Monday, December 13, 2010

Are Single Player Gamers More Forgiving? Memories of Oblivion.

Much excitement about the confirmation that a new Elder Scrolls game has been confirmed for next November and that it is a direct sequel to Oblivion. Oblivion didn't impress me quite as much as it's iconic predecessor "Morrowind" but nevertheless it was  hugely impressive game and I have learned to eagerly anticipate any new release from Bethseda Softworks.

The news even inspired me to re-install Oblivion and I am currently playing a very impressive full conversion mod called  "Nehrim: At Fates Edge". Not many mods offer 50+ hours of hand crafted single player campaign so this is quite special and I will probably discuss it at more length later. The real justification for this post however was the following page from the Elder Scrolls Wiki that I stumbled upon while googling for the mod. It reminded me that Oblivion, one of the most successful single player games of the last decade widely recognised as a monumental achievement in gaming, was fundamentally broken.

The levelling system was broken. The cornerstone of any rpg is the mechanism that allows your character to get  stronger as they progress through the game and this basic system was deeply flawed in Oblivion. Thanks to an extremely finicky player progression system combined with auto scaling of monsters to the players level many many players found that their characters got weaker as they levelled up rather than stronger in comparison to the monsters they had to fight. Much of the flawed system was inherited from the game's Elder Scrolls predecessors but for some reason it was in Oblivion that the flaws were most cruelly exposed. If you need proof of how broken this system was just consider that one widely proposed strategy for overcoming the levelling problem was to prevent your character from ever levelling.  It was actually easier to finish the game with a low level character than a high level character because of the auto-levelled nature of the monsters.

Players eventually found ways around it and learned to game the system to achieve optimum levelling. Needless to say this puts stringent restrictions on your choice of character build and none of the default character archetypes were useful for this. The hoops that you had to go through to prevent gimping your character were completely immersion breaking in a game that holds immersion as one of its major selling points.  For example a character needs to deliberately avoid using their preferred weapon type to prevent over-levelling that skill and all characters have to minimise the use of running and jumping to keep their athletics skill under control.

Can you imagine the furore if an mmorpg was released with a similarly broken levelling system?


Anton said...

Final Fantasy Tactics had this same feature. I remember trying to level up to fight a tough battle, then coming back to find that the battle got tougher!

The way to win was to level up and select new skills that would provide new ways to approach the fight. Not to rely merely on raising your hp and other stats.

mbp said...

Hi Anton.

That sounds like a similar feature. I think I know what Bethseda were trying to do in Oblivion. They wanted a completely open game world where you could visit any region in any order and still find mobs appropriate to your level. If they really wanted to do this then I think they would have been better off abandoning levels or else implementing a very low level cap. Players could still learn new skills that would allow them different tactics and strategies much as you describe in FFT. In fact Guild Wars PVE content is a very good example of this approach.

Tesh said...

FFVIII is another game that's easier to finish at low levels by gaming the system and abusing the Junction mechanics. The foes leveled with you, so it indeed got harder as you got "stronger".

Jettisoning levels altogether might indeed be a better way to handle it. I've certainly argued for that before.