Monday, November 21, 2011

Skyrim - Gameplay

Skyrim is a strange beast when you consider its gameplay. You get a large amount of freedom, much more than you would get in most single-player or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. And I believe that it is this freedom of action which is mainly responsible for the ultra-high review scores and general excitation about this game. We got so used to being constantly guided and our hands held through all sorts of games that the freedom of Skyrim is refreshing. And for all the excitation we tend to forget that this freedom still has limitations, and comes with a price.

I’ll start with the limitations. There is no doubt that you can do *more* actions in Skyrim and get a reasonable result out of them than you can in most other games. But that doesn’t mean that everything in Skyrim works in a logical way. I stumbled upon one example as consequence of playing a warrior type character. I am wearing heavy armor, and carry heavy weapons around as part of my usual equipment. As Skyrim’s inventory is weight-based, I effectively block half of my weight allowance just with my gear. Thus there is less weight capacity for loot. Now I really wanted to get a lot of money in Skyrim, to buy a house in Whiterun and thus get some safe storage for the kind of items you aren’t quite sure whether you want to keep them. Thus whenever my inventory was full, I left the dungeon I was in, fast-travelled to the next merchant, sold the loot, and came back to the dungeon. As merchants are only open from 8 am to 8 pm that sometimes involved resting for up to 12 hours in the city. And at some point it struck me that I had left a cave full of bandits half cleared, came back after half a day, and found the cave exactly like I had left it. None of the bandits had moved, taken back the first rooms of the cave, set up traps or did anything else logical to happen.

A dungeon in Skyrim is still a place with static mob locations, and scripted events, just like in any other RPG. The scripts have sometimes more variations than in other games, but I did manage for example to pass a point with a bandit mage on a ledge overhead several times, with the bandit reacting in similar ways repeatedly. After several tries I found a way how to enter that cave and put one arrow into that mage without getting damaged myself. And then I was able to simply do that action several times, leaving the cave to reset the mages script, but without resetting his health. Every time he would come forward and say something like “who goes where”, although he already had several arrows sticking in him and should know what would happen next. Many of the scripts in Skyrim are very well done, and are very believable as long as you behave in a predictable manner. Do something unexpected and you encounter the limitations of the system, the limits to freedom, by the script visibly ending up in some not very logical behavior. The more you stretch your limits, the less immersive the game becomes.

That brings me to the price to pay for the freedom you have: Skyrim offers you so much freedom that it ends up being a not very well balanced game. On the one side there are numerous examples of how you can “exploit” your freedom in creative way to make yourself overly powerful. I had a quest to find a mammoth tusk and quickly found that the mammoths are impossible to kill, at least at level 6, and that’s not even considering the giants running close to them. But I persevered and ended up pulling the mammoth away from the giant and into some terrain where the mammoth couldn’t advance any more towards me. Then I pelted the mammoth with arrows until it died, getting my quest items as well as a nice increase in archery skill. In a way that was still believable, but using terrain to create a combat situation where you can hurt the enemy but the enemy can’t hurt you is one of the first things any MMORPG prevents through some balancing measures. Because if you find the right spot and respawn location, you could gain endless xp (in an MMORPG) or skill (in Skyrim) and levels by repeatedly killing mobs that can’t hurt you.

Nils reported that he found another way to “break” Skyrim: Apparently there is an enchantment that reduces mana cost by 25%. And it stacks. So he enchanted 4 items with that, and was able to cast all his spells at zero mana cost. A lot of the “cool” things people report from Skyrim are things which would be considered “exploits” in an MMORPG, and which harm the balance of the game. Different players will put different values on this: Some people like the freedom, even if (or especially if) it includes the freedom to exploit. Other people would prefer a well balanced game.

The biggest problem to balance is probably Skyrim’s skill system. It is simple enough: You gain skills by doing stuff. And your level increases with the amount of skill gained. There are two problems with that: Exploiting skill gains, and the balance of your combat strength against the combat strength of the mobs. Like in other “skilling by doing” games you can gain skills by doing stupid stuff. Gaining sneaking skill by running against a wall. Deliberately and repeatedly stepping into traps and gaining restoration skill by healing yourself up afterwards. And so on. But at the same time the game increases the level of the mobs you need to kill with your level. Thus if you gain a lot of non-combat skills, you effectively make the mobs harder to kill for you.

Now normally in a game like this you would find me trying everything, every crafting skill, every magic skill, every thieving skill. But in Skyrim I quickly realized that this would be me shooting myself in the foot. In Skyrim the “best build” in MMORPG parlance is one where you only ever learn combat skills, and then only those which are complementary, and not too many alternative options like magic spells. You have the freedom to skill as you want, but the result ranges from skilling yourself to an overpowered fighting machine, to completely gimping yourself with lots of non-combat skills. And as the main quest has you killing a lot of dragons, gimping yourself isn’t advisable.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that this lack of balance in a single-player game is necessarily a bad thing. You make decisions, and live with the consequences, that can be a lot of fun. But I understand why some people said that you couldn’t turn that into an MMORPG: As soon as you have competition, either for PvP or for end game PvE, a lot of the possibilities Skyrim offers would simply be considered not viable. The optimizing the fun out of games force is strong with MMORPG players, and wouldn’t mix well with the freedom Skyrim offers.

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