The Balancing Act: Revisited

Spoiler Warning: This essay is going to contain some basic spoilers for Elden Ring. I will generally not be revealing massive plot points or things like that, but to make the essay a little more grounded I’ll be describing various basic events, battles, and mechanics in a way that requires naming those things.

A while back I did an essay on balancing in video games: how do you determine how strong an enemy should be, given the relative strength of the player character? The basic thesis then was about proper communication – a game’s systems should clearly tell the player in some way what is expected of them when they are facing an enemy, so that the player can adjust accordingly.

I wanted to revisit this topic in light of my experience with Elden Ring. I have a small handful of gripes with the game, but this is the one that sticks out the most.

To begin, let me note two things.

Firstly, that balancing is a major struggle for open world games more generally. Insofar as any developer is walking a tightrope between trying to make sure the game isn’t too easy or too hard, while at the same time allowing for the player to become stronger (and thus needing to make the enemies stronger too)…the number of variables in play is complex. Add to that the interaction of those variables – skills and equipment and tactics all blend together to create strategies that can absolutely dominate. And so a lot of open world games often run into a problem: by the middle of the game the player is insanely overpowered and combat is trivialized. There are similar ways to break the various FromSoftware games, Elden Ring included, and these are problems that don’t really have good solutions, or perhaps even solutions at all.

Secondly, this is something I was skeptical about when hearing about the announcement of a FromSoft open world game. Because the more control a developer has over a player’s progression, the easier it is to plan these things out. But that kind of planning is fundamentally at odds with the freedom granted to the player in an open world experience. So the standard rules of progression in a slightly more constrained environment were going to have to be re-examined, and it was an important question whether FromSoft would be able to make the shift.

I am not going to say that FromSoft has failed, but I don’t want to quite call it a success, either. There are good and bad elements to the whole thing, and it is useful to step back and examine these problems.

So this will be one of the rare times when I actually focus on and talk about a specific game, rather than merely using that game as a springboard to talk about general principles. I’ll actually try to connect these ideas more directly to Elden Ring’s gameplay.

The Setup

Before diving too deep, it’s useful to step back and remark upon some important design aspects of Elden Ring.

Namely, you’re going to die a lot, and you should expect that.

There are several ways to deal with balancing issues in video games, and one such philosophy is to make enemies a certain predetermined strength, and allow players to either bang their head against the wall, or come back and face the enemy later. That philosophy has always been the guiding light for FromSoft’s development since Demon’s Souls.

Elden Ring maintains this approach, and pretty clearly tries to teach you that you will die a lot. And in doing so, has another message: you should go out and explore the world.

How does it accomplish this?

On the first part – “you’re going to die a lot” – the game throws a boss enemy at you at the very beginning. One that is incredibly aggressive, and which hits hard. While it’s possible to win, the likelihood that you’ll defeat the boss is…slim. And you’re expected to die there (even if you win, there is a trap designed to kill you soon after).

Okay, so then by dying you are moved to a new area, which contains a tutorial (note that the game hasn’t taught you to play before throwing you at its first enemy…because you aren’t supposed to win). Once you complete the tutorial (or skip it entirely), you come out to a small plateau overlooking a clearing. And in that clearing? A big guy on a big horse. This big guy is named the Tree Sentinel, which you’ll likely find out shortly as you walk up to him and a big boss health bar shows up.

So the very first “real” enemy that the game throws at you is a boss.

And this boss is tough.

Again, it’s possible to beat the boss. But the game doesn’t necessarily expect you to beat the boss. The Tree Sentinel is actually designed to be too strong for you. Why? Because FromSoft has built a big world for you to explore, and if you can just rush from story beat to story beat, then you don’t have much incentive to explore that world. So instead, the game is telling you “this enemy is too strong…maybe you should explore so you can become stronger, and then come back to kill him.”

And of course, since the game is an open world, you can just run right past or around this boss.

But let’s say you decide to follow a straight path to the next story objective. After all, the game has save points (called “Sites of Grace”) that point in the direction you need to go next. So if you follow those arrows, you’ll eventually arrive at the first major boss of the game: Margit the Fell Omen. Margit is tough, and if you’re just running from Grace to Grace, then you likely won’t be doing much damage to him.

And again, there’s a point to this: go explore and come back later.

So I mention this setup because this is how Elden Ring teaches you how to play the game. Are you facing something that seems “too strong”? Then it would probably be a good idea to go exploring so you can gain some levels, find better equipment, upgrade your weapons, and then come back and fight.

The Problem

So this basic framing is good. Admittedly, not every player may get the message – that is the ultimate shortcoming of any kind of tutorialization that is not explicit. And some players may not enjoy that process – which is fine.

But how does this process work outside of those key teaching moments?

Well, here’s where Elden Ring is going to run into two problems.

The “Internal” Problem

Elden Ring is split up into regions, with each region having different enemies, dungeons, stuff to explore, bosses, and so on. Each region is fairly large and expansive – though the starting regions are much more dense than the later regions.

And each region is mostly scaled to itself. Enemies don’t generally get stronger as you get stronger within the region. In the beginning region of Limgrave, you’ll encounter various really strong enemies (trolls and runebears are the most obvious examples), but these enemies will hit just as hard when you’re level 100 as when you’re level 10 – the key difference being that you can take the hit much more easily at level 100. Likewise, smaller enemies like bats and soldiers will be the same.

This becomes a slight issue because as you explore and keep running into these enemies, they’ll get easier and easier. So a soldier that you would encounter a few minutes into your exploration of Limgrave will be just as strong as another soldier much further out in Limgrave. It’s not until you cross the line into a different region that enemies become stronger.

This turns into an issue because as you keep exploring an area, you start to become a bit too strong for that area. Bosses and traps can still give you trouble – as can the really powerful enemies. But it starts to become less and less worth it to engage with the little stuff that you see in the game. As you start out, stopping to fight soldiers might be a good way to get experience and items. But as you get stronger – even though you’re still exploring the same region – dealing with them feels like a waste of time.

Now this is only a minor issue, and one that doesn’t necessarily ruin the game’s feeling. But it does serve as a way of better understanding the shift between regions.

The “External” Problem

So while within a region enemies are generally scaled pretty similarly, across regions enemies are more and less powerful. Often part of the world design is that different regions have different enemies. Sometimes “different” may mean that in Limgrave you are dealing with soldiers who behave in X manner and wear Y armor, while in the second major area – Liurnia – you are dealing with soldiers who behave in B way and wear C armor. But you are just as likely to run into brand new enemies as well, and so this is about more than enemies with different colorings.

The obvious idea behind the progression of the game is that once you go to a new area the enemies get stronger, because to get to that new area you have to overcome certain obstacles. The exact obstacles may differ. For example, connected to Limgrave (your starting region) are two other regions. To the northwest is Liurnia, which is the next “progression zone” and which requires you to beat two major bosses to access. To the east is Caelid, which is more freely available to you as a player…and is also way harder. Caelid is a sort of mid-to-late-game zone that you can just casually run into as you’re running around. It’s an amazing experience, because if you are really dedicated you can get plenty of resources to make yourself strong early. But it’s not a zone meant for newer players – more those who are experts, or are really patient.

However, the relative jumps between regions do cause a slight problem, because the player is sent backwards in power with each new zone. All you really have to rely on is your improved skill, whereas all of your stats and equipment are roughly now as weak as they used to be when you were starting out. Enemies hit harder, have more health, and so on.

The purpose, of course, is to retain the challenge. But in doing so, we leave with the player with a conundrum: when are you ready for the next zone?

This goes back to the thesis I put forth in my previous essay on balancing: games need a good way to communicate to you as the player when you are “ready” for the next challenge. A way of telling you “here is where you should be in terms of relative power compared to the enemies/bosses in the zone.” Ultimately, you want to allow players the ability to be both weaker and stronger than that expectation – a good game would allow sufficiently skilled players who are below the expected power level to win, and should also allow players to grind if they feel they aren’t skilled enough and need to make their characters just a bit more powerful.

And the problem is that Elden Ring doesn’t exactly have a good way to communicate this stuff. Certain bosses do it well – if you’re not doing much damage to a boss, then it probably means that you need to upgrade your weapon or go exploring. But how much exploring and upgrading and leveling is “enough”? That question is up in the air. Not in the sense that it’s entirely up to the player, but that even what the game expects feels nebulous.

I raise this internal/external distinction about balancing because they dovetail. At a certain point, there’s no more exploration to be done in a region, and you need to move on to another one…but what if the player isn’t ready for that new region? Maybe the player has been dying a lot and losing their runes (the experience needed to level up), which leaves them fundamentally weaker than a more skilled player. What are they supposed to do? Of course, from an outside perspective, the answer might be obvious: you might want to practice, or change up your playstyle, or grind out levels. But for the player themself, how do they figure this out?

The ”Boss” Problem

Bosses have always been one of the high points of the FromSoft games since the advent of the various Souls games. The design, the movesets, the challenges, the gimmicks. They all consolidate into one massive hurdle that tests the player’s skill and understanding of the game, while providing massive rewards in experience, progression, and satisfaction.

Of course, key to this whole thing is that the bosses need to be tough. They need to have a lot of health and defense so that players can’t just destroy them with a single hit. They need to hit hard so that players need to develop the skills of dodging and blocking and finding openings. They need to have movesets that are unique and varied so that players can’t exploit very obvious and easy patterns.

And generally bosses get harder as you progress through the game. They have more health, they do more damage, their moves come out more quickly so that you have less time to dodge, etc.

Now I raise this point of discussion because there winds up being a slight issue as you get later into the game – since you need to make bosses harder and harder, and most of the basic tools you have to work with are limited, at a certain point the solution is “just make them do more and more damage.”

Once you hit the late game, bosses can take massive chunks of your lifebar. To the point that even properly leveled characters might be taken out with one or two hits from the right attack. On average, you might be looking at being able to take 3-5 hits. And since these bosses hit quickly and frequently, you might even get stunlocked – taking Hit #1 means that you’ll wind up taking Hit #2, which means you’ll wind up taking Hit #3, and then you’re dead.

This creates a problem where fights tend to be centered around a small number of solutions. Wielding a gigantic weapon is tough, because while it will hit hard, it’s slow, and you’re likely to take a hit while you swing or just after you swing. So there’s a tendency toward faster weapons. Or towards spells, which take a moment to charge up, but which can be used at much safer distances. While it’s not necessarily the case that using other strategies is impossible, the game pushes in very particular directions, in a way that a player who is using a particular playstyle A) because it was effective in every other context so far, or B) because they wanted to use something different,[1] will find themselves struggling.

Now on its own, these tough fights would be fine. But we then need to understand this toughness in conjunction with what the game has been teaching you to do. If you encounter a boss that is really tough, what are you supposed to do? Go out and explore so you can become stronger. But once you hit the late game, either A) you’ve already explored everything in the world, or B) the stuff that’s left won’t help you get much stronger.

So the player who is struggling is left with a significant degree of uncertainty. Are they underpowered, and that’s why they’re taking so much damage? Or are they simply supposed to “git gud”?

Concluding Remarks

While I’ve been critical of Elden Ring here, the problems I’m pointing out are really tough to figure out. Especially so when you’re dealing with an open world game, because you have to then take into account the freedom you’re trying to give the player.

And there’s not really a good way to solve some of these problems. Because some of the possible solutions, like having enemies literally become stronger as the player levels up (we might think about enemy scaling in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion), can rob the game of certain experiences.

But the only thing I can really come back to is communication. How effectively a game communicates to its player where it expects them to be – how many times should you have upgraded your weapon, what level should you be, what kind of equipment should you be using, how comfortable should you be with the mechanics – should be seen as the core for how to get balancing right. Not that a game can’t be poorly balanced but have good communication. But if a player feels they understand what is being expected of them, they can more easily avoid the times of intense frustration where they aren’t sure what they’re even supposed to be doing.

[1] I give the example of the gigantic weapon from my own experience. On my first playthrough of the game I used a dual-weapon setup based around katanas. Which was a style that was generally favored against most of the bosses, especially the late-game bosses: you can dodge, get a hit in, dodge, get a hit in, and so on. Low recovery time means fewer hits.

On my second playthrough I decided to switch to a big weapon and a shield. It was incredibly powerful for much of the game, but later on bosses started having very few openings for attacks – an attack might leave them vulnerable for one second, but I would need 1.5 seconds to get my attack out (compared to, let’s say, 0.75 seconds with the quicker weapons). So bosses that I was able to take out fairly quickly my first time through became significantly harder.

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