Friday, 10 August 2012

Streamlining - Skyrim

I often see streamlining being used as a dirty word, a lot of gamers seem to think that it is just a codeword for 'dumbing down' mechanics. I think that the leveling system in Skyrim is a great example of taking what was a terrible system in Morrowind and Oblivion, finding the core of it and bringing out something great.

First, to look at the previous system. It seems like the designers had the thought:
"I love RPGs but they are so unrealistic, why does shooting a bunch of people with arrows let me increase my speech or make me better with swords?"

I have been struggling to describe the system used in Morrowind and Oblivion, so here is an excerpt from The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages

Each class has five Major skills, five Minor skills, and seventeen miscellaneous skills. Each time your character increases any combination of Major or Minor skills ten times, they become eligible to gain a level. Both Major/Minor skills gained by paying a Trainer to teach the skill and those gained by reading books count towards a level. Miscellaneous skills do not count toward this progress at all. You can check your count of major/minor skill increases toward a level at any time by hovering the mouse cursor over the Level line of the Stats menu.

Upon gaining the tenth increase of Major/Minor skills, and at each subsequent increase of any skill type, a message will encourage you to "rest and meditate on what you've learned". You will gain a level the next time you rest for any length of time. Using the wait command is not considered resting for this purpose. You must use a bed or other resting object, or rest outside of towns or cities.

For each level, a short explanation of the character's sudden, if not unexpected, increase in power is shown along with an illustration of adventuring gear, and the attribute multiplier list. While you rest, you will choose three of the primary attributes to increase. Usually one or more of the attributes will have multipliers next to them, meaning that those attributes will increase by more than one point if you choose them. The multiplier for each attribute is determined by the total number of times that skills governed by that attribute have increased since the last level up

Note that all skills advanced during the level count for the multiplier. These advances do not roll over to the next level for multiplier calculation, though your major and minor skills still count towards determining your level.

The outcome of this system is that two character who have done similar activites but slept (and thus levelled up) at different times will have different statlines. This leads to the strange concept of "Efficient Leveling" where in order to maximise your character you advance skills only by specific amounts each level, it requires careful planning and preparation and is pretty easy to stuff up.

I think that Skyrim benefited from Bethesda making Fallout 3. Fallout 3 was built in the same game engine as Oblivion but uses a more conventional RPG leveling system. You get XP for killing things, doing quests, picking locks etc. What it doesn't have is classes or stat increases. If I want to be a thief in Fallout, I advance my sneaking skills at every opportunity. I don't need to decide this at the beginning, I can decide to start investing half way through the game and it still will work.

What does Skyrim do with the Elder Scrolls system? It takes the core "You only get better at something by doing it" and bases everything around that. It eliminates classes, it eliminates most of the stats. It actually uses an XP system but never shows the player XP values.

When you use a skill in an applicable way, you gain XP for that skill, when you get enough of it, that skill advances. When a skill advances you gain Character XP equal to the new level of that skill. When the character gets enough XP they level up. The progress can be seen through various bars in the skills menu, the bar for character level is also seen whenever a skill advances.

Once again, this means that player actions determine the type of character that they play, not a choice they make right at the beginning. It gets at the heart of the systems used in Morrowind and Oblivion while removing the complications that weighed down the old system and made it terrible. It is a case of streamlining taking a clunky bad system and creating a great system that achieves the central purpose without creating strange side cases.


  1. I like the levelling system in Skyrim, but the game also includes a poor example of streamining when it comes to its interface for weapons and spells.

    In the PC version at least, they let you map a weapon or a spell to a hotkey. So far, so good; quick access to the things you need. But the game is highly focused on dual wielding, and it's unclear which hand the item you want will appear in, left or right. Tap the hotkey twice and you may end up putting all your swords away in favor of carrying two healing spells, one in each hand. Got a favorite dual-dagger setup? Too bad, you can't easily access it without a LOT of juggling. Etc.

    Then you have the menus themselves, which are simplified but not streamlined, becoming a slow and clunky morass of scrolling and sorting items. And oh boy will you have items a-plenty in Skyrim to scroll and sort through...

    I'm generally in favor of streamlining, but there's a thin line between getting it right and making your game unplayably horrible due to poor design decisions.

    1. I would agree on the menuing system, the menus in Oblivion were not great, but the Skyrim approach is not an improvement.

      Since getting SkyUI on PC I have pretty much abandoned the favourites menu when trying to juggle spells, it is just much easier to go into the spells menu and get the right spells on the right hands.