The game Magicka unlocks eight different elements in its ten minute playable intro, giving you access to 16,384 spell combinations.
Half-Life 1 and 2 don’t give you any abilities in the first ten minutes, and in general only grant you about one new weapon type every hour or two.
Obviously it depends partly on genre, but there’s more than that going on. I think developers fundamentally disagree on the question of “How far through the game should I get access to the main abilities that make it great?”
Every hour before that point, you lose some players who might have liked it if they’d got that far. I’m probably never going to get through Dead Space 2 because I’ve been playing for hours and still only have two weapons, one unexciting and the other impractical.
But every hour after that point, the player has a less exciting sense of progression, and risks getting bored with the same formula. FEAR probably fell victim to that – if you didn’t love the basic combat as much as I did, the fact that it never changed after the first few levels probably killed it.
Personally, I like to get things one at a time, but quickly early on. I will play almost anything if my toolset is changing every ten minutes.
The games that pace their unlocks slower tend to frontload the experience with a lot of scripted or story content, unique stuff that’s hard to make.
I think that’s rarely as compelling and inviting to the player as getting new abilities. I’d rather they saved the unique, story-driven stuff for after I’ve got all my tools, to stop that phase from getting repetitive. By that point I’m probably invested enough to pay more attention to it, whereas early on it’s usually unwanted noise.
What’s your sweet spot? What games do it well, and which ones don’t? I’m asking partly because this is one of the big things I haven’t decided about Gunpoint yet.