Game Zones, Balance and You: a Case Study of Borderlands 3
Gearbox’s Borderlands 3 has finally arrived… a full decade after Borderlands 2.
With 2014’s ‘Pre-sequel’ we were treated to more Borderlands, but not necessarily a full-fledged sequel. Some might argue that ‘3’ is still ‘just more Borderlands’ (and they wouldn’t be wrong), but improvements both visual and gameplay, have made the newest iteration a smashing success with already over 5 million copies sold.
One design element that hasn’t changed is how player level values relate to game zones.
With this latest iteration, Gearbox has decided to set each zone of the game and quest with a ‘level value’ (e.g. Level 5). This level is ‘soft’; it does scale a few levels above and below the level value set in the quest when killing enemies within that quest area, but it doesn’t go up forever.
This design has strengths – it provides a clear way for players to understand if they are in the ‘correct’ area for their level, where challenge should be appropriate. It also gives a deeper meaning to each area in the game. Visiting new areas, and experiencing their greater challenges, aesthetic qualities and potential story ramifications, provides players with feelings of progression and provides value for ‘time sunk’, but also engages through mastery elements (new skills, weapons, etc.)
This design can also have weaknesses. When the player has surpassed the top end for a certain quest, it provides unneeded item rewards. Borderlands 3 also combines this with a large fractional reduction of XP when fighting against enemies that are more than a few levels below your current level. This can make playing in the ‘wrong’ area incredibly time inefficient.
Where this design really falters however, is through cooperative play. When players in a party are all within a limited level range (~3-5), the system works as intended. Nobody is outside the enemy range, so nobody is left out. When one player is not within this range however, the issues become evident.
Since we can’t assume players play through their entire time with the game with others, we can assume there is always some level, and quest progression, inequality. Because of the XP reduction decision, it de-incentivizes playing through optional side quests that you, or your friends, may be too high level for.
For a game that does cooperative play so well (quick view of friends online and what quest they are working on, very easy to actually join friends game, solid UI feedback in and out of games, etc) this seems like a decision that is at odds with their vision.
Why don’t more games adopt a ‘we’ll give you rewards based on where you are at’ philosophy? It seems to have serious advantages: Difficulty could be more controlled and provide a greater means to deliver the player into a state of flow. They could always be fed incremental improvements to strengthen their attachment loop to the game. ‘Balance’ seems easier to control.
Why do so many games still subscribe to the Borderlands formula rather than a more ‘tailored’ approach? Surprise plays a key role in feeding the drive to want to play more and ‘get that next great weapon’. Knowing what’s coming next puts a tax on player immersion. Players won’t be surprised by a steady, controlled stream of +2% weapons, even if their character is getting better. ‘Sameness’ is always your enemy. You need a surprise element. In this type of game, that often means a big power increase.
Providing big power increases are a strong way to keep players engaged into the next zone, but they can sometimes become like a sugar rush: they quickly wear off and another must be provided in their place. Also, at some point the power increases will be too much for your mechanics, balancing and content offering: you won’t be able to keep up a quick enough pace.
What philosophy should be followed?
It obviously depends on your game vision, but neither of these approaches should be ignored when designing a game’s itemization rules. How a game blends these 2 disparate philosophies has a large impact on how a game’s item engagement is viewed, because so much of what makes this fun is the way rewards are balanced for surprise and consistency.