By ahoodedfigure 75 Comments
While there was a wide, refreshing variation of opinion on what people wanted out of their Elder Scrolls/open world fantasy game experience, there was a common thread that I didn't mention in my prior post, but that I'll mention here.
The main issue that bothers just about everyone about Oblivion (and probably would have bothered me had I experienced it) was the universal level scaling, where all enemies increased in power alongside the hero, in a sense negating your advancement. Look up "level scaling" in Google, and Oblivion will be the number one suggestion. The other suggestions are largely other products produced with the same engine, Fallout 3 and New Vegas. It created such a problem that it rippled throughout other games that were only tangentially related.
The primary difficulty when creating encounters is that you want to make them challenging, but not taxing, not impossible, not irritating, but not too easy. Even when you're designing low-level encounters for a non-scaling environment, you have to think about balance to make sure that players get the most out of the experience. So how does one even pull that off?
Well, it's usually solved either through a series of meta compromises that adjust to the player, or everything is left alone, suggesting a path that players can use to progress. A third option, one I won't go into too much, is to make everything so random that it's possible to run into an impossible situation, where things are so hard that they're actually unbeatable, forcing a reset. While the latter can be charming in games with little to no investment of time or energy, I think we have a higher standard for RPGs and thus I'll ignore this.
The Hand-Crafted Path
If you have character advancement at all, where a character gets stronger as they progress, they will need to continually be challenged for the advancement to feel worthwhile. One way to give the player that sense of accomplishment is to build a world in which there are increasing levels of challenges that you run into. These challenges may be surrounded by clues that suggest you should get stronger before you go here, or that here's a good place to grow stronger. Instead of forcing the game mechanics to adapt to you, the player adapts to the world. Or, if they're sneaky, they try to subvert the natural order and go to places they don't have any business going, which could result in arbitrary defeat or richer rewards.
The upside: The world feels a bit more real if it doesn't intelligently react to you; and one of my favorite consequences is that you can challenge yourself by hitting harder missions than you're supposed to take. I used to enjoy racing through Phantasy Star II without grinding at all, just so I could reach the points in the game where biomonsters were a lot stronger, giving much more experience and much more meseta. In a well-crafted game these encounters can have a lot of challenge to them, but won't necessarily be impossible, and will reward the daring player. In a sense, such a system allows players to adjust their difficulty level on the fly, picking challenging areas by GOING to them, rather than pushing a slider back and forth or letting the game engine do the work for them (and hoping it adjusts properly).
The downside: If a player has already advanced by hitting their head against harder encounters, when they return to an area that doesn't meet their current level they will be bored. In World of Xeen there are two sides to the world, Cloudside and Darkside. The latter has harder encounters, a wealth of experience to be had, and is, in my opinion, the more interesting place to explore. But since you can go to the dark side of Xeen at the very beginning of the combined game, you can advance so far that when you return to Cloudside, a lot of the minor quests are nigh meaningless, giving you meager experience and treasure. This in itself isn't so bad, since that's the consequence for tackling harder stuff first, but it winds up meaning the content itself may be skipped, something many game developers feel invalidates all the time and effort they put into creating those parts of the world in the first place. There's also an issue with going into areas you're not ready for: if it's not obvious that you shouldn't be there, you may get wiped out so easily that the game could feel more frustrating than worthwhile. In poorly-planned games, grinding will sometimes be required before a player can survive in the next area, but this may be due in large part to the types of advancement schemes the game uses.
Ye Olde Level Scaling
Using the Elder Scrolls as an example, there are three different versions of level scaling among the more recent games (I'm still not familiar with Arena's methods, but I'm considering playing it so I may know more in time).
In Daggerfall, humanoid encounters scaled to meet the player, so that encounters when you're high level are usually tough and yield excellent loot, while fighting humans when you're weak and small won't necessarily clean your clock. Creature encounters, though, remain constant, so that a harpy will always generate the same class of loot, and be about the same level of deadliness even when they become little more than nuisances.
In Morrowind things got a lot more complicated: according to online sources, there are areas and events that have pre-set encounter levels, similar to the handcrafted system I detailed above. The monsters themselves in general belong to encounter classes, so that if you run into a daedra early on you're more likely to get a weak daedra, while daedra encounters later in your character's development will be a lot more deadly, yielding greater rewards.
In Oblivion, the notorious level scaling entered in full force, with every encounter somewhat matching up with player ability. This left a lot of people feeling as though their leveling was for nought, since whatever they did to get stronger, the game world got stronger to match, meaning that the lowliest random encounter was still as problematic as it was at low levels.
Bethesda's first Fallout game, using the same basic engine as Oblivion, altered this pattern significantly, showing they were well aware of the criticisms against Oblivion: In Fallout 3 you almost saw a return to Morrowind's combination of hand-crafted and level scaled, only according to this report, it was the regions that scaled, not so much the creatures themselves. If you stumbled into a certain area early on, you would get early-level encounters. If you happened to bypass that place and come back late in your career, the encounters generated there might be much stronger. The only way the player might know this was happening would be to compare notes with other players or play through again, since the encounter level for that area would stay the same for the rest of the game.
The upside: While complete level scaling is largely hated, some degree of level scaling allows the player to feel challenged when going into new areas. This may not be the most realistic scenario if advancement is significant each time their character increases in power, but it also maintains player interest in continuing to explore, as well as maintaining a sense of danger that might be lacking if they KNEW that such-and-such an area was made for low-level characters.
The downside: When done to an extreme, the player feels as though he or she is going nowhere. That little rat that bit you in the starting dungeon can now pierce your glass armor and somehow shrugs off a blow from a sword (actual results may vary). Your character may look snazzy in their new outfit, but beyond an added list of abilities the player feels a bit impotent, and since one of the common character arcs of open world RPGs is the sense that the player makes more of an impact on the world over time, deadening this feeling can leave this advancement feeling pointless. This also serves in the opposite manner as well, since if the player DOESN'T advance, supposedly strong and imposing monsters will be EASY to take out, defeating any drama that might emerge from a climactic encounter.
I get the feeling that a combination, or the hand-crafted style, fits my gaming outlook more. My favorite pastime in games like these is to challenge the borders, to try to sneak into places I have no business being in (just like in GTA when I try to get past arbitrary barriers early on). And when I say hand-crafted I only mean that certain types of areas have certain types of encounters, it doesn't preclude it from being used in a random generation scheme like the one I profiled in my previous post.
As far as what Skyrim will have, I doubt Bethesda will make the same mistakes with it that they did with Oblivion. They seemed to have already learned from the results of universal level scaling, and will probably act accordingly.
Are there any systems which any of you have used into that took character advancement in rewarding or disastrous ways?