Level Scaling Tech

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I am in this place with SWTOR Knights of the Fallen Empire where I am honestly not sure what more I can say without my blog turning into a massive spoiler fest.  There are a lot of events going on and many of them have surprised me.  This is a little shocking given that I consume a lot of gaming media and that KotFE has been technically out since October 2015.  I am not sure if I purposefully ignored SWTOR articles… or if I just didn’t come across that many.  Whatever the case essentially everything from Shadows of Revan onward has been a completely new story experience for me without me knowing any of the elements ahead of time.  So while I recognized characters like Theron Shan or Lana Beniko…  I knew nothing about them going into this recent binge of playing the game.  We’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but returning to an MMO and seeing years worth of content laid out in front of you is a pretty great thing.  Especially in a situation like SWTOR where they have a reasonable level scaling system.

Yesterday Syp posted something over on his personal blog Bio Break talking about level scaling systems.  His specific discussion centered around whether or not level scaling systems were good for games, which was brought on by his recent journeys in LOTRO.  Over time my own feelings about the systems have changed.  You can scan through the backlog of this blog and find me talking about Mentoring systems, where games allow high level player A to drop down to the level of player B and run content with them.  This seemed to me like the most elegant solution to the problem of being able to run content with your friends.  That was until I encountered Guild Wars 2, and the fact that no matter where you go your character is scaled down to the level of the world.  The concept of evergreen content is a big one for me… because I like when a game expands over time rather than contracts.  While Guild Wars 2 is not the best example of this… because of the fact that there is plenty of content that you will never be able to play again in that game…  it did make me appreciate level scaling as a replacement for mentoring.

The only problem there is that when the world is constantly the same level as you, it robs you of one of the quintessential MMO experiences of leveling up and becoming more powerful.  The world always feels the same to you, because you are functionally always the same relative ability levels to it as you level.  In situations like that the levels themselves feel like a completely extraneous concept.  Why even have a number that goes up if the world is always going to be functionally the same difficulty.  When we started playing Final Fantasy XIV they had an extremely elegant solution for this in the form of their dungeon finder.  Each dungeon had a functional level range from the moment you first were able to zone in… to the moment that it considered was the upper bound of levels.  So if the average mob level in an area was 35, then functionally the maximum level the game would allow you to be was 40, scaling everyone over that level down to that point.  The only negative here is that this ONLY applies to dungeons, and in truth it would have been interesting to see this same sort of system just work out in the world as a whole.

That I guess is functionally what is going on in Star Wars the Old Republic, and I am loving it.  Each piece of content be it planet, flashpoint, or something else… has a functional level range attached to it.  Once again it is functionally along the lines of being five or so levels over whatever the maximum level of encounter for that area.  Then the game rewards you as though you were fighting something your own level in terms of both experience and loot drops.  This means that you can go anywhere and do anything without feeling like you are getting nothing from it.  At launch this was absolutely a problem with SWTOR and it was extremely easy to out level an area, and reach a point where the experience gain was no longer worth the time you spent on a planet.  This was especially true as I remember on Tatooine which in itself was a huge planet with lots of side content.  By the time I “did everything” I ended up several levels ahead of the curve and functionally kept getting more and more over-leveled as I went through the rest of the planets.

Now there is a certain measure of freedom in being able to just go and do the content without having to worry about level… and in many cases gear.  While leveling my Imperial Agent, there were a few points where I went 10 levels without upgrading any of my gear… and really did not notice a significant amount of power drop off.  Then again I did exit the class storyline at level 58… so there was some significant over-leveling going on there that might have been easing the transition.  The thing with this system is however that while you are gaining power and you FEEL powerful… there is never a point where you are just waltzing through  field of enemies gently tapping them and watching them explode.  When you run someone through a low level dungeon in World of Warcraft for example on your level capped main… you can functionally breathe on mobs and they impale themselves in a shower of loot.  SWTOR feels like a happy medium, of letting your power level increase without completely trivializing the game.  Sure most of the time I am not actually afraid of death, but I still feel heroic doing content…  because I am having to use my abilities to take things down rather than a single auto swing.  As a result I have somewhat shifted my focus from user driven mentoring systems…  to seeing more games adopt this sort of level scaling.  The best part about Legion honestly was the way that content has scaled to the player while leveling through it, and if only Blizzard had applied this tech to the world as a whole… it would be a much more enjoyable experience.  I like knowing that I can revisit those areas that I enjoyed so much in the past, and still having an interesting time.

 

Legacy Complete

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This weekend was yet another almost entirely devoted to playing Star Wars the Old Republic.  I tend to exist in one of two modes, either I am playing a bunch of different games casually or in “maintenance mode” or I imprint super hard on a single game and I clamp down on it until I run out of stuff that I want to be doing.  SWTOR seems to be in one of those clamp down modes, because I am playing it with an almost single minded focus.  I set out with a goal of finishing off the eight original storylines, and this weekend I managed to push the agent across the finish line.  As you can see I now have all eight icons lit up on the left side of the character select screen.  What is interesting is just how much overlap there are between the different classes.  You might hear a name mentioned in one class briefly that ends up being a central focus character in another.  With the Agent especially it felt like we were getting the secret story of the world being played out through our actions, and it was all the more real when I slid from that story into Shadows of Revan.  This is a minor spoiler but functionally the events foretold in the Agent sequence are coming to fruition by the Revanites…  which makes me feel like the Star Cabal was just one of so many other puppets in the setting.

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Makeb was largely interesting content, but it also felt like content added in a minor story patch in other games.  It was this side mission that didn’t really move the overall story forward by much.  Sure it was another chance to dust off your team mates and go on one more adventure… but it largely felt like one completely disconnected to everything else in the game.  While enjoyable I stalled out in part because I had the other goal to worry about and lots of class storylines to play before that twelve times bonus went away.  I wish however two years ago I had stuck around long enough to play through the Shadow of Revan campaign because I think the game as a whole would have had a good deal more traction for me.  Shadow of Revan and now Ziost feels more like what I had been wanting.  While it is taking part in a corner of the Galaxy and involves a brand new cast of characters…  there is continuity happening and all of my actions seem to actually matter once again.  Again you can absolutely see that it was design in a way so that it is stand alone DLC, but it feels like it integrates into the theme considerably better.

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I am wondering if I might be attached to Star Wars the Old Republic until the release of Stormblood at this point.  I have all of Ziost, which I am assuming is a fairly small addendum to the Revanite story.  Then I have the entire Fallen Empire campaign and finally the Eternal Throne campaign to keep me tied up for awhile.  I am figuring one of two things is going to happen when I start Fallen Empire, and in part that is why I have been avoiding actually starting it.  Either I am going to love it and tear through it hungrily until I catch up completely.  The other option is that I am going to bounce hard in Galaxy 2.0.  Either case I can only delay the inevitably so long, but I will be doing like I did in Mass Effect Andromeda… and trying to finish everything up completely before flipping the switch.  Side note… while staring at the above image I never noticed that my starship looks like it has a bubble level on the front.  Mostly I want to experience the world as it exists… before changing it completely.

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Some other side notes from the weekend.  The experience boost is absolutely insane because I was roughly 1/3rd of the way through Shadows of Revan when I hit the modern level cap of 70.  That means I have been getting functionally end game gear as I level through the content.  With Knights of the Eternal Throne they added in a new Galactic Command system… that in truth I don’t fully understand.  However it appears to be an alternate leveling system, and each time you kill something or complete a quest… you earn command points.  Every so often you go up a level, and this process includes earning a command chest.  These so far have been an excellent source of orange mod gear, and also occasionally a blue or purple item that blows away anything I have been capable of getting thusfar.  Another thing that I am digging heavily is that it seems like I can enter every flashpoint in “story mode” which allows me to complete the flashpoint solo with the help of an extremely overpowered robot buddy.  These flashpoints however also seem to drop current gear instead of the level of the encounter which surprised me just a little bit.  Whatever the case it feels like I am getting to chase down all these story bits, and at the same time be rewarded with lots and lots of gear.  Thusfar I am pretty happy with the way the systems all seem to be working.