Monday, June 9, 2014

What is the game anyway

Skyrim may be one of the most unbalanced games of all time.  Initially I did what any normal adventurer with a heartful of bloodlust and a save button would do - I charged off into monster infested ruins and hauled loot out of dungeons.  After awhile I decided I should figure out how the various crafting professions actually worked and so I began to read on the internet.

This may have been a mistake.

I learned that I have been a serious sucker.  Instead of paying people to train me and then going back to the dungeon for more cash I should have been training up my pickpocketing so I can just steal the money I spent on training right back.  Instead of combining all the ingredients I find into random potions and selling them I should have been using my enchanting to make my alchemy more powerful and my alchemy to make my enchanting more powerful and after a whirling dance of absurdity I could simply craft a single potion that would level me to the cap and sell for more money than the vendor had on hand.

Of course I *could* just bash zombies in the face and vendor their rusted swords but after getting 15 levels in 30 hours the that way and 15 levels in 2 hours by stealing from people I am feeling kinda bad about that whole zombie bashing thing.  It feels pretty obvious to me how the designers intended people to play the game - I kind of doubt they really designed it around people with absurdly powerful weapons and armour built by stacking crazy profession bonuses on top of one another - and it is clear that the intended way is terribly inefficient.

In their attempt to make the world realistic they have made the world ridiculous.  Playing a heroic fantasy game by standing behind a vendor alternately handing over 1500 gold for training and stealing that 1500 gold back without ever moving just strikes me as wrong somehow.  Invincible vendors with infinite gold on hand to buy whatever you haul out of the dungeon aren't exactly realistic but I think they generate behaviour that feels more reasonable for the genre.  It is very nice that vendors have limited gold and are only interested in certain sorts of goods but the inventory micromanaging that such things entail is a bit extreme.

The big issue here is my desire to optimize.  If I was perfectly content to just rampage through the game with a big hammer then none of the absurdities would matter - this is a single player game with multiple difficulty settings after all.  The trouble is that I have a desperate need to play correctly and optimally and doing so involves doing a bunch of things I don't really want to do.  I know that I can just play a big ole paladin and bash my way through but if that is terrible then I feel silly doing that.  The world is big enough that there are a million ways to win, and if you are willing to turn the difficulty down to Novice then you can win with any strategy no matter how idiotic.  The designers left space for everyone from the "Imma punch all the enemies to death with my fists lol" rube to the "So obviously you pickpocketed the awesome ring from the hermit in the hidden crag, right?  Doesn't everyone?" optimizers, and yet what I want isn't exactly there.

What this does tell me though is that balance is completely unnecessary in the context of a single player game.  It needs to be reasonable for the people who just brute force through to win but if you let people do ridiculous things to break the game they will do it and love doing it.  All you need to do is include ludicrous challenges and high difficulty levels for the lunatics so they have something to hurl themselves against and all is well.


  1. Mods are the answer to your question! Sure there are ones to change the graphics, but there's a truly massive, impressive community of developers making much more detailed changes.
    Sure, you can replace all dragons with Thomas the Tank engines, but that's only for laughs. There are mods which address most the balancing issues, add in a semi-functional economy including regionally priced goods and vendor-specific pricing.. Mods that add in a survival element, requiring you to wear weather-appropriate garb, craft camps/campfires and avoid getting wet or die of exposure. Mods which add dozens of new types of fauna, which interact with one another in a semi-functional ecosystem! Mods that entirely change the perk tree, adding hundreds of new specializations that allow for some really cool and unorthodox ways of playing. And best of all, they've been "in the wild" for so long that they've been broken and fixed enough times to hit a nice balance.
    There is even one called "SkyRE" which rebalances the entire game from scratch, which makes you less invulnerable, and changes the way encounters are generated, so every bad dude/pack of wolves you meet needs to be carefully assessed to make sure they won't eat you for breakfast. It's so much harder. It's so much more awesome. Playing that one, you optimize, or you die. (It breaks eventually, but you really need to try to do it.)

    Also, they're free. So there's that.

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