Scaling Content

I played through most of the Borderlands DLC this weekend. Most of it scales to level. This is both really great and really awful.

It is really great to have everything as endgame content. There is always tension in development between working on the leveling game and the endgame, and scaling content lets you create one dungeon that is available at many level ranges. Success! Are you really going to buy DLC that adds level 20 action for a game where your character is level 50? This isn’t an MMO where you are likely to have a stable of alts.

It is really awful in that it highlights the problems inherent in the game. If you stopped playing Borderlands because it felt like you just kept fighting the same guys over and over again, making them level along with you so that everything is an at-level encounter really drives home that you have yet another edition of the same guys, this time with a new number by the name. You don’t even get the MMO scheme of making this goblin blue with a flaming sword; you are still fighting exactly the same bandits and psychos, sometimes with a different name but exactly the same model and abilities. When you get new enemies, the zone structure will make you repeat many fights unless you complete the whole thing in one setting, and the fight is exactly the same because the enemies leveled along with you (or it might have gotten harder if you did not find better equipment, so you are fighting the same fight only you are relatively weaker). It’s great that you can have a Playthrough 2 where everything is even-con to make it a potentially meaningful challenge, but it really drives home that you put levels in a FPS where they add so little that you built mechanics to get around having levels in your FPS.

: Zubon

At this point, I’m open to the argument that “do the same thing 10 times a day for as long as you’re willing to subscribe” is the point of the current MMO genre rather than a defect in it.

11 thoughts on “Scaling Content”

  1. Ouch… just pinged the one “real” concern I have with GW2… but I’m still hopeful that ANet will implement the scaling / sidekicking in such a way that the ability to really challenge yourself is still in the game.

    I remember having the same feelings as I was playing through Borderlands. (Still enjoyed the game quite a bit though.)

    1. The challenge-oriented part of GW2 is supposed to be the repeatable dungeons with multiple pathways through them, and those are fixed 5-person team instances so there are less worries about scaling content there. But in general I wouldn’t be looking in the open world for really big challenges, with maybe a few exceptions (eg tackling an event boss with minimum scaling for 5 players when there are only 3 of you, or the occasional event where the difficulty is scaled considerably higher than normal.)

  2. I’m going to posit the argument that doing the same thing 10 (or more) times a day for as long as you’re willing to play, is the point of all games, let alone a specific genre.

    The key issues lie in between:
    eg. Is “doing the same thing 10 times a day” fun in some way?

    Depending on your personal criteria of fun, this could be escapist easy fun, the hard challenge fiero fun, the little spurt of euphoria when achievement ding-ing fun, the fun of discovery/awe/wonder, or of creation, etc. And some types of fun may last longer than others, or be prone to developing into repetitive habits of no-longer-fun.

    And “for as long as you’re willing to play” can be deconstructed into game-inspired stop points or player-inspired stopping points.

    There are games, often singleplayer, that have clear beginning, middle, end structures. After one or a few playthroughs at most, players stop because they’ve used up the content, seen it, any more becomes boring repetition, no more learning or joy of discovery possible. Ditto MMOs once zones, maps, bosses are seen and defeated. Challenges solved, done, next! Oh, nothing left? Until the next expansion anyway.

    Or players may choose to stop before they’ve exhausted all content because the gameplay (inherently repetitive by nature) has become too uninteresting or easy/no challenge or conversely too hard/frustrating challenge – ie. No longer fun, for whatever their personal definitions of fun are. In which case, the developer has overestimated the amount of time a player is willing to spend repeating the gameplay.

    Some interesting questions to spin off from this: are certain kinds of repetitive gameplay more inherently interesting than others? How do you extend longevity of gameplay? Does a little randomness, especially in pacing, help? Perhaps that is why enemies that scale to the same level can get boring – not enough random variation to break an accustomed pattern of gameplay. Is this even-con even keel of challenge from scaling mobs any different from the MMO player who faithfully adheres to appropriate level ranges for zones?

    1. I disagree with the notion that doing the same thing X times a day is the point of all games, although I guess it depends on how loosely you define doing the same thing.

      I think doing the same thing in a new way, or finding new applications of something you did previously, or adding new things building on what you did before sufficiently distinguishes alot of games from do the exact same thing but with bigger numbers that it sounds like Zubon is talking about here.

      The card game Magic:The Gathering is a good example of what I mean. At its core yes its all draw cards, play land, cast spells. But what those spells do and how they interact with each other changes enough from set to set to make it sufficiently different experience to avoid being the same thing.

      1. That is true. There is a lot of inherent complexity and emergent properties that arise from a game like M:tG. That would make for a game that would take much longer to grasp the sum of its parts and extend the length of time you’re willing to play the game.

        I would also propose that Wizards’ (or is it Hasbro now?) propensity to release new yearly expansions continually increase content, ie. the amount of new things a player has to learn/absorb/explore with potential for novelty and surprise.

        M:tG also has a beginning, middle, end structure to every match, and each match is fairly short and sweet – ie. it doesn’t extend its gameplay into boredom. (Imagine if each player had 500 life points to whittle away, rather than 20.)

        On the other hand, if one overdosed on M:tG and played 5-10 matches every day, or had only the same opponents in the vicinity to play against, or the card pool was limited thanks to lack of funds, I could also see the game getting boring and grindy from predictable repetition at a point sooner rather than later.

        1. its both, wizards is still an entity, just one that is owned by hasbro.

          Was your comment of all games being do 10 things every day only for games that do not have a beginning, middle, and end structure?

          1. As I’ve said a few times in regard to Rift, what I most like about it is how it recreates that supernal childhood experience of kicking a ball against a wall for hour after hour until it gets too dark to see the wall.

            Finding things that can be done repeatedly, indefinitely, with no degradation of the enjoyment of the experience is one of the great goals in life and MMOs sometimes approach fairly close to that ideal.

  3. This is always a worry I’ve had with level-scaling – what if you fall behind the curve in terms of gear and there is literally nothing you can do about it (short of heading back to lower level areas to grind out the gear you missed)?

    I mean, its a worst case scenario and I’m sure it doesn’t happen in most modern games, but it’s a fine line between challenge and frustration, and if you don’t feel like you’re making any progress then it can put you off the game forever.

    1. The trouble is that in a fully scaling system there are no “low level areas”.

      Picking up from Mike’s comment on the Bethesda games, I dislike the fully scaling world, because it feels like there’s no progression. The “humble beginnings to epic endings” doesn’t work when you feel like the entire world is levelling up along with you. It’s nice to know that there are still challenges to aspire to, and that you have moved beyond other challenges.

      Pen & Paper games avoid this via social contract – the story moves the characters to challenges appropriate to their level. Computer games need to do it via mechanics.

      I suspect the GW2 de-levelling mechanic isn’t so much an attempt to make all the world one big flat play-area, but to:
      (1) allow more advanced characters to join weaker ones without becoming a one-man-army and removing all challenge.
      (2) allow more advanced characters to go back and explore things they passed by without becoming a one-man-army and removing all challenge.

      That said, it was sometimes entertaining in GW1 to solo missions or regions for which you previously needed a full team. I just wish the rewards in such a situation would scale appropriate to the level of challenge.

  4. Despite initially loving Borderlands the repetition became too much for me and I never managed to finish the main campaign never mind any DLC. I am not sure that level scaling is the main cause of the repetition though. It’s the fact that they only use a few basic enemy and weapon types combined with a random number generator that makes it repetitive.

    This is an area that I have always felt the original Guild Wars got almost uniquely right. The low level cap meant that almost all the content was end game content but they still managed to have plenty of variety in the encounters as well as varying levels of difficulty. For this reason I was dissapointed to see them raising the level cap to 80 for GW2.

  5. Same things happens in Oblivion, Morrowind, Fallout 3(heck, lets just say Bethesda). Because the world is so open, everything has to level up with you. So, facing a goblin at level 1, and facing a goblin at level 20, you’d expect to steamroll it, but thats just not the case. The difference with these games as opposed to Borderlands is once you hit certain levels, they throw different, more challenging monsters at you. Instead of a rat, you’re fighting an imp, and then a bear, and then a minotaur, etc. Even with different monsters, it still keeps the same been-there done-that feeling. The draw comes not in the action, though, but in the storylines.

    It could be the same combat every time, but as long as a good story keeps progressing, and the setting is interesting, I enjoy it. If the story lacks or the setting is hackneyed, thats where it loses me.

    Maybe thats just me, though… I see a video game in the same way that I see books, movies, TV shows. They’re all just different ways to tell a story. They can throw in special effects or graphics all they want, but if the story isn’t there, it isn’t worth playing.

    On you’re MMO comment… I agree. Once it hits that point, and it feels like thats the only reason to keep playing… thats where I stop. At that point, it might as well be Farmville. But its the leadup to that point thats worth playing.

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