Bethesda and Level Scaling
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Does Bethesda ever learn? Juding by the scaled level system in place in the recently released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, apparently not.

One of the biggest common gripes with Skyrim's predecessor, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, was the immersion- and game-breaking level scaling system. For the uninitiated, the purpose of level scaling is to let the game world keep up with the player as he or she advances in skill and level. This implies a player-centered experience; the world adapts to the player, instead of the other way around. As a result, the player will never feel outclassed or overwhelmed. Objectively, there's nothing inherently wrong with this concept - provided it is properly applied.

Emphasis on "properly applied"; this is Bethesda we're talking about, and I don't think they've ever gotten "that balance thing" right before.

It took me about thirty minutes of playing the game over at friend's place to realise that, when it comes to leveling, Skyrim is just as broken as Oblivion ever was; this in lieu of promises from Bethesda's side that they would take the harsh lessons learned from Oblivion to heart. From where I'm sitting it suspiciously looks as though they didn't learn a damn thing. A quick query on the internet revealed that there are plenty of people who agree with me - and a whole lot more who either don't understand what this is all about or simply refuse to see past their blind fanboyism. So why is Skyrim's level scaling system broken?

Essentially, Skyrim - just like Oblivion - punishes you for making the wrong choices. Which is ironic, considering both Oblivion and Skyrim were presented as games where one simply couldn't ever make a wrong choice. To understand the punishment, you need to understand what happens under the hood. Let's break it down.

In Skyrim, you increase in level by increasing your skills. How or when these skills increase or how long it takes for them to increase is, for the moment, irrelevant; what is relevant is that every skill "weighs" the same. By that I mean that increasing, say, your Alchemy skill is just as effective as increasing your Destruction skill when it comes to leveling up. So far, so good. The agony starts to sink in when you realise that your enemies not only don't bother with Alchemy, or Smithing, or Speechcraft; they don't even have these skills to begin with. Their skillset is limited to combat-oriented skills - and these are the skills that improve for them whenever you level up.

What this means in practice - just like it did in Oblivion - is that you will grow comparitively weaker with each level up if you don't push your combat skills at every available opportunity. Every time you improve a non-combat skill, your enemies gain an ever-increasing edge in combat. Add to this that enemies gain a fixed increase in HP and Attack Damage every time you level up as well as the fact that non-combat skills generally increase a lot faster than their combat counterparts, and you're in for a world of hurt.

Just about the only bright side to this whole catastrophy is that the situation will eventually balance out - there are only so many combat skills to max out, so you'll inevitably catch up with your opponents. Provided you can survive with a gimped character without turning the difficulty level all the way back to Novice, that is (said difficulty slider is another pet hatred of mine, but that'll be for another time).

In a game you can reportedly "play any way you want", you're really being railroaded into creating a Nordic warmachine who doesn't bother with anything that doesn't directly lead to more blood on the floor and useless kill animations - because if you don't, you'll get your ass handed back to you on a dragonbone platter. Way to go, Bethesda.

I'm not going to bother listing the multitude of options to remedy the situation; modders already did that for Oblivion, so it's only a matter of time before they will for Skyrim. I'm going to stop here and let you make up your own jokes about how a bunch of passionate fans always seem to be able to do a better job at balancing a game than the AAA developer who really should've known better.

November 17, 2011

Luke Gevaerts