I Despise Level Scaling!

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#1 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

There's no game mechanic I despise more than level scaling. I also question the mindset behind it -- that any game, open-world RPG or not, should have a relatively constant difficulty throughout the entire game (never too easy, never too hard).

Super Mario Analogy

Let's consider the idea that a game which doesn't have a relatively constant difficulty throughout is broken and in need of a fix. In that case, Super Mario Bros. is fundamentally broken. In all SMB games starting with the first on Famicom/NES, the first stage was always exponentially easier than the final stage in which you fight Bowser and save Princess Toadstool.

So if we apply this level scaling mindset that the challenge of the game should be relatively constant throughout, the first stage should not be considerably easier than the final stage of the game. Experienced players who have poured hours into the game should not have much easier of a time completing stage one as opposed to completing the final stage of the game.

Would that make a superior game? Perhaps some people consider this analogy unfair since SMB is mainly a linear game.

Grand Theft Auto Analogy

So let's turn to GTA games. I've found in GTA that if I steal the fastest cars, possess the heaviest body armor and an arsenal of weaponry including heavy assault rifles, every part of the game becomes considerably easier. Some missions even become a total and relaxing breeze with such a powerful character. So from the level scaling mindset, the game is fundamentally broken and in need of a fix.

If we apply a level scaling mindset, then there are simple things we can do to make the game consistently challenging no matter how powerful your character becomes. If he has an assault rifle and heavy body armor, we can make all the armed pedestrians, thugs, and cops also have heavy body armor and assault rifles. If you only possess a pistol and no armor, so too will all enemies in the game. Voila -- now the game is no more challenging if you only have a t-shirt and a pistol than if you have assault rifles and heavy body armor.

For speed missions where you need to get from point A to point B in a limited amount of time, having a super fast sporty car obviously makes such missions considerably easier than if you were to try to complete them in a golf cart. So we can apply a level scaling mindset there and make it so that the distance from point A to point B increases or the time in which you are allowed to complete the mission decreases based on how fast your car is. Voila -- now the mission is equally difficult whether you're driving a golf cart or the fastest sports car in the entire game.

Would that make a superior game?

Open-World RPGs

In open-world RPGs, does it make sense to be able to dispatch a dragon at level 1 while being slaughtered by a couple of common thugs on a well-traveled road 20 level ups later? Is it really that fun to try to have a relatively constant level of challenge throughout the entire game?

Granted it does allow you to explore a heavily-armed fortress at level 1 without it being a suicide mission and likewise find yourself dying on a common road at level 50 with elite gear to petty thugs, but is it really so fun for no part of the game to ever be too easy or too hard?

I remember playing Ultima 7 as a child. I started off at level 1 and, knowing I was doing something really dangerous, I traveled off the beaten path from Britain to Trinsic and to the south of Spirit Wood, always paranoid about any sort of enemy I could encounter at which point I was ready to run for my life given that my party members were inexperienced, ill-equipped, and could barely swing a sword. And along the mountainside, I encountered a cave. I ventured into it only to find I stumbled into a dragon's lair with eggs surrounding me. Pumped full of adrenaline, I tried to carefully explore the area for valuable loot until I encountered the mother dragon who obliterated my entire party before I barely knew what hit me.

That was fun! It was fun to be vulnerable and weak and exploring areas I knew to be risky and out of my league. I then reloaded a previous save and decided to avoid venturing again into that dragon's lair until much later in the game. I revisited it far later after my party was battle-hardened and well-equipped and managed to slay that mother dragon which previously obliterated my party long ago, and that too was really fun!

I cannot imagine the game ever being so gratifying at both low and high levels if venturing off the beaten path was not so treacherous and borderline suicide at level 1 or if I still could not have more confidently done so at level 20. The fact that the game didn't offer a constant challenge and had parts too difficult at low levels and parts too easy at high levels was what made that open world so rich and treacherous to explore.

And it wasn't like the fact that certain parts of the world were considerably more difficult for lower levels than others reduced the game to a linear adventure. There were always infinite ways in which I could rearrange the order in which I traveled to areas. The difficult areas were those always off the beaten path where weary travelers would never venture to go, but most of the massive map could be explored by traveling along safe routes. That, to me, is an open world RPG done right, and level scaling would only detract from all those elements that had me so excited and nervous at lower levels and increasingly confident to explore deeper and off the beaten path at higher levels.

Level Scaling

Anyway, I hate level scaling. I'm aware of many of the arguments that it takes away any incentive to grind since it doesn't really help make the game any easier. Well, in that case, I'm back to the Grand Theft Auto analogy where a similar argument could be made that there shouldn't be any difficulty-related incentives to hoard the heaviest weapons, armor, and fastest cars. A game should not seek to constantly scale the difficulty according to the power of your character as far as I see it. Such kills the joy of becoming more powerful in the first place.

Alternate Proposal

Personally I liked how Open World RPGs from long ago simply avoided level scaling, allowing many parts of the game to become a breeze if you became a powerful enough character with only a few parts left still being really challenging. However, if developers really don't like this scenario, then an alternate proposal is to simply reduce the benefits of leveling.

Don't make a level 20 character exponentially more powerful than a level 1 character. Perhaps a level 20 character can easily dispatch several level 1 enemies with ease, but he isn't so powerful that six or seven or them can't overwhelm him and still defeat him. That would make a more believable game since it's not like humans ever become superhumans. Even an elite soldier, caught off-guard, could be killed by a lowly foot soldier with no training.

Now the game can still remain reasonably challenging no matter what level you are. Parts that gave you difficulty at lower levels will definitely become easier at higher levels in that case, but will never become a total breeze where you can just stand there while taking nil damage from low-level enemy attacks once you reach a sufficiently high level. All enemies can be lethal in that case no matter what level you are and no matter how fancy your equipment.

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#2 Posted by hippie_genocide (2356 posts) -

I don't really like it either, but that mechanic is in so few games that I sort of just consider it a quirk of Bethesda's open world RPG's and don't get too worked up over it. Overall though I like the feeling of starting the game as a lowly knave and over the course of the game building my skills to become a Sword of Destruction wielding badass. And the game's difficulty should be ramping up along with you to constantly provide a challenge.

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#3 Posted by Rorie (5194 posts) -

I generally dislike it as well, but WoW's recent system with it worked out pretty well!

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#4 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

@hippie_genocide:I'm finding it an increasingly common concept discussed in game designs, though often not to the degree that Oblivion or FF8 had (ex: only scaling enemies within a level range). I wish the concept never even existed as a point of discussion. :-(

One of the things about open world RPGs is that I think there's often this idea that the dichotomy has to be between spending lots of time breezing through easy content when you are high level while barely being able to go anywhere at low level. That's where the Ultima series, the first big open world games I ever played, were considerably different. Most of the massive world maps were accessible at low levels with the exception of some particularly treacherous areas off the beaten path (basically venturing off road and sailing ships to treacherous-looking islands and things of that sort).

So typically by the time you were high level, you had already exhausted the easier areas and the majority of the map, only to be left with the prospect of venturing off the beaten path. So it wasn't like hours were spent breezing through enemies that can't even inflict a scratch at high levels or that you could barely go anywhere at low levels and because there was so much rich content to explore and hundreds of unique NPCs to talk to and so forth, I did so without anything remotely resembling grinding while still being faced with progressive challenges throughout the playthrough.

Anyway, apologies for being so ranty. There's no game concept I find more depressing.

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#5 Posted by Tennmuerti (9379 posts) -

It is a shitty quick and dirty solution by game designers who can't actually balance their game properly in the first place 9 times out of 10 or are too afraid of either making a game too hard or too easy in a few places for the audience and think that gamers should be coddled and spoon fed everything. Rant over.

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#6 Edited by huser (1421 posts) -

My problem is enemies in games typically have no morale. They are ALL suicidally committed to their opposition to you. Doesnt matter if you look like you are on your last legs or you've just murdered a hundred other folks. They will keep coming.

So I'd be fine with level scaling if the combat only happened when these high level characters happened upon you, rather than mysteriously never existing until they needed to show up.

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#7 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -
@huser said:

My problem is enemies in games typically have no morale. They are ALL suicidally committed to their opposition to you. So I'd be fine with level scaling if the combat only happened when these high level characters happened upon you, rather than mysteriously never existing until they needed to show up.

I like this thought but I actually think it can be used more to justify avoiding level scaling, since then you could avoid encounters outright when you are high level without spending your time battling weak enemies that can barely inflict a scratch who give nothing of worth (experience or loot) because they'd all be running away at the sight of you. It would be a way to allow higher level players to skip trivial encounters instead of a way to seek to make all encounters nontrivial. Level scaling is more in the vein of making it so you can never breeze through, let alone skip, any encounter -- that all should be challenging.

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#8 Posted by BladedEdge (1245 posts) -

I'll come at this from the perspective of someone with a DM/GMing experience from Dungeons and Dragons. I adore level scaling.

Being able to selectively choose how hard the fight my players are going to have is great. Half the point of keeping dice-rolls secret is to make the bad-guys 20s into 1s or 1s into 20s to effective narrative flow. So is hiding the level and stats of the enemies (unless players earn that meta knowledge through role-play). Ultimately though, I want to challenge, but not defeat them. I want my over-powered villian to hit a character down to 'knocked out but not dead' then have a narrative reason to flee if I am setting up a antagonist I want them angry with and ..so on.

In the case of hands on story telling the idea of level-scaling, the challenge is always what fits the power-fantasy I am running my players through, is perfect. The players have to buy into the concept a bit, a bit of 'suspension of disbelief' so that when they are 5 levels higher and the bandits that attack them are a challenge, cause there is only 1 fight tonight planned and this is it...they roll with it cause they want someone to use their cool abilities they have at this disposal on.

That said? I realize the 'well that's all well and good when you have someone customizing the content on the fly" and video games that try the same thing (Re: Skyrims infinite quests) kinda fail to make for compelling game-play in and of themselves. But, but.

See That is only one kind of game I can run for someone. There is also the idea that I, as a DM, make clear to my players that there is no hand holding, no behind the scenes meddling on my part. I will give them a map, I will give them the general idea that there characters know "This area is goblins, this is orcss, this is dragons..plan accordingly". That can be its own kind of fun, the players know the danger and are more creative in how they approuch things, willing to see something, go 'nope' and leave. Aware that running away to fight another day is a great idea. It can make things like a sudden time-limit in a dangerous area very real. As opposed too 'time is gonna be up when its narratively most compelling which is likely how it would go behind the scenes in the above example, they have 5 days, and its totally up to them to succeed or fail, luck might screw them.

That kinda game is a totally different animal then the above, no level-scaling there. And its very much what most people seem to want from there CRPGs. I'm just writing this too say..both -can- be good. Level scaling, if it could be coded in such a way as to provide the kind of DMed experience my 'scaled leveling' Dming does for my players..then it would be fantastic, if you could suspend disbelief enough to know your being taken for a journey where the point is to be engaging.

For what its worth, that kind of experience people want 'I want to step into a place I am over leveled for and feel like a bad ass' "I want to be able to step into a place I'm not ready for and feel under-powered' "I want to stomp through lowly npcs 20 levels below me" "I want to struggle and -just- barely make it through an encounter too tough for me/get completely destroyed and learn the hard way not to go north just yet." That kinda stuff is totally possible in the top example of DMIngs...you just don't let the players know your entire point is giving them that moment, or your fudging to make it..etc etc.

So yah, I agree as they are now level scaling sucks in games. But it could, one day, be absolutely perfect for a story-driven game.

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#9 Posted by Efesell (3795 posts) -

@rorie said:

I generally dislike it as well, but WoW's recent system with it worked out pretty well!

This is kinda where I'm at cause I saw the topic and I'm like yeah you're totally right it's some bullshit...

Then Legion introduces it and makes the leveling choices way nicer and now they're gonna roll that into old content so that I can skip what I don't like and it's kind of brilliant.

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#10 Posted by Rorie (5194 posts) -

@efesell said:
@rorie said:

I generally dislike it as well, but WoW's recent system with it worked out pretty well!

This is kinda where I'm at cause I saw the topic and I'm like yeah you're totally right it's some bullshit...

Then Legion introduces it and makes the leveling choices way nicer and now they're gonna roll that into old content so that I can skip what I don't like and it's kind of brilliant.

Yep, I have a hunter slogging through Un'Goro and I'm pretty sure I'm just going to park her for a bit until the new systems roll out. I was way skeptical of it when they announced it for Legion but it has worked out for the most part.

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#11 Posted by ajamafalous (13781 posts) -

It's really good in WoW.

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#12 Posted by Zeik (5150 posts) -

It really depends on how it's used. If you have an open world-ish game there definitely should be sections that are much harder than others, and not just because you happened upon them at a higher level. But there's often little more disappointing than coming across a big climatic boss battle and completing facerolling it because you outlevel it.

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#13 Posted by GundamGuru (786 posts) -

@old_school_gaming: My biggest problem with level scaling is when it backfires or is implemented poorly, leading to a reversed difficulty curve. You see it in RPGs where gear is important, because though the character scales, your armor and weapons almost never do, leading to scenarios like in Fallout 4 where you do progressively less and less relative damage as you level up.

I can see the attraction to developers making non-linear games, they want the next area you go to to be harder than the last, regardless of which area that is. The problem is, it takes a lot of care to do level-scaling correctly, and it can backfire spectacularly if done wrong (see FF8 for an example).

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#14 Posted by Sferics (36 posts) -

Most of the time it is not done very well, however I can think of a few examples off the top of my head that it has improved a game.

Diablo 3 originally started out without level scaling and now it has a hybrid difficulty selection and level scaling that has made the game better for it.

LOZ:BotW had a scaling system in it where enemies would come equipped with better items and tougher variants of enemies as you progressed and that would in turn reward you with better items to replace the ones you constantly break.

Level scaling isn't great in every game of course, in fact some games I believe were better without it like the Elders scrolls; Morrowind didn't have it and enemy levels were scaled by area whereas every game after enemy scale with you no matter if you leveled up in smithing of one-handed weapons.

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#15 Posted by poobumbutt (915 posts) -

As someone who enjoyed the combat in The Witcher 3 but would also admit its shortcomings, I was appreciative of the - optional, mind you - level scaling in that game. Kept the game feeling like I wasn't just mowing down dudes no problem, at complete odds with the game's tone, but could be turned off if I just didn't want to deal with a particularly annoying group of Drowners.

That said, that's one of a very few examples I can think of when it helped. In RPGs, this is especially true for me. I loved playing through the Persona series having grinded my way to some OP level while watching X-Files episodes, waltzing up to the boss and icing him no problem. Again, in opposition to Witcher, this feels like a genuine reward for my time sink of grinding, rather than "I'm stronger now because I did a high XP quest". But the opposite is true as well. Upticks in difficulty because the game simply expects you to overcome the challenge and tough shit if you didn't train beforehand can obviously also heighten the tone or impact of the game.

So, mostly yes. Level scaling is used unnecessarily. But I think there are enough games that exist where I don't enjoy the combat enough to level my character up in my spare time, but still want random fights to be entertaining, if only mindlessly. I suppose the easy, "armchair dev" answer is make it like the Witcher: level enemies UP to you for the challenge, but not DOWN if they're higher than you and make it an option you can turn on/off. But that would fuck with all the work that goes into actual difficulty scaling in a traditional RPG, action or otherwise. So, maybe that's stupid.

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#16 Posted by huser (1421 posts) -

@old_school_gaming: oh I agree. I was a dummy and forgot that second part, i.e. High level threats should always be on the map no matter your level, but low level threats do everything they can to avoid you.

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#17 Edited by JohnTunoku (414 posts) -

The lack of level scaling is part of the reason why Morrowind is still my favorite in the elder scrolls series. It makes the size of the world feel more meaningful, every area isn't just as hard as any other with just a bit of visual variety. You could actually run into something you couldn't handle and be forced to be creative to overcome it or run, as opposed to pretty much every problem being solvable by swinging the old sword. Even when the methods you used were tedious or silly it felt like you really overcame something when you bested the random high level daedera or NPC you decided to start a fight with. It got even worse in skyrim when they level scaled all loot as well, making exploring and finding new stuff feel less substantial and exciting. What's the point of having a huge world if all of it feels exactly the same?

That said, also agree Legion's scaling is really good.

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#18 Posted by ArbitraryWater (15438 posts) -

It's been a while since I've heard anyone complain about level scaling. Honestly, it's not completely anathema to me the same way it is for some people (Wizardry 8, one of my favorite RPGs, has some pretty aggressive level-scaling in some areas, to its detriment) but I think if handled poorly it can ruin or spoil the sense of progression. It's one of the reasons why Diablo III feels completely weightless, and I imagine I'd have an axe or two to grind with Oblivion if I tried to play it today.

On the other hand, I think one of the reasons I've never gotten very far in Morrowind is because I inevitably end up in an area or encounter a fight that I'm clearly not a high enough level for and don't want to bother (SLOOOOOWLY) creeping my way back to somewhere more acceptable. That might just be my problem with Morrowind's walking speed, more than anything else. I still intend to give that game another honest shot one of these days.

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#19 Posted by burncoat (493 posts) -

What I dislike isn't exactly level scaling, but ability scaling.

Oh you just unlocked this cool new power? Time to introduce an enemy that completely negates it. This is okay in small doses or for narrative purposes, like Jedi Outcast where your force powers won't work all the time on enemy Sith, but it really blows when it feels wrong to both the story and gameplay, like in Force Unleashed where normal soldiers apparently have access to force resistant technology.

Adaptive difficulty can be fine and fun if done right. Even something like the Vortex modifier in Destiny (the damage type constantly switches between the 3 energy types) which is annoying can be seen as challenging and doesn't distract from the core gameplay.

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#20 Posted by Muerthoz (371 posts) -

Level scaling based on my character is one of my least favorite things in games. I just don't have the time to go through a map, make it to a boss, get squashed then repeat it over and over trying to increase my skill as a player until I can finally beat them and move onto the next boss and repeat the process. I don't mind level grinding to get stronger just so I can roll over enemies when they start getting tough. I can always find little chunks of time to play here and there to level up my characters if that's what it takes to progress.

When it comes to difficulty progression in games I always preferred difficulty based on areas of the map. Changing difficulty whenever you crossed a bridge or some sort of border. Always felt like a reward being able to "unlock" a new zone.

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#21 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

For me one of the many difficulties with level scaling is balancing. Let’s say you play an Open World RPG where your character isn’t designed for combat — perhaps he’s a charismatic guy who is a wizard at smooth talking, haggling, and charming the ladies.

Without level scaling, such a character becomes more viable. He might struggle more than others if he finds himself in an unavoidable battle, but he could use his charm to help ensure that the few times he has to fight, he will do so against a smaller number of weaker enemies.

With level scaling, such a character is becoming relatively weaker each time he levels up, since he’s not proportionally improving his fighting skills each time he levels up while all the enemies are becoming deadlier and deadlier each time he levels. As a result, with level scaling in place, such a character may find himself unable to defeat anything after reaching a high level.

At the heart of level scaling is the assumption that the fighting prowess of any given character we create is directly proportional to his or her level, and that assumption isn’t necessarily true for a rich RPG that goes far beyond hack and slash with skills that apply beyond combat. In such a game that goes far beyond hack and slash, the designer might try to compensate by trying to make all enemies moderately difficult for a player of a given level, but then characters focusing exclusively on combat might find each battle too easy, while characters focusing on non combat skills might find each battle too difficult.

I still think the most elegant solution in a game that allows exploration is to let the player advance at his own pace rather than the game trying to set it for him.

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#22 Posted by csl316 (14736 posts) -

Not a fan. And one of my favorite things in games with leveling systems is going back to earlier areas and smashing everything. Depending on how level scaling works, sometimes that's not something that happens so boo.

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#23 Posted by WrinklyDinosaur (539 posts) -

I have put some 75 hours into Nioh in the last two months. While I think it is a brilliant game I have been becoming increasingly more disenfranchised with the enemy scaling inherent in the game. I recognise that for such a stylistic game every enemy is crafted with explicit move sets, weaknesses and behaviours. When made with such care there is an upper limit to the number of unique common enemies that can be present in a game (Nioh has some 20-30). I understand this and so am ok with fighting the same opening quest monsters in the end game. What I am not ok with is the hidden scaling that they each make between missions. My character midway through NG+ can withstand 15 odd hits from an opening quest enemy but that same enemy late game will kill me in 1-2 hits. This also is sort of ok if only there was some indication of level. If the game just communicated 'Hey, this is a level X skeleton' or even just colour coded (different colours for threat levels like in Persona 5) would be nice. As it is I never know going in to a quest whether I'll find the nice happy cannon fodder enemies or be forced to play painstakingly slow.

All said and done, Nioh is an excellent game that I wish was spoken about more on this forum.

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#24 Posted by TobbRobb (6498 posts) -

I'm generally opposed to level scaling of this type. Difficulty in linear game should be a curve, and it's fine to tune that if you want. But in RPGs I really want to feel obviously empowered by my numbers going up. In a game where I'm just still clubbing people the same way I always was and they take just as long to kill at zero or fifty points in the clubbing skill tree I just don't feel satisfied correctly.

That said, I think the damage scaling in Destiny is a good thing. The feel of a shooter ties so heavily into the reactions and time to kill of enemies that I honestly didn't think a loot shooter would ever work. But that game is both empowering and fun to play. Good job!

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#25 Posted by Justin258 (15386 posts) -

As with anything, I don't think that level scaling should be thrown out the window wholesale, but I also think that giving everything a set level is way more interesting. Also, as has been mentioned, when everything has a set level, I get the satisfaction of laying waste to an area I once had trouble with. With level scaling, every area becomes either much too easy or way too hard at higher levels. In either of those cases, the player winds up quitting out of boredom or frustration instead of putting the game down because he's finished and satisfied with his time.

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#26 Posted by Lanechanger (1667 posts) -

Yeah I don't like it either. It leads to games like FF8 and Oblivion where you actually prefer to avoid as many fights as possible. In the case of games like ESO, all the areas are unlocked for you upfront and you lose that nice sense of progression and areas being unlocked.

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#27 Posted by GERALTITUDE (5980 posts) -

If there's one thing that makes me throw up in my mouth it's when a game gets too easy. Power fantasy makes me sick!

Level scaling is one of many ways to try to deal with that.

Ok, I may have taken a slightly extreme angle on this topic :D, but I hope it makes my feelings clear! And I say this 100% serious: I do not like power fantasy. When I played the Witcher 3, I wanted it to stay brutally hard the entire time through. I want new tools to deal with combat (approach options) as I progress, not tools to make combat easier.

And now, if I've said this once, I've said this a million times:

PLEASE, PLEASE (I am adressing the entire internet here) STOP: looking for binary answers to game design as if there is a Right/Wrong fork for every design decision! You want to talk about what you like/don't & why - GREAT! - but why does every stance have to be about how X should only be built THIS way? Hurts my head.

It is a shitty quick and dirty solution by game designers who can't actually balance their game properly in the first place 9 times out of 10 or are too afraid of either making a game too hard or too easy in a few places for the audience and think that gamers should be coddled and spoon fed everything. Rant over.

I'd like to see you post about devs with more respect.

As with anything, I don't think that level scaling should be thrown out the window wholesale, but I also think that giving everything a set level is way more interesting. Also, as has been mentioned, when everything has a set level, I get the satisfaction of laying waste to an area I once had trouble with. With level scaling, every area becomes either much too easy or way too hard at higher levels. In either of those cases, the player winds up quitting out of boredom or frustration instead of putting the game down because he's finished and satisfied with his time.

I'm repeating myself a little, and I think you agree with this anyway, but - every player will react to this differently. There's not a most-likely scenario here. The potential for all the above to happen is true, but there is also the potential that the player enjoys, for example, how consistently hard everything is, or, the reverse, how easy it may be.

To really talk about level scaling, I think we have to talk in detail about the basic gameplay difficulty approach of the game. The two work together very tightly, and the more I think about games where I liked scaling (The Witcher 3) vs those I did not (FF8) the more I want to say that difficulty, and moreso, the entire set of mechanical options, are really what matters. Scaling is a detail that lives around all that I think, it is not the core reason we are enjoying these games or not.

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#28 Edited by Dray2k (884 posts) -

Personally, its either good or bad, depending on the game.

The new Assassins Creed handles the lack of level scaling super poorly. Alexandria, the largest city in the game you can roam around in, is guarded by measly level 8-12 soldiers, while level 40 enemies reside in the deserts. Its kinda immersion breaking.

I also don't think The Witcher 3 handles this that good, a lot of human enemies between lets say level 1 and level 10 don't look different, yet they seem to hit much harder for no good reason. I always hated the parts of the game that happen to play in Novigrad because there isn't much variety in enemy design and you level up fast but the world around you doesn't seem to reflect that, kind of a bummer.

I think the lack of level scaling only works well if you give every enemy a certain chracteristic. Skyrims problem for instance is once you've visited caves the enemies stay the level and the chracteristics of the enemies is reduced to the value the player character visited the cave for the first time. So if you visit 10 caves at level 5, all the enemies there will stay that way forever.

Piranha Byte games are famous for doing the no-level-scaling right. Strong enemies reside in forests and hidden caves, or certain regions. You can immediately recognize them if you've fought them once. Theres also the sense of familiarity there that I'm missing in games like TES. They aren't just the same dudes in similar armor as the ones you've fought 10 levels ago that only slightly change to be appopriate to your player chracter when you encounter them to keep up with the challenge. They're whole new enemy types with whole new sets of armors and maybe even different skills. Its just logical that a level 10 enemy is obviously weaker as an level 50 one and their behavior should reflect that sort of thing, too.

Gothic 2 is my most favorite example as they tackle this problem very well yet its actually very simple as they're were just recycling movesets from the player. For instance you can learn elite movesets from certain teachers, elite enemies already learned this way before you did so in role playing terms this makes total sense.

@geraltitude: Thats true, this is a complicated issue design wise and it can be tackled in a lot of ways. Some metroidvania/roguelike kinda games do tacke this issue well, enemies are encuraged to interact with the level (for instance: exploding enemies that move way too fast so the player has to pay attention in order to approach them properly) rather than the player alone, for instance.

I think enemy types have to be carefully planed before integrating them into the game, at least that would be my approach. How they move, interact with the environment, the player and how to fight, counter and defeat them. Also it should be simple enough that it becomes second nature after you've fought the specific type of enemy for long enough.

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#29 Posted by Efesell (3795 posts) -

@dray2k: Alexandria is also gonna be the earliest major quest hub you get to, what kind of intense bullshit would it be if the guards there could instantly destroy you?

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#30 Edited by Dray2k (884 posts) -

@efesell: Woah did you wake up badly or something? That post is kinda reads aggressive but maybe thats just me.

Anyway, what you're saying makes the everlasting low level issue in the hub arena a major problem. The city seems like it is made for the player primarily rather than to be immersed with the nature of the world (crime being a big thing, so the city has to be protected considerably, but all the guards die! What do we about that?).

Yet otherwise they tried to make Egypt a living, breathing world so there is something just not right here. It kills immersion and from a gameplay implementation it comes off as lackluster. Also I consider Assassins Creed: Origins one of the most favorite games I've played this year but there still is quite a lot you can criticise about the game in regards on how it handles leveling for instance. I've read a few topics where people want a New Game+ mode so the game feels wholly level appopriate. Thats also one way to deal with the problem.

I feel that it would've been much better then to scale the enemies there with the player (up to a certain point if you will), considering someone is killing all the soldiers inside the city which obviously leads to a lack of safety. So after a while they "restock" the city with stronger enemies. I mean its a win-win for the people that believe that Assassins Creed: Origins has a great open world to feel immersed in and from a pure gameplay perspective it also seems to be the right step as it keeps up the challenge for the player, don't you agree?

EDIT: Added a few things.

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#31 Posted by Justin258 (15386 posts) -

If there's one thing that makes me throw up in my mouth it's when a game gets too easy. Power fantasy makes me sick!

Level scaling is one of many ways to try to deal with that.

Ok, I may have taken a slightly extreme angle on this topic :D, but I hope it makes my feelings clear! And I say this 100% serious: I do not like power fantasy. When I played the Witcher 3, I wanted it to stay brutally hard the entire time through. I want new tools to deal with combat (approach options) as I progress, not tools to make combat easier.

And now, if I've said this once, I've said this a million times:

PLEASE, PLEASE (I am adressing the entire internet here) STOP: looking for binary answers to game design as if there is a Right/Wrong fork for every design decision! You want to talk about what you like/don't & why - GREAT! - but why does every stance have to be about how X should only be built THIS way? Hurts my head.

@tennmuerti said:

It is a shitty quick and dirty solution by game designers who can't actually balance their game properly in the first place 9 times out of 10 or are too afraid of either making a game too hard or too easy in a few places for the audience and think that gamers should be coddled and spoon fed everything. Rant over.

I'd like to see you post about devs with more respect.

@justin258 said:

As with anything, I don't think that level scaling should be thrown out the window wholesale, but I also think that giving everything a set level is way more interesting. Also, as has been mentioned, when everything has a set level, I get the satisfaction of laying waste to an area I once had trouble with. With level scaling, every area becomes either much too easy or way too hard at higher levels. In either of those cases, the player winds up quitting out of boredom or frustration instead of putting the game down because he's finished and satisfied with his time.

I'm repeating myself a little, and I think you agree with this anyway, but - every player will react to this differently. There's not a most-likely scenario here. The potential for all the above to happen is true, but there is also the potential that the player enjoys, for example, how consistently hard everything is, or, the reverse, how easy it may be.

To really talk about level scaling, I think we have to talk in detail about the basic gameplay difficulty approach of the game. The two work together very tightly, and the more I think about games where I liked scaling (The Witcher 3) vs those I did not (FF8) the more I want to say that difficulty, and moreso, the entire set of mechanical options, are really what matters. Scaling is a detail that lives around all that I think, it is not the core reason we are enjoying these games or not.

All right. This post should probably be a lot longer than I'm going to make and this is one of those video game topics that seems like it deserves a long-winded examination, rather than a quick forum post, but I'll do my best.

A little note before I get started - Skyrim is one of my favorite games of all time. I replayed it again earlier this year and put a hundred hours into it. Skyrim is also a great example of how to do terrible level scaling.

If the reason for such dislike for level scaling was power fantasy, wouldn't level scaling actually be a plus? With level scaling, you are god from minute one. In Skyrim, you can deal with anything, any challenge, from the start. You can rush to Alduin and take him out. In The Witcher 3, you can defeat anything in the game without much trouble from minute one. There is little gameplay satisfaction to be derived from either game because in both, everything starts off kinda easy and at some point you've trivialized everything. You can bump up the difficulty, but all that does is make it more frustrating on you at the start and by the end, you've trivialized everything.

On the other hand, without level scaling, you are more limited in what you can do at first but more of the world opens up to you as your player character gets stronger (by leveling) and you as a player get better (by understanding the mechanics and gameplay more as time goes on). Fallout: New Vegas doesn't have level scaling and you start that game by shooting tiny desert lizards and two-bit gangsters. If you go to the north, straight to New Vegas, you'll get thrashed by Deathclaws. That's not a power fantasy at all.

With level scaling, those "new tools" don't really do much for you. Part of the reason I've never really gotten back into The Witcher 3 after finishing it is that none of the stuff you can craft or get actually matters. It's the same throughout. I don't like that. I like the idea that during the first few hours of the game, you've gotta make do with what might as well be harsh language. Then, many hours later, you can get to a Master Craftsmen and he can craft you a bitchin' sword that will tear through basic enemies like they're butter... and which will finally allow you to explore that cave you've been eyeing or do that sidequest that's been bothering you but that you haven't tackled yet because the unpleasant creatures involve mop the floor with you as soon as you walk in. Sure, maybe that is a kind of power fantasy, but it's an earned sort of power fantasy. Congratulations, your character has grown and progressed, you've explored more of the world and found a Master Craftsmen and have more access to more tools, items, and equipment! Level scaling gives me no such satisfaction.

None of this is to say that I think level scaling has no place. I would love to see a version of Skyrim (yeah, mods, I know) where everything is hand-placed and every challenge is hand-designed, like in Morrowind. But level scaling serves Skyrim in a different way - that series has gained a reputation for allowing players to go anywhere once they've finished the introductory dungeon. With level scaling, you can step outside of that dungeon and walk in any direction and find something to do that you can do. That's what Bethesda wanted their players to be able to do, and in that they succeeded - well, mostly, if you try to go fight a frost troll or Movarth right off the bat you're going to get destroyed, but that's beside the point. Nobody plays Skyrim for pure gameplay or mechanical satisfaction because those parts of the game are bland at best and badly designed at worse. I think something along the lines of this detail is what you're trying to get at with your last paragraph.

Dark Souls would be the opposite of Skyrim, in this regard - gameplay and mechanical satisfaction are some of the best and most talked-about parts of that game. (Dark Souls is also an aversion to all of this because you cannot grind your way out of a challenge, you have to be able to play the game well to get anywhere).

I'm repeating myself a little, and I think you agree with this anyway, but - every player will react to this differently. There's not a most-likely scenario here. The potential for all the above to happen is true, but there is also the potential that the player enjoys, for example, how consistently hard everything is, or, the reverse, how easy it may be.

Aside from The Witcher 3, what are some examples of games that you think did level scaling well? And, back to CDPR's masterpiece, why did you find getting new tools interesting when all you're really doing is keeping up with the difficulty curve? I'm curious because I actually first read your post about five hours ago now and in that time I have been unable to think of a game that had level scaling and specifically had gameplay that made me want to keep coming back again and again.

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#32 Posted by Casepb (460 posts) -

I have to agree with it being great in WoW as well. It just opens up so many more places you can level in now.

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#33 Posted by GERALTITUDE (5980 posts) -

@justin258: Thanks for your post duder! I'll have to get back to you about games other than Witcher 3.. it's the only game not called Street Fighter or Nioh that I played in the last two years of its kind. Other than Skyrim, which I agree is not a great implementation. Will think on this!

But, one thing I wanted to add to the conversation is a little bit how you brought up Dark Souls: "Dark Souls is also an aversion to all of this because you cannot grind your way out of a challenge, you have to be able to play the game well to get anywhere".

This is actually also a potential result of level scaling! The idea is the same. In both Dark Souls & Witcher 3, for example, we can level up and get points to put into abilities. But, levelling up isn't going to allow us to walk through any enemies. No matter what bonuses the game gives you, numerically, your mechanical decisions (how you really play the game) are what will affect progress.

So, where I wanted to go with this was the way Level Scaling & Difficulty are married.

Let's use Witcher 3 as an example. My guess would be that on Easy, Level Scaling is a crappy option for me personally. My problem with the game is not feeling challenged in the first place, and so with level scaling on easy mode, this would really be exacerbated (it would start easy and get incrementally easier, regardless that some enemies would never be way below my level). But, when you play Blood & Broken Bones (aka constant game over mode) this is the opposite. On the hardest difficulty, in the very first map (White Orchard) a single drowner can you bring you the edge of life and death with *one* single jump in. Another two swipes and you're dead. With scaling on, this never really goes away (i.e it starts hard and gets only incrementally less hard). You become only slightly more survivable as you level up. BUT! you get lots of Witcher abilities, potions, etc to give you different options on how to deal. Sounds funny, but I don't think this is that far from how Dark Souls works. Our stats, armour, etc, only really makes slightly stronger. Our skills are the real differentiator.

So, top level, here is how this started to look in my head:

- Survivability (your HP and base damage)
- Tools (your options on how / when / where to attack)

Two concepts which work tightly together.

In most games, levelling up increases both your survivability and your toolset. A dead-simple example would be gaining more HP when you level up (survivability) and a new lunging sword attack or something (tools [range]). As such, one way to think of the "ideal use / scenario for good level scaling" is simply to reduce your survivability increases with each level. Note that all of the above is looking at level scaling as a mechanic, which, when paired with difficulty level, makes the game more challenging. This is only one of at least two applications of level scaling. The other application is to make the game easier on purpose, to allow you to more easily walk around and explore (the great Skyrim example) and fight enemies wherever. Skyrim's biggest issue was that whatever you did with the difficulty, ultimately, the entire tool set of that game just is not that fun to play with imo. It'd be like if Dark Souls had 1 sword and 1 shield and no other options, no magic, no items. The toolset matters so much.

I think, reading over this, it's still a bit convoluted, but I hope some of it comes across! I guess to summarize, I would say

- level scaling is a design option that works with the difficulty level to create a semi-consistent "difficulty experience" which could be either easy, or hard, or something in-between
- level scaling is ultimately still sub-servient to the toolset in the game
- the toolset has to be matched with enemy design that justifies the existence of the toolset
- I think often games fail in areas which are not level scaling, but, it may be the one we point at. Again, I think Skyrim is a great example of that. That game's problems don't begin and end with level scaling, but level scaling is not helping.

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#34 Posted by hnke (152 posts) -

@geraltitude: I think turning on the upscaling is absolutely crucial to a game as big as Witcher 3. Without it turned on, every 1 or 2 quests that you do means that you've outleveled another quest somewhere else on the map. Because I wanted to experience the full effect of all the content it ended up really putting a damper on the enjoyment of an otherwise interesting quest when I would just kill the enemy in literally 2 seconds, all because I had earlier decided to spend my time elsewhere. With the upscaling turned on, the enemy is raised to my level, and puts up a challenge, and I actually have to think about what to do and what to use. The hardest difficulty helps a lot on that front as well.

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#35 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

@geraltitude: Dark Souls is the closest example I can think of to a game doing what I proposed as an alternative to level scaling: reducing the benefits of leveling up in the first place so that enemies are still dangerous enough and still defeatable regardless of the level differences.

That works both ways. It has allowed DS players to beat the entire game without leveling up since it’s possible to defeat all enemies at level one, and likewise the game never becomes too easy even if you grind and farm souls since even lower level enemies are still lethal to a higher level player:

Other games that do this somewhat include Fallout 1 and 2. In those you can level up and gain powerful armor to the point where Radscorpions might cease to pose any threat, but armed humans can still pose a threat due to the devastating criticals (a point blank shot to the eye from a low level raider might still maim or kill your badass character).

X-Com is another though it doesn’t have a traditional experience leveling system. Regardless, even if your squad members develop elite combat skills and advanced equipment, they are still nowhere close to immune from dying to shots fired by the weakest enemies in the game.

Another game like this is Mount and Blade, especially on hard difficulty. There an arrow to the head is deadly to your character whether he’s level 1 or level 30, and whether the arrow was shot by a level 2 bandit or an elite level 20 archer. Steel connecting to flesh in that one tends to be quite lethal regardless of the level of the character being hit and the character doing the hitting.

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#36 Edited by Old_School_Gaming (21 posts) -

Was thinking about this a bit more and there are ways to keep the challenge of the game relatively constant without making you feel like you aren’t really getting any stronger as you level up.

Take Pool of Radiance (1988) as an example. In that one, you start off at a point where just encountering 5 or 6 kobolds could be extremely dangerous for your inexperienced party. However, 10 levels later, a single one of your fighters can easily dispatch many kobolds in a single round with a single sweep attack. The kobolds themselves never get any stronger no matter what.

However, as the game gets more difficult, you cease to encounter just kobolds. You might encounter a small army of trivial kobolds along with deadly hill giants and lead by an extremely dangerous arch mage. The arch mage might paralyze your high level party members at which point even the kobolds become dangerous since they can dispatch a paralyzed character with a single blow. Likewise, even though a kobold is unlikely to pose much of a threat to a conscious, unparalyzed high level character, the kobold can still disrupt your spellcasters’ ability to cast spells, still elevating the challenge of the battle when mixed with deadlier enemies no matter what. At no point do these enemies become mere fodder.

Doing things like this would be an alternative to level scaling individual enemies. Instead of making the individual kobold stronger as your party grows stronger, the designer can scale the difficulty of the battle by throwing in more high level enemies alongside the kobolds.

I still prefer to just avoid trying to have a constant difficulty no matter where you go in the game, but find this type of system at least a lot more entertaining than having identical enemies mysteriously growing stronger each time you level up.

One of the reasons I still don’t care for this type of difficulty scaling even though I like it better than level scaling individual enemies is because I don’t think RPGs should be so balanced that, say, all level 12 character builds should be equally strong in combat. I prefer games to be a little bit imbalanced in this respect in favor of richer variety, like being able to have some builds excel more outside of combat like a thief who is better at avoiding a fight or, say, having some builds like wizards starting off relatively weaker and harder to level up at low levels but becoming the deadliest builds at high levels. Such richness and diversity is often destroyed if the game overzealously tries to balance every single build perfectly at every single character level which any game with level scaling will have much more pressure to try to do.

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