There's good news and bad news for crotchety old-school gamers like me. The bad news (I always start with the bad news) is that Skyrim, the next installment in the Elder Scrolls series, will include that detestable design element known as level-scaling. The good news, recently relayed by a Bethesda community rep, is that the level scaling will be "similar to Fallout 3's, not Oblivion's."
I don't actually know what that means, because I've never played Fallout 3. However, Oblivion's level-scaling is about as bad as it gets, so I welcome any change to the system.
But wait, perhaps not everyone knows what I mean when I say "level-scaling." In a few words, it means that your enemies level up with you. Game developers use it to make sure combat remains challenging no matter where the PC goes. This is particularly desirable in sandbox RPGs like Oblivion, where the PC can choose to wander anywhere at any time.
In older games like Baldur's Gate, if you wandered into an area too dangerous for your level, you often found yourself facing a reload screen before you knew what hit you (Enter really old-school gamer: "Reload screens! We didn't have any of your dag-blame reload screens! We had to save our progress to floppy disk! *cough* *wheeze*"). At some point, somebody decided this was a problem, so developers came up with the most straightforward (read: lazy) solution: spawn enemies that are always appropriate for the player's level.
Oblivion demonstrated everything that can go wrong with level-scaling. Bandits decked out in Daedric armor roamed the countryside. Mountain lions capable of ripping a demigod to pieces lurked in the wilderness. Yes, it was a tad unrealistic. But perhaps more importantly, because of the way the leveling system worked, it was possible to actually get weaker (relative to the rest of the world) as you leveled up.
I'll continue to shake my fist at level-scaling as long as I draw breath. I much prefer a game in which I have the freedom to get in over my head, get my arse handed to me on a platter, then go back later to take revenge the monsters that once owned me. But (dagnabbit) level-scaling is pretty much a given in games today, so perhaps the best we can hope for is that developers become more sophisticated in how they implement it. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Only scale enemies within a certain range.
How powerful does a bandit have to become before he starts to realize that he should be ruling his own country, not standing on the side of the road waiting for new marks? Simply put, a common, unnamed creature should be neither common nor unnamed when it reaches high levels.
2. Spawn different creature types.
And I don't mean spawning a "Dire Mountain Lion" in place of a regular old "Mountain Lion." As a lowly modder, I recognize the need to occasionally slap a different name on something and call it a new creature, but professional developers should be held to a higher standard.
3. Scale the encounter, not the creatures.
Just giving the creatures more hit points and damage-dealing potential is transparent (and thus boring) to the player. There are a lot of alternatives that aren't so ham-fisted, such as adding spellcasters to the encounter, increasing the number of enemies, or giving the enemies unique attacks (like poison, for instance).
4. Preserve the player's self-esteem.
If everything scales up to the PC's level, the player isn't going to feel like a hero. The player is going to feel like he or she is just scraping by in a world full of equals. Some weaker creatures should be left in so the player can gauge his or her progress.
5. Maintain a clear contrast between boss encounters and filler.
If every encounter is difficult, then the set piece battles lose a lot of their impact. Level-scaling should generally keep the filler encounters on the easy side (with random surprises to keep the player on his or her toes). That way boss encounters - which can be aggressively level-scaled - always stand out as difficult. And by the way, I don't mind level-scaling nearly as much in the case of bosses. After all, if the PC is getting stronger, why shouldn't the villain as well?
Most games that use level-scaling follow some or all of these rules to varying degrees. And of course, there are always mods to save the day, including a number for Oblivion that offer various alternatives to its overzealous scaling.
Unfortunately, not every game ships with a toolset, and even if they did, that would be no excuse for developers to settle for suboptimal design. It seems developers are too eager to go for the one-size-fits-all solution to combat balance. I think the extra work required for a mixed approach is well worth it. If done right, it can lead to a less predictable, more naturalistic and - best of all - more captivating world.