I’ve been replaying The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I’ve been thinking about level scaling — the way the game adjusts the power of enemies to match your own, so no matter where in the world you go, you’ll get an appropriate level of challenge.
I don’t think it works.
I have some thoughts.
The Three Faces of Level Scaling
I have to begin by saying that I don’t really like level scaling as a concept at all, or at least, definitely not as something universally applied.
Skyrim is an open world game. Once you’ve got through the intro, you can go anywhere you like. You can walk over that hill and into that cave and see what’s there. The design philosophy that Skyrim seems to embrace is that, if you can see it, you can go into it — and if you can go into it, you can clear it.
This places a curious limitation on how that cave can be structured. Since you can be distracted at any time throughout the game — from levels 1 to 60; focused on stealth, magic or melee combat; armed and armoured in a thousand different ways — in order to ensure that any character can clear the cave immediately upon encountering it for the first time, the power of its denizens has to be adjusted to match the power of that character.
I dislike the notion that encountering something means you should be immediately be able to complete it, because this creates a very flat path through the game. As your character grows stronger and stronger, so too does the world around them; so each fight is effectively of static difficulty, getting neither easier nor harder despite your burgeoning power. Every cave has a set of enemies of just the right strength to battle you fairly, only escalating gently from the entrance to its convenient second exit or looped passageway.
(Yes, in Skyrim there are bounds on the scaling of some enemies, so that they will become easier after a certain maximum power point. Yes, there are also some odd spikes, particularly Volkihar Vampire Masters in my experience. My point still stands in general.)
Consider, instead, the approach of Morrowind, where everything is hand-built and fixed. You encounter a tomb and you have no idea what might be inside. A few cheap skeletons you can easily bash aside — or a legion of Bonelords who will rend you limb from limb with dark magic? Immediately, there is trepidation on whether or not you should tackle a place now or later. You might go in anyway, and be forced to turn back when faced with something that is too powerful.
After all, an open world game may let you push your way anywhere — but there’s no rule that says the world shouldn’t push back. (And if you’re sneaky or clever enough to outwit a vastly superior foe, isn’t that something that makes you feel really good?)
Having said that, I think the problem of level scaling is most obvious in Skyrim because of the three major character archetypes.
Consider that a character may reach level 20 through honing their skills at lockpicking and talking to people and sneaking around — so should they face the same enemies as a level 20 character who has sunk all their energy into swords and armour? In my current game, I’ve reached the peak of melee combat skills, so I’m trying to use magic instead to eke out a few more levels — but while the enemies may be felled in two or three strokes of my greatsword, it takes ages to whittle them down with my crappy spells. They have a been scaled to challenge a high level warrior, not a low level mage.
(The “legendary” system that resets skills, so you can relearn them, is weird — I don’t feel that asking the player to handicap themselves for no real reason is a good solution to balancing problems. And before you say it, neither is relying on modders to fill in the gaps!)
My current thinking would be that the game should acknowledge this three-archetype system and double down on it, by creating dungones tailored to each archetype to the exclusion of the others. Have traditional dungeons full of enemies for warriors; have dungeons to sneak through for stealthy characters; and have perhaps more puzzle-focused places for mages. That way, you only have to level-scale to a subset of skills, which would mean you can set the level scaling up against those relevant stats and skills instead of your character’s overall level.
The denizens of warrior-focused dungeons would cut through unarmoured mages so that’s easy enough. Conversely, mage dungeons could have enemies that cannot be hit by physical weapons, so you have to use magic on them, and whose attacks ignore armour so you need magical defences too. Thieves raiding houses would need to have reasons to avoid combat entirely, such as the threat of jail time, and would face tonnes of locked doors.
(Speaking of ignoring armour, I’m still taken by the way Earth 2150 did lasers — these bypassed hit points and instead heated units up until they instantly exploded, being blunted only by energy shields. I think something along these lines would fit perfectly and help to diversify the challenges of an open world game.)
This would create a natural gradient of missions appropriate to each of the tentpole factions — the Fighters’ Guild would send you off to fight stuff, the Mages’ Guild would have you actually using your magic to explore strange dimensions and undertake exotic research (instead of instantly promoting you to Archmage, sigh), and the Thieves’ Guild would have you sneaking around stealing things and not getting caught.
That in itself would create three interlocking but ultimately separate games, so of course you would need to blend these three tracks outside of the big faction chains. Some magical enemies might be vulnerable to enchanted weapons but take reduced damage from them, so they’d still be beatable by a warrior but not so optimally. Tombs naturally contain as many locked doors and chests as skeletons to flex a mix of stealth and fighting. Super-paranoid thief targets could be guarded by magical locks as well as physical ones.
None of that, of course, solves the problem of scaling, but it offers an avenue for refinement that might make level scaling more manageable. A character that has spent their life as a warrior could fight powerful warrior-focused enemies, but be presented with far weaker magical enemies if they wanted to try their hand at becoming a mage.
You might say that this would let every player be everything across a single playthrough, but honestly, that’s what Skyrim already lets you do so we might as well go all-in. It’s just more tedious to do it right now (at least, without mods), as my super-powered warrior has to spend years training to get his spells up to a remotely useful level to match the enemies tailored for his incredible sword skills. Imagine if that late-game career change effectively let you start from the beginning along that track, without actually starting from the beginning?
On the other hand, you could just not level scale at all, so the player can actually be surprised by the universe…. I think my archetype-focused dungeon concept would still work in that case anyway, to make the world generally more diverse and interesting. Ah well.
(… The other big problem with level scaling in Skyrim is that it doesn’t go high enough — a maxed-out warrior with the best arms and armour is effectively impervious to damage, and can kill anything in a handful of attacks. Gotta pump those numbers up!)
(… Also smithing and enchanting really break the balance so, much as I love them, they’ve simply got to go.)