On Level Scaling

Fellow gamer and blogger AmstradHero has been doing a series on the game mechanic of level scaling (on the why, the drawbacks, and design considerations, with more to come). I thought I’d throw my two cents in about level scaling in RPGs, with a subtle agenda to talk about how I’ve been thinking about game mechanics for Kung Fu Legends.

So AmstradHero has covered all the main salient points in his discussion, so I’ll be brief in my overview. Level scaling is the game mechanic where characters in a game[1. Typically an RPG, but also in first-person shooters and other games] gain levels which correspond to their power, and the challenges of the world automagically scale to meet their power. So as your character gets more powerful, the bad guys get tougher and/or more numerous. Fights require more firepower and potentially different strategies. One of the most complained talked about examples is the 2006 Bethesda game Oblivion. AmstradHero talks about this in more detail, but the common complaints are that over the course of several levels where you start off fighting ragtag gangs of bandits and hunt deer in the woods, the world changes underfoot and bandits are now pimped out with glass armour and magic swords and fearsome demons/daedra roam the lands like the harmless deer you had before.

To introduce my side of the issue, let’s get some concepts straight. A level is a way of giving a guide to the power of a character. Higher levels mean more power.  Now let’s contrast that with two ideas: freedom and fairness. A basic tenet in these sorts of games is that more freedom is better. A perfectly free character in a sandbox RPG world is someone who can travel anywhere at anytime at whatever speed they like (special relativity be damned), and in combat can deal an infinite amount of damage to any number of opponents at any distance. This is pretty close to the “God Mode” made famous in games like Doom[2. Add noclip cheating to get full motion freedom.].

Now a perfectly free character isn’t at all fair. If you can overcome every challenge without worry, that’s not fair, most of all to the game designers 😉 So we have this tension of fairness versus freedom. Fairness puts restrictions on the character and freedom takes them away. Your standard level 1 character is the base level of fairness for the PC side of things. At level 1 you might outclass some or a lot of the NPCs in a game, so fairness isn’t always universal. Gaining levels can be seen as providing more freedom, or conversely, providing more unfairness to the bias of the PC. Unfairness comes in a variety of forms:

  • Strengthening of current abilities. This includes taking and dealing more damage in combat. It can also give you longer range on attacks, for example. In games like the Fallout series (or Dungeons & Dragons) you get perks (resp., feats) that give you an edge in certain situations.
  • Broadening your ability portfolio. This usually means new skills or spells.
  • Removing restrictions. In Oblivion you could level up your archery and at a certain point it’d give you access to a zoom, but it was shocking if you had to move at the same time. Later levels removed this restriction and you could freely run, scope and shoot with no penalty.

There may also be certain freedoms/unfairnesses built into the overall game design. For example, all characters can try to do a certain activity like lockpicking. Trained people have better chances of success, but every character has some chance of success. Contrast with the real world, this isn’t really fair. As someone untrained in rogue-like skills, my non-zero amount of knowledge in lockpicking theory still means I have zero practical ability. Giving every character practical abilities in everything is a way of the game designers letting everyone have a go at everything at the expense of mimesis and fairness.

Having a level system means giving players this ever-increasing freedom in their character. This freedom is unfair to game design and ironically diminishes fun (a game with no challenges is boring even if they are perfectly free to do whatever they like). This is where level scaling comes in. When the unfair advantage that the player has increases, so does the unfairness of the game world. Honestly, having fearsome beasts wander the land like common wildlife is totally unfair. Especially to travelling NPCs who don’t get scaled up with the world and thus get eaten[3. I wonder if anyone’s looked into the moral responsibility inherent to a player gaining more freedom at the expense of chomped villagers?]. In any case, the challenges that meet the player are more unfair on an absolute scale, but if the game designer has done it right, the unfairnesses will be in parity and cancel out, making a relative fairness and thus retain challenges.

Let’s contrast this method of scaling with another. This one is not from the world of gaming, more from the realm of teenager wrangling. It’s the old “Rights versus Responsibilities” chestnut. The more rights (freedoms) you have, the more responsibilities (unfairnesses) you have imposed upon you. If you want to borrow the car, you have to mow the lawn first. If you want to go out Friday night, you have to stay at home for the rest of the week and do your homework. Whereas in RPG scaling you automatically assume an increase of rights/freedoms, in this situation you don’t (despite what teenagers think). There is a distinct tradeoff system at play. In RPGs you cannot refuse to level up unless you exploit some game mechanic to lock you at that level, but the whole system is geared towards providing you experience points for the sole purpose of levelling up. In teenager wrangling, you can trade one freedom for another. Suppose you don’t have any real need to borrow the car. Therefore (under fair game designers/parents) you have no requirement to mow the lawn.

I’ve been thinking about this form of game mechanic for Kung Fu Legends. In real life, if you want to be a kung fu master, you have to give up certain freedoms (being lazy or gluttonous) in order to train to get the abilities you need. And the tradeoff is greater as you scale higher. Not only do you have to go to training, but you have to incorporate training in your everyday life. You have to put mental training on top of physical training. RPGs are the McDojo of skills advancement – you hang around long enough and go through the motions and you are declared a master sooner or later.

Not only are there these explicit tradeoffs of time and energy for power, but oftentimes there is an implicit moral cost. You’ll be expected to help others altruistically, or carry yourself with honour. Traditional RPGs are the opposite – when you gain enough power, you can just kill anyone who gets in your way (unless they are a scaled monster, but usually they aren’t the marketplace guard). I think a game where you have to make these choices, implicitly or explicitly, would be interesting and novel. It’s not the old good vs evil moral mechanic of, say, Bioshock or the Paragon/Renegade divide in the Mass Effect series. It’d be a nuanced set of tradeoffs specific to your character. Where are they willing to make a tradeoff and why? I think this is a much more compelling system than “I want more power! Catch me if you can, monsters!” game design. Probably tougher to implement and tougher to signal to players, but still an interesting game mechanic.

1 thought on “On Level Scaling”

  1. idclip was awesome! Without it, we would never know that the end-demon’s brains in Doom 2 was actually John Romero’s screaming head on a pike!

    As for Bethesda’s levelling model, even though it was a copy/paste from morrowind to oblivion, I thought it worked better in morrowind. You don’t crawl up the ashlands as a lvl1 fighter with a stick and dressed in a rubbish bin liner. You can pretty well do that in Oblivion.

    In defense of oblivion, it had some good bits of writing in it. The dark brotherhood questline was hilarious. But there was some horrible writing in some parts too. And as for the untrained skills, there has to be only a small skill-set. Lockpicking I can understand, but hiding shouldn’t be a trained-only skill, like rogues in WoW or D&D. Or not using shields unless you’re ‘proficient.’ Or needing a ‘feat’ to be able to punch people properly, even though a fellow can be a master swordsman barbarian type and you would think that punching would come naturally. I know certain classes are supposed to play in particular ways… but sometimes it’s stupid.

    Actually I hope Kung-Fu Legends gives people certain penalties for using weapons. Not numerical like age of empires (spearmen vs cavalry vs archers), but more personal things like a tendancy to get grappled more if using longswords or spears. I can think of plenty of situations where cardio and nimble hands are better weapons than armour and spears… That would be kinda different.

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