Monday, July 26, 2010

Level Scaling - The Drawbacks

Yesterday I discussed the reason we need encounters to be more difficult as a game progresses, and touched on how non-linearity requires some sort of scaling mechanic to make encounters more difficult. Today I'm going to focus on the ways in which that scaling, particularly when it is performed as level scaling, really has a detrimental effect on the overall gaming experience.

Let's get out of the way first: Oblivion's level scaling was terrible. It so perfectly demonstrates how badly level scaling can go wrong, which is why I'm going to pick on it. Sure, I could pick more obscure titles to prove a point, but showcasing the worst example highlights the issues better. So, yes, I'm going to pick on Oblivion a lot here, but it's not the only title at fault when it comes to level scaling. Key issues include:

Lack of Danger
In Oblivion you could pretty much wander safely (to a degree) anywhere you wanted to start with because all the monsters were scaled down to your level. There was never any real danger of suddenly encountering a monster that would destroy in an instant, no accidental chance of running into a greater daedra while running around as an inexperience novice. This lack of grave threat led to a feeling of complacency and even boredom that was totally undesirable.

I explored a deadly wilderness and all I got was this lousy wolf

Being able to explore the darkest reaches of the forest or the peaks of the harshest mountains without fear of deadly repecussions meant that the sense of achievement you should have had from finally reaching those outlands was greatly diminshed. Armed with the knowledge that you could safely go wherever you wanted whenever you wanted, and without the tangible grave danger of having to avoid an enemy far beyond you, the thrill of exploration was all but lost. Because of this, the sense of achievement as a result of that exploration became weak and hollow.

Ridiculous enemies
Okay, one of my pet Oblivion hates comes under this category: glass armoured bandits.

Seriously, the amount of gold that can be acquired from selling a full set of glass armour (which is what the bandits late in the game get around in), is worth more than enough to keep someone well-kept for a very long time. They wouldn't need to mug random passers-by, as they could easily make a small fortune by selling the armour. Heck, they could probably even afford to buy a set of cheaper armour to keep them safe if they were just doing it for the thrill rather than the money. Likewise, you can also encounter solders travelling around in full daedric plate, which is supposed to be extremely rare and ridiculously powerful, and that broke believability in a big way. Not to mention that either enemy destroys any concept of economy by providing you with a ludicruously high income.

Poor bandit? I don't think so.

This also plays as a counterpoint to the previous issue about a lack of danger. As you levelled up and became a fearsome hero, powerful enemies/monsters were camped right outside places that were (and still are) considered safe by NPCs. So everyone was panicking about a few goblins in the hills a little while ago, but now there are Storm Atronachs practically outside the gates of the city and no one bats an eyelid?

Cosmetic Issues
Now while Oblivion gets brutally abused for its level scaling, Morrowind did implement scaling to a degree. For the most part, it wasn't as bad, but there were still some issues. For one, it was potentially possible to miss out on certain enemies. As certain monsters/areas were levelled up to provide the player with a challenge, you could "miss out" on some monster types entirely if you didn't go to areas where they could be found while your character was within certain level ranges.

Now, this might seem like a fairly trivial matter, but you have no idea how disappointed I was as a player when I went through the entirety of Morrowind without encountering a single Clannfear. I saw them repeatedly in the loading screens, but I never ever got to fight one because I didn't go to areas with daedra enemies when I was in the "right" level range to find them. Years later, I still remember that disappointment. It was why I loved it when I did finally get to fight them in Oblivion, even if it was only for a short period.

My favourite enemy I never fought

The other issue you run into is the fact that sometimes level scaling is used to make the same small group of enemies more useful throughout a large period of the game. Ouch Dragon Age, I'm looking at you. Genlocks, Hurlocks, Ogres and Shrieks. That's pretty much it for darkspawn. Admittedly there are more monsters in the game than just darkspawn, but the game does have a fairly limited bestiary when it comes to opponents. A large proportion of them are humanoid as well, which cuts down on the feeling of "epic fantasy", though Dragon Age is supposed to be more "dark fantasy", so I suppose that complaint is more stylistic than anything else. But I confess that the game did start to feel a bit "the same" after the nth fight with mindless darkspawn.

The alternative is to use monsters in a tiered approached, whereby you "unlock" higher tiers of monsters as you level up. This is precisely what Morrowind and Oblivion did. However, this only serves to segment and delay the underlying problem. Once you reach the "top tier" of monsters, nothing ever changes. You're faced with the same creatures over and over again at this point. So you had better hope that you're close to finish them game, otherwise you're going to be suffering the same fate as those who demanded "more monsters". Alternatively, this approach can sometimes not really provide much improvement at all, e.g. Fallout 3 and its Mirelurks. You got new and improved Mirelurks as you went up levels, but for the most part, they looked and behaved the same. Sorry, but giving a monster a new name, some more hitpoints and some extra damage doesn't really make for a new monster.

Plot inconsistencies
This ties into the previous point regarding "ridiculous enemies", but is another facet of the problem. During the game, we're told about a supposedly "all powerful" enemy in the early/middle part of the story who is threatening the sanctity of life in a large area. If this enemy is not stopped, who knows what terrible things could happen? So you play the hero and defeat the enemy in a difficult battle. Hooray for you!

However, the problem is that in practice, this "powerful enemy" is actually less dangerous than an "average grunt" you encounter towards the tail end of the game. Because the enemies have to get progressively harder, the "average enemy" eventually surpasses the power of the "bosses" you fought earlier in the game, creating a strange paradox where you're now defeating a small army of enemies, who logically all have that same potential to deal destruction on a level equivalent to the "powerful enemy" you fought earlier in the game. I'm going to pick on Dragon Age for this one - here's looking at the Sloth Demon if he's destroyed early on in the game by the player.

Ahhh, fresh meat. Looks like someone needs to be sent to the butcher's shop.

So, as we can see, level scaling has more than its fair share of drawbacks. There are probably more that could be discussed, but I think this post covers this most important and commonly stated reasons that it is maligned. These are some fairly glaring issues that it causes despite the problems that it can (sometimes) solve, which means that surely there must be more at stake here than the simple issue of "we must be able to make the game harder". But discussing other design considerations regarding combat difficulty will have to wait until another day...

1 comment:

  1. One thing that really annoyed me with Oblivion is that the armour set that your given at the very end of the main story line, as a 'reward' is actually totally crap! I also hated the fact that the town guards were ALWAYS more powerful than I was.