Over on his blog today, Coyote has a post about scaled encounters. He wonders if they’re good or bad. As a matter of fact, they’re pretty much par for the course these days.

The reason is simple: most RPGs – or maybe that should be action/RPGs – are linear. The player is guided along from one location to the next, with all encounters – even the occasional “random” one – carefully controlled to the player’s level.

Of course, that’s all done in advance. There is no “real-time” scaling as there was in Oblivion, where the game looked at your level and modified the opponents to suit it.

Regardless, the result is the same: combats that are tailored for the player’s level, providing, most of the time, enough challenge without becoming overwhelming.

In a linear game, such scaling makes sense, because the player can only go forward, even allowing for time out on “optional quests”. The fights need to be challenging but not frustrating, as the player usually has no way to “grind up” levels; advancement comes with the flow of play.

With an RPG like Oblivion, however, scaled combats are a huge error. The ability to go anywhere and handle anything may appear to be the ultimate freedom.

But as Coyote points out, this diminishes, if not outright destroys, any excitement in the game. In time, all places are alike, because none of them has any real challenge to it.

Whatever enemies turn up, it makes no difference: you can wipe them out with a bit of care and effort. In effect, the scaled combat trivializes the whole experience. Can there really be any satisfaction or sense of achievement knowing the game can be finished at level 2?

When a game like Oblivion, or the old Might & Magics, gives the player the ability to wander at will, scaled combat is the worst thing to implement.

The world should not be the same everywhere. That’s boring. There should be areas where the opposition is too tough, not just to keep players from stumbling on something too soon, but to allow satisfaction in coming back later and overcoming those same enemies.

Then you can feel a sense of progress, that you’re advancing your character in the game. You also get that feeling of anticipation, looking forward to the time when you can handle those Giant Scorpions (heh). It makes  victory all the sweeter.

So scaled combat is a necessity is a linear game, but it should never show its ugly self in an open one like Oblivion. Check out Coyote’s post and see what you think.

Scaling Encounters on Coyote’s blog