Adapting Level Based Progression to TES

The Elder Scrolls Online walks a delicate tightrope, trying to meld traditional features of the single player franchise with the staples of the themepark MMORPG genre in a way that will draw in fans of both game types and leave everyone satisfied.  This is no easy task, and I can’t help but feel that in the end, some people on both sides will have to be marginalized – the key is to not do it unnecessarily.  Normally I focus more on the MMORPG elements that I feel ESO needs to implement, but in this case, I’d like to talk about the preservation of the rich exploration and the freedom of the player to do the quests they want to do, when they want to do them, and how that central pillar of the single player games is being needlessly compromised to fit the game into the MMO mold.

Windhelm with ENB

Admittedly a lot of what I wanted to do was stand around marveling at how great my mods were, so for me this is kind of a moot point.

When beginning development on the game, the team at ZeniMax decided to go with a level based system similar to what we’ve experienced in most mainstream themepark MMORPGs.  While I personally would have preferred a level-less system with progression focused on gear and significant horizontal development, it’s a sad fact that we’re simply far too long into development to spend time dwelling on my sandbox pipe-dreams; it’s not going to happen.  This decision has left us with a game where content is constantly gated by a character’s level, which is decidedly a failure in terms of maintaining the core appeal of the recent TES games.

 

Outlining the problem

This is a problem I feel is most clearly illustrated by the Mages and Fighters guilds, where content I would complete consecutively in the single players games is either split up while I go complete other content to catch up in level, or done while at max level with no challenge in combat whatsoever. Worse yet, guilds that may be added post-launch like the Thieves Guild or Dark Brotherhood will either require max-leveled characters to go through lower level content with boring and easy combat, or they will be new high-level quest chains which prohibit new players from experiencing that content for a very long while.

The folks at ZeniMax have promised us a quest experience and a world that feels exploration driven, even within the confines of the level locked progression, and based on the reports from players who have experienced the game at conventions, I am inclined to believe that they’ve succeeded in this aspect of zone design.  However, exploration is only a part of the equation, and the ‘what you want to do, when you want to do it’ component has been hopelessly hamstrung.  So what can ZeniMax do to get this central element of the single players back on track for the MMO?  As you may have guessed, I have some opinions on the subject.

The best solution, in my opinion, is to make liberal use of level scaling technologies – particularly with regard to quest rewards and combat difficulty.  This isn’t a fool proof system; if you want to go into the game, join the Fighters Guild, and do all of their quests immediately, you’re still out of luck.  But at least you’ll be able to do them all consecutively if you decide that’s important enough to justify putting them off for later.

Skyrim Daedric Armor

I don’t care if I look overqualified for the position – I came to kill some rats, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Quest reward scaling is the easiest to implement, and ensures that there will always be incentive for players to venture back out into the world, and allows them to put off completing guild specific content until later in the game without fear of missing out on rewards when they would have been useful. At the same time, however, I feel that rewarding players for completing quest content if the content is 40 levels below them should not reward them with current rewards. With that in mind, I’d only like to see quest reward scaling implemented when the player has completed those quests using the combat difficulty scaling technology.

Scaling of combat difficulty presents us with a much larger range of possible options, which I will try to address in the order of difficulty of implementation:

 

Give players access to the +/++ versions of their own alliance’s content

For those not in the know, upon reaching level 50 and completing the main story in ESO, you will gain access to a scaled up version of the next alliance’s zones, allowing you to progress through them at an upscaled difficulty and being rewarded with high level rewards.  Upon completely finishing that alliance’s zones, you’ll gain access to the third alliance’s zones and do the same thing, only at an even higher difficulty and with rewards being some of the best gear in the game.  The developers have been referring to these two alliances at 50+ and 50++, in reference to the increasing difficulties of the areas.

These areas have already been developed and tested, the technology for scaling enemy difficulty and loot rewards already exists (or at least it will by launch), and it would not require any additional development time to allow players to use this feature to up-level their own alliance’s content.  This freedom would go a long way towards letting players put off content until later, even if “later” is restricted to level cap exclusively.

 

Allow players to voluntarily downlevel to match the zone they’re in at any time

Look at My Shit

Pictured: Actor James Franco showing off his leet purples to some noobs.
(Click for animation.)

This method has numerous advantages over the first option, as in addition to allowing players to return to complete older content at a challenging difficulty, it also gives veterans the option to adventure with new players without having to roll a new character. Given ESO’s focus on continually progressing your character’s skill lines, they would even be able to continue improving their character while they did it. This system would require some sort of reward scaling (though it could just be currency, a la World of Warcraft), as well as a feature where players would be able to track and get credit for helping group members complete quests they had already done.

Such a system would have the side effect of getting higher level players out into the world, flaunting their awesomeness for new players. This gives newbies a glimpse of the cool looking gear, mounts, and abilities to aspire to. This is a feeling I often miss from my early gaming days, and that I think this type of motivation been missing from modern MMOs where higher levels are rarely seen outside of cities.

A similar system was implemented in Guild Wars 2 and has met a mixed reception by the gaming community.  The central complaint is that their system was mandatory upon entering lower level areas, causing players to feel that they weren’t progressing in power while playing.  This was exacerbated by the fact that returning to lower level content was part of the endgame experience, and heroic difficulties were foregone in favor of simply encouraging players to re-experience down-leveled content.  As player damage numbers shifted wildly depending on what level-bracket they were scaled for, it was very hard to track your own performance to see how you were doing.  These pitfalls can easily be avoided by making the system entirely voluntarily – we already know that ESO has incorporated heroic difficulty dungeons, so this system would not be at risk of being used to send players back to lower level content for endgame progression.

Zenimax has already developed a level scaling system to scale lower level players up to max level for Cyrodiil, so it stands to reason that this already implemented technology could be modified to downscale players elsewhere in the world by simply inverting the up-scaling function.  While hardly as simple as my first solution, it would offer significantly more value, and in my opinion, is the best option when considering cost-benefit, as any company should.  I know that’s kind of stupid to say in the middle of the editorial, but do me a favor and continue reading anyway.

 

“Upscale” enemies to match players

Probably the most difficult option, a system of mandatory level scaling removes the aforementioned faults of Guild Wars 2′s system by scaling NPCs, not players. This would be a tricky system to implement because of the possibility of a level 50 and a level 10 working together to fight the same mob – you can’t objectively scale the mob upwards in level, you have to do it subjectively while leaving its power at an appropriate level for each player. So how would this be accomplished?  Essentially, mobs engaged in combat with players of a different levels would have to filter outgoing and incoming damage and translate it accordingly. This is best explained by giving an example:

Rat Armor

Either the rat is ridiculously overpowered or you are. There is no middle ground here.

Player A is level 50, player B is level 20, and they are both fighting a level 20 mob. Player A engages and attacks the mob for 2,000 of level 50 damage. The server has calculated that the mob has an actual amount of 1,000 health at level 20, and 10,000 health when upscaled to level 50. Thus, player A’s attack is translated as being for 20% of the mobs health (2,000/10,000), and his actual health at level 20 is reduced by 20% (200) to 800. Since Player B is at level with the mob, there is no translation of his damage. Scaling the damage is much simpler – as the mob’s damage output is just individually calculated for the recipient (similarly to what is already done with mitigation). When attacking Player A, he does level 50 damage. When attacking Player B, he does level 20 damage.

Under this system, quest rewards would automatically be upscaled to match the player’s level – though I would personally want lower level quest rewards to always be slightly worse than at level rewards; I just don’t want them to be completely useless by not being scaled up at all.

I believe this to be the most elegant system, as it would seamlessly match the world to the player in a way that would not look odd if scrolling combat text is available. It may end up looking a little funky in the combat log (again, if available), but they’ll at least be able to extrapolate their own information accurately – and let’s face it, Player A shouldn’t be comparing his performance to Player B’s regardless of if they’re scaled to the same point anyway. Its seamless nature and reward scaling would allow players to not feel pressured to progress if they want to stay in one zone to complete absolutely everything, but also allow them to return whenever they want if they went the opposite route.

Of course, the best system is also the most difficult to implement. My main concern would be that in addition to the development cost of implementing this feature, that it would add a lot of extra calculations for the server to process, and as I know absolutely nothing about the technical side of this, I’m not sure exactly how difficult this would be to maintain. Fortunately, at least, this would never be an issue in Cyrodiil due to players there already being upscaled to level 50, as I feel that’s where this would be of the largest concern.

Closing thoughts

These are what I consider to be reasonable suggestions for improving what I truly feel is one of the most pressing issues with regards to translating the TES games to an MMO setting. They aren’t perfect, as I would prefer a completely level-less system, but I feel that they are a fantastic compromise that would be good enough for the vast majority of players. The best part is that these systems (particularly the last two), would appeal to all of the game’s demographics – be they veteran MMO players wanting to go back and continue to progress their character with new friends, TES fans who want more freedom to explore and do what they want, when they want to, and filthy casuals (kidding) who similarly want to be able to experience a less gated, more open system under which they can play the way they want to – and hasn’t that always been one of the central promises of ESO?

Hist Tree

I felt like I needed I needed another picture, so here’s the concept art used on the top of our site. If I put it down here, it makes the page symmetrical! I’m not as crazy as that makes me sound. Things just need to be symmetrical, OK?

Let us know what you think in the comments!