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The "key-door problem" is a term I've come up with, after playing a number of Metroidvania or Zelda style indie games.

One distinctive feature of these games, is that the player is free to explore the world, but the world is full of obstacles the player cannot overcome from the start. The player is encouraged to explore as far as they can, until they find a new item or learn a new skill, which will allow them to overcome some of the obstacles, and allow them to explore where they previously couldn't. Backtracking usually makes up a big part of the game's experience.

For example, in Zelda, bushes can block Link's way, until he finds a sword to cut them, and cracked walls can be blown away with bombs. And in Metroid, Samus cannot crawl through small tunnels until she finds the Morph Ball upgrade, while large canyons require that she can jump indefinitely in mid-air.

This dynamic is what I like most about these games.

However, I've noticed that some indie games (not all) trying to reproduce the same dynamic, actually feel boring precisely because of it. Unlike in Zelda or Metroid, where you're acquiring a new skill or tool to help you progress, these games feel like you're searching for keys to open specific doors instead.

This is what I call the "key-door problem". I've also tried to make my own Zelda-like game, only to notice that it suffers from the same "key-door problem".

Unfortunately, I'm having a very hard time finding anything about it online (such as what causes it, and how to avoid it). When I search for "key door problem game design", all I get is an article about the "Door problem of Game Design" by Liz England, which is about how much effort it can take to add something as mundane as a door to a game.

Therefore, I'd like to know what the "official" term is for the "key-door problem", if there is one.


To clarify: I'm not looking for a term that describes "stopping the player from proceeding until they're ready", I'm looking for a term that describes "when players feel like they're collecting keys, rather than upgrades or new abilities" instead.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It might help if you could edit the text to clarify, instead of just adding a "clarify" at the bottom. Changing the Q a lot is bad, but a little is fine. It seems like your main point is how bombs are a key that opens many doors (which is good) vs. other things that are a key to one door (which is what you want a name for). Or maybe you mean the feeling of being stuck and having to backtrack (whereas I assume in Zelda you get the bombs after a boss fight?) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 13, 2021 at 21:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Instead of asking for a term for this problem, so that you can search for solutions referencing that term, you might be able to cut out the middle step and just ask for strategies to solve this problem directly. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Nov 14, 2021 at 0:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ One reason that it might be hard to find others using a term for this is that depending on what you think the root problem is, people may give it different names. For example, if you think the problem is that the keys can only be used on one door, you might call it the one-door problem. But if you think the problem is that the keys do not have uses outside of unlocking doors, (e.g. Metroid has doors unlocked with missiles, which are clearly useful in combat as well,) then you might call it the unlocks-doors-only problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ryan1729
    Nov 14, 2021 at 3:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DMGregory, you're right, that would've been better. Should I close or delete this question? \$\endgroup\$
    – Nolonar
    Nov 14, 2021 at 11:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think there's any harm in leaving this question here as-is, then asking a new one more focused on problem-solving. \$\endgroup\$
    – DMGregory
    Nov 14, 2021 at 12:05

3 Answers 3

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TVTropes calls mechanics where the player needs to acquire an item in location A which serves no purpose but to allow them to progress beyond an obstacle in location B a lock and key puzzle.

The problem described in the question seems to be either an over-reliance on lock and key puzzles. For example, having lock and key puzzles again and again until they become repetitive and predictable. Or using them in ways which make the game less fun. For example by using them to force continuous traversal of the same areas over and over again or by causing the player to get lost.

I don't think there is a more specific term for it, and neither do I think there is a need for one. Any game mechanic can become an anti-pattern when it isn't used well or used beyond the point where it overstays its welcome.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ And boy do I dislike it when games rely heavily on this. So yeah I don't play most metroid type games. \$\endgroup\$
    – Almo
    Nov 15, 2021 at 15:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Almo It doesn't necessarily needs to be that way. GMTK made a video a while ago "Why You (Probably) Didn't Get Lost in Metroid Dread" which shows how one can design a meteroidvania world in a way that prevents wandering off in the wrong direction. \$\endgroup\$
    – Philipp
    Nov 15, 2021 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I just don't like being somewhere and saying "do I have the tools to do this yet". I don't like traversing old ground to find where to use something I just got. It's not about getting lost; it's really about the mechanic itself. \$\endgroup\$
    – Almo
    Nov 15, 2021 at 16:08
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One word close to what you describe is "gating". This means to take a part of the game they may not be ready for (or you just decide they aren't) and put an arbitrary block on it until ... something (they reach level 20 or have played for 20 hours, or whatever).

World of Warcraft had/has a nice counter-example: there was a deadly area you could easily walk-through from a starting zone, where you'd be insta-killed by the first monster to see you. There was no good reason to go there, but the game let you. Other games might put a "you must be level 40+ to enter" gate in front. Or they might be more indirect but the same -- you need lockpicking to go in, which you only get at level 40.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I think there was a misunderstanding. I'm not looking for a term that describes stopping a player from proceeding until they've reached a certain point in the game. I'm looking for a term that describes when players feel like they're looking for keys to open doors, rather than new abilities or upgrades. I've edited my question to clarify. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nolonar
    Nov 13, 2021 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nolonar - Be aware that the feeling you describe might be the consequence of theories that relate to that. This answer describes it well with an example that goes counter to that feeling. Areas are not restricted from entering (doors), but too difficult to prevail in. There is no particular key to search either. In other words: If there is a theory describing how theft is a crime that harms people's property rights, there is no need to create a theory describing "feeling bad when you are stolen from." In this case if your game's areas are gated, then the game will "feel" gated. \$\endgroup\$
    – Battle
    Nov 15, 2021 at 11:32
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Maybe Player Progression (Or Character Progression) is the closest I can get to describe your problem.

If you only get a 'key' to unlock a 'door', then the player itself does not improve. (This doesn't necesarry have to be a key or a door, but it's just one that functions similair without giving additional traits to the character)

If you focus on player progression, then you want to see the player visibly improve when they get a new item, and you don't want to keep stuck with the same abilities in multiple areas.

Implementing items that not only as useful to progress in the level, but also benefits in combat are good examples of player progression. Movement is also a major progression factor, as that allows you to backtrack previous areas easier as well. Been able to take new shortcuts may also take part of that, but keep in mind that shortcuts may start to look like 'doors' again, as they don't improve on the character themselves.

Player Progression is not only limited to combat or mobility. One other example is the Stealth ability in Metroid Dread. While it works to open doors with sensors, it also helps to avoid an EMMI Encounter.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Progression seems to be on the right track. Maybe "progression using items vs. skills"? The OP likes it when bombs or swords open new areas, since it feels as if you progressed your skills; whereas merely finding a key doesn't give that feeling. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 15, 2021 at 13:45

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