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OPINION: Level Scaling vs Level Gating

Poorna Shankar Updated: Posted:
Editorials 0

Should a game scale to the player’s level, or should areas of the world be gated off until a player reaches a certain level? This is another one of design choices perhaps best suited for game developers, but what the hell? I’ll throw my hat in the ring and provide my two cents.

It is absolutely no secret that Elder Scrolls Online is my favorite MMO. But, this wasn’t always the case. I did not actually begin to enjoy the game until after the One Tamriel and Tamriel Unlimited updates.

Specifically, the One Tamriel update was the big change to ESO. Up until One Tamriel, ESO operated very much like other MMOs on the market. The world was technically open, but was filled with monsters far higher level than you. So while you could venture out to see the world, it would be impractical to do so simply because you might just get killed.

In essence, One Tamriel removed this. It removed alliance restrictions and allowed you to freely explore the world – all of it – regardless of your level. The world would scale to you. In my opinion, this update fundamentally changed ESO for the better as it made the game more like an Elder Scrolls game and less like your typical MMO with the “Elder Scrolls” brand tacked on.

However, there are some who prefer the old way of doing things. And although I disagree, I can see why. The arguments I’ve seen come from a sense of progress, practice, and challenge. If you’re able to go anywhere at any time, where’s the challenge? What’s the point of grinding and grabbing amazing gear if the world will simply scale to you?

There is merit to these arguments. You want that sense of accomplishment which comes from overcoming a challenge. Surely, you’re not meant to go fight some monster three zones away when you’re level 2 and expect to beat it. You’re meant to play the game, level up, obtain better gear, and then go fight said monster. That’s progress. And it feels like you accomplished something.

This design has extended to single player games as well, like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. In that game, we’re thrust into the massive world that is Ancient Greece, but each state is broken up by player level difficulty. Here, you’re technically allowed to go wherever you want, but you’ll almost certainly die going into some higher level place when you’re a low level newb.

Personally, I just disagree with this design. And I think this largely stems from why I play these large open world games – be it single player or MMO – in the first place. I don’t necessarily play for the challenge. I don’t play for the grind. I play to explore.

This may seem at odds with a number of you out there, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who plays this way. I look at it a different way. What good is having a massive open sprawling world if I can’t go explore it? Sure, one may say you can still explore worlds in the old design, but it’s not practical if you really think about it.

The developers built a giant world. Therefore, I want to go explore it. I don’t want to be artificially restrained by leveled content or leveled enemies. Circling back to ESO, I still do get that sense of challenge whenever I fight monsters and world bosses with my friends, even if “challenge” isn’t the primary reason I play that game. So clearly, I don’t feel that a sense of challenge is lost simply by allowing the world to scale with the player.

Additionally, the way I look at it, this open design still doesn’t restrict those players who do not want to venture out into other zones. They can still progress more “linearly,” zone by zone, quest by quest. Such an open design wouldn’t hinder those players, in my opinion. They can still grind, find their gear sets, enjoy a more linear story, etc.

I think it’s obvious where I stand on this debate, but this shouldn’t be surprising. I simply enjoy games for a far different reason than most. But again, I’m not a game designer. I can only offer my thoughts on what I’ve experienced and prefer.

If a game designer built a large world, I want to go explore every single nook and cranny right out of the gates. I want to pick a direction and walk and see what lies ahead. That sense of adventure and unknown is one of the primary reasons I enjoy such large open games, and not the sense that I must constantly progress my character, level, seek a challenge, or follow a linear story.

While others may chase gear sets, rare loot, world-firsts, or a more straightforward path, I chase the horizon.


Poorna Shankar