Fear the mud crab.
Calibrating the difficulty of an open world game is hard. Most games present a wide variety of scenarios and, unlike linear games, open world developers can’t decide the order the player faces them. The one thing the developers have going for them is the consistency of player power. Most open world protagonists have a narrow band of strength that the player can either drop to or achieve. Developers need only target that band to ensure the player can beat the level…unless it’s an open world RPG. Including RPG elements add player input into the protagonist’s abilities thereby widening the power band considerably and making difficulty setting much more… well, difficult. The premiere open world RPG maker, Bethesda Softworks, and the premiere open world RPG series, the Elder Scrolls, is instructive to understanding this problem.
Morrowind takes the simplest approach to difficulty by keeping it static throughout the game. The attributes of monsters stay the same, regardless of the player’s achievements. This creates de facto limitations on the open world by forcing players toward content they can beat and preventing them from going places where they lack the skills to overcome. It also creates a very real sense of achievement, provided the player is willing to power through the opening slog. Enemies that were powerful in the beginning become progressively less so as the player increases their skills. The player has a clear sense of their power relative to the world and it’s hard to deny the feeling of success when they finally beat X creature that was so difficult in the early game. Once the player levels beyond the most powerful creatures, the game becomes easy and the challenge is gone. Morrowind takes a brute force approach to difficulty which increases the sense of achievement, but at the cost of approachability.
Responding to criticisms of Morrowind’s static difficulty, Bethesda Softworks added variable difficulty to its successor, Oblivion. Every ten skill levels, the player gained a character level which provided bonuses based on the skill levels used to achieve the player level. Monsters and gear in Oblivion scale based on the character level which should provide a consistent challenge across the game. In theory, this dispenses with Morrowind’s punishingly difficult zones by ensuring each monster is within reach of the player. Unfortunately, that’s not how the idea worked in practice and it’s questionable whether the goal was worth achieving in the first place. Character levels (and, therefore, monster levels) increased without regard to the player’s lethality. The character level could increase five times without the player boosting their combat skills. This means that combat difficulty is tied to a system that could, potentially, not reflect combat ability. If they player spends a couple of levels working on their sparkling personality, they face a significant combat difficulty spike without the means to deal with it. Alternatively, if they focused exclusively on kill power, fights become laughably easy and the vaunted difficulty scaling fails to achieve one of its major goals. The game does have a difficulty slider, but having to constantly adjust it breaks immersion.
One of the major issues with the Oblivion method is that its fundamental goal is questionable. The static approach to difficulty, while brutal, provides a very real sense of achievement. The player knows they’re getting stronger because they can defeat monsters they couldn’t before. If Oblivion had achieved its aim of consistent difficulty, the player would never have that feeling because their opponents would always provide a similar challenge. As it stands, the character leveling ensures that monster challenge feels arbitrary by the constantly changing the difficulty based on player choices. It’s hard to feel accomplished by beating a giant when the player knows they could have leveled differently (or avoided leveling all together) and drastically changed the achievement.
For Skyrim, Bethesda Softworks found an interesting solution by combining the two methods. Skyrim merges the world leveling of Oblivion, but restricts those levels within region set bands. Monsters level up with the player, but areas have minimum and maximum difficulty levels that restrict monster growth and decline. A giant in one region will never go below level X(let’s use 15 as an example) meaning that a level 1 player will likely die if they fight it. It remains at level 15 until the player surpasses level 15 and the starts leveling with the player until it hits its region’s level cap. Rather than difficulty scaling, Skyrim difficulty smooths. The goal isn’t to provide a consistent level of challenge, but rather to ensure regions exist at the player’s level while still providing monsters for the player to measure their power against. Furthermore, Skyrim’s method ensures that the game’s challenge will remain for the duration of a region thereby minimizing the times a quest is either too easy or hard. Skyrim provides both Morrowind’s sense of achievement and Oblivion’s (attempted) difficulty consistently. It’s the best of both worlds.