Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 04, 2022
Monster scaling

The feature used to be called "role-playing game", but these days a lot of different genres of video games have you playing a character who by the accumulation of experience points, levels, gear, and the like is becoming stronger and stronger. The general idea behind that is that the game has certain challenges in the form of enemies to fight against, and that you overcome those challenges by becoming stronger. But what if that is all an illusion?

The typical gameplay has two things happening in parallel: Your power goes up, but you also progress through the story and meet stronger and stronger monsters to battle. In the end, the actual difficulty of each combat over the course of the game isn't all that different, because both you and the enemies become stronger at the same time. In games like World of Warcraft you *could* go back into a low-level zone and kill low-level monsters to better feel how much stronger you have become; but the reward systems are made in a way that this wouldn't actually get you anything. Cartman killing 65,340,285 boars in the South Park episode ‘Make Love, not Warcraft’ doesn't actually work in most games.

I am still playing a bit of free-to-play Diablo Immortal from time to time, now at level 47. One of the various game systems, Bounties, has you go back farming monsters in low-level zones you have played through earlier in the game. And it turns out that if you do that, the low-level monsters are *not* easy pushovers. In Diablo Immortal you can be too low a level for a particular fight, but not too high; because if you were, the game just scales the monster up and makes it stronger. Killing zombies in Ashwold Cemetary took 3 to 4 hits when you were level 8, and the same zombies still take 3 to 4 hits to kill at level 47. Of course that has certain advantages: High-level players can't easily outkill newbies in low-level zones, and the zombies are still available as content for higher level bounties. But it makes you question why you put all that effort into trying to make your character stronger, especially in a game like Diablo Immortal, where you might have paid a lot of money for that privilege.

In Battle Brothers the monsters you need to kill in quests scale with your level, while the monsters roaming in the wilderness scale with game time. If you have some serious setbacks, or lost much time exploring without getting stronger, you can get into a situation where killing monsters outside quests simply isn't possible anymore, as they have become too strong for you. In many JRPG games, monsters don't scale at all, so if you get distracted from the main story and get stronger by doing a lot of side content, you can end up being far too powerful for the challenges in the main story. As you can see, each system has its possible pitfalls.

Diablo Immortal has shown again that the players' wish for more power can be exploited by game companies for profit. Maybe we should keep in mind that monsters often scale as well, and that this pursuit of power is often an illusion.

" makes you question why you put all that effort into trying to make your character stronger"

In games with flat levelling, like ESO, you can theoretically go anywhere and kill (or be killed by) anything at any level, which I agree does make levelling seem a bit pointless. In games with downward but not upward scaling, GW2 for example, yiu have to level and get stronger if you want to explore more of the world. The monsters below you may appear to level up (or you may downlevel when going back to kill them), keeping you all on the same relative page but the monsters above you... well, they're above you. If you go where they are and you haven't made yourself as strong as they are, it's likely to be a short visit.

If there is going to be scaling I prefer character downscaling like Bhagpuss. SWTOR does that as well. However, you get to keep all your higher level skills, only your baseline stats are downscaled. Becuase of that, you still feel a good bit more powerful in low level zones without being able to one shot kill everything you come across.

The absolute worst version is whatever WoW uses in retail (at least it was the last time I played, which was a few years ago now). Everything everywhere leveled in lockstep with you, and you very rarely gained new abilities (something like one every ten levels). 99% of levels felt well and truly pointless.
The usual answer is that you gain more skills as well as raw damage, so combat becomes more interesting and complex as you level up.

There are plenty of roguelikes/lites where you start weak and develop your character over a relatively short period, then win or die and start over again. So it's a genuine thing that people enjoy.
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