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.
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.
Video Game Examples:
- 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.
- 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.
- In Pokémon, during the early game you have to more or less take what you can get in terms of mons and attacks. You start out with just a few monsters with low coverage on the Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors table, and healing items are rare and expensive, if available at all. Having one of your monsters faint can absolutely cripple you, especially if that monster was your only answer to a specific problem. As the game progresses and you build your collection of monsters, this problem fixes itself. It also helps that you gain the ability to heal and revive your monsters more easily. The later games, especially in generations after the first, give you a huge amount of variety in what you can put in your team and new ways to learn attacks of different types.
- 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 the first Kingdom Hearts I game, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In X Com 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.
- 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 Toursim and trying to win the Space Race.
- 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 has a milder version of this, mitigated by the fact that your skills and gear can be changed at any time. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Non Video-Game examples:
- 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 and 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.
- 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.