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Auto-Levelled Encounters

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Shamus Young, in his "Twenty Sided" blog, talks about auto-adjusting difficulty in his post "Auto-Adjusting Frustration":


He's specifically talking about where games have a difficulty level setting that gets automatically set based on how well the player is doing. The article's canonical example is fighting games, specifically DOA.

I haven't seen this behavior in RPGs, but some RPGs do auto-scale the difficulty of encounters. The first game I remember this in was Ultima 4; you'd be peacefully wandering the countryside beating up bandits and the like (actually, I'm forced to admit that I don't remember what the low-level monsters were in Ultima 4. Give me a break, it's been over 20 years since the game came out!); a few levels later and nasty Giants and Daemons would be be wandering around. No fair!

The other game I remember noticing the random encounters get tougher was Morrowind, though I was much less annoyed by it in that game. Perhaps because by the time the encounters really scaled up, my character was a total bad-ass and could take on anything in the game. (I'm afraid I hit the Internet spoilers pretty hard for that game, and had a good idea how to game the levelling system). And even my beloved Baldur's Gate, while not scaling the level of enemies, would scale the level of your potential party members to your level, at the time you first met them.

That said, I am dead-set against auto-levelled encounters, and "Untitled SENG Game" will not have that feature. I understand the issues that auto-levelling is trying to solve; it is friendly to people new to the game, and keeps areas and quests "in play" for more of the character's level progressions. Especially for games that allow some sort of open exploration, these are real issues to deal with. RPGs that keep the character's in a straight-and-narrow path like Diablo or Icewind Dale have less to worry about here.

But I would like to solve the same issues via good game and level design, even while allowing open-exploration. Some examples:

  • When the player starts the game, keep them in a limited range of the game, with appropriate areas and quests for low level characters.

  • Use plot-based quests to open further parts of the game; when the player is able to slay the dragon guarding the pass to the Fell Forest, that's when he's ready to move into the new area.

  • Provide a good range of side-quests; if the player is having trouble with the main quest because he's too weak, that is a great time for him to find some other things to do and level up.

  • Conversely, if he is finding some of the side-quests too easy, be sure there are some tougher ones available as well.

  • Provide feedback about areas, enemies, and quests, indicating whether they are difficult or not. This could be through vague hints ("Many young adventurers have died in the Fell Forest!") or more direct ("I won't give you the key to that gate until you are a Valiant Companion.")

  • This one is trickier, but be clear to the player that, if he's tackled a side-quest that is too tough, that he can back out for now and return later. This is tricky, because players hate to back out of a quest once they start.

  • Definitely avoid quests that fail if the player doesn't complete them fast enough, as that will frustrate the player if he stumbles on the quest too soon.

  • Similarly, be really careful about quests that trap the characters in a specific area until they have completed the quest. What if they are too weak, or have the wrong party make-up, to ever get out?

  • Provide easy mobility between areas, so that if the player ends up in a level-inappropriate area (either too easy or too hard), it isn't a big ordeal to get to a better place.

I'm sure there's some more guidelines (feel free to comment!) but basically I think that the difficulty-levelling problem can be solved organically through careful game and area design, rather than through heavy-handed engine code, and I plan to follow this philosophy in my "Untitled SENG Game" project.
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