Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Skyrim - Gameplay

Skyrim is a strange beast when you consider its gameplay. You get a large amount of freedom, much more than you would get in most single-player or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. And I believe that it is this freedom of action which is mainly responsible for the ultra-high review scores and general excitation about this game. We got so used to being constantly guided and our hands held through all sorts of games that the freedom of Skyrim is refreshing. And for all the excitation we tend to forget that this freedom still has limitations, and comes with a price.

I’ll start with the limitations. There is no doubt that you can do *more* actions in Skyrim and get a reasonable result out of them than you can in most other games. But that doesn’t mean that everything in Skyrim works in a logical way. I stumbled upon one example as consequence of playing a warrior type character. I am wearing heavy armor, and carry heavy weapons around as part of my usual equipment. As Skyrim’s inventory is weight-based, I effectively block half of my weight allowance just with my gear. Thus there is less weight capacity for loot. Now I really wanted to get a lot of money in Skyrim, to buy a house in Whiterun and thus get some safe storage for the kind of items you aren’t quite sure whether you want to keep them. Thus whenever my inventory was full, I left the dungeon I was in, fast-travelled to the next merchant, sold the loot, and came back to the dungeon. As merchants are only open from 8 am to 8 pm that sometimes involved resting for up to 12 hours in the city. And at some point it struck me that I had left a cave full of bandits half cleared, came back after half a day, and found the cave exactly like I had left it. None of the bandits had moved, taken back the first rooms of the cave, set up traps or did anything else logical to happen.

A dungeon in Skyrim is still a place with static mob locations, and scripted events, just like in any other RPG. The scripts have sometimes more variations than in other games, but I did manage for example to pass a point with a bandit mage on a ledge overhead several times, with the bandit reacting in similar ways repeatedly. After several tries I found a way how to enter that cave and put one arrow into that mage without getting damaged myself. And then I was able to simply do that action several times, leaving the cave to reset the mages script, but without resetting his health. Every time he would come forward and say something like “who goes where”, although he already had several arrows sticking in him and should know what would happen next. Many of the scripts in Skyrim are very well done, and are very believable as long as you behave in a predictable manner. Do something unexpected and you encounter the limitations of the system, the limits to freedom, by the script visibly ending up in some not very logical behavior. The more you stretch your limits, the less immersive the game becomes.

That brings me to the price to pay for the freedom you have: Skyrim offers you so much freedom that it ends up being a not very well balanced game. On the one side there are numerous examples of how you can “exploit” your freedom in creative way to make yourself overly powerful. I had a quest to find a mammoth tusk and quickly found that the mammoths are impossible to kill, at least at level 6, and that’s not even considering the giants running close to them. But I persevered and ended up pulling the mammoth away from the giant and into some terrain where the mammoth couldn’t advance any more towards me. Then I pelted the mammoth with arrows until it died, getting my quest items as well as a nice increase in archery skill. In a way that was still believable, but using terrain to create a combat situation where you can hurt the enemy but the enemy can’t hurt you is one of the first things any MMORPG prevents through some balancing measures. Because if you find the right spot and respawn location, you could gain endless xp (in an MMORPG) or skill (in Skyrim) and levels by repeatedly killing mobs that can’t hurt you.

Nils reported that he found another way to “break” Skyrim: Apparently there is an enchantment that reduces mana cost by 25%. And it stacks. So he enchanted 4 items with that, and was able to cast all his spells at zero mana cost. A lot of the “cool” things people report from Skyrim are things which would be considered “exploits” in an MMORPG, and which harm the balance of the game. Different players will put different values on this: Some people like the freedom, even if (or especially if) it includes the freedom to exploit. Other people would prefer a well balanced game.

The biggest problem to balance is probably Skyrim’s skill system. It is simple enough: You gain skills by doing stuff. And your level increases with the amount of skill gained. There are two problems with that: Exploiting skill gains, and the balance of your combat strength against the combat strength of the mobs. Like in other “skilling by doing” games you can gain skills by doing stupid stuff. Gaining sneaking skill by running against a wall. Deliberately and repeatedly stepping into traps and gaining restoration skill by healing yourself up afterwards. And so on. But at the same time the game increases the level of the mobs you need to kill with your level. Thus if you gain a lot of non-combat skills, you effectively make the mobs harder to kill for you.

Now normally in a game like this you would find me trying everything, every crafting skill, every magic skill, every thieving skill. But in Skyrim I quickly realized that this would be me shooting myself in the foot. In Skyrim the “best build” in MMORPG parlance is one where you only ever learn combat skills, and then only those which are complementary, and not too many alternative options like magic spells. You have the freedom to skill as you want, but the result ranges from skilling yourself to an overpowered fighting machine, to completely gimping yourself with lots of non-combat skills. And as the main quest has you killing a lot of dragons, gimping yourself isn’t advisable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this lack of balance in a single-player game is necessarily a bad thing. You make decisions, and live with the consequences, that can be a lot of fun. But I understand why some people said that you couldn’t turn that into an MMORPG: As soon as you have competition, either for PvP or for end game PvE, a lot of the possibilities Skyrim offers would simply be considered not viable. The optimizing the fun out of games force is strong with MMORPG players, and wouldn’t mix well with the freedom Skyrim offers.

As Nils has mentioned in a number of his posts, there is a 'God mode' that you can invoke by bringing up the command console. It certainly is the 'optimal' way to play the game and the key point is that everyone is free to experience the single player game as they wish.

Also I would point out that the NPC scaling is not linearly linked to player levelling, as it may have been in previous Elder Scrolls games.

One example is the mammoth/giant encounters, which are clearly statically aimed for a higher level character.
Similarly, I've found that despite putting my skill points in crafting, I can easily take on a random group of bandits at level 7 that would have caused me some problems earlier in the game.
Has anyone found themselves outlevelled by NPCs at a medium difficulty level?
In a scene of heavily scripted games, Skyrim is a single-player game that feels plays somewhat like a sandbox MMO.

Conversely, SWTOR seems like a theme park MMO that will feel like a single-player game for some.
On a random side note, the Mammoth Tusk you can actually find without killing any Mammoths yourself ;-) . I guess that is partially what true freedom is about, there's always another way to complete the quest ;).

As for the exploiting and all that, that same "buggy" AI stuff you mention i've seen all the time in any MMO. Mobs and Bosses "bug out" just like in Skyrim, and funny enough the same type of "tricks" work universally.

Typically line of sight , pathing and sneaking seems to be a universal AI-breaker .

Oh interestingly regarding the weight issue, i assume you are aware you can hire a henchman who can basically carry all your stuff for you? There's even a very funny comic strip up on the web on this point ;-)
Well, I once wrote that in the comment section, but here you have it again:

MMOs are combat related. It doesn't matter what class are you - it only matters if you're tank, healer or DPS - all three roles are strictly connected to damage. There is no other interesting thing to do in MMOs that isn't related to fighting.

So yeah, if you'd turn Skyrim into an MMO on the spot, most of the freechoice would not be viable, as it would be extremely easy to calculate the optimal build. Plus thieves would actually steal your equipment, which is never a good thing in an MMO.

But I am pretty sure, that a freedom of this kind can be applied to an MMO, only to do that you'd need to build that MMO on a completely different model that isn't entirely based on combat, but instead offers a reasonable advancement in other areas and encourages cooperation instead of competition.

The random storytelling and quests that Skyrim offers is a large step towards better MMOs. People act like asshatts in MMOs because thay pay for a game and stay in it despite the fact that it no longer offers interesting things to do, and so they invent them by interacting with other players in an uncivilized manner. Random stories and infinite content would mean, that the world always has something to offer, and is constantly the main opponent in the game, making player interaction focus on cooperation instead of conflict. It would also give the player the oportunity to advance in non-combat related skills, as there would be multiple, systematic (non-scripted) ways of using skills like intimidation, persuation, trade, performing arts and crafting. This kind of model, if prepared with care, can work and attract players, as is seen in Skyrim.
About the heavy armor and its weight, there are perks to reduce and even neglect the weight of the armor you wear.

You say the game has a lot of 'limitations', but that's all because you are the one who puts up the limit. If you who leads a mammoth to a place he can't reach, if you don't wear 4x 25% less magicka enchants etc the game is awesome. That's the whole thing about this game, of course there are limits and of course you can break the game in various ways. But the only one thats hurt by this, is you.
So it's up to you, really, what you want....
Are you sure about the monsters levelling with you? I created a thief-type character and got to level 20 by exclusively pickpocketing (it's very fast as you can sometimes get 4-5 skillups when stealing an expensive item), without any fighting at all. Then, I embarked on the main quest and thieves' guild questline and I don't have any problems with quest mobs or random groups of bandits etc.
Your criticism is certainly valid.
Some words, though - yes, the stuff, which you describe about the bandit cave isn't very realistic, but pulling an enemy, using the terrain as an advantage, so he can't hurt you, is realistic. Either I didnt get your criteria, but Im pretty sure you were speaking about immersion, or you are contradicting yourself here. :)

The thing, they did, about the mana enchantment is really retarded. I would make the stacking multiplicative, not additive and all would be OK. I think Syncaine described, how in Olivion (where you can invent your own spells) you can - by abusing the system - create a 'kill' button.

"Gaining sneaking skill by running against a wall." This is something I dont understand. Why would one do that? If one so badly wants his skills maxed, either open the character file and edit it or switch God mode on.

The second thing I dont understand - why does need Skyrim to be compared to/turned into MMORPG? I know its your MMORPG blog, but still ...

Anyway, you're maybe right, that the ratings are mainly because of the freedom you have. But also - the graphics are excellent, my PC handles this engine better than their gamebryo shit and I like the nordic theme, the mountains, snow, etc. very much. I know the last bit is subjective, but I have a fixation for it.

P.S. Gevlon's latest inane babbling is out, something about your post about world of tanks, you might want to check it out.
Judging by the popularity of Skyrim (in which the design is skewed towards letting the player do what would make them feel epic, realism be damned) and the proliferation of other single-player game cheat codes, I'd argue that "player freedom to be a Marty or Mary Sue" appears "better" than "the game must be balanced and realistically 'immersive'"

In the sense that "better" means more popular and welcomed by the majority, similar to the WoW is "better" for the millions that like to play it argument.

Or rather, that "better" means more people buying it and more $$$ made for the developers.

Still, that doesn't negate the presence or valid arguments of the minority subculture who would prefer Skyrim balanced or realistically immersive in their eyes (or who would rather not play the loot hamster wheel that is WoW).

The neat thing about Elder Scrolls single-player games? It's moddable and adjustable to individual preferences. Sooner rather than late, someone will mod the stuff they find stupid or 'unbalancing' away. Those that think the same will adjust their world with the mod, those that like it otherwise won't.

That simply won't translate in an MMO, where some sides will be happy over other sides (usually the majority wins). A Skyrim MMO would probably make more people unhappy than they realise.

(Me, I don't want to play in a world where other guys are free to run along the tables sending bowls and fruit and cutlery flying. I hear some people did that first thing just cos they could. Feel free to mess up your world and universe. Mine stays mine.)
In my opinion the game should "reset" mobs when you don't win a fight OR when you try to exploit the path (example: trying to kill a mammo from a cliff).

In World of Warcraft you can't stand on a rock and hard-spam a mob with your bow. The enemy will just reach you OR reset to its original position (and health will reset back too).

It would add much more challenge, in my opinion, because right now it's very easy to exploit mobs in open environments.

Still... this is the first game where I feel a lot of fun just wandering around in the tundra with my bow and hunting down animals.

Steam applied a silent patch yesterday. The patch could potentially break your game, people are going crazy on the forums.

If you experience any problem, BACKUP you "TESV.EXE" file before launching Steam. Or -even better- disable the "auto update" feature in the game options (Steam vatalogue).

I did not know about the patch and let the game auto-update. Result? My fps dropped from 50-60 (open land) to 25-26... and I am scoring 16-17fps in towns (down from 35). I am trying to find the original TESV.EXE now :(
Gevlon's latest inane babbling is out

Gevlon just cheated that. He played several tanks, and instead of presenting the overall win:loss ratio, he made a screenshot of his win:loss ratio with his best performing tank. And that with less than 100 battles, which isn't even statistically significant. I sincerely doubt that his approach can lead to an OVERALL win:loss ratio of 60:40 or more after thousands of battles.

In World of Warcraft you can't stand on a rock and hard-spam a mob with your bow.

This is exactly the choice we are given: Do we want a game in which we can't exploit, which is balanced, which is challenging? Or do we want a game with lots of freedom, including the freedom to "cheat" or turn on god mode?
Although you couldn't make an open world MMO from Skyrim, that doesn't mean you couldn't make a multiplayer game that works this way with a little adaptation. For instance there's no reason that you couldn't do some Skyrim type stuff in a GW1 type game.

Perhaps the open world MMO model isn't ideal anyway, since min/maxing has become endemic in the culture and someone needs to throw some large random spanners in the works to liven things up.
> Do we want a game in which we
> can't exploit, which is balanced,
> which is challenging?

I generally vote for "online" stuff because if you force players to store characters/info on the servers... they will have hard times trying to cheat the system. And that makes achievements and "hard tasks" worth the time spent.

In offline games you can cheat whenever you want, this making achievements and challenges potentially useless. Unless you don't care about "how do others perform compared to yourself", of course.

> Or do we want a game with lots of
> freedom, including the freedom to
> "cheat" or turn on god mode?

I know I can cheat, I don't care. I don't because it would ruin the experience. Also, cheating is part of single-player games since the age of Atari.

That said, I think sometimes developers should put a limit to our freedom, see the pathfinding example. Killing giants is jsut dumb: climb over a rock/hill and spam-bow them. I don't pretend them to climb with me, but as long as they can't get m in range... they should go back to their initial position.
Although I have not yet had an opportunity to play Skyrim I chuckle at the complaints about lack of balance.

None of the Elder scrolls games has ever been properly balanced it is just something that Bethseda don’t do. The main quest in Oblivion could be completed at level 2 and don’t forget those videos of someone completing the main quest of Morrowind in 15 minutes thanks to an ever so slightly unbalanced use of potions.

I reckon that every time the question of spending a few weeks balancing items and skills comes up the Bethseda Devs say “Screw it. Lets spend those few weeks adding in more side quests instead”. Personally I think it is a good decision but it does mean all of their games are flawed masterpieces.

If you really can’t put up with it then just wait till the modding community come up with fixes.
Elder's Scrolls have n game balance, the only balance that ever applied there was story balance. In Morrowing you could Enchant a weapon so that it allows you to infinitely levitate freely for not cost and additionally summons a pair of zombies at your sides whenever you equip the weapon. Not to add the +1000 Acrobat skill bonus which allows you to jump over the whole morrowind and land somewhere in the see in the north (if you jump north).

This is not game balance, it's the possibility of accomplish anything that is possible within the world Bethesda created. They layed down some rules and everything works on these rules through all the game. Item bonuses stack, so you can be a mage that uses no magicka. There are stories of such wizards in the books, so it's all within the lore.

If this was supposed to be an MMO, they would have to make all the masteries much harder, but no reason to simply block them outright.

Or the Mammoth example - I like the fact, that I can trap an animal and kill it. Outsmarting opponents is a good thing in a game. Surely, what struck me in the game was that after I kill 3/4 bandits the fourth one does not feel even a bit disencouraged, as well as animals that are near death. I'd really like them to run away or start a beg-for-mercy conversation. You won't be forced to run after them, cause killing them provides no XP - fighting them did.
ALso, instead of killing a Mammoth to get the tusk you can steal it, buy it, or ignore the quest altoghether - again - there's no XP for it, just a measly reward which can be gotten elsewhere.
That way whatever you choose to do provides a different type of advanvement. If you want to be a melee warrior, you will avoid Mammoths until you are actually powerful enough to kill one. How you choose to complete that quests defines your build. You won't be able to pass as a warrior if you trade for the tusk, as this will advance you in Trading (Speech) and waste that level you'd otherwise spent on One-Handed. If you steal the Tusk, you'll also fail to raise One-Handed, as this will probably raise your sneaking skills. Every choice is viable and has consequences. If every quest has this sort of list of choices, you will have to choose the quests you actually want and can complete more carefully. And with random quests that appear only once and then are gone, leaving you in search of another quest or random encounter, you can't really grind a skill up. You need to immerse and play the world.
MMORPGs tend to be about the player. S-PRGs can be about the world. I would still prefer a MMORPG that has a strong world. Just as I would wish Skyrim had a strong player-progression.
I got into gaming with Oblivion 4 years ago. I was blown away by the beautiful environment and endless possibilities.

After almost a year of playing slowly and still not even completing the main storyline (I'm old),a younger work friend recommended WoW.

Despite my initial disgust that mobs respawned like crops, I haven't played another game in 3 years.

Oblivion was like a fantasy planet, but you are essentially alone on that planet. I felt more and more alone in it. Progression was meaningless. Exploiting npc's became the meta game, which destroyed immersion.

WoW (and other MMMO's I assume) are alive with conversation and activity. Logging off at 1 am no longer felt like returning from stasis. Making money became a complex skill to master, instead of a repetative exploit that just felt dumb and pointless. I still get satisfaction that I can sell things that I've learned to make.

I would love a living, breathing, ecosystem-like environment to play in, but only if it comes with actual people, asshats and trade trolls included, to make it truly come alive.
If you quote Nils you need to read the comments. In the comments I showed that the so called no mana exploit results in a saving of 4 (just four) perks. See mana can be gained by drinking potions in battle or taking other perks. So this exploit is not a big deal.

You then talk about balance. So how were warlocks and their dot/fear mechanics in WOW during TBC balanced? Or rogues stun locks? All games lack balance. In a single player RPG you don't need to balance the classes. If you want it harder increase the difficulty level (something MMO's don't have). And there are now mods out that respwan mobs in all dungeons as soon as you leave them and make the game extremely difficult.

And for weight a warrior puts points into stamina which increases carry capacity. Plus there is a stone and a perk that adds +100 carry capacity. Freedom to do what you want. But then if heavy armor weighed the same as light you would find fault with that.

Finally, some monsters level with you, some are fixed high level and some are fixed to be low level. There are also some places where the mobs are set to a minimum level and some places where creatures are set to never go beyond a certain level. this means a low level character can easily get killed if they go to the wrong spot and high level characters can easily kill mudcrabs and not worry that there is a Godzilla mudcrab around.
I am having mixed feelings reading about your problems with Skyrim. I see your point of trying to think about the possible port of the game to a MMO, but since the game is a single player why would anyone spoil their own game by using them?
It is like trying to complain about the way books are published. You can go to the last page to see the end, or read selected pages, and move through the story at your own pace, but why would anyone do this? To 'win' by reading the book in 5 min?
All this talk of "could Skyrim be an MMORPG?" seems a little silly to me considering Ultima Online is still doing well enough to continue to exist.
Assuming Skyrim is an MMO - there are MMOs that are worse than Skyrim and they're doing well.
The question is if Skyrim could be an MMO and still be the success it is as a single player game.
There are two factor that need consideration. Fact number one is the influence of other players on the immersion factor of Skyrim. And my conclusion is that it will be devastated and hence Skyrim be no longer the success it is now.
Fact number two is related to the world/mechanics cnstruction of the game. There are some awesome features in the game as well as some odd solutions that were nevver before used in an MMO and would have to actually be playtested in an MMO environment for anyone to tell if they work or not.

The only way Skyrim could repeat it's success as an MMO would be if the odd and awesome features would completely replace the features of other MMOs and guide players towards a completely different way of gaming, directed towards cooperative interaction only, with PvP conflict being the extension of an in-world conflict and having in-world consequences (like jailtime, bounty, reputation that actually matters). Otherwise it'd EVE full of cutthroats.
And at some point it struck me that I had left a cave full of bandits half cleared, came back after half a day, and found the cave exactly like I had left it. None of the bandits had moved, taken back the first rooms of the cave, set up traps or did anything else logical to happen.

I have had "respawns" when I have waited days, rather than hours. I'm not sure about a half-cleared area, but a "cleared" area became "uncleared" at some point. Not sure this is the rule; perhaps the exception to the rule...
All this thing you describing are not really why people like Skyrim more than MMO. The balance in skyrim is rather bad and so is AI, it been no a priority for devs to fix because it is a single player game (and you after all is free to break it)

If it was better balanced and exploits were much harder to find skyrim would still be a great game, because exploits is not why its attractive first place
In my opinion, people who say it doesn't matter that Skyrim is horribly unbalanced are missing an elephant in the room.

Yes, for some playstyles it should matter jack whether you could horribly break the game in your favor.

That's not true for everyone though. Some people enjoy beating a system. For some beating the system *is* the content. Skyrim appears to be a joke in that regard. You can say that the game is not intended for those people. You cannot say that it doesn't matter. I'd risk even saying that you cannot say it's not a flaw in the game -- after all if it was everything it is now + balanced it should've been better as a game, no? Or it could have had an option -- balanced or 'sandbox' -- then it would've been definitely better.

To give an illustrative example -- beating a "hard" mob is only enjoyable (for certain class of people) if you know you really-really tried hard and did everything you could -- and won (or lost which can still be fun sometimes). In Skyrim, every time you fight, you know that the mob is only 'hard' because you deliberately avoided preparing yourself for it. Which frankly sucks (for a certain class of people).
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