Monday, June 04, 2012


I've been thinking about the way that most modern RPGs scale the enemies to your level.

This is more obvious in some games, like the Elder Scrolls games, where you'll just randomly start running into bandits wearing diamond plate mail and demons summoned from... well, it's unclear how they got here, but they want to kill you.

It's super prevalent. For example, in Dragon's Dogma, the enemies remain the same category, but scale by level. So if there were wolves in this clearing at level 2, there are a crap-ton of dire wolves in the clearing at level 22.

I would like to argue that scaling up the enemies by the player's level is a bad idea.

The argument in favor of scaling is that it keeps the pressure on just the right amount all the time. The designers can say "this area should be kinda hard", and it'll always be kinda hard, assuming your scaling method is decent. Without it, a player may overlevel and get bored of combat.

Old RPGs used a gating system, where any given area was a specific level. You could (and sometimes had to) level there, but the games had a diminishing returns situation: after you got a few levels ahead, the enemies simply didn't give you enough XP to get to any higher levels. And there's no real way to get the next grade of equipment, either: it's just not in the shops.

In this way, the old games could cap your grind ability, allowing people who want to grind to get some advantage while letting people who don't want to grind squeak through and catch up in the next area, where the old tier is achieved and surpassed in a flash.

But open-world games are not able to do that. If you can walk anywhere, then having areas which are higher- or lower-level effectively act as really irritating blockades: "Oh, you want to walk to the capital? Well, there's a dragon in the way! Nya-ha-ha, it's just a random encounter, too!"

So, instead, everywhere you go you will be faced by enemies that are just the right amount of challenge! GEEEEENIUS!

...Except, no, it isn't. It makes playing the game pointless. Why bother to play any of the sidequests when grinding and leveling up just makes the game harder?

For example, in Dragon's Dogma (which I'm specifically talking about because I recently played it), your character and your job class gain levels separately. I decided I wanted to try out a new job class - the mystic knight. Fine, right?

Except that the enemies are scaled by character level. So even though I'm this total wussy level 1 magic knight, I'm facing down multiple ogres at one time and other bullshit. The other party members are useless no matter what their level, of course.

This is the core of the issue. Not only is leveling up pointless because the enemies keep up, but if your character is not built to be minmaxed at combat, the combat rapidly becomes harder and harder and harder.

The other classic example is trying to play an Elder Scroll game as an herbalist or some other largely noncombat class: you're gloating over the way your speech skill is now 150, but then a dragon comes out of the sky and eats you. Since your "kill everything" skill is still at 3, where it started, you die.

It's crap. It's bad. It doesn't let me play the game the way I want to play it, instead it forces me to play the game like you want me to play it. And if I try to explore other kinds of play, it teases me by initially letting me, but then making the game too hard to continue.

That's crappy. Bad.

But... making zones where the levels are ten times your level is just as bad. It's not really open world at all. It's closed-world with really irritating walls.

My recommendation is to make the world open, but make it clear what combat level the zones are. Then make it possible to skip those zones for a small fee.

For example, you could walk to the capital, but there's level 100 monsters on that path! Well, people go to the capital all the time, so you could also fork over a few gold coins and take the train.

Of course, if there's a mission out in the wilderness outside the capital, you won't be able to accomplish it by taking the train... maybe you'll have to come back later, when your level is high enough.

This has to be combined with A) a speedbump rule, because fighting radically uneven battles is boring, and B) nonstatic level progression. That is, a level 100 baker can't get 0 XP for fighting a desperate battle against a level 10 goblin. Otherwise, a character not optimized for combat will never be able to achieve a level high enough to take on the enemies in a given area.


Ellipsis said...

I agree, and it seems to me that it should be entirely reasonable to have different experiences in the same place at different levels. If you're low level and you hear all of the villagers talking about how "no one goes on Death Mountain" but your curiosity overcomes you, you should get totally murdered by going to Death Mountain. It allows the game to build up a kind of mythology, and makes it that much more significant to the player if they return 20 levels later and can now actually ascend Death Mountain and flabbergast the frightened villagers.

That is, I think you can get the best of both worlds by scaling the expectation of what challenges the player will take on, rather than what challenges are present. Chrono Trigger, for instance, does this with the Lavos - after about the halfway point of the game, you can go fight him at any time, but you simply won't be able to beat him until you've reached a point in the game when it would be reasonable for you to do so. Moreover, taking a shot at him (after saving) when you're first allowed to gives you a sense of how hard it will be, and helps to build that suspense when it's finally time for you to fight him for real.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, that's a really good way to put it. I agree.

Drew Hickcox said...

What about scaling the enemy difficulty by combat level alone? You could either base the "player level" solely on the sum of his violent parts, or throw in some sort of calculations based on the player's average DPS and damage taken, and scale enemy difficulty off of that.

Alternate idea: Make areas harder based on player level, but once the player goes there it becomes static. The road to the capital has random dragons on it, but once you realize this you go and train and become a bad enough dude to kill dragons, and whenever you come back there's the same level dragons that are now pretty easy to stomp. This would still make areas very difficult for an herbalist compared to a barbarian, but the static enemy level is at least surmountable. This would also lend itself to incidental worldbuilding, depending on where the player goes first.

Craig Perko said...

Those are both decent ideas.

I don't really like the idea of scaling to proven combat stats, simply because it would be very hard to balance and polish properly. Also, it wouldn't allow me to take it easy when I want to just mindlessly grind or tackle a harder foe when I want a challenge.

The static scale is a really ingenious idea. I'll have to think about it a bit before I can come up with a likely set of resulting dynamics.

One thing I do like is the idea of putting the throttle in the hands of the player. Let the player scale the difficulty up (for better rewards) or down (for easier time) based on how they feel at the moment.

Random_Phobosis said...

>Alternate idea: Make areas harder based on player level, but once the player goes there it becomes static.

That's what Fallout 3/New Vegas did, if I'm not mistaken. There were also some areas with minimal monster level, even if you go there while lvl 3, monsters can't be weaker than lvl 10.

Craig Perko said...

I don't remember Fallout 3's scaling enemies at all, so if they did it, that's a good sign that it works pretty well.

I think that Dogma may have the opposite: a level max cap for an area. The wolves and thugs got harder for a while, but now they seem to have plateaued.

Soyweiser said...

The problem with fallout new vegas and the level scaling was only clear in the DLC that increased the level cap.

The monsters just turned into huge bullet sponges. Taking huge amounts of bullets to kill. (And some DLC didn't allow you to go back to the main map, and didn't have enough ammo for all playstyles).

One problem with the static after visiting system. Is that it punishes exploring a bit. If you explore the entire world at lvl1. Your entire world will be stuck at lvl1.