Power Pacing in Video Games

9 min readAug 10, 2019

As I’ve written before, video games often server up a power fantasy. Be it an amazing space marine or a medieval knight of justice — you can find a world that is distinctly not our own.

One enjoyable part of a power fantasy comes from a feeling of growth. If you embody a fictional character, there is a feeling of accomplishment and reward to knowing and seeing your character become stronger. This is probably deeply rooted in human psychology more than I can understand, but to emulate that moment as a child when you are finally tall enough to reach the cookie jar — that’s growth. Increasing power in a power fantasy is a delicate thing, and doing it wrong can have a vast array of negative impacts.

Vanilla WoW had a weapon ‘proficiency’ system.

Level Up

First, let’s explore a few different ways in which a virtual avatar can grow. The easiest is a leveling system, and this permeates almost every RPG. If what you can do doesn’t change, you can just hit harder and survive longer, well that’s not quite as rewarding as you might think. A leveling system isn’t enough, but it provides a backbone for other mechanics to work off of.

A few games have explored divvying up the leveling system. Instead of one master level that represents you, instead you have a set of levels corresponding to each of the ways you can interact with the digital world. The more you utilize those skills the faster they grow. I like this method, since it auto-tailors your experience to what you like the most. The downside is that it’s easy to get wrong, you must have all ways of interacting equally appealing on the face of them. Otherwise, if a particular skill or mechanic is just wildly more useful than everyone playing that game will lean on that one skill.

A ‘level’ inherently represents the capacity to do something. It is the most straightforward way to inject growth into a character. Nevertheless, history has proven that it can easily go wrong. The formula for how quickly the numbers increase, how significant they are, where exactly they apply, and how high they can go add up to quite a bit of math. When video game developers tell you as a player that they need to tweak some numbers, it’s exactly these types of numbers and algorithms that are being tweaked. And tweak they must, getting the scale wrong, putting a zero in the wrong place, they’re enough to make a great game into something forgettable.

Item Get!

There are games that have sections gated behind the acquisition of a new ability or piece of equipment. Metroidvania and Legend of Zelda games both fall into this category. This is a different type of power. ‘Utility’ is probably a more suitable word here than ‘power’, to be honest. By discovering new abilities you are able to do more things in a very general sense. A properly paced introduction of these items and abilities will so slowly adapt you to using them that it will be as second natured as breathing. Then, if you start a new game from the beginning without these items and abilities you’ll feel suffocated in how little you were originally able to do.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time equipment screen.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, as an example, has a whole host of items to empower you as you control Link through the land of Hyrule. After an hour you may notice a platform that is just out of jumping distance, but it also looks like you’re supposed to be able to get there. Hopefully you don’t spend too much time on it before you get the item (maybe the hover boots) that lets you get there.

Item-gated progression is rarely packaged with the leveling system mentioned before. Though I do have to say it’d be interesting for a developer to put time into what such a hybrid would look like.

With Big Power, comes Big Baddies

Power creep is a very real fiend for game developers. Power is awesome and fun, but if you’re too powerful the fun is quickly replaced with boredom. Fun exists in a challenge, so the more powerful you are, the harder the game needs to get to match your pace.

Destroy All Humans (1 & 2) gave me a clear view of this when they were hitting the Playstation scene in the early 2000s. You start out with few powers, but you only go up against farmers with basic weaponry and no coordination. By the end of the game you have devastating telepathic abilities, enhanced weaponry, and air superiority.

Destroy All Humans: 2 weapon upgrade screen.

Likewise you’re no longer battling the estranged farmer, but a secret government organization that is designed to hunt alien life (in this game, that’s you) and have futuristic equipment for to do battle with. They may still be less powerful than you are, but they are much more organized than the farmers. Some of the power comes from story-given abilities, and (especially in the 2nd game) some of it comes from enhancing your weaponry through a currency-buy system.

The Need for Speed

Another important aspect of growing a character is the pace at which that character grows.

Saint’s Row is the ridiculous over-the-top brother to the Grand Theft Auto series. In particular, each game tops itself in the power scale. You become ever more ridiculous in what your character can do, and equally the challenges against you become magnitudes more difficult and ridiculous (in even amounts, but leaning towards ridiculous.)

Saint’s Row 4 super ‘powers’ buy screen.

Saint’s Row 4 saw the addition of literal superpowers that you could buy in your upgrade screen. In the 3rd game going up against an army tank was a real problem. In the 4th game you’re essentially superman. This power increase happens fast, too. Almost too fast to appreciate your new found power.

Getting a new ability is supposed to be an occasion. Something worth a high five or a fist pump. When the player is given too much too fast it is devalued. That dopamine hit becomes hollow and short lived. The game’s replayability also suffers.

Slow and Steady

The reverse can also be a problem, though. If the character grows too slowly, they may forget they grew at all. If you’re watching paint dry, could you tell me at exactly what moment the paint was actually dry? I doubt it, it’s too slow for us to perceive.

WoW’s weapon proficiency system gains traction like a glacier, and you can be sure that a lot of players of WoW back in the day that had ridiculous man hours sunk into it spent a considerable number of them leveling up proficiencies.

The first Borderlands game had a similar weapon proficiency system, but the second game replaced it with a ‘Badass Rank’ system not tied to weapons. Instead you had challenges, and completing them earned you points called your ‘Badass Rank.’ After so many points you were granted a token that you could spend to increase one of 5 randomly chosen stats per token by a very very small percentage.

These systems are a slow burn, and don’t grant the player that dopamine hit like Metroidvania games.

In these cases you almost have to seek out ways to prove that you’ve grown. Theoretically you could go back to an earlier level of the game and witness how you don’t struggle so much on enemies. The problem with that in WoW and Borderlands is that there is also an overarching leveling system that has a bigger impact on your performance in-game. The fact that you’re now 10 levels higher will mean you decimate those older enemies. In this scenario you never get to feel those small percentages add up, because they’re drowned by the larger increase in your overall level.

Show the Cheese First

Ideally games will have a cycle of frustration. You’ll be battered by enemies that are difficult, then acquire some ability to smush them. You get a short window of reprieve to enjoy your new power before being introduced to a new problem. Then that is the difficult thing and the cycle repeats itself.

The dopamine of the increased power can be seasoned, flavored, and enhanced quite easily. Like a mouse learning to navigate a maze, you need to incentivise the player. Make the player hungry for the power before they can have it, show them another character using it to their advantage. Show them the enemy using it against them, before granting the player the same ability. If the player is salivating with longing for this incredible ability the reward of getting it will be that much more sweet. It’s a pretty well established part of the human psyche that if we wait to receive something we want the more we want it and the happier we are when we have it.

Super Metroid’s list of power ups.

Timing this cycle of frustration and reward is key to the pacing of the game. Too slow and the player gets frustrated, too fast and the player is bored. Too slow and your game could feel like it lasts forever, devoid of new things. Too fast and the game will be over in a snap, otherwise you have to create that much more game for them to churn through.

A lazy developer may try to slow the pace so that they need to make less content, but this will leave a bland taste in the player’s mouth. I’d rather have 6 ounces of steak than a pound of tofu, after all.

No Power Fantasy, No Problem

Something else to keep in mind is that problems like these go away if the game isn’t meant to be a power fantasy.


Competitive games, for instance, fundamentally cannot have any given person more powerful than every other player. In Rainbow Six: Siege, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and every MOBA you can think of (LoL, DotA, Smite) each player is on more-or-less the same level as everyone else. There may be class-based or weapon-based pros and cons that spice up the game, but the whole of the game is centered around the idea that power comes from skill.


Another example of great games that don’t exhibit power fantasy are exploration-based games. Minecraft’s only concept of power is when you build it for yourself, instead of having been granted it. Even then you could lose it all in a moment of really bad luck.

In Limbo you’re a small, frightened child trying to not die.


Limbo is a 2D side scrolling game where you do some platforming and solve some puzzles. Portal (1&2) are puzzle game where the only new mechanics introduced to you aren’t to empower you, but to add parts to the puzzle you need to solve.


Many horror games thrive off of making you feel helpless and powerless. The opposite of the power fantasy is exhibited here, and as such there is no use for any such leveling system. If anything, I would expect power to be present at the start, only to be slowly stripped from you as you progress.




Software developer by day, gamer by night. I use medium to write about video games and some of their many aspects.