Open World Games: The Leveling Problem

in Design

One thing that is in vogue these days are free-roam open world games. And for good reason! It is fun to be able to decide where you want to go and what you want to do on your own time, and not be required to just do what the game wants you to do right now.

The problem, of course, with this kind of system is that RPGs with character progression make it difficult. Some areas will be just too hard because your character isn’t high enough level, and so by default, you still end up with the same thing you had before, just instead of physical barriers being in your way, the enemy strength keeps you from exploring certain areas early.

Well, I mean, I could go anywhere, but apparently not that direction...

Well, I mean, I could go anywhere, but apparently not that direction…

To a certain degree, this is to be expected. One of the freedoms you are given when you are allowed to go anywhere is the ability to get in over your head. But in the long run, it can lead to funneling the game into a very linear progression, even if you can theoretically go anywhere. Or, you go the other way, and because the enemies are weak enough to take down for any level character in most areas, then those areas lack any challenge later in the game.

Now, some games have attempted to get around this in various ways. Bethesda has used leveling enemies along with encounter zones. This means as you get more powerful, the enemies get more powerful, within a range determined by the encounter zone, so one zone might have enemies that are level 10-20, depending on your level. This method is useful. It isn’t the worst way to handle it, but there are still some issues. On top of the need to occasionally toss in recolors and adjectives to show any progression of enemy power level, sometimes, especially with enemies that have no upper cap, it feels like leveling too high only makes the game harder for you, rather than easier. And players should be awarded for getting higher levels!

Fallout 4, property of Bethesda Softworks LLC

Fallout 4, property of Bethesda Softworks LLC

Another option, one I favor a lot more, is to flatten your power curve, and instead of focusing on your character getting infinitely more powrful, have your character instead learn more and more diverse abilities. A good example of this type of game, though not strictly an RPG, is the PS4 exclusive (and all around excellent game) Horizon: Zero Dawn’s weapons.

While there are some weapons that are just more powerful, these are either only obtainable in New Game+, the DLC, or doing some crazy things in game (perfect on every hunter challenge). For the most part, you’ll be using the Basic=>Carja=>Shadow version of each weapon. And while one of the bonuses given is an extra modification slot, which does make the weapon potentially more powerful, the main bonus is getting an extra attack option.

For instance, let’s look at the War Bow. The standard War Bow gives you Shock Arrows. The Carja War Bow lets you shoot Shock or Ice Arrows. And the Shadow War Bow lets you shoot Shock, Ice, or Corruption Arrows. Instead of strictly making you more powerful, this gives you more OPTIONS. You grow in being able to do more things and target more weaknesses, instead of just growing in pumping out more damage.

Horizon: Zero Dawn, property of Sony Interactive Entertainment

Horizon: Zero Dawn, property of Sony Interactive Entertainment

This does let you take out bigger and more dangerous things easier, but it does so in a flatter way. You can still take out a Thunderjaw with a full set of Basic equipment, but it will be incredibly challenging and a huge drain on your resources. The full set of options provided by Shadow equipment opens up new strategies, letting you take down one faster and more efficiently. This way, you can roam anywhere in the world, at any time, and while the challenge of enemies changes, things don’t tend to drop so far off the bottom end of difficulty as to be pointless and nothing is ever impossible.

Allowing enemies to have a flatter progression and focusing on character progression being more about versatility than pure power, especially if the player can decide how to advance that versatility, is in my opinion one of the best ways to deal with open world games.

What do you think? How would you balance the progression of player and enemies in an open world RPG?

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