It’s been quite a while since I’ve played Morrowind, but there’s one thing I distinctly remember about the game: If you did a lot of sidequests and levelled through them, finishing the main storyline would become trivial. The game was designed as an open world and you could practically go anywhere in any order you liked. The opposite of an open world (or sandbox) game is a railroad game – one in which the player advances on a fixed path. In a railroad RPG, the player can never out-level the monsters because the game developers always know exactly how far a player will have developed at every point in time. The modern day solution of sandbox games for this problem is monster scaling.
Morrowind’s successor Oblivion had monster scaling. Enemies would always be of comparable power to you, whether you met them at level one or level twenty. A system like that allows the player to do as many sidequest as she wants and to still have a challenge when going back to the main story. While this may seem like a good solution at first, it really makes a farce out of character advancement. No matter how experienced your character becomes, she will still have the exact same difficulties that a much less experienced player has. In a pure scaling system, players will never get the satisfaction of beating a monster that almost tore them apart when they just started out to a bloody pulp. Monster scaling takes away an essential part of computer role-playing games – character advancement.
This issue has been known for a while, and there have been various attempts at fixing it. Dragon Age: Origins employs a few tricks that make it seem like character advancement does matter. For one, monsters don’t scale indefinitely but have a minimum and maximum level that they can scale to. Some monsters will eat you alive when you attempt to fight them at too low a level, simply because they can’t scale that far down, and others will become quite easy when you attempt them at a high character level because they can’t keep pace with your levelling. Great examples are ogres – the first ogre you meet is a tough boss and has transformed many an adventurer into minced meat. Later ogres are far less scary, giving you the feeling of improvement.
Another trick in Dragon Age: Origins is that monster levels are locked once you enter the monster’s zone. Discover a dragon you can’t beat? Come back a few levels later and it will still be locked at its low power level. The third trick they pull is a really awkward one – in the final battle, most enemies can be killed with a single hit. Suddenly you get to show that you got a lot stronger and that ordinary enemies are no longer an issue for you. This could maybe work if the shift wasn’t so sudden. You meet the same type of monster throughout the game and they always keep up with you level-wise. A random patrol of these monsters on the street can be tough to take out even for your hardened party of adventurers. But then for some reason they only send the weaklings into the final battle? That doesn’t make a lot of sense and is quite immersion breaking.
Fallout 3 on the other hand scales the enemies with your level but not really at the same rate that you improve with. At level 20 the lone wanderer owns everything in her path with an infinite supply of weightless stimpacks in her backpack. This way, a certain amount of challenge is kept up while you level, but when you get close to the end your character will pretty much be an invulnerable god.
All these tricks try to cover up the weaknesses of a scaling system, but are quite flawed themselves. The endgame of Fallout 3 shouldn’t be that much easier than the start – in fact you would expect games to ramp up the difficulty curve in the end, not lower it. The tricks in Dragon Age: Origins are far too transparent and partly immersion breaking. The problem isn’t just limited to single player RPGs either – when you play a modern day MMO you always get to fight level appropriate enemies. Unlike some of the scaling RPGs you can usually go back and do the easier content again, but it is mostly pointless. When you level up from level one to level eighty in World of Warcraft your character doesn’t actually get stronger in relation to the enemies. Sure you can go back to Goldshire and kill some wolves with your bare hands when you are level 80 – but the wolves in Northrend will still hurt you.
Both railroaded games and open world games require scaling of enemies to match the player character’s power or there will be no challenge to the game anymore. I think the big difference between the two is how they explain this scaling. When playing a railroad it is easy to conceive a story about how you don’t engage the more powerful foes yet but seek training first or whatever. When you are in a sandbox this is much harder to do. If players are free to choose whether to go to location A or B first, both A and B must be of similar difficulty but the second one chosen must always be of higher difficulty than the first. In a railroad the designers can simply put one ogre in location A and two ogres or a dragon in location B. In a sandbox, there will be an ogre in each of the locations, but the one you encounter second will miraculously be stronger than the first one.
I don’t know a perfect solution for sandbox games. I think Fallout 3 is on to something in their use of different monster models for difficulty scaling. An old tunnel may contain simple mirelurks when you enter it at low level, but mirelurk hunters or even mirelurk kings when you enter it later on. This can only work with generic NPCs though, if you want to tell a story it becomes much harder.
What I might have a solution for are games like Dragon Age: Origins who pretend to be open world games. In Dragon Age: Origins you get to choose between four different locations to visit at one point. You pretty much have to visit them all, but you can pick the order at your leisure. This is not a sandbox game, yet it comes with the same scaling issues that sandboxes have. If they had put these parts of the game into a fixed sequence, they could have done away with all the automatic scaling and thereby made the game a lot more believable. Instead they chose to put a pretend open-world layer onto their railroad and got the worst of both worlds in return. Monster scaling is not a good thing, avoid it if you can and mask it if you can’t.