Listening to the Gamers With Jobs podcast today, and they’re talking about Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and the compression of city space. In Detroit, you have a massive skyscraper, homeless projects, markets, and your apartment all within a block or two of each other.
It reminded me of the original Deus Ex, where apparently several corporations, secret societies, and Tong headquarters are all in the same 1/10 mile block of Hong Kong.
Once you’re aware of the compression of space, it’s fun to observe it in games. Like how rival military bases always seem to be built a few hundred yards from each other.
I always thought the first area of Borderlands did this brilliantly – the Arid Badlands had a full town, several NPCs, huge explorable areas, terrain features, side areas to discover, and tons of quests. It was really a great start to the game, and gave it a very open world feel. Borderlands loses that feel pretty quickly – the Dahl Headlands are open, but mostly dull featureless terrain. And once you get to New Haven, it’s time to get used to changing zones two or three times to finish quest. But they really knocked it out of the park for the first zone of the game.
Did you realize you can start in Fyrestone, jump Piss Gulch, battle through Titan’s End, then do a few rounds in the Circle of Death, all without ever hitting a loading screen? That’s good stuff.
Problem: Once players are a few levels apart, they can’t effectively play together anymore.
Borderlands offers a lot of ways to play: single-player, drop-in multiplayer, and local splitscreen, and you can take one character and level them up in any mode. Starting a new game and playing with a friend works great…but if one player plays more than another, the fun starts to break down. Once the players are more than 4-5 levels apart, one of them is going to feel useless.
One option is for the lower-level player to host the game. But then the gameplay is trivial for a higher-level player, because their enemies don’t pose a challenge. They’ll rack up tons of kills, but feel bored doing it.
Or, the higher-level player can host the game. This is even worse – the lower-level player will die in just two or three hits, and their weapons will be unable to damage the foes they meet. It’s not just that they’re weak – they’re essentially not even playing the game anymore.
The players could agree to only play with each other, and make sure they keep their levels equal. But the ability to carry one character from single player to local multiplayer to online is one of the best features of Borderlands, and it’s not fair to expect the players to abandon that feature.
Solution: Equalize the characters’ levels, but offer the high-level players the high-level rewards they deserve.
When multiple players connect, the lowest-level character automatically sets the difficulty for the game. All of the enemies the group fights will be scaled to the lowest-level member. The higher-level characters take a penalty to their health, shields, damage, and skill effectiveness to bring them in line with a character of that level. The characters keep their skills, levels, and weapons; they’re just not as effective.
The twist is, the higher-level players continue to receive higher-level rewards. If a level 45 player is playing with a level 20 character, and kills a level 20 enemy, they receive XP as if they had killed a level 45 enemy. This may sound like a huge bonus, but remember – with the level-lowering, defeating a level 20 enemy should be as difficult for this player as defeating a level 45 enemy would normally be. XP is really a reward for the player, not the character, so they should receive a reward that makes the time they spend playing worthwhile.
Loot is a bit more complicated, since every player usually sees the same items. Rather than changing the loot drops, create a new way for high-level players to use low-level items.
Place a new vending machine in various cities around the world. Players can sell items to these vending machines, but they won’t receive money – instead, they’ll receive Loot Tickets. The number of tickets is based on the difference between the item’s level and the player’s level, and the player can’t receive tickets for an item that’s within 5 levels of their own, or a higher level than themselves. These tickets can then be traded in with these vending machines.
When checking this vending machine, every player sees a unique inventory screen, customized for their character. The machines show a broad selection of weapons and items that are appropriate to the character’s level and class, as well as an option to just give the player a random level-appropriate loot item. They can trade their Loot Tickets for these items.
In this way, the player has a reason to play with lower-level characters and pick up low-level items. The game still has challenge, and they can meaningfully cooperate with their teammates instead of overpowering them. They can continue to advance their characters at a meaningful rate, and transform the low-level items into stuff they can actually use.