I’ve talked before in my Level Design Primer series about Gating mechanics: mechanics that block player progress until they’ve accomplished a certain task, reached a certain location, or acquired a certain item, thus directing the order they play through an otherwise open space. Keys in Legend of Zelda, mobility items in Metroid, and so on. Not all gating mechanics, however, are absolute.
I would like to break up gating mechanics into two categories: Hard Gates and Soft Gates. A Hard Gate is when some condition absolutely needs to be met in order to progress. The condition is a binary (either you got it your you don’t) as is the gate. Doors which can only be opened by missiles in Metroid, or doors which can only be unlocked by keys in Zelda, are both examples of Hard Gates.
A Soft Gate, on the other hand, is when progression would be prohibitively difficult until a condition is met. In this case, the condition could be either a binary or a sliding scale: the more of it you have, the less resistance the Soft Gate provides. Take, for example, areas in JRPGs with enemies of a higher level than the player. In order to reach the next town or dungeon, they have to pass through this area. If they are under-leveled, they still have a chance to make it through, but they’d be better advised to hold off until they have leveled up some more. Another example would be a tough boss battle in a Metroid game. The player already has all the items you need to take on the boss, but they might want to acquire more energy tanks and missiles before the fight.
Put in basic terms: a hard-gate is an obstacle that requires the player go do something else before they can progress. A soft-gate is an obstacle that encourages the player to go do something else before they can progress.
By creating soft-gates, you can give the player more freedom while still guiding their experience. You can let players test the boundaries of their environment and assess their own ability (as well as their character’s power and resources). And if the player decides that the Soft Gate provides too much of a challenge, it’s up to them to make up the difference, and up to the designer to provide ways for them to do so. They might take on quests to gain experience, seek out items to make them more powerful, or obtain resources they can use when trying to get past the Soft Gate. Soft Gates can act as motivation for the player to explore the optional content of a game.
It also gives them more leeway in how they get past the gate. A long time ago, back in the EverQuest days, a friend of mine and I, at a relatively low level, made the decision to attempt a cross-continent expedition. MMOs like EverQuest (and it’s descendants such as World of Warcraft) are full of soft-gates in the form of the level of enemies in each zone. Each area of the game is build around being faced by players in a certain level range. However, you aren’t required to be within that level range to enter that area. We managed to sneak our way through high-level zones and eventually make it to the other side of the continent (although my character ended up dying in the final zone outside the city we were heading too, a zone which, ironically, contained level-appropriate encounters). Such an adventure would have been impossible with hard-gates, but with soft-gates, it became a fun subversion of the intended pace of the game.
To tie this in to what I’m currently working on, in Ninja Outbreak, the final area leading up to the boss becomes accessible a few zones into the game. At that point, you could head directly for the final boss and, if you defeat him, beat the game. The game has Metroidvania-style weapons which open up new paths. However, there is a way through the final area which doesn’t require the special weapons. It’s much longer and more dangerous than the path that does require them, though, and there are no checkpoints in the final area. The crux of this is that it puts the responsibility on the player as to how they proceed. This final area serve as a soft-gate, encouraging the player to explore the game world, but not requiring it. That way, every time the player puts themselves into a dangerous position in search of a weapon, it was their choice rather than something they were forced to do.