Game Design Rambling: Power Scaling in Open World Games2022-12-03
I recently finished playing through Pokémon Scarlet. It's not without its issues, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I wanted to talk a bit about why I liked its open world so much - particularly in contrast to what many people seemed to think they wanted. What actually makes a game "open world" is a bit up for debate, but that's not really what I want to talk about, only that it's generally agreed that Pokémon Scarlet and Violet (I'll just say Scarlet from now on) are open world games. This is relevant in that it makes them the first open world Pokémon games (that aren't spin-offs), and it was part of the marketing of the games, so a lot of people came into this one with new expectations.
Perhaps the defining trait of open world games is that, once you're past a tutorial zone, you can go almost anywhere in the game's world. This is certainly true of Scarlet. It's also often expected that the game's content can be completed in any order. This is also true of Scarlet, as well as other big open world games like Elden Ring and Breath of the Wild, but it's not true of all open world games. Cyberpunk 2077 and many Assassin's Creed games have linear stories that sometimes open up a bit, but mainly have a set order they must be completed in. In Ghost of Tsushima, entire sections of the world are cut off until you've progressed far enough in the story to unlock them. In any case, the expectation that surprised me when reading opinions of Scarlet was that, if it is the kind of open world game that lets you complete it in any order, then it should accommodate the player completing the game in any order by scaling encounters to the player's power level.
This is a fairly common game design technique, games by Bethesda in particular are well known for using it for their flagship games like Skyrim and Fallout 4. So it wasn't surprising to me that people might have wanted it, but surprising that people thought it should've been obvious. It's hardly a mainstay of the genre - the aforementioned Breath of the Wild and Ghost of Tsushima only scale their generic overworld encounters, and Elden Ring doesn't scale anything at all.
Positives of scaling
Typically developers want players to experience as much of the game they made as possible, so one of the key challenges is in balancing the difficulty such that the player will never walk away because it was too hard. So if you have content with hand-crafted difficulty in an open world game, you immediately run into the problem that some players will find the harder content before the easier content. If it's especially hard, they're likely to bounce off the game entirely. If it was just some side content that never really mattered, it would be a huge shame for the player to put the game down over that. Equally, though, it's not a good option to just make everything the same difficulty, or not have the player's character increase power throughout. Doing either of these will make the player feel like they're not progressing, especially given open world games, being non-linear, have inherent difficulty conveying other kinds of progression. So the solution: scale the difficulty of side content (or maybe even all content!) to the player's level. Ideally, it should be always be slightly harder than the player's comfortable with so it's always a challenge, but never too much of a challenge. Awesome - now your players can experience your
randomly generated lovingly crafted 400 side dungeons in any order they arrive at them in!
Negatives of scaling
Taking away player's sense of progression was recognised as a poor solution to the 'problem', but power scaling can put the game into much the same situation! The player picks up bigger and better gear, gets more stat points, and improves their skills, and the game responds by keeping all encounters at the same level of difficulty they've always been at. Nothing feels like it gets easier or harder, so there's no sense of accomplishment overcoming a tricky encounter nor is there a sense that the world is acknowledging the player's increase in power. Sometimes this actually feeds through into other aspects of the design - in Skyrim, the characters in the world rarely seem to respond to anything you accomplish in it. You're just the dragonborn at the start, and you're just the dragonborn at the end, never mind that you saved the land thrice over. Every NPC will keep treating you like a common pleb even when they should know full well you could destroy them with a shout.
When I talked to some people that initially expected there to be power scaling in Scarlet, they said that without it, they felt there was no point to the game being open world. 'But what about all those popular games without scaling?' I thought. I read a review that said the game was actually 'pretending' that it was open world, because the fact there was a difficulty ordering meant it had an 'intended' linear order. These opinions were what led me to really think a bit deeper about this aspect of game design, and try to see what was actually going on underneath. To me, criticising a game for opening up and letting you explore and challenge it however you like is just strange. It's as if the game was being measured by how much it could be scrolled past and not by how engaging it was.
To some extent, an open world is an opportunity to let the player do things that humans rarely get to do in modern day: explore, find danger, involve themselves in solving problems, and become a big deal. Games have always had that kind of thing, but open world means being able to do it because you want to, not because a game designer deigned that it should occur at a particular time. Thinking about Scarlet specifically, I crashed head first into gym battles that were way too hard for my level at the time. The game didn't tell me they'd be too hard. The game didn't tell me where I should go instead, though it had that option if I wanted the guidance. For the first time since I was a kid, I was losing battles, and it felt good! I had to strategise, see if I could use what I knew about the battle system and the items I had available to squeak a win against an opponent I was far too weak to beat with raw firepower. Sometimes I had to stop trying so that I could train and come back stronger, with new monsters ready to take advantage of what I learned before. These kinds of 'player-made' stories of exploring and overcoming difficulties are part of why I love games, and something that was sorely missing from previous Pokémon games. If Scarlet had level scaling, I don't think I would have experienced any of this. I would experience all the content, in whatever order I chose, but not in a way that was engaging. Rather than wanting to go to a certain gym because I thought there might be a challenge to overcome, I would do it just because it was there, so I may as well. Slowly discovering the hidden secrets in the world was one of the most suprising and satisfying aspects of the game, and I'll remember what happened at the end of the game for a long time. A far cry from Pokémon Sword and Shield, ultra-linear and simple to the point of tedium, with nothing in particular to remember them for. A game doesn't have to challenge you, but when it doesn't, it relies far more on its story and presentation to carry the experience. Things Pokémon doesn't really have in spades - so it makes no sense for it to rely on them.
Those people's expectation seemed to make a bit more sense if I considered it as being part of a bigger issue than just games. Social media, especially the large video content platforms like YouTube and TikTok, are designed to try and get users to spend as much time as possible scrolling through the content on the platform. At the same time, that user-made content is devalued heavily into being little more than something to attract your eyeballs for a short while before you swiftly move on and forget it all. It's easy to imagine that when so much of people's time is spent on these apps that they might also be looking at certain games in a similar way. They might be thinking of Pokémon, or open world games, as things that just serve as 60 hour distractions, rather than being something worth engaging in, perhaps even art with things to say.
There's not really a takeaway to be had from these thoughts, it is a ramble after all. But I think it is worth thinking more deeply about how our expectations of games can play into being pleased or disappointed with it, as well as how those expectations might not come from games at all.