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.

Lords of Xulima -Velegarn Map

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. 

9 Responses so far.

  1. Vic says:

    Whenever I hear about a game “Bending to make every player decision the right one”, as you say, my heart sinks. I applaud your design.

    Of course, some games set the monsters and rewards to a higher auto-scaling level, depending on difficulty and area. The problem is that nothing is ever too dangerous; those games are challenging for the fist hours, but after a while your equipment is so good that you are unstoppable wherever you go.

    The last sentence of this blog is something I feel should ring very true for many old-school RPG fans. It’s more console JRPG style (Dragon Warrior/Quest, SNES FFs) but even veterans of PC adventure RPGs can understand, I’m sure.

    Even in D&D classics like Baldur’s Gate (and older), being reckless would get you killed. Not anymore, you are the ultimate Hero in today’s RPGs, which I find sad. So again, well done on the design of this game.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Vic! We know there are a lot of people out there who will appreciate what we’re trying to do, but it seems a lot of major devs don’t think there are enough people to make such games profitable. As a gamer I’m really happy about the rise of crowdfunded and indie games. People are finally making games that aren’t catered to appeal to everyone possible.

  2. Hoove says:

    man when I read this article somehow I get really pumped about having more content… the Ulnalum Guardians will be some sort of “random world bosses”, right?

  3. Dedoqui says:

    question: if the world is persistent in the levels of enemies, how do you keep the later parst of the game challenging? characters will be very powerful… do you have a way to prevent them from being *too* powerful, sort of like in D&D where characters become strong but don’t end up with 8 million HP and 3 billion damage hits? I’m curious because this game seems to have awesome J-RPG influence, but that is an inherent flaw of J-RPGs; the second half (or later stages) of the game is usually too easy.

    • Balancing the game is always difficult. If near the end you come back to low-level zones you will feel like a God, but it is something we like. The later parts of the game will be much harder and it will require better strategies and of course high level characters. The progression is not so exponential as in JRPGs, it is much softer. For example, the hit points can vary between 20 in Level 1 to 400-600 in Level 50.

  4. Frank Flury says:

    I like what your doing, I hate leveled games that are either way to easy or just ridiculously hard all the time. I want to get my but kicked if I try to take on to much for my current prowess, and I like to be able to make that choice. I don’t want a cake walk or have my hand held all the time. On the same note a deer is a deer and it just doesn’t get that powerful, if I’m in an area that is considered to be a level 30 area a deer should be the same as the level one area, I shouldn’t have to be level 30 to hunt and kill it. I wont mention LOTRO, oops, I would like to see a wide variety of baddies not just ramped up versions of themselves.

  5. Ilya Nemetz says:

    Actually, this post includes an erroneous statement (in part): “There are many examples of games like this: Oblivion, Dragon Age, Two Worlds, Fallout 3, Skyrim”. DAO does not use auto-scaling per se, and certainly does not deserve to get lumped together with Skyrim in this department. In fact, here is a good summary of the developers’ views on the subject as expressed by DAO designer Georg Zoeller:
    As you can see, guys, you are not the only ones giving scaling issues some thought :)

    Anyway, my point is that since Dragon Age was clearly designed with the no-auto-scaling consideration in mind, it seems wiser to remove it from your list of games using auto-scaling altogether. Especially given the fact a vast majority of people visiting your website have played Dragon Age, and thus know very well it does not feature auto-scaling.

    • Hi Ilya,

      Although Dragon Age uses a different approach and not as aggressive and evident as Oblivion, DAO uses level-scaling to balance its difficulty. In the web you link you can read:

      “In Dragon Age: Origins, every areas has a minimum and maximum level. If the player enters the area, the party’s level is taken and compared to the area limits. If it is between the limits, the creatures in the areas scale to the party’s level. If the party level is outside the limit, the creatures scale to the upper or lower bounds of the area limit, whatever appropriate.”

      So the level of the party affects to the content and the power of creatures in the different areas. That is level-scaling, better than in Oblivion, yes, but it is level-scaling.

      Even when playing DAO, I realized that as soon as my party gained a level, the level of the enemies also were higher making the combat tedious because it was exactly the same challenge again and again.

      When you play LoX you will see how different is a game when there is no level-scaling at all. The challenges and the sense of accomplishment are real.

      • Ilya Nemetz says:

        You seem to accept as an axiom that no-sclaing system > scaling system. In fact, it’s not as clear-cut as you make it sound.

        No scaling at all has a lot of issues as well. E. g.: in BG:EE, a solo level 1 Barbarian can kill Drizzt within 10-15 minutes of playtime investment (difficulty level is irrelevant here), counting from character creation — no cheats involved. The implications are enormous: any semblance of game balance is ruined, since our Barbarian will immediately gain 5 levels, the best armor the Brabarian can don, and the best dual weapons BGEE offers. If this encounter was subject to scaling, the Barbarian would either encounter a toned-down version of Drizzt with weaker weapon and proportionally lower xp reward, or would not encounter him at all (probably the best solution, as level 1 Drizzt is as nonsensical as level 20 rat).

        Thus, while I’m hardly a Dragon Age fanboy, I think BioWare actually handled the scaling issues very successfully by avoiding the extremes in this particular case.