Personal blog of Elijs 'X2Eliah' Dima

Skyrim is too long for its own good

There hasn’t been a proper post on this blog for almost a month. There’s a simple reason for that – I’ve been playing (well, replaying, really) Oblivion and Skyrim throughout that time, and having way too much fun to stop. Yeah, those are amazingly long games. So long that I’ve, all in all, probably spent over 500 hours on Oblivion (spread across a disc install, steam install, and three different computers), and – as of this writing – 394 hours in Skyrim. Not in this less-than-month, obviously, but in total. Anyway.

I haven’t ever gotten higher than level 45 or so in the latter game. There’s an achievement for reaching 50 – which is expected to be nearing “the top”, and the mathematical maximum is somewhere around level 83, if I remember the figures right. Thing is, those 45 levels – that accounts for about 70 hours of game, at best. The rest of those 394 hours are spent on replays and new playthroughs. So where’s the problem, then? Why aren’t all those near-400 hours all attributable to one or two completionist runs?

It’s not because of lacking content. Well, fair is fair – I can’t definitively say that the game truly has enough content to last all of 400 hours. Then again, across all the runs, I pretty much have seen almost all the locations, all the quests (infinite permutations of radiant fetch quests excluded), all the methods of going through a generic encounter. Yeah, I’ve done a lot of those things four or five times over by now. But there’s still something pulling me back in, the niggle to start something else yet again and do a one grand sweeping do-it-all encore. Wait, back up. Currently I have a level 37 character that I like, and about twenty in-progress quests and many more yet un-started. By the terms of main plot and completion, it’s barely over half-way mark. So why am I feeling the urge to start anew instead of an urge to load and continue playing that? That’s not supposed to be the case. I’ve already done 7 characters – I know and am bored of the early rote stuff to death (tutorial-village-nearby ruin-whiterun-dragon-whiterun-start exploring). It should be the much less played late-game stuff that I would want, surely. But no. For some reason, I lack the desire to keep playing.

That reason being the way the character advancement/levelling system works.

When a player wants to play a character, there is, usually, some kind of a gameplay archetype in which the player’s approach to the world will fit into. You have your sneaky stabby-stabby with a backup bow. You have your elemental magic nuker. You have your sword & board basher. Barbarian. Archer. Magic manipulator. Magic + sneaking. Magic + melee. Sneaking + two-handed greatswords. Quite the lot, eh (obviously there’s much more)… But the crux of the matter is, per each character only one of those truly applies. Once a character is made and played, it does play more or less along the same lines in every dungeon. If one picks a sneaky backstabber, to make an example, then that’s what one will do all the time. Sneak up to an enemy, backstab, proceed to next. Pick lots of locks. And pockets. Sneak some more. Due to the natural system of Skyrim’s skill advancement and levelling, the character will level up as the player does what he likes to do. Great. And yet, not great. Because there is a limit to everything. Each skill can only go up to a hundred. There are only 15-ish perks for each skill. By following a single gameplay-style, it is very, very likely that your character will max out all the relevant skills used in that gameplay style, at.. Well, at levels between 30 and 40-ish. Perhaps even less, if one goes with just bashing everything in the face with a big mace while wearing armour with no grace. What happens next? What happens when your character has maxed out all the gameplay-relevant skills? There’s three choices.

One, you can continue playing as you always have. You won’t level up any further. You won’t improve your character’s ability to backstab better. Thanks to level scaling – much improved, but still – you won’t get many better items and harder enemies, because you won’t level up. That’s the way of stagnation. While there will be new quests, they won’t feel all that new, because every time it falls back to the basic gameplay mechanics, it will feel stale.

Two, you can change the playstyle to something entirely different, to improve new skills. Well, good.. No, not good. Because you are a high-level epic bad-ass the ultimatest, the enemies are fairly strong as well – you just don’t notice it that much because you are on their level. But now you need to re-start from zero, as it were, with low-power weapons and almost no skill (I am assuming that by changing the gamestyle, one really does change it, instead of artificially grinding some, err, crafting skills), whilst keeping the world suited to a high-powered butt-kicker. The game suddenly gets pretty difficult, your lovely character has a lot of useless stuff applicable to the old playstyle that gives no benefit now, and because low-level skill improvements give way less levelling-up EXP, your character will level up very very slowly. And thus not really gain enough perk points to match the skill advancement rate. At this rate, really, you’d be better off starting a new character along that new playstyle.

Which is option three, obviously. You start a new character, and try to do it all over again. Because the game doesn’t facilitate swapping gameplay styles mid-way through. And perversely because the game requires you to swap gameplay styles mid-way.

That’s the big issue Skyrim has. For the numbers and rates placed in it’s levelling system, the game itself has way too much content. The quests, world locations, number of shouts etc. – they all call for way longer playing time than the advancement system is balanced for. That’s insane, that’s stupid, and unfortunately (I believe that) someone at Bethesda realized that. Because while there is an achievement for level 50, and the maximum being 83-or-something, the enemy power scaling is capped, in unmodded Skyrim, to level 35. Somebody close enough to the balancing of this system knew that players will effectively max out their characters in one playstyle somewhere near that 35th level-up. It makes no sense to let enemies increase their power any further – it will just screw the players over, as they won’t have any mechanical chance to keep up any more.

I could say that the skill advancement rates needed to be toned down to half the current rate or so – to let players spend more time in a single playthrough, do all the things before reaching “maximum power”. Because that is one of the defining things about modern Elder Scrolls games – the ability to do everything, to become that Nerevarine/Champion of Cyrodiil/Dovahkiin. But it wouldn’t work well. At half the rate, there would simply be too much of a time gap between level increases. The game would feel overly similar to plain old MMO grinding. Alternately, I could say that the number of overall content should be reduced, to adjust the game for the 1-35 levelling path. Well.. that’s a ridiculous suggestion though, isn’t it? No matter which way you cut it, all in all, the fact of the matter remains – Skyrim is just too long for its own good. The disconnect between the way advancement works and the amount of stuff Skyrim has, it is too palpable. Too large. That’s why I always give up on those intended “big” playthroughs and start new ones. Because I really am done with my character. But I am not done with the world. And yet I shouldn’t be forced to restart, to re-experience all the initial bits on repeat ad infinitum to see something different. If I want to play a “full do-it-all” thing, I should be able to. Because that’s what Elder Scrolls is ideally about. Doing what and how much you want, not what and how much the game arbitrarily lets you.

~X2-Eliah will probably restart playing Skyrim – with a new character, of course – in a few months’ time. Perhaps when a new dlc comes out. This time, he will finish the game and do everything in one playthrough. Honest…

7 responses

  1. I agree, the system does require that you change playstyle part way through and/or cheese your way through the power difference this adds. I went from sneaky archer, to sneaky dagger user to axe wielding magical maniac all in the name of levelling. My character is currently at 65, which gives her 16 levels until the cap (which is 81).

    If you have also been using smithing and enchanting, which were something I had been working my way through as part of my initial style then changing playstyles is not a big deal, since you can make up for the power difference with gear. The scaling mostly seems to cap out at about I’d say level 40 or so, which means that when I get sick of things being difficult I can swap back to snipe archery and suddenly easy mode, 1-2 shot almost all enemies.

    I also levelled a lot faster than my girlfriend, she put about the same amount of time as I did, about 100 hours, and her character is about level 37. I don’t think the skills she primarily uses are capped yet, her play style simply levels a lot more slowly for some reason.

    10/08/2012 at 11:21

    • Myeah.. To be fair, I completely avoided mentioning smithing and enchanting because those two are.. well, they are quite risky things in this issue… By completely ignoring them both, for instance, the overall disparity I spoke of is extremely pronounced; By using both of those systems – well, it can go either way depending on exactly how they are being used. By stacking +x% smighting/enchanting enchants on equipment eventually allows for absolutely insane gear that easily goes far beyond the game’s own balancing (not saying it’s good or bad – singleplayer and all that), massively skewing the perception of character advancement as such.

      As for playing style affecting levelling speed – Yeah. It’s always hard to do a direct real-time to game-levelling-speed conversion, because there’s different methods to approach quests, travel, combat, and so on. For instance, a simple thing like using vs. not using fast travel has a massive effect on the hours poured into the game vs. the amount of levels / skill increases attained.

      10/08/2012 at 12:43

  2. Interesting point. I’m running into something somewhat similar in The Secret World: I’ve finished the builds I’ve initially went for, and… now I’m just kinda grabbing skills for the hell of it. I could try healing, I guess? But I’d need healing gear for that.

    Of course, The Secret World is good enough to keep playing regardless, /plug. I think Skyrim’s shameful secret is that underneath all that choice and content and possibility, it’s just really a rather hollow game.

    10/08/2012 at 11:50

    • Arguably, yes, I could agree that Skyrim is a tad hollow when the levelling and character advancement system is taken out of the equation. The whole “build, improve, advance, define your own character by playing” is so much a core concept of an Elder Scrolls game that everything is subject to that mechanic being present – up to a point where it really suffers without it.

      10/08/2012 at 12:48

  3. Sumanai

    Sounds to me like the auto-leveling system is causing trouble again. If the difficulty would be region based you could just haul ass to a lower level one and figuratively start anew.

    If the character progression had a smaller scale, that is the difference between a 5 and a 100 (even with the appropriate equipment changes) wouldn’t be all that big, then you could run around anywhere and starting anew would just revert the game back into the original difficulty.

    If the auto-leveling system needs to be kept, then it would need more complexity. It should look at the levels of the skills you are actively using and adjusting to that. But I’m not certain if that would actually give you any feeling of progress, outside of the perks/abilities. Assuming, of course, that it works.

    Honestly, it feels really strange how the system in Skyrim, or TES games in general, should encourage, or at least enable, jack-of-all-trades type characters, yet it ends up discouraging you.

    10/08/2012 at 17:36

    • Hm, I’d say it’s not the skyrim’s framework itself that is discouraging a jack-of-all-trades approach. Heck, if you have to manage *all* skills while levelling up, instead of focusing on few that you use, then all in all you could probably naturally make it up to and beyond level 50. The problem is more that the jack-of-all-trades archetype is so inherently flawed and fractured.
      For one, it is always a master of none. And there is absolutely no way to sell the following idea to a gamer: “You could do a little bit of this and a little bit of that and always be really weak and ineffective against everything, OR you could specialize and be this kick-ass super-magician/super-warrior/super-assassin much much faster”.
      Also, to properly work on a jack-of-all-trades character, you’d need to swap the gameplay approaches all over throughout the game. Played one level of this dungeon as a mage? Liked it? WELL TOUGH BEANS SON NOW YOU HAVE TO WHIP OUR YER BOW. Otherwise you become a specialized magician, not a jack-of-all-trades. Following the Elder Scrolls ideology – You are what you Play – you’d have to play everything to be a jack of all trades. And, well, most people have their most and least favourite playstyles.
      In short, it’s not Skyrim that’s discouraging the jack-of-all-trades approach, it’s the very concept of a JoaT itself, applied to any videogame.

      10/08/2012 at 17:47

      • Sumanai

        I think you’re taking “Jack of all trades” too literally. It’s a term used to describe a polymath (a word that I didn’t remember at the time), someone who is good at several things, not literally all the things. Not necessarily a master, but good o, and nothing as such prevents from mastering things.

        And it most certainly doesn’t mean being forced to do a bit of everything, especially in a “your melee is at 10, no you have to get ranged to 10” way. Except, from what I can tell, in Skyrim.

        In the base system that TES games have used being able to do many things ok or well and few things great is entirely possible. If there’s nothing stopping you from progressing with your skills after you’ve hit the maximum character level, then you can master them all if you have the patience. The sell is more “you can increase all the skills and still focus on one or two, but the progress is slower for all”.

        With auto-leveled enemies it becomes “you can increase all the skills and still focus on one or two, if you want to risk falling behind the enemy difficulty curve”. This wouldn’t be as bad if the curve would be spread along an area, meaning that you could stay in the lower difficulty area to catch up, but it’s universal and enemies everywhere get harder.

        It specifically encourages specialisation to the level where not specialising feels no longer a suboptimal approach, which would be fine, but a bone-headed one. It basically states that if you don’t want to min-max, too bad.

        11/08/2012 at 15:37

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