The Altered Scrolls: Q&A, Part 4 (Final Q&A)

By Rutskarn Posted Saturday Mar 5, 2016

Filed under: Elder Scrolls 38 comments

Duoae asked:

Where do you stand on levitation? Was it worth being removed because it broke the game or do you view TES games as fundamentally broken (like me) and that's why they're fun?

The problem is, there’s two kinds of broken.

The first and most obvious kind is unbalanced; open to player exploitation, outside of the developer’s projected cycle of challenge and reward. That’s the “good” kind of broken; it’s a tool for the player to experience content on their own terms rather than something categorically detrimental to the experience. It can be a problem when the exploits are too obvious, but if players have to find or research them on their own it usually increases rather than decreases enjoyment of the game–the challenge becomes figuring out how to beat encounters easily and the thrill becomes voluntarily reveling in these advantages. It increases the player’s sense of personal freedom when a developer doesn’t block off all the advantageous mechanical alleyways that make exploits possible. Bethesda’s been cracking down on the “good” kind of broken for a while now by removing or streamlining spellcrafting, enchantment, and the ability to make your character faster or bouncier; it’s not an outrageous assumption that they’ve been keeping flying out of the game because it’s just too hard to design encounters around.

However, I doubt that’s why they got rid of levitation. Levitation in modern TES games stands to be the “bad” kind of broken. The increased demands of the engine require towns to be separate instances–you can’t just pass from the wilderness into the Imperial City because the Imperial City, outside its outer walls and very crude stand-ins for its inner structures, doesn’t exist in the main gameworld. Players essentially teleport to a separate gameworld when they interact with the outer gate; it’s only through environmental cues that the illusion of continuity is preserved. Flying over said gate and into the “city” will reveal the only thing that does exist in the main gameworld: a bunch of bleary-textured and totally inert buildings meant to look good from a distant ridge. This is the main obstacle to levitation in modern TES games, although I’m sure there are issues with draw distance as well–the old Morrowind trick of thick mist everywhere doesn’t really hold up in 2016, although some kind of attractive swirling maelstrom might do the trick.

The bottom line is, it’s not that levitation makes the game too easy–it’s that it frequently makes realistic, reasonable, and natural actions of the player result in immersion-breaking hugely ugly hacks and dead ends. Some people won’t mind downloading a mod and accepting the tradeoff–just like they don’t mind the shitty or absent voice-acting in quest mods, for example. But there’s a difference between accepting something a mod’s ugliness and getting it served up by a professional developer. We won’t see levitation again until the technical issues are smoothed over or outsmarted.

baseless_research asked:

Here's one. What feature from Arena or Daggerfall (positively) surprised you and makes you wish they include it in the next game?

As I hope I’ve made clear, by far my favorite dead feature is Daggerfall’s “good” broken create-a-class feature. The ability to customize not just skills and hit points, but game difficulty, experience gain, and conditions under which health and magicka are regenerated was outstanding and added sorely-needed replayability to a gameworld whose massive scope makes it ironically lean on new content. What’s more, I really think this is something that would appeal to modern gamers, because this kind of customization and control hasn’t been present for a long time. I’m sure Bethesda would balance things so you couldn’t–for example–take a dozen redundant “disadvantages” that give a whole lot of max for a very reasonable min, but that’d only take a little of the fun out of it.

NoneCallMeTim asked:

How could Bethesda take their bland sword and sorcery stab-fest, and turn it into something with a bit more character?

I wouldn’t call their sword-and-sorcery stab-fest bland exactly. I think Oblivion and Skyrim are blander than Morrowind. I think Arena and Daggerfall are somewhat blander than either of those. But in terms of generic fantasy IPs, they’ve not exactly done badly for themselves–few competing titles stand out as more interesting, it’s just that the bar for fantasy innovation has been set preposterously low. For innovation here, look to indies–larger studios often lack the agility to rally around a unique, artistically divergent mythos requiring all-new assets and designs.

But to answer your question–better writers. I might have to do a wrap-up post on this point specifically.



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38 thoughts on “The Altered Scrolls: Q&A, Part 4 (Final Q&A)

  1. Rack says:

    It’s hard for me to accept the old spellmaking and enchantment system as broken in a good way. Both systems were outrageously easy to exploit and such obvious and potent exploits wrecked all the systems they were attached to. While there is a certain fun in breaking a system over your knee and reaping the rewards the lack of challenge diminished the satisfaction dramatically and they were pushed far too close to the start of the game (though in Morrowind’s case obviating the whole combat system wasn’t a huge cost).

    1. Syal says:

      They’re unnecessary, though. The game’s not impossibly hard if you don’t use any enchanting or spells (…excluding the forced levitation areas). It’s not the only way to play so it’s fine if it’s the easiest.

      1. Ranneko says:

        I think the worry is if a system is too easy to exploit, if even basic interactions with it result in players finding a massively powerful exploit then it effectively becomes binary. Either you do alchemy and the game breaks over your knee, or you don’t and you maintain a reasonable difficulty level.

    2. CyberEagle says:

      Eeeeh. Oblivion gated the Spellmaking – literally.
      In Morrowind, sure, you can unleash godlike power – for all of the ten seconds it takes for your Uber spells to eat through your extremely limited Magicka-pool. What follows afterwards is either an abuse of Potions or of the Resting, and I’d call that an issue with the balance around those two, not around Custom Spells.

  2. Hector says:

    Saying something is hard to do right is not the same as saying it shouldn’t be done. There are many small ways to deal with Levitation, not the least of which is stick magical defenses into cities that turn off levitation nearby. (It’s a world of magic where wizards run market stalls and gods hand out blessings to whatever fool prays at the altar that day. Magic is not special, feared, or misunderstood here.) And in any case, this would affect perhaps three zones in the entire game.

    More to the point, it’s yet one more issue in the game, however minor on its own, that turns wizards from “people who study the mystic arts” towards “slightly different combat style”. If we’re going to reduce the games down to combat and ease of development, then they should make corridor brawlers and and stop with any of this other nonsense, like story, open worlds, and interesting abilities that don’t instantly translate into some fighting-related functionality. If they want to make big, open-world games with lots of interesting things to do and ways to play, then they should be stuffing interesting bits into the game. If it’s not perfectly balanced or causes some weird effects, so be it.

    1. Tizzy says:

      Agreed about the magic in general point. If we’re going to have magic being merely another way to pound your opponents into oblivion, rather than an avenue to explore creative solutions to problems, why bother?

      1. Felblood says:

        Well, if we’re going to have magic being merely another way to pound your opponents into oblivion, we could make the effort to make it, at least, as visually and aesthetically pleasing as melee combat.

        It’s not a morally incorrect thing to do, it’s simply not done very well in this instance.

        I’m not saying we need to create Elder Scroll Z: The Mage Monk Saga, or Scroll Fighter: Championship Edition, or Daedra May Cry, or Elder Scrolls: Magicka Unleashed, but it would be nice if magic felt more punchy and dynamic. While it would be nice if they found a system of mechanics that supported the tone of their world better, I would take any of those outcomes over the one that currently exists. The science of depicting magical attacks has moved forward, and the Elder Scrolls are visibly falling behind.

        1. Viktor says:

          It’s not like their sword-fights are significantly more interesting. I mean, I agree with you, but stealth, combat, and magic are all equally bland in Skyrim IMO. The problem is, there’s entire games focused purely on just one of those things. TES has to give attention to all 3, and do so in the context of a balanced leveling system while also developing a cohesive gameworld rather than Splinter Cell’s 10 buildings. I can see why Bethesda’s systems come off looking weak comparatively.

          So, fixes: First off, reintroduce utility magic. You can’t afford the animations or the balancing required to make magic as visceral as melee, so letting witches do things outside of combat is the only real way to make Fighters, Skillmonkeys, and Casters all feel different to play.
          While you’re at it, introduce more things for stealth builds to do, let them lure non-hostile NPCs to certain locations and set traps. Combine that with better ability to stealth through a dungeon without losing out on rewards and maybe a stealth build will feel different from a fighter who walks kind of slowly.
          Fighters, I don’t know. Those sort of fixes rely a LOT on their animation and playtesting budget, so I don’t have the context needed to make suggestions. Skyrim’s combat was “good enough”, a few incrimental improvements would likely make it “not bad”.

          1. Duoae says:

            You can argue that swordfighting is as bland as magic (I’d disagree though) but the main problem is that in Skyrim, magic didn’t scale well with level like the physical combat mechanics did.

            I didn’t play a pure magic character in Oblivion so I can’t really say how it was at later levels but in Skyrim, my magic felt increasingly less powerful – even with the special magic items in the game that gave super enhanced magicka recovery rate (which were otherwise uncraftable) and the only way to really make it better was to exploit the smithing/alchemy system in order to exploit the enchanting system. Which is a lot of work to make magic semi-viable in the mid- to late-game.

            If I was magically put in charge of magic in the next elder scrolls game I would make magic different from the physical combats by having it more of an asymmetrical feel. Plus, I would make it so each ‘hand’ could be used with different schools of magicka.

            Destruction I would make more direct and immediately powerful (making it scale better with enemies). For example, you still have your direct attacks such as bolts of fire which you could unleash many of quickly or hold down attack to charge up the power to the limit of your mana meter. Kind of a kamehameha attack style. Destruction could also be used off-hand for shielding against aggressive magics.

            I would also make it so that off-hand could be used as a crowd-control mechanic. E.g. teleportation, quicksand/vines to slow or stop aggressors, blindness, muteness, deafness, etc. for illusion and alteration magicks.

            Restoration could be as it is but with some more immediate benefits when used in the off-hand, such as a physical barrier to protect your character from physical attacks (drains mana as long as it is enabled).

            Conjuration is a difficult one to alter and I’d have to think a lot longer and harder about that school. It’s also the most uninteresting for me as a player character and I usually only ever used it to buy myself some time in a fight I couldn’t win by ordinary means. I understand that other players might really like having minions to do the fighting for them, though. The Necromancer in Diablo 2 was fun for this reason.

            In addition to this, I would make it so that as well as levelling up in each school and unlocking skills as currently exists in Skyrim, each spell would have a certain level of innate customisation built into it. For example, for the direct assault magics (fire bolt) the player could tune their spell to automatically draw more mana for the base shot (never as powerful as charging a spell) to do more damage or cause splash damage or build in homing-missle characteristics. These would be free and unlocked when the skill is and would represent the character’s ability to harness this magic.

        2. Cybron says:

          “Scroll Fighter: Championship Edition, or Daedra May Cry”
          I would play either of these way more than skyrim

  3. Gm says:

    I have played Arena,Oblivion and Skyrim and the sword fighting is quite similiar except well wasd vs mouse same effect just less graphics heh.

  4. Tyber says:

    I think the general case of the problem with levitation is that it closes off a significant area of design space. Once you include levitation you have to expect that any outdoor space can be accessed while bypassing any encounters along the way. This means can’t sensibly have any hidden valleys, ledges on mountainsides or wide open many levelled rooms in your dungeon (at least not if you adhere to anything resembling Skyrim’s experience-the-content-correctly design philosophy). Likewise any challenging encounter must have some counter to levitation. You could always include no-levitation zones for all of the above (Tribunal had some of these), but having them everywhere would probably feel pretty lame; few things are as disappointing as an awesome ability you can never use.

    1. WWWebb says:

      No reason to get complicated about it. Just make “Levitation” do what it does in D&D…only let you go straight up and down, not fly over walls. That way it works for scouting and getting out of melee range while raining death from above, but it doesn’t have a “travel” aspect.

      1. Viktor says:

        Maybe it’s different in the new editions, but that’s not at all how Levitation works in most gens. That’s what the whole fly speed is for.

        1. Phill says:

          Well 1st edition AD&D had two separate spells: levitation (2nd level magic user spell) and fly (3rd level magic user spell). Levitation was purely vertical movement at 20′ per round. Fly could go in any direction and its base speed was 60′ per round (although moving up was slower and down faster). It also had the bonus fun of a random duration known only to the DM, to five the player that exciting gambling sensation.

          1. Phill says:

            Actually fly might have been 120′ per round – it’s been a while. And I’ve no idea why my post turned up twice.

        2. Phill says:

          Well 1st edition AD&D had two separate spells: levitation (2nd level magic user spell) and fly (3rd level magic user spell). Levitation was purely vertical movement at 20′ per round. Fly could go in any direction and its base speed was 60′ per round (although moving up was slower and down faster). It also had the bonus fun of a random duration known only to the DM, to five the player that exciting gambling sensation.

        3. Joe Informatico says:

          Levitate only gives you a flying speed in 4th edition. For every other edition of D&D (and Pathfinder), it’s 20 ft/round of up or down movement only.

    2. IFS says:

      ” Once you include levitation you have to expect that any outdoor space can be accessed while bypassing any encounters along the way.”

      I’m not sure how this is fundamentally different from riding a horse up the wrong side of a mountain to skip the intended road. Except for the fact that levitation makes way more sense than mountain climbing horses.

      Besides if anything levitation opens up design space as much as it closes it, suddenly you can have hidden ledges or paths accessible by such magic (morrowind did this a fair amount), levitation allows you to add more flying enemies to the game as players now have a more ways to reach them. Magic items (scrolls for example, though Morrowind due to its items working differently could have things like boots or robes able to cast levitate on you) can grant levitation as well as spells so more mundane character builds can take advantage of this.

      As for any encounter requiring a counter to levitation I think that is an overstatement, no one is going to complain that their high level character can beat wolves and bears for example, part of the fun of magic is that you are playing outside the rules and things not being able to hurt you because you are a flying wizard feeds into that power fantasy. For encounters where you do want to be sure they aren’t trivialized by flight there are a number of options, ranging from giving enemies a ranged option, preventing flight (enemies can dispel magic, or the zone doesn’t allow levitation) or giving the enemies the ability to levitate themselves.

      No levitation zones are one thing that would have to be used with care, they are an obvious solution to levitation breaking city zones (and possibly some encounters) but need to both be used sparingly and give some warning as to when they’re coming up (so you don’t suddenly fall to your death as you approach city limits).

      All that said I agree that it would require a fundamentally different design philosophy than what Bethesda showed in Skyrim, but it could be done and quite well at that. It’s just a pity that modern Bethesda probably has no interest in bringing back such a cool feature.

      1. Xeorm says:

        Running a horse up the side of a mountain to take advantage of glitchy pathing is…glitchy. It’s something the developer clearly didn’t intend for, and feels like it to the player. Comparably, levitation isn’t supposed to feel like you’re glitching the system. It’s supposed to be there, and should be cared for as an option for the player at all times, else why include it?

        Which is where problems to deal with levitation come in. Sure you can make the town unable to be levitated into, but you also run into problems of perspective. Specifically, because you have less control over what the player can see and do, you run into problems whenever you need to cut corners in order for your game to run. It’s one of those topics where people don’t seem to realize how many magician’s tricks a typical game will use in order to function properly, until you point them out or break them in some way.

        Levitation would be great, but at the same time. I never saw the point of it, if all the talks tend to devolve into “Here’s how to limit it so it doesn’t break the game”. There’d be a lot of work to put it in, only for all the cool parts to be arbitrarily nipped in the bud. Where’s the fun in that?

      2. Incunabulum says:

        “Besides if anything levitation opens up design space as much as it closes it, suddenly you can have hidden ledges or paths accessible by such magic ”

        Even FO4 does it. There’s plenty of places and stuff that you can only access if you’re using the jetpack.

        Of course, with Bethesda’s ‘player’s can’t be allowed to make any choice that would close off any important part of the content’ ethos, none of those places are of any *importance*. Just some spots to grab some (already over-common) loot.

        1. DjordjBernardChaw says:

          I think that’s more a problem with how the jetpack is distributed. If there were more ways to fly, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue to put loot in flying-only areas.

          Morrowind’s handling of flying-only loot was decent. A lot of it was fairly mundane, but it still felt decent to find. Levitation potions were easy to come by, acrobatics let you do crazy things, and mages had several approaches to getting up high.

      3. Duoae says:

        I think it would be pretty simple to make levitation cost a single amount to put the player 6 feet into the air (out of melee range) but no continuous drain on mana but have it cost a whole load of continuously draining mana to actually fly around meaning that you’d have to break/exploit the game in order to actually use it for more than 3-4 seconds – which would stop players from getting over high or distant obstacles and reduce the design complexities.

        It’s not complicated and it is easily explainable through game-world rules.

        Plus, once you have this sort of levitation back in the game, spellcasters could use it as an offensive power by levitating melee enemies as part of the crowd control measures I outlined above.

    3. Fizban says:

      As before, anything that’s actually important can still be blocked. Back doors for exiting dungeons are barred from the inside because duh, stuff like Meridia’s temple can have anti-levitate wards same as the zoned cities, and obviously normal caves don’t need to be warded because they’re not important and circumventing them is the whole point.

      The strongest argument I could think of would be “but the loot, wah they can’t loot that chest I put on the ledge without doing the dungeon!” Except the loot in Skyrim kinda sucks and a few free chests hardly matters, just a few more rolls on the blah table.

      1. Incunabulum says:

        Except if you add all that stuff in then you make the inclusion of levitation pointless. So why bother to include it in the first place.

        Its like an instant death spell that will kill *anything* in one go – and then all the bosses are immune to it. And nothing else is strong enough to make it worth using on them.

        Why have a mechanic if the only places you can use it are the only places you don’t ever feel the need to.

    4. Tizzy says:

      You can keep your most challenging encounters indoors. As for the outdoors, Skyrim could be amazingly frustrating when trying to get from point A to point B if the canonical path happened to start on the other side of the mountain without you knowing. You could still wall off some special areas, with anti-magic as some people already suggested, but also with weather or other hazards (tons of archers come to mind).

    5. Gale says:

      I feel like Fallout 4 kind of proves that none of these problems are insurmountable? Or at least, it shows that Bethesda is demonstrably willing to accept and accomodate whatever complications are introduced by letting the player fly around a little. Really, after F4’s jetpack, it’s going to be kind of weird if the next Elder Scrolls game doesn’t include a spell or ability that does essentially the same thing, especially when these games are already steering so far away from “deep and complex encounters and map design” and closer towards “player-centric power trip ASAP”.

  5. WWWebb says:

    Kingdoms of Amalur had plenty of problems, but damn if the combat wasn’t super fun. Each weapon type had completely different range, animations, and play styles. The various weapon effects (elemental damage) actually played differently. The magic was fun.

    All in all, except for some of the lore that couldn’t keep its head out of its butt, it was a better Elder Scrolls game than Skyrim. It’s just too bad it came out 3 months AFTER Skyrim.

    1. Incunabulum says:

      Well that and the shitty console FOV and camera positioned to look at the ground directly in front of your feet that makes it unplayable on PC.

      The above *may* have been fixed in the last couple of years though.

      1. Trix2000 says:

        I didn’t have any issues playing it on PC, so I’m not sure what you’re referring to… and pretty sure I picked it up close to/at launch, unlike most titles for me.

        That’s not to say there weren’t occasionally camera issues, but I don’t recall them being significant enough to comment on.

      2. 4th Dimension says:

        Just like Trix, I never experienced any FOV trouble with KoA. Also I don’t remember TB raging at the low FoV in his WTF and you know he would.

        My main problem with it is that it was simply too big and MMO-e. If they reduced their zones in half and reduced the distance between quests it would have been one of my favorite games. But as it is I finished about 50% of it, and am not in a hurry to finish it.

    2. Christopher says:

      It’s not the same at all. You could not jump, neither up places or down unmarked edges off cliffs. You were limited to large areas connected with small pathways rather than a huge open world. So while the combat is much more fun, the joy of walking around and exploring was nowhere in that game for me.

  6. Da Mage says:

    BATTLESPIRE? Yes-yes-yes-yes-yes-yes. I really liked the theme of survival RPG they went with in that game.

  7. Gethsemani says:

    Levitation has no place in modern Bethesda games design-wise. The technical issues Rutskarn points out are one major part of the problem, but in modern Beth-games the problem is more likely to be that Levitation will either be all kinds of broken and way-too-useful or end up being a flashy spell with no application beyond being flashy because it won’t have any meaningful impact on how you interact with the game world short of giving you a few shortcuts over ridges (which is pointless in a world full of fast travel).

    Let us look at why this is problematic:
    In this design levitation allows you to get places where others can’t go, it let’s you mess around with encounters by using the third dimension in a way that the non-casters can’t and allows you to bypass overworld encounters and content at will. The major problem is that it might break all manners of exploring, quests and other forms of open world content. Every open world location needs to look interesting from the air or the levitation user might miss it or not care for it. Every encounter needs to be designed with the expectation that the player might swoop in from the air or will levitate to a ledge, chandelier, cross beam or any other unreachable location in the encounter area. All melee enemies will be chanceless in encounters that don’t take place in narrow corridors. On top of that you have to assume that a player might not have access to levitate, so you have to design all locations, encounters or quests to be solvable and fun both with and without levitate. In essence, the inclusion of levitate requires a massive design revision of pretty much all content just to facilitate the meaningful use of levitate. In doing so you also run the risk of making other play styles less appealing or feeling as if they are missing out on the really cool thing. But in not designing around levitate or curtailing it by designing encounters and areas that negate it (such as narrow corridors or “no levitate zones”) you run the risk of making levitate feel gimmicky and pointless, because it has no application in areas where you’d want or expect it to.

    Simply put: By not including levitate Bethesda are saving themselves a lot of extra work that would result in very marginal gains in terms of game play.

    1. Duoae says:

      You might want to read my suggestions above? I think they address all these issues. We’re not talking about including levitation as it was in Morrowind any more than we are talking about physical combat as it was in that game.

      We don’t need to be bogged down with the past, we can reshape mechanics to actually fit today’s games. :)

      1. Gethsemani says:

        It still maintains all the problems of combat design though. Every combat encounter has to be designed around the premise that the player will be able to completely avoid melee enemies, which adds a lot of extra design burden (and removes many potentially interesting scenarios because the player might just levitate away from a mob of zombies or a Barbarian Champion or any other cool melee-focused scenario).

        As for the idea of making flight cost a load of mana, that’d be the first thing people would exploit around. Whatever it is by abusing alchemy to make a few hundred mana and mana regen potions or by getting enchanted gear that reduces mana cost or any other way you could possibly think of to mitigate mana drain. The idea could work, but it would also require all design of mana restoration and regeneration effects to be designed around the potential for breaking levitate and having players sequence break with it. Most likely it would come with a lot fewer ways to regenerate or restore mana to compensate.

        That is the gist of my contention with levitate. It is an effect that has an undue impact on the design of the game, because everything has to be designed around the player having the ability to fly. From combat balancing and encounter design to overworld design (to prevent sequence breaking or the player going out of bounds) to dungeon design to quest design to the balancing of mana regeneration and restoration. All this just so that 1/3rd of players (probably less, since fighters are much more popular then mages) can have access to one particular spell.

        1. Duoae says:

          I can understand where you’re coming from. However, I think the idea should be given a chance before just being summarily dismissed. First of all, I’m not even sure I agree with your very negative impression of how is implementation would knock onto other systems.

          (If you can’t get away from fights due to lack of mana you aren’t going to avoid them. You could also make most encounters have a range of melee and ranged classes rather than spamming 10 draughs at the player! It might even make fights interesting! You’d also probably have to be pretty high level to exploit the then thing even with skyrim’s systems as currently implemented so I don’t really see a problem with that because a high level player is basically god anyway).

          Secondly, who says that rebalancing the mana system wouldn’t result in something better? To be honest, the whole magical system could do with an overhaul!

          It’s the worst thing to discount something because of being afraid…

  8. Noumenon72 says:

    All of these convincing arguments why levitation can’t be in a game just make me really thankful and amazed that Morrowind did it anyway and I got to enjoy it. I rarely touched the ground in that game. I lived in an apartment by the shrine that gives you hours’ worth and teleported a lot. There were also amulets and potions you could use, so not restricted to fighters.

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