their support levels with eachother, battles become much more about positioning your characters right to cut down hordes of enemies on the Enemy Phase. It's for this reason most games in the series suffer from Early Game Hell.
  • Civilization 5 starts out with a single city, where you have to survive against barbarians and explore your surroundings in the bronze age, by the Renaissance you'll be forming trade deals with other countries and spreading your religion, by the modern era you'll be pushing Tourism and trying to win the Space Race.
  • In XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your first upgrade can be either weapons or armor. At this stage in the game, your weapons are still killing enemies in one shot, so upgrading armor is more important. By the late game, Rocket Tag Gameplay begins to emerge and you need to upgrade your weapons to keep from being outgunned.
  • Early game Galactic Civilizations is about building colony ships quickly and rapidly moving them to inhabitable worlds, followed by a delicate economic balancing act as you try to afford this. Late game Galactic Civilizations is more defined by research, because that allows you to out-tech your opponents and thereby crush them. Militarily, the early game is defined by tiny ships with light weapons and maybe a little armour, while the late game is defined by giant slabs of metal covered in guns that can tear apart entire fleets of tiny ships.

Western RPG
  • Diablo series:
    • Diablo II is all about this trope. Early in the game, it may seem useful to put your stat points into Energy, but by the time you reach end game you realize that those points have essentially been wasted, as all you care about by then is having just enough Strength to equip the best gear and then nothing but Vitality. Likewise, in later difficulties enemies have excessive resistance to various kinds of attack, and some of your spells scale better than others; it would be a real shame if you put all of your ability points into something useless. Surprise!
    • Diablo III:
      • On earlier difficulties it is not only feasible but optimal to focus entirely on your character's offensive capabilities. By the time you get into higher difficulties, doing so will get you killed. A lot. Fortunately, unlike in D2, you can respec your skills at any time.
      • While leveling from Level 1 to the Level Cap of 60 (70 with the Expansion Pack), the game is about unlocking new skills and testing new skill combinations, boosting passive stats, and getting new Loot in roughly equal measure. Upon reaching the Level Cap, while there are still Paragon Levels to be gained for small passive bonuses, the emphasis is much more on unlocking top-tier Loot and fine-tuning the character's skill loadout to match the bonuses it gives, making it a de facto case of Loot Based Progression. Additionally, by this point the player has likely completed the story mode and has probably moved on to tackling bounties and Rifts, randomized dungeons that remix assets from all parts of the game.
  • In Dragon Age: Inquisition during Act 1 in Haven, you have to make do with a limited selection of levels to explore and harvest for herbs and materials, crafting options aren't too good, and companions need certain builds in order to survive. The game changes a lot when you get to Skyhold in Act 2. At this point you have access to specializations for each party member, can cast Focus skills, gain access to masterwork crafting with rare Fade-Touched materials and more powerful schematics, and more levels to explore for rare herbs and rare minerals. Herbs can also be grown at Skyhold if you find their seeds.
  • In Knights of the Old Republic you can get through most of the game with a balanced Jack-of-All-Trades build that focuses on social skills and nifty force powers. This grows more and more unwieldy as the game progresses, until the final boss is all but impossible if you aren't a highly specialized combat machine. Unless you just run away while throwing your lightsaber at him endlessly. It actually works better if you play as a character with a high level of Force points. Though it admittedly isn't very cinematic.
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: Early on, players are likely to spend lots of money grinding and doing menial tasks to acquire potions that restore stamina, magic, and health. That's because at those levels, you'll likely be doing a lot of fighting and find it hard to survive against swarms of enemies without being prepared. Later, priorities will shift into spells and gear that can help you carry a greater load; that's because once you start finding good weapons/armor/valuables, you're going to want to bring everything out of the dungeon with you so that you can sell it or use it for crafting.
  • Mass Effect 2: A variation that differs from difficulty setting, and not progression through one playthrough. On lower difficulties, it's possible for the player to trick Shepard out with gear/abilities that boost his/her defense and allow him/her to soak up great amounts of enemy fire. On Hardcore or Insanity difficulty, though, that goes right out the window; the ONLY thing that matters on the highest difficulty is killing things before they kill you. Defense-boosting abilities become pointless, because at best it'll take three bullets to kill you instead of two. Thus, Damage Per Second becomes the player's top priority so that they can kill hostile damage sources as soon as possible.
    • All the Mass Effect games on normal difficulty setting have an early game where you're fragile and dependent upon cover and a late game where this is significantly less important because you've got a whole bunch of protective buffs.

Non Video-Game examples:

Tabletop Games
  • Dungeons & Dragons:
    • In editions before 4th edition, spellcasting was a liability in early levels and grew to engulf the entire game by the time you reached higher levels. Early on, your hit points are very low and even the fighter can go down to a single lucky critical hit from a tough opponent, making heavy armor and good hit dice a real boon. By the time you reach mid-game, however, your spellcasters will have obtained a stockpile of very useful spells that let them pull their weight, and by endgame a caster's buffing capabilities combined with their hundreds of spell slots filled with powerful, reality-altering spells have completely changed the game.
    • In 3.x Dungeons and Dragons, AC (Armor Class) is important at low-to-mid levels because it allows you to avoid taking damage from enemy attacks. At higher levels, everybody has such high attack bonuses that AC becomes meaningless. Even if you have +5 Full Plate Armor most enemy attacks are going to hit you. More importantly, most of the powerful, reality altering spells mentioned above are unaffected by AC.
    • The changing gameplay priorities are actually built right in to 4th edition in the form of tiers. Every 10 levels, your characters get a pretty significant growth in power plus new capabilities, such as flight, teleportation or, in the final tier, the ability to cheat death and resurrect themselves at least once per day. There are some pretty dramatic differences between the capabilities and priorities of a heroic-tier party, where resources are scarce and powers need to be carefully rationed, and an epic-tier party, who won't flinch for anything short of a mad god and who can fight regular enemies for days straight without resting.