Now that Skyrim's Dragonborn DLC is with us, at least on Xbox 360, a classic Elder Scrolls debate is sure to rage anew: Should serious RPG fans be annoyed about "level scaling?"
It's frequently argued that level scaling is a black mark on the RPG genre. The whole point of leveling up is to make your character more powerful, and if all the enemies get more powerful too, you've gained nothing. And it doesn't help that the Elder Scrolls series hasn't always featured the best implementation of this concept. Notoriously, in Oblivion, high-level characters would face ragtag bands of raiders who were wearing rare, top-notch gear.
However, in some cases there is no alternative to level scaling—and if it's implemented properly, it dramatically improves the RPG experience. If anything, more games should use it.
Let's start by looking at Skyrim expansions. For these, Bethesda has very few options. It could steal a page from the MMO playbook, setting a higher level cap and adding content for players who have reached the previous one. The problem with this, however, is that it gives nothing to players who haven't capped out their characters yet—sure, many gamers played Skyrim to death, but many more finished the game long before they reached the cap, and they won't play an expansion if they have to grind to reach the fresh content. Scaling to level is the perfect solution: All players experience a healthy challenge with the new content, regardless of how much leveling they did with the old stuff.
Just as important, level scaling helps smooth out the rough edges of RPGs that give their players choices. Scaling isn't necessary for a linear RPG like Final Fantasy XIII, but when players have side quests and branching paths to choose from, different players will encounter the same content at different levels. Level scaling ensures that players will enjoy the game no matter what path they take through it. In many RPGs, players who methodically do all the side quests find the game getting too easy, a problem that could be solved with some minor level scaling.
This advantage to level scaling is especially pronounced in a game as open-ended as Skyrim or Borderlands. In these titles, you can encounter the same content not just at slightly different levels, but at utterly different eras in your time with the game. Without level scaling, any time you fail to take a quest when you're at the appropriate level, you're basically saying goodbye to that quest forever—soon, it will become comically easy. In the original Borderlands, I found it was pointless to take missions I had missed previously because the enemies did practically no damage.
Still another advantage to level scaling is that it cuts down on “grinding”—the practice of killing enemies at random just for the purpose of getting your level up. Sometimes an RPG needs to hold the line, insisting that some content is for high-level players only. But other times it’s appropriate to give lower-level characters a break and let them play.
Of course, it's easy to do level scaling poorly. Its critics have a point when they say RPG progression ought to mean something. You should get more powerful relative to your enemies as you play, and players who do all the side quests should have an easier time than players who rush through the main quests. Level scaling should never completely erase these gains, just mitigate them enough to make the game playable. And, as I've already mentioned, level scaling should never look absurd—random criminals attacking you on the street should not be as powerful as an elite warrior.
Also, Bethesda made the right decision by cutting off the level scaling at a certain point in Skyrim. Once you become extremely powerful, there probably should be some low-level quests that you can run through effortlessly. And of course, if you're too weak for an area, you ought to get slaughtered if you wander in. There’s so much to do in Skyrim that you never have to grind to get your level up—you just have to keep playing.
All in all, though, level scaling deserves wider implementation. Any RPG with a rich collection of side quests can benefit from evening out the challenge a bit. The RPG genre is famous for giving players plenty of options, and when players have different routes they can take through the content, there needs to be a way to ensure that all these routes will be enjoyable.
Level scaling is the perfect approach. So long as it's handled properly, it enables RPG developers to make huge games with non-linear stories without frustrating their players. That's something we should all want.
Date: December 5, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*