Balancing the difficulty in games is always a complicated issue, and depending on the genre, the way the story is told, and the game’s mechanics, it can be a VERY complicated issue:
Linear vs Non-Linear
As one would expect, balancing the difficulty in a linear game is fairly straightforward. If you know the path that the player will be following from the beginning to the end, then you know perfectly well exactly when they will arrive at each point in the game and can set the difficulty accordingly. When a game strives to be non-linear, it has to be designed with the understanding that players may advance through the world in any order they chose. Adjusting the difficulty in this case is exponentially more difficult.
RPGs vs Other Types of Games
An additional component in RPGs is character development and leveling. In games like Crysis or Super Mario Bros, the character has the same abilities at the beginning of the game that it has at the end. The only change is in the experience of the player, who becomes more proficient with the character as the game progresses. In an RPG, the abilities of the character or party vary and change over time. When the player encounters a specific enemy, the character’s, or group’s, abilities may be very different from what the games designers expected for that particular moment in the game.
Action vs Strategy
In an action game, when the player encounters a much stronger enemy, there is almost always the possibility that the player can win by using different tactics like running away to heal and then attacking again. For example, in the Gothic series, with a little ability and patience you can defeat a Shadowbeast when you are just a level one character. Easier enemies, then, are no bother at all. Knowing how to win, you can finish them in a manner of seconds.
In turn-based games, a difficult opponent can be impossible to defeat no matter what strategy is employed, which makes high level enemies actually quite difficult to defeat. On the other hand, combat against easy opponents in this system can quickly become tedious, even if it only lasts for less than a minute.
Auto-Scaling Enemies and Treasures
Of all of the innovations that modern RPGs have contributed to gaming (some good, some less so) there is one, that in my opinion, is so horrible that it destroys the very essence of an RPG: auto-scaling the levels of the enemies and treasures to match the level of the player so that the difficulty and rewards are constant throughout.
The technique basically consists of dynamically altering the level of the game to present the same challenge (enemies), and rewards (treasure), during the entire play experience through the use of one of these methods:
- Directly auto-scaling the level of the enemies and treasure to match that of the player: If you are at level one and you encounter a rat, then the rat will be level one. If you run into that same rat when you are level 30, then the rat will be level 30.
- Changing one type of enemy for another: If you go into a cave while you’re at level one it will be full of rats. If the designer chooses to employ this technique, then if you don’t enter that same cave until you are level 30, you won’t encounter rats but in their place you will find powerful level 30 vampires.
- Setting the level of the area the first moment that the player enters: If you go into the Tower of Sorcery at level one, the enemies there will be set at level one and if you leave and come back later they will still be at level one. If the first time you enter is at level 30, then the enemies will be 30th level enemies. At least in this method they stay at the same level for the rest of the game.
There are many examples of games like this: Oblivion, Dragon Age, Two Worlds, Fallout 3, Skyrim,… Some apply scaling with more subtlety than others, but it is a rare case that it happens unnoticeably. The most extreme example is Oblivion, in which, paradoxically, the game was much easier to finish if you never bothered to level up at all.
Character development is a fundamental pillar of RPGs. If, by leveling your character, you are making fundamental changes to the way the world exists, then the game is cheating you.
The game world should be persistent (or at least indifferent to the level of the player). It’s reasonable to expect that:
- A rat will always be a rat with the same characteristics, and should live in the same places.
- If you to fight with a level 30 opponent when you are level one, you are asking to be destroyed.
- If an enemy defeats you, and you go back and try again at a later point in the game, that enemy should have the same abilities that it had the first time, and you should then be able to experience how your characters have progressed in level since the last meeting.
At its heart, auto-scaling is simply a very lazy way of letting the characters roam freely in a non-linear, open world environment. It would be very easy to implement this mechanic on Lords of Xulima; before each encounter selecting the enemies could trigger the leveling to match that of the player. But that is not what Lords of Xulima strives to be.
And in Lords of Xulima?
Lords of Xulima meets all three of the above criteria and has complex balancing:
- It is open world and non-linear: With the exception of the initial minutes of the game the player is welcome to go where he chooses. Of course, he won’t survive in many places as many regions will be to dangerous for low level characters, but there is no artificial boundary restricting movement.
- It is a Role Playing Game: With a complex system of character development, an 9 classes and more than 100 abilities that can be obtained and enhanced through leveling, there are thousands of different possibilities of character builds in every game.
- Is has turn-based, strategic combat so balance requires much more attention than if it were simply and action RPG.
In Lords of Xulima, the world is persistent and no enemy or treasure scales to match the level of the player. The world is divided into regions and those regions into areas. Each area has its own difficulty level, but even inside of that there can be many surprises (unique treasures, powerful enemies, special encounters…), because of this the player will want to stay alert.
There is a tendency today for games to be overly protective of the player and to be overly forgiving of the choices the player makes. Games are either linear, and leave no real decisions up to the player, or they’re open world in such a way that no matter what the player decides to do, the world bends to make that decision the right one. In reality, discovering which areas you are able to explore and learning which enemies are within your abilities to overcome (as well as finally defeating that enemy you once found impossible to combat) are what really make RPGs satisfying and fun.