Level Scaling, Beef Gates, and Broken Bridges
Posted on Wednesday, February 6 2013 @ 09:41:44 Eastern
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To anyone familiar with open-world games the beef gate1 is already a well-understood, if not well-explicated, concept. It's one way to control player movement by setting up obstacles the player will be unable to surpass without great difficulty. The rewards of overcoming the challenge often push the player further along their character's progression curve than they should be at that point. If the player is minmaxing and intentionally sequence-breaking, these sorts of obstacles are at worst annoyances and at best mere distractions from whatever metagaming goal they may have.
A smart and educated player is not even meaningfully slowed down, let alone stopped outright, by the Deathclaws in and around Sloan in Fallout: New Vegas. In Dark Souls, a skilled player can ring the Blighttown Bell before the Undead Parish Bell. To outright block the player to prevent certain types of sequence breaks, it is necessary to employ more brute force methods. That's where broken bridges2 come in.
A broken bridge (in some cases this is done quite literally in fantasy settings for the sake of meta-humor, as in Dungeon Siege) outright bars entry and the player cannot get through except as the game dictates. Either the 'troll' guarding the bridge is invincible prior to some specific event or the acquisition of plot coupons or the 'bridge' is said to be non-functional until such time as it is repaired, forcing the player to go do something else.
It's an effective, if inelegant, solution to the problem of sequence breaking in nonlinear games where a great deal of content is either optional or can be approached at the player's discretion. It ensures scripting problems aren't created by the player stumbling into things. Once a player becomes aware of it but desires proceeding against it, the secondary reality and immersion break down. The plot coupons cease to be interesting objects which matter to the plucky protagonist and by extension the player. The connection lost is difficult to regain. Very few games can intentionally3 point to, discuss, and invite the player to think about that connection to the profit of player and game both.
In between these two methods of general player movement control there is a separate question of balance. One way is to have the entities native to the world be 'out there' and generally not change. This leads to worlds where, if one so desires, one could be squaring off against the deadliest enemies in the setting just as soon as one can get to them. One will almost certainly be obliterated by them on engagement. This can be frustrating in open environments because the player can innocently make the mistake of marching headlong into danger beyond their capacity to manage.
On the other hand, there are very definite ways in which progress as a character is delineated; things that were unkillable will be merely tough later on, then a fair challenge, eventually easy, and finally little more than a nuisance. There may be exceptions but that provides a good sense of improvement and achievement. A further virtue of this system will be discussed below.
The basic alternative is level scaling. At its best, level scaling allows for a specific degree of certain kinds of general difficulty while differentiating encounters on a purely mechanical level. The important difference between fights is what to do and how to do it, not how much of it needs to be done. Knights of the Old Republic I and II are good examples of this kind. Both also went to some length to justify it; in both cases, it involved the villains becoming increasingly aware of and reactive to the protagonist.
The most notorious examples of level scaling gone bad are Final Fantasy VIII, which made the language necessary to describe everything wrong with it a part of the popular gamer's lexicon, and The Elder Scrolls IV, which is still the perfect example of how to get it wrong in every possible way. Discussing everything wrong with Elder Scrolls IV's level scaling would make for a separate post but it's worthwhile to note a few key items pertinent to both it and FF8.
In addition to subverting actions which, on paper, should progress the player along the capability curve, therefore making the gameplay completely counterintuitive, it required the player think about the metagame more than the game itself. The player had to invest time and effort into a pattern of behavior that actively waged war with every indicator given to them by the game itself. Don't level up in Elder Scrolls IV until you absolutely must. Avoid levelling at all in FF8; game the junction system and the card game to give your characters Herculean stats instead. At this point the player is no longer playing the game; they're fighting it. In fighting it they have to see the systems at work (or at least have a rough idea how they work) and it loses the magic of video games entirely; it becomes more like Chess or Plafond. At worst, it becomes a tedious form of work with all the characteristics of book-keeping or chartered accountancy with none of the excitement.
1: The term is handily defined at TV Tropes: Beef Gate
2: TV Tropes to the rescue again! Broken Bridge
3: Bioshock, Planescape: Torment, Dead Money and Manhunt do so to great success. Spec Ops: The Line does so to staggering failure.
The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion. It has been submitted for our monthly Vox Pop competition. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick
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