Wednesday, August 5, 2015

On Oblivion Leveling

NOTE: This post is a game design interlude not directly connected to my written Let’s Play of Oblivion. If you don’t care about this sort of thing, you can skip it. But if you like painfully detailed discussions of in-game mechanics, gosh golly gee are you in for a treat.

So before we continue the adventures of Shush’Ogar, there’s something I need to address. In the first episode of this series, as well as future episodes, I’m trying to mix in discussions of game design along with humorous play-by-plays. This is all well and good for most things, as Oblivion has a lot of weird and amusing quirks to it. However, there is one subject in Oblivion that is too massive an issue. There’s one giant, messy problem with the game that I want to dedicate an entire post to properly discuss. This one thing, this near fatal flaw is my biggest issue with Oblivion. It bolsters many of the lesser problems in the game and is the number one reason I can't consider Oblivion the best Elder Scrolls game. So what could this flaw possibly be?

Today, we’re going to talk about leveling up in Oblivion.

How You Get More Better

In most games, ever since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons, leveling up tends to work in a certain way. When you kill an enemy they’ll have a certain amount of experience points, quantifying how much your character improved due to the encounter. Earning set amounts of experience will enable your character to level up, at which point they either choose from a list of potential upgrades or get predetermined ones. Games have a huge amount of variations on this process, but usually the thing they change is how you can spend your experience, not how you earn it. The Elder Scrolls is a notable exception in this regard.

In Elder Scrolls games, you don’t get experience by killing things or completing quests. Instead, there are a number of skills you have access to, like Heavy Armor or Sneak or Alchemy. You level up each skill individually simply by using it. Every time you hit an enemy, craft an item, or perform an action the related skill is improving. In the most recent Elder Scrolls game, Skyrim, all these skills increases counted towards your next level. When you leveled up you would choose one of three central resources to upgrade (health, magicka or stamina). You would also get a perk, which could be spent on bonuses in the various skill trees.

An example of Skyrim’s skill trees from our good friend google images. Every point on the constellations represents a unique bonus to that skill, like extra damage or unlocking special attacks.

This is all somewhat difficult to discuss with different audiences. People familiar with games, especially if they’ve played games like The Elder Scrolls, will be bored by all this superfluous explanation. Meanwhile, I imagine people who aren’t familiar with these systems find this all confusing or overwhelming...and just as boring as the other group. The thing is, I have to get these particulars down. I think one of the most important parts about RPGs is what system of progression they use, and to explain why things don’t work I need to lay the groundwork. Skyrim was simpler (and although I won’t get into it yet, probably better off for it), so I explained it first. Now let’s get back to the game at hand.

Oblivion doesn’t have this same system as Skyrim. Neither have other Elder Scrolls games before it, as they all work differently and could be better or worse for complex reasons. We’re not going to bog down the discussion talking about them. There are two fundamental ways in which leveling in Oblivion is different from leveling in Skyrim: attributes and classes. Let’s address these one at a time, starting with the first.

Attributing Blame

Attributes are like traditional stats in most RPGs. There are eight of them: Strength, Intelligence, Willpower, Agility, Speed, Endurance, Personality, and Luck. Each of these attributes is governed by 3 skills. Except Luck, which isn’t governed by anything. The attributes all do different things, some affect multiple variables and some only one, and they all have big flowery descriptions that fail to explain exactly how they work. Some are pretty simple to explain, but some of them aren’t.

For example, Intelligence effects your total Magicka, your resource for casting spells. Your maximum Magicka is simply double your Intelligence, that’s it. Done. Your maximum Health, on the other hand, is determined by your Endurance attribute. At level one your Health is simply double your Endurance. But every subsequent level your Health increases by 1/10th of your Endurance, except if you increase your Endurance that level in which case it also adds that increase to your initial base health. Endurance is also one of the four separate skills that funnels into your maximum Fatigue (Stamina in Skyrim). Intelligence and Willpower don’t affect spell cost or spell damage, but Strength and Agility do affect the damage you do with certain weapons.

Again, I don’t mean to bombard you with numbers and stat explanations, but it’s all to prove a point. Fatigue is your resource for attacking, blocking, running and jumping. While looking up all these stats to see exactly what they did, I looked at the formula for damage and found that weapon damage is affected by your current Fatigue. This means that if you’re attacking with low fatigue, you do less damage. I did not know that. I have played this game for hundreds of hours, and I did not know something that significantly changed how much damage I dealt hitting someone.

Imagine you got to the final stage in Super Mario Bros. but were having trouble beating it. So you look for help on the wiki, and while you’re there you find out the whole time you could glide in mid-air by holding the select button.

Many people probably don’t see what the big deal with all this is. Games like this use derived stats and complicated systems all the time, and Oblivion isn’t nearly the worst case scenario for that. This is true. However, Elder Scrolls games are unique in the sense that they barely need stats at all. Since leveling up is done through skills, you can more or less throw out stats entirely, which is what Skyrim did. Some may call this dumbing things down, but I don’t buy that.

You see, there’s a personal principle that I’ve formed over years and years of playing games, particularly numbers-driven ones like this. I’ll need a different post someday to make my opinions on it clear, but I can sum it up rather simply: Complexity does not equal depth. A system being complicated has almost nothing to do with it being a good system. In fact, complicated systems often function worse than simpler ones, because it obfuscates how things work and makes it difficult for the player to make clear informed decisions about the game they’re playing. And you want the player to make informed decisions, because unraveling systems and making interesting choices is a big part of what’s fun about interactive entertainment.

So do I think having attributes in Oblivion made the game more deep and interesting? Not really. I feel Skyrim made the right decision in removing them and that they don’t add much to the game. But they wouldn’t be as bad if it weren’t for an even worse problem. That’s right, attributes aren’t the main problem here. In fact, they’re not even the second worst thing about the system. I don’t feel attributes are necessary here, but they’re a distant third in terms of problems with Oblivion leveling. Let’s move on to the second worst thing about progression in Oblivion: classes.

This System Has No Class

So in Oblivion, all skills don’t go towards leveling up your character. If that’s the case, how do you level up in Oblivion? The answer is classes. Near the start of the game you choose from a list of classes, like warrior, mage or thief. These classes each have 7 of 21 skills listed as their major skills. Any time you level up a major skill, you get 1/10th of your next level. For example, here’s a picture of what looks to be a mage’s major skills.

Menus, numbers and progress bars! I hope you guys are pumped as hell about these, because this crazy analysis train isn’t stopping anytime soon.

So every time you gain a level in one of these major skills, it counts towards your next overall level. You can also make a custom class where you choose any 7 skills you want to be your major skills. At first this system doesn’t sound too bad. You pick certain skills to focus on and doing so gets you general levels as well. But problems arise when we look into what happens when you level up.

When you level up in Oblivion, there are a few benefits to be gained. One is that your health increases a bit every level, and another is that some quests have level requirements. Beyond that, the advantages all come from increasing your attributes. Every level, you choose 3 attributes to raise. The more you’ve increased skills tied to an attribute, the more you can level it up. The max attribute boost you can get is +5, from leveling up related skills 10 or more times. A visual aid may help at this point.

“More numbers! I have an insatiable thirst for detailed pages of someone else’s stats, that’s the real reason I’m reading!” –A real person probably

The keen among you may have already spotted the problem. These increases to your attributes can come from leveling up any skill. However, leveling up your major skills means you’ll level up sooner, thereby granting you less bonuses to your attributes. A good example of this problem is the mage class we saw earlier. This class has all the skills that govern Willpower and Intelligence as major skills. This means that it is physically impossible for them to get the maximum attribute bonus in more than one of them in a single level. Even if they’re disciplined enough to only improve say Intelligence skills that level, it will take all 10 of their skill increases towards their next level to get the max attribute bonus in just that.

Basically this means one thing. Characters that use the skills they specialize in will be objectively worse than those who don’t. Technically, the best way to play the game is to make a custom class with major skills you never use. One thing that makes this even worse is that skills have a cap at 100 where you can’t raise them any higher. That means if you don’t spend your attribute bonuses wisely you permanently prevent them from getting past a certain point. So, by making progress you can actively prevent your character from being the best they could be in the long run.

For all that Oblivion is a fun game, this is not a good system. I understand that it’s working from a different base with the skill-based progression, but it doesn’t function properly. It’s not as though it would be impossible to make something like this work, either. If they really wanted attributes they could’ve simply let you choose which ones to increase irrespective of your skills. Or perhaps there could be some bonus to raising stats that you have major skills in. The current system isn’t successful for anyone, and its greatest strength is the game being easy enough that some people don’t notice the problem.

This all brings us to the final issue. Just as classes retroactively make attributes worse, this next problem makes everything even more of an issue. The situation with classes is still pretty bad, don’t get me wrong. It’s a kind of broken system that doesn’t have many advantages to it, so I wouldn’t let it off the hook entirely. However, if it were the biggest problem in the game people could power though it with enough leveling and it wouldn’t be near as much of an issue. That’s not the case though, because of the worst part about Oblivion. Ladies and gentlemen, here we are at last...

Let Me Level With You

In The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, the game levels up with you.

Allow me to explain. Elder Scrolls games allow you the freedom to go anywhere and do things in any order. However, if there were enemies much stronger than you all over the world, this wouldn’t exactly be true. There wouldn’t be any literal barriers in your way, but it wouldn’t be feasible to defeat monsters notably, statistically stronger than you. This forms a softer kind of barrier on progression, but a barrier nonetheless. Oblivion didn’t want that barrier. It wanted you to be able to go anywhere at any time and find an appropriate challenge for your skills. So Oblivion scales enemies all over the game to your level, giving them better stats and equipment and sometimes switching them out with stronger enemies.

I can understand what the developers were going for here. I can even sympathize with it being a tough, if not impossible, problem to solve. For all the issues of this system, you can start the game wandering into any direction, any dungeon, and find it balanced to your level. But there’s no getting around it: I think this is a questionable idea with terrible execution. As nice as it sounds letting the player go anywhere and find balanced gameplay, you immediately get some drawbacks. For example, you lose out on the sort of self-balancing gameplay that RPGs inherently provide.

In a situation where enemies have set levels, you can train more or less to compensate for your skills and optimization as a player. When every enemy is scaled to your level, you can never do that. The game has a difficulty slider you can use to make things more or less difficult. But not only does this feel cheap and unsatisfying, it also drives home one of the primary problems of a system like this: everything feels the same. Have you ever played an RPG or upgrade-centric game and gone back to the beginning, proceeding to kick in the teeth of an enemy that used to give you trouble? Wasn’t that awesome?

Oh hey there boss of the starting zone, I’m that guy who failed to kill you half a dozen times. I’m now Captain Lord Godking of Space and Time. Rematch?

Part of the fun in games with progression is the feeling that you are actually progressing. This not only invests you in pressing forward with your character, but it helps orient you. Having enemies both weaker and stronger than you is crucial, because the strength of those enemies helps define them beyond visuals. When traversing the overworld in early video game RPGs,  the type and strength of foes was often the only thing that defined an area. Sure this patch of forest looks just like the one a continent over, but here you fight giants and those annoying poison spiders, or so forth. The ability to look back to areas that are now trivial and feel accomplished, or look forward to areas that are too tough for you and feel challenged or apprehensive; these are a huge shame to lose. Video games and RPGs in particular are uniquely capable of giving you this sense of place, of experiencing personal journeys through an entire defined, fictional world. Scaled leveling destroys a lot of that.

When I play Oblivion, my experiences tend to blend together. I play the game and I enjoy myself, because the game is fun and there are a lot of great things about it. But after the fact, when I try to remember anything specific that happened to me all that comes to mind are pre-defined quests. Oblivion has some interesting quests, but for everything else in the game I draw a blank. This isn’t helped by the games’ scenery being fairly repetitive. The towns are different and there’s certainly some variety, but the game uses a lot of procedural generation and repeated assets. Combined with the often bland dungeon and level design, constantly replaying (if good) music and other bits of repetition, the scaled leveling makes Oblivion all just feel...the same.

You either remember exactly which cave in the game this is, or you’re a person who is telling me THE TRUTH.

Where other games are richly and uniquely textured throughout, Oblivion is a massive surface of smooth, uniform glass. Only tiny imperfections mar the surface, only tiny anecdotes and peculiarities make for memorable moments. You’ll be ambushed by bandits on the road at level 1 and you’ll be ambushed by the same bandits 30 levels later, only then the bandits will be far beefier and wearing a set of magnificently enchanted fancy armor. This is half the problem caused by the leveling system, the half that’s less talked about. Everyone can see the mechanical problems with the leveling in Oblivion, the things that technically just don’t work. Indeed, I’ll get back to those in a second. But I think this feeling of progression, this texture that’s lost is important.

All Elder Scrolls games, and open-world games in general, struggle with this problem. But I’ve never felt a uniformity of experience as strongly as when playing Oblivion. At its worst, it feels like a collection of stitched together pieces. Like an endless treadmill of dull, continuous fights of the same length and difficulty in the same environments (often the exact same room). It ceases to feel like a world, the carefully crafted illusion falls apart and all the fancy architecture and voice-acted scenes they can muster can’t bring me back into it. It’s at these times I stop playing Oblivion. At times like these I feel there wasn’t much point to doing so in the first place. that’s the inherent problem with scaled leveling, which Oblivion suffers from quite strongly. But we aren’t quite out of the woods of negativity yet. The other parts of the leveling system join forces with scaled leveling to break the game in one last way.

Negative Progression

Remember back when I discussed attributes and classes, and mentioned that you could inefficiently level up your stats and skills? Scaled leveling builds on that issue, like an intricate tower of human feces, a Voltron of rotting corpses, or a house built on several separate layers of haunted Native American burial ground. In a normal, non-scaled game you can still level up inefficiently. You can spend hours getting better at basket-weaving or macaroni art and then do terribly when you try to engage in fisticuffs with a dragon. But the difference is that in other games, you can just level up more to fix the problem. You can level up inefficiently, but doing so will never be outright negative.

But in Oblivion, if you level up without raising the proper skills or getting enough stat points, enemies will be getting stronger faster than you. You’ll have more difficulty fighting them in general, and the further you slip behind them the more permanently that disadvantage will stick. You can reach a point where things will never be as easy as they used to be, ever again, fighting almost anything. Health tends to outstrip damage in Oblivion to begin with, so high-level fights are already long-winded, ponderous encounters that drag on longer than they need to. If you level up incorrectly this problem gets even worse, to where combat becomes a complete chore to manage.

Some specific cases are even more broken. Ogres regenerate health over time, so with relative ease you can become too weak to kill them at all.

I don’t like speaking in absolutes in general, and can’t think of many objective rules of game design. However, I would say this comes close: Progression/rewards for success in games should never be outright negative. I cannot express enough how much it bothers me that this can be the case in Oblivion. If anything, a system like this should have an even better feedback loop than traditional levels, as you get little bits of progress (in the form of skill increases) far more frequently. Instead, every time I get one of those increases there’s a tiny twinge in the back of my brain that wonders: Should I have done that? Am I making things harder for me later?

Perhaps other people don’t think about it as much or let it bother them. I wouldn’t doubt it, and it probably makes the game more fun. When I first played the game I didn’t even consider how this system was flawed. But after I got to higher levels and started noticing the issues with it, there was no going back. Now every time I play the game there’s this looming specter of a leveling system hanging over the proceedings. And every time I make a new character, I have to make a choice.

The most efficient way to play the game by far is to pick major skills that you will never ever use. Then you’ll be level one forever but you’ll keep getting stronger until you’re ridiculously overpowered. However, playing the game this way makes it much less interesting. You’ll never see higher level enemies, never do quests with level requirements, never get to advance your attributes beyond what they start with, and never find new loot like better weapons and armor. So that’s not a great way to play. Playing with skills you actually use works fine for a while, but it breaks down at higher levels. Plus, players like me who enjoy building and improving characters will be constantly bothered by the inefficiency happening in the background.

Dang it my Restoration skill increased and I didn’t actually want to get better at WHY IS THIS A PROBLEM I CAN HAVE?!

What I typically do these days is some type of hybrid system. I pick only some skills I’ll use as major skills, or I pick ones I don’t use but deliberately level when I feel the time is right. Then I can at least get some joy out of leveling, increasing challenge and variety over time while still shaping a specific character build. Of course, even then things aren’t perfect. I have to choose between spending time playing the game normally and taking breaks to develop stats properly. No matter what I’ll never be completely free of this scaled leveling.

On the Road to Improvement

So that more or less covers the problems with Oblivion’s leveling system. It’s a shame that the issue is so all-encompassing, because I’ll again defend Oblivion as a good game. In the interest of ending on something positive, and because I want to analyze how this system is done differently, I’m going to finish by looking at the more recent Skyrim. People have varying opinions on Skyrim and it’s by no means a perfect game. However, they did do some things to help the leveling problem. The fundamental issues with the system may never be resolved, but it can certainly be improved to the point where those problems are negligible. Let’s go point-by-point and see what positive changes Skyrim made.

Fixed-level Enemies – I don’t think Oblivion scales everything exactly to your level, but it does scale an awful lot. You’ll never, for example, see an enemy that is clearly and vastly stronger than other enemies at that level. Skyrim doesn’t have too many drastic examples of this either, but it does have some. The first to come to mind would be the Giants, who you can find wandering the plains at a fairly low level. They’re incredibly strong and will likely kill you in a single strike, but you can eventually grow powerful enough to kill them easily. Speaking of tough enemies, Skyrim also had...

Minions and Bosses – I’ve mentioned that most fights in Oblivion tend to feel the same, and part of the reason is lack of enemy variety. Skyrim still does scale enemies, but it also tries to give different types of encounters with enemies that are fairly weak and/or strong for the player’s level. There are fights where you can just tear through dozens of puny skeletons at once, and also fights with boss-like monsters that have better stats, abilities and are clearly labeled differently. Speaking of those labels...

Defined Enemy Tiers – When you fight a bandit in Oblivion, it could be at any level and appropriate strength. In Skyrim, bandits will always be weak. However, bandit thugs will be slightly stronger, and bandit highwaymen stronger than those and so on. Instead of simply scaling the one enemy and giving it better stats and gear as time goes on, Skyrim defines different types of each enemy that get stronger and have better equipment or abilities. When they’re not humanoids with equipment, there are often other visual differences. A regular dragon will have a different color, tail and head than a blood dragon, and an elder dragon will look different from both of them. Not only does it make it easier to judge the danger of a target right away, but it helps with the problem of anchoring the player and giving a sense of progression.

For example, here we have the first type of dragons you see in Skyrim...

...and here is the second tier of dragon, the blood dragon.

Another thing to note with the defined enemy tiers is that they also have different level ranges. For example, the strongest types of bandits are bandit chiefs. Their level is only in the late-20s, and yet the max level in the default game is all the way up to 81. It’s common for players to get to a high enough level that any bandits they meet are completely trivial to fight. I think this is a great compromise for scaling enemies while still trying to keep the context and benefits provided with fixed levels.

Also, this section was the perfect time to use the word “stratified”, but I couldn’t find a good place to do so. So I’m bringing that up here.

Y’know, just thought I’d mention.

It’s a nice word is all. Stratified.

Please notice how smart I am.

Regional Level Ranges – I wasn’t even consciously aware of this one, but I found out about it while looking stuff up and it’s worth mentioning. Apparently in Skyrim different locations have inherent difficulty levels, and certain areas/dungeons (generally at higher elevations) are meant to be quite difficult for low-level characters. Though I haven’t ever actively noticed this, I have sometimes felt that dungeons were unusually difficult compared to other ones I was doing at the time. I like this feature in theory as it again helps with the central problems of scaled leveling. I’d just recommend that future games made the difference starker and add more narrative/visual signposting so it’s clear to all players that certain areas are intended to be more deadly.

Locking Areas to a Level – When you first reach a dungeon in Skyrim, that dungeon will scale to your current level, but then stay at that level. If you go into a dungeon at level 12, it will lock into being a level 12 dungeon. If you find things too difficult and leave, returning when you’re level 25, that dungeon will still be scaled for a level 12 character. This means that it’s much harder to get permanently stuck on anything, and in some situations you can level well above enemies you fought before. Of course due to the regional level ranges mentioned previously, some areas have minimum or maximum levels for a dungeon. So if a level 2 character goes into a dungeon ranged levels 15-30, it’ll be scaled to level 15. But since it’ll be locked there the player can leave and come back when they’re ready.

Removing Attributes and Classes – This is the number one thing that makes scaled leveling work in Skyrim better than it does in Oblivion. The system of attributes and classes was complicated without adding depth, often counter-intuitive, and just generally broken in a large number of ways. When the system is simply gaining skills and perks for them it simplifies things while making it much harder to screw yourself over. Sure it’s still possible to make things temporarily worse for yourself by leveling non-combat skills like Speech and then going into combat. But due to some enemies like bandits capped at lower levels and the scale locking when you find a dungeon, it’ll always be possible to find somewhere to safely increase those combat skills until things are easier again. All without having to use a difficulty slider.

So as far as I’m concerned, Skyrim has taken a number of measures that make its level scaling hugely improved from what existed in Oblivion. Is the system Skyrim has perfect? Of course not. The fundamental struggles of scaled leveling are still present, though much subdued, and it has other issues. But things are improving from Oblivion’s fun-sucking mess of a system. And one more time I will reiterate: Oblivion is still a fine game. But I have had few progression systems bother me as much as this one, and I needed to get that off my chest.

So that sure was over 5,000 words complaining about a leveling system. Join me next time, when I stop that and get back to actually playing the game. Well, I still may complain about some things. But only sometimes. Rarely. A bit.

Maybe more than a bit.

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