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Levelling and RPGs #2: Oblivion

In the previous article in this series, we discussed the general philosophy of how levelling in an RPG can affect the world beyond just the player. Morrowind, the third game in the Elder Scrolls franchise, was our case study for aspiring designers to learn from and develop its best features further.

It’s ironically fitting, therefore, that in order to do the opposite – to look at a badly handled system of levelling up/world interaction – we’ll shift our attention to Oblivion, the next major Elder Scrolls title.

While it might not have entered the mainstream consciousness to the same extent that Skyrim did, Oblivion will without a doubt be more ‘relevant’ than its predecessor to many reading this article; its 2006 release date coincided well with the seventh generation console releases, and to this day the game has nearly 2 million owners on Steam as opposed to Morrowind GOTY’s 1.2 million.

Because of this familiarity, and the fact that its level-up system was nearly identical to Morrowind’s, (the only differences being the removal of certain skills and the inclusion of pre-selected ‘perks’ once you reached certain values) I don’t feel the need to spend excessive time detailing the specifics here. Instead, I’ll get to the meet of this ‘lesson’; remember what I said last time, about how Morrowind’s use of different enemy and item types made the player feel like they were improving while keeping a sense of challenge and danger?

Yeah. Turns out that that was important.

The problems with Oblivion’s levelling were criticised so widely that, by now, they’re practically infamous. The game used a system known as ‘scaling’ to ensure every enemy (and I mean every enemy) would level up as you did, changing ‘type’ after a while – for instance, virtually all the Wolves present in the game became the more powerful Timber Wolves once you hit a certain level, and from then on they would only get stronger and stronger.

Items were handled much the same way; like Morrowind these were often randomly generated in ‘the wild’ based on the player’s level, but in Oblivion there was far less access to better items early on even by defeating enemies or searching through stores. Certain types of armour or weapon simply would not appear in the world until you hit a certain level, and their sudden inclusion could be immersion breaking to say the least.

‘Immersion breaking’ is really the keyword here. Some readers may be wondering why Morrowind gets a free pass for including new creatures at higher levels, but as well as the set stats discussed previously the game also had enough of a variety of enemies that it was never quite so glaringly obvious what was happening as in Oblivion’s case.

At level 20 in Morrowind you would still find common rats, and every NPC being an individual means their equipment could all be hand crafted to influence the difficulty in fighting them. Compare that to Oblivion, where common unnamed Bandits will be wearing some of the best armour in the game at higher level, and you’ll see what I mean.

In Oblivion, then, we can see present game design decisions so easy to avoid its maddening. In the desire to let players go anywhere and do anything at any level, Bethesda removed much of the sense of progression that is absolutely critical to RPGs. There is a difficulty slider present within the game, but it’s a poor substitute for taking the time to craft a satisfying levelling system.

Despite all this, one shouldn’t be led into thinking that Oblivion is a bad game. It hasn’t aged wonderfully in all areas (neither has Morrowind, in some respects) but there’s still plenty to enjoy, particularly if you play on PC and can get a mod fixing the levelling system.

Vanilla Oblivion does, however, stand as an object lesson on the danger of change for change’s sake and giving player’s too much freedom; sometimes it’s okay to be a bit restrictive, so long as coming back and triumphing where you failed is suitably satisfying.

In the final article in this series, we’ll be taking a look at a non-Bethesda game (though it certainly did its best) to examine a third way the world in an RPG can react – or in this case, not react – to the player’s level. We’ll also be wrapping up all the points covered thus far, trying to find the best tips for any wannabe designers wondering how levelling can be handled in their games.

Jordan Green View All

<p>At age seven, Jordan wanted to be a paleontologist. That went well. He now fills the void by writing on all manner of mildly-interesting topics – when he finds time in between complaining how everything was better in the ‘good old days’, that is.</p>