When it comes to game design, and particularly when trying to kick-start a new IP, creativity is paramount. Your game needs to stand out, to grab attention, and particularly in the case of RPGs needs to offer something – anything – beyond the tired old tropes of the gameplay genre. This series of articles has tackled just one aspect of that need, specifically how systems of levelling can be used to add to – or detract from –gameplay and interaction with the world.
But one thing we haven’t really touched on is how creativity can sometimes outstrip ability. Trying to do something radically new can be just as perilous as growing complacent. It’s a lesson worth remembering, and one exemplified by the tale of Two Worlds.
Two Worlds was released in 2007, only a year or so after Oblivion. It wasn’t the only link between the two games, considering how eager the back of the box was to repeat ‘Hardcore Gamer’s’ claim that it was ‘Oblivion on Steroids’. I know, because I was one of the saps who bought it. Ten years later, the game has become almost infamous for its pronounced frame-rate drops and…‘interesting’ voice acting.
But one aspect of Two Worlds that didn’t get quite so much attention is how the player levelling up affected the enemies in the world – or rather, did not. Unlike the two Elder Scrolls game we covered previously Two Worlds is far more ‘precise’ in how its enemies are distributed.
In the single player mode of Two Worlds (that I’ll be discussing here since, I imagine multiplayer is deader than the Hyperscan) monsters and enemies killed in the wild don’t respawn. Actually, they can appear as ghosts after nightfall, but the general thrust of the argument remains the same. Kill an enemy in Two Worlds, and it stays dead.
Aside from the uncomfortable quandaries on ‘heroism’ that this poses, the system had a lot of potential. It placed a finite cap on the amount of experience in a manner more graceful than a level cap, rendering the stat points distributed after levelling more valuable. It also gave the designers the opportunity to design interesting encounters and levels; like we discussed with Morrowind making the player feels powerful and accomplished, having enemies that don’t respawn means that – if handled carefully – some areas of the game could be inaccessible at the start, but open up more and more to provide a real sense of progression.
Unfortunately, develop Southpeak games didn’t handle it carefully. Noticing a pattern, yet?
Part of the problem is that Two Worlds’ combat is just bad. Even if the frame-rate drops didn’t render the game nearly unplayable, there’s little depth to it beyond hammering ‘attack’ and occasionally trying to use a dodge move that input lag makes next to impossible to put off. True, the Elder Scrolls games are hardly renowned for their combat, but that doesn’t absolve Two Worlds. ‘But wait’, you ask, ‘what’s that got to do with levelling’? The answer to which being that, to try compensate for this clunky combat system, Two Worlds is not particularly smart about its enemy placement.
As an illustration of what I mean, an early quest in the game sends you towards a major local city to familiarise yourself in the area. To get there you’ll probably take the road, and if you do that you’re almost guaranteed to run across a pack of small dragon-like creatures known as Wyverns. Chances are you’ll die here. A lot. The Wyverns are far too powerful for a low-level character to have any hope of defeating, unless ones abuses constant rebirth at nearby shrines (since death has no penalty in Two Worlds except for pushing you back a little) to wittle them down bit by bit.
You can try to be clever, of course. You can attempt to engage them at range with magic you likely don’t have. You can attempt to go round the Wyverns, hoping you don’t run into any of the other packs who prowl the area or get lost. You can try and level up first before coming back, slowing down the pace of the game into simple grinding and presenting the same issue if you run into other fearsome clusters of enemies. Whatever you try, the problem is the same – maybe I’m speaking subjectively here, but it’s not fun.
This is just one example. There are plenty of other locations in the game where mobs of high-powered enemies make progression a frustrating system of trial and error in lieu of designing actual difficulty. To see them all one would have to play the game, though I don’t recommend it even with its campy fantasy-medieval charm. It’s a real shame, because Southpeak could have turned a lack of respawning into an interesting and innovative way of keeping enemies in the world separate from the player’s levelling while maintaining a sense of getting stronger. As far as I understand other games (such as Gothic 4) may have tried to do this today. Perhaps they had more success.
What can budding game designers learn from this series of articles, then? When creating anything, not least a video game, it can be tempting to see many of its elements – gameplay, progression, story, art design – as separate entities. This is wrong, of course; everything in the end contributes towards one greater whole.
Players levelling up and the way they can interact with the world is one of the connections that is particularly important. It’s a fine dance, and one that’s easy to lose balance in when performing. Where does one draw the line between being powerful and difficulty? How much innovation is TOO much innovation, especially for a new studio? With any luck these articles will help have answered some of those questions, or at least provided the genesis for some critical thought on the subject. Even in a genre as established as the RPG, there’s always room for a great new idea. Learning from the past never hurt either, though.
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.