The Well-Appointed Bandit: The Case for Level Scaling
One of the principal complaints leveled against Bethesda Softwork's Oblivion was it's controversial use of level scaling.
Level scaling is a game mechanic frequently used in computer role-playing games as an aid to balance: enemies and treasures are scaled to the level of the player so that, no matter where in the world the player happens to find themselves, there is always a suitable challenge accompanied by a suitable reward.
On paper, the technique sounds fabulous but its implementation sometimes leaves something to be desired.
Oblivion uses a very strong form of player-centric level scaling: most enemies are closely matched to the player in strength and most rewards fall within a relatively narrow range, neither much less nor much more valuable than what the player already possesses. In Oblivion, the specific encounters that the player has, and the specific rewards that he or she receives for defeating a challenge are determined by the player's level. The player's level, then, assumes tremendous significance in terms of the player's experience and is crucial for maintaining gameplay balance. The result is a game where, no matter where the player happens to be, he is always surrounded by opponents and rewards that more or less mirror his current state. At low levels, the player encounters mud crabs, rats, and bandits. At higher levels, he encounters atronachs, mountain lions, and dremora.
The problem with this kind of scaling is that it robs the player of much of his or her sense of progression. Since role-playing games are largely about players watching as their characters grow and develop from humble beginnings to heroic proportions, a player-centric level scaling mechanic has the curious effect of creating in the player the feeling that the character isn't getting any better. If it takes you two minutes and numerous swings to beat a monster on level one and two minutes and numerous swings to beat a monster on level ten, how is level ten any different from level one? Of course the monsters are different, but the experience is the same.
From Rags to Riches
One of the ways that player-centric level scaling was implemented in Oblivion brings us to our second complaint, which was certainly the more vocal of the two: "Why is that bandit dressed more richly than a king?" Most of the bandits that the player encounters in Cyrodiil after reaching a certain level could have retired in style by selling the rare and valuable weapons and armor that they suddenly found themselves equipped with. Why live in a ramshackle tower eating mud crab when you could sell your armor and buy a house in Elven Gardens?
Bandits were equipped with this outrageous gear as part of the level scaling mechanic. It wasn't enough to simply upgrade their stats if players are walking around with upgraded stats AND upgraded weapons and armor. In order to 'keep up with the Jones'', all of the bandits had to acquire comparable gear. Here is the problem for the developers: either they upgrade the bandits' stats without upgrading the gear, in which case the players will hardly notice the difference in difficulty, tearing through them with their more powerful weapons and easily deflecting their attacks on their more powerful armor OR they upgrade the stats to ridiculous levels in order to compensate for the poorer quality of weapons and armor and players complain that bandits 'with only an iron sword' are tearing through them 'like giants', easily absorbing the player's blows on their 'cheap leather armor' as if it were 'made of stone' OR they upgrade the bandits by increasing the stats AND increasing the quality of weapons and armor they are equipped with to keep pace with the player. Out of these options, the first effectively eliminates bandits from the leveled lists since they can't be upgraded a noticeable degree, the second turns the bandits into monstrous demi-gods that defy reason, and the last puts them on par with the player as well-equipped heroes. Out of the options they had available, Bethesda chose the most reasonable one.
The only other options that the developers have, really, is to eliminate bandits from the leveled lists or scrap player-centric leveling all together. Sure, a few of the bandits could be left in for flavor, but beyond a relatively low level, they assume the character of 'nuisance' creatures and hold as much interest for the players as mud crabs. When you have a limited budget, you are naturally going to reuse existing assets as often as possible to increase gameplay variety without increasing development expenses.
The problem with open world games is that there really isn't a perfect solution for level scaling. Every single alternative produces some result which can be interpreted as a flaw in the design. The developers could have increased the number of bandits that are encountered when the player levels instead of the difficulty of individual bandits, but this produces two problems: first, the processing overhead on the CPU is high, which means the game won't run well for many players (in fact, the AI in Oblivion just tends to 'break' when there are too many actors in a scene at the same time--and that's an optimizing feature!); second, players will inevitably complain that the number of bandits is unrealistic! "What? There are more bandits living in Cyrodiil than normal people? Why don't they just overrun the guards and take over the Imperial City? God this game is SOOO unrealistic! Get it right, Bethesda!"
Now, you might be thinking that I'm trying to pull a fast one on you here. After all, I've said precious little about static leveling. There's no reason a big, open world can't be populated with hand-placed enemies and loot that produce an appropriate challenge for the player at any level and still makes sense. Other games have done it; why can't Bethesda do it in the Elder Scrolls?
Well, actually, there is a problem with this. There are actually a couple of problems.
First of all, it's not nearly as easy to balance hundreds of different locations as one might think; it's certainly easier to balance gameplay against leveled lists than hundreds of different locations, so one might in fact be creating greater imbalance by using static spawns. But that's a small issue. A larger issue appears when you start talking about respawns.
In a statically designed world, how does the player justify respawing creatures? Either the same creatures are respawned over and over, which is, at least in my opinion, an even worse butchery of logic than bandits in full suits of glass armor ("LOL, wut? C'mon, all of the creatures I killed are suddenly resurrected? C'mon, Bethesda, get it right!"), or new creatures are spawned...in which case, they must be drawn from a leveled list, which, to the player, is identical to populating the world with leveled lists in the first place! (Unless the developers are going to invest resources in custom-designing static respawns for every location. An unlikely scenario to say the least!) Of course, the developers could always opt not to respawn anything but I doubt players will rejoice at the logic and consistency of the world when they slay the last enemy...forever.
The fact of the matter is: in a large, open world RPG there must be respawning enemies. If there aren't, then the player runs the risk of depopulating the world. (I guess you CAN beat that kind of game.) If there are respawning enemies, they must either respawn the same enemies that the player has already killed, which violates logic in a very profound way (and which is boring to boot) or they must draw new enemies from some sort of list...a leveled list. And, of course, leveled lists must use level scaling. Which brings us full circle. In fact, in this scenario, the Well Appointed Bandit is actually the most sensible solution to the problem of providing continuing challenge in an open game world. When faced with two (or more) evils, it is generally better to chose the least of them, and a damaged game economy was Bethesda's choice.
The Well-Appointed Encounter Zone
Fortunately, although still lurking in the corners of various dungeons in Skyrim, the Well Appointed Bandit has become less of a problem than he was in Oblivion. Bethesda has used various techniques to disguise level scaling to the point where people argue over whether or not it is still really a problem that must be fixed. Most of this solution owes itself to zoning (encounter zones) which allow the developers to take the best of both systems (static, location-based level scaling and dynamic, player-based scaling) but, of course, like anything in an open world game designed by people with limited time and resources, it isn't perfect. Often, for many players who have been scarred by their experience of encountering a peasant dressed in finer clothes than they themselves possessed, the mere hint of the Bandit's continued existence is enough to raise hackles.
Advancements in the design of their level scaling mechanic through the intelligent use of zoning and better lists has also gone a long way toward restoring the player's feeling of progression. Certainly, when I play Skyrim, I am much more likely to encounter enemies which used to pose a challenge for me but which are now dispatched with an inappropriate amount of gusto. In Skyrim, you are much more likely to encounter a mixed group of high and low level bandits, for example, than a homogenous group wearing better gear, which is a much more immersive solution, in my opinion.
Of course, people will take issue with anything, and, no doubt, people will take issue with all of the little inconsistencies that remain in Skyrim's leveling system; but do me a favor: the next time you meet the Well Appointed Bandit in your travels through Cyrodiil, tip your hat to him. Because without him, when the last monster falls, the game ends, and through his example, games continue to make progress, grow, and evolve, until, one day, we will forget where reality ends and Cyrodiil begins.
And then all of the crap on the forums is going to seem a lot more serious.
If you're interested in learning more about various level scaling mechanics, I've written a longer, more abstract treatment of the subject on my website. The article is called:
Additional discussion can be found on the Elder Scrolls forum: