The Player in Oblivion

Many game designers are so enamored with their game that they neglect the player.

I’ve been sick for the past week or two, so I’ve been getting very little done and pursuing rather escapist past-times. One of the unhealthier things I’ve done is play a lot of Bethesda Game Studios’ Oblivion. A whole lot of it. Steam says I’ve put in 39.3 hours, and I’ve only been playing for four or five days.

It’s an escapist game that appeals to my urges for exploration, completion, and optimization, even if I feel the need to patch the hell out of it. I’ve got 39 mods installed for it, all graphical upgrades, bug fixes, or interface tweaks. People no longer look like corpses and most of the bugs are fixed, making the game quite playable.

As much as I clearly enjoy the game, it suffers from a fatal flaw: the developers sacrificed user experience in their pursuit of their game system. Oblivion has an elaborate, interesting setting and backstory, an impressively large and detailed world, and a complex set of mechanics. But it’s all a lot less fun than it should be.

This could be an extensive laundry list of issues, but I’ll try to just discuss a few of the major problems.

  1. Skills and leveling make little sense. At character creation, you choose seven major skills out of 21. As you use each skill, it gains experience that is tracked nearly invisibly. When a skill reaches a certain experience value, it increases by a skill point. Major skills increase faster. When you reach ten increases of your major skills, you level up (a skill can increase multiple times and count multiple times). When you level up, you may increase three of your eight attributes; the amount of this increase depends on how many times you had an increase in an associated skill (major or minor), which means that an attribute can increase by anywhere from +1 to +5. It is possible to optimize your skill gains to ensure three +5s per level, but it is incredibly annoying to do so (since using a skill increases it). One of my mods just sets all attribute raises to +5.

    Skills themselves are wonky. Security, the lockpicking skill, increases very slowly and is dependent on a tricky reflex-based minigame anyway. Alchemy increases dizzyingly fast, since you can and will raise it by repeatedly making Restore Fatigue potions out of random food ingredients (pumpkins and rice! strawberries and corn! rat meat and a bundt cake!). Athletics increases at the same rate for every character, since it goes up by not walking. Speechcraft is virtually useless, since the persuasion minigame is pants and Charm spells are a dime a dozen.

    The developers have constructed this elaborate system of mechanics that doesn’t make sense, is too complicated, and isn’t fun.

  2. The world levels with you. No matter how strong you get, you always run into enemies that are a challenge… and a pretty decent one, at that. A dungeon that contained Brittle Clumsy Skeletons at level 1 will have Skeletal Bone Gods in it if you return at level 20. I have to drop the difficulty slider a few ticks in order to avoid constantly struggling. That fireball spell that was too costly in mana at level 2 will be too weak to be useful by the time you can reliably cast it at level 10. There’s rarely a feeling that you’ve grown in level. To make things worse, the wonky leveling system means that if you suboptimize your attributes, the game actually becomes harder as you level, because your enemies are getting stronger faster than you are!

    The developers wanted to make sure the player couldn’t ruin their experience by running into too powerful an enemy or by overleveling and defeating it too easily… so they eliminated most of the sense of progression.

  3. The game is realistic or unrealistic at random. Traveling takes forever, and you get attacked by annoying bandits and wildlife along the way. Of course, you can fast travel to save time, but the game is inconsistent about whether you need to have visited a location before you can fast travel there. However, no quest is time-dependent; you can leave a kidnap victim at a backwoods village for months without changing her status at all. The paranoid schizophrenic will dutifully wait for you every night at midnight behind the chapel for months.

    NPCs have elaborate schedules, where they go to sleep, work, eat, and party. Shops are closed at night, forcing you to wait until morning to sell stuff or progress in a quest. With all of that, the player is never required to eat or sleep for health reasons, and there are few (if any) toilets in the world. There are no children in the entire world. Most NPCs have their own houses, but guild members will go to sleep in a random bed at the guildhouse each night. Leveling requires at least an hour of rest in a bed. You may get this rest in the middle of a flooded, haunted dungeon as long as there’s a bedroll laid out, but you may not sleep on a warm pile of hay in a barn. You cannot carry a bedroll with you.

    You can buy houses, and upgrade them with bookshelves. There are hundreds of readable books in the world, many of which give interesting insight into the setting. Some rare books come in sets, encouraging you to collect them all to read the whole sequence. However, you cannot place books on bookshelves in any organized manner, and if you try and remove the 12 copies of the Mages Guild Charter that came with the house, they magically come back 72 in-game hours later, superimposed on your carefully-scattered pile of valuable first editions.

    The developers had a bunch of interesting simulation techniques, but didn’t put them together in a way to make them work for the player.

Most of these were problems with Oblivion’s predecessor Morrowind as well. Leveled monsters, the bizarre advancement system, and proper book storage all received criticism for the previous game and fan-made mods to patch the holes, but Bethesda didn’t fix them in Oblivion. When making an enormously complex and detailed game, it can be tempting to run with a design without thinking about how the player will react. This is what happened to an extent with Oblivion, I think; the developers combined too many ideas with too little thought or polish.

Notably, there are several early quests that seem designed to show off uninteresting technology. Several require you to follow a character on her daily routine, as if to say, “Look! She eats! She sleeps! She’d poop, if we didn’t think that’d be puerile!” A few ask you to meet a character at a certain place and time, as if to say “The world changes! Look!” without acknowledging that the NPC will wait there every day at that time, forever. The developers were pleased with their own achievements, and rightfully so; but they don’t really fit together cohesively.

Much like this post, actually. I feel like I’ve just rambled and ranted for a few pages. I don’t have much of a conclusion, except to beg you. When you make a game, think of the player’s actual experience playing it. That’s the most important thing about a game. Without a reader, a book just takes up space.

Let me know of your Oblivion experiences in the comments.

26 thoughts on “The Player in Oblivion

  1. If I write about Oblivion, it’s more likely to be an essay – but I might give it a shot tomorrow.

    I *like* reading you ramble.

  2. oblivion suxxx

    The base game, I mean. My biggest complaints:

    1. Your ability to do damage never really increases (because enemy armor keeps pace with your new weapons), but enemy HP also increases dramatically as you get to the later levels. This leads to annoyingly long fights if you make the mistake of leveling up too much. It’s a backwards-progression, you eventually become weaker comparatively than when you were level 1.

    2. A lot of the content seems meager. Fighter’s Guild is horrible. Mage’s Guild is pretty bland. Main Quest is forgettable, really. The best parts of the game were Thieves’ Guild and Dark Brotherhood.

    3. Amusingly high ratio of mods that pretty up the player’s appearance rather than gameplay tweaks or the appearance of, say, NPC characters that you see constantly. 100 player armor mods with pointy nipples versus every 1 mod that makes the NPCs look like they haven’t been dead at the bottom of a river for a week. Even more baffling is that it’s a primarily first person game. You barely see yourself unless you’re just walking around slowly, which is all the third person camera is much good for.

    1. Just had to chime in: “100 player armor mods with pointy nipples versus every 1 mod that makes the NPCs look like they haven’t been dead at the bottom of a river for a week.” That’s hilarious, and a great description of the creepy faces.

    2. I find the quest content just fine; I like how the Mages Guild line makes you think “man, this guild is poorly run!” and then you find out that the higher-ups at HQ agree with you. The main quest is all right, although it does suffer from the “SAVE THE WORLD ASAP but it’s okay if you take a month off to collect nirnroot” problem.

      1. The game’s funny in that you’ll have a wildly different experience depending on WHEN you do certain questlines. The main questline is more enjoyable if you do it immediately, because the more you level the more 10,000 health crap spawns, in greater numbers. The mage’s guild provides more powerful rewards if you do it at just the right level, such as giving you an amazingly efficient multi-element offensive spell. Too early a level leads to a low damage, lame spell, and too high a level gives you a spell that costs way more mana than you’ll ever have, with a bad damage ratio even if you could cast it. The fighter’s guild is just god-awful.

        Really, the level matching crap destroys the game. They at least reduced this in Fallout 3, which was nice. You could murder bandits by actually becoming more powerful than them. Of course, there with also Super Mutant Masters, which leveled with you, and a just-plain-stupidly hard to kill level version in the expansion.

        I’m hoping they actually take a cue from Fallout: New Vegas for their next game. The only thing really BRICK WALL OF HEALTH thing in that game was the giant radscorpions.

  3. Rubber band difficulty is always a major downer for me. Encouraging collecting without giving proper control over the collection is another bad decision. Even without playing oblivion, I’m afraid I can only agree with what you’ve said here. =) Nice rant!

  4. For me, the real sin of Oblivion is level matching. It could have been a fun game, but that essentially killed it. I am to this day, stunned, that they could even possibly think it was a good idea.

    I read in a interview they were trying to fix problems with Morrowind where with the right skills starting characters could race down top level dungeouns and get the best gear etc. (That, and a cheap way to make their content go further). What they some how failed to realize is, THAT’S FUN YOU IDIOTS! It shouldn’t be obvious or easy, but being creative and pulling of stuff that should be beyond your abilities is part of what RPGs are all about! Or coming back when stronger and decimating an area that was difficult before. Level matching, as you said, removes all sense of progression, which being the cornerstone of RPGs, makes Oblivion just a really bad FPS.

    And matching of course is dangerous, because now the game needs a really really smart algorithm for estimating your potential, which of course, it doesn’t. I stopped playing the game when I bought some high level spells I couldn’t cast yet. The matching algorithm failed to take my lack of mana into consideration and all the sudden everything was massively over-powered and I couldn’t proceed.

    It makes me mad because the game really had potential. The easiest way to beat the game is to stay at level 1 the WHOLE time, litterally! I mean, come on.

    1. I understand why they did level matching; they want to tailor the gameplay difficulty so that the player is never surprised by a too-hard monster or bored by an easy dungeon. I agree, though, that they failed both in their motivation and their implementation.

  5. Here’s another one for you. The people in charge of the Elder Scrolls series must feel like they can’t change the game mechanics for sequels. Pretty lame, if you ask me. Some of those skills and even the class system make sense in Daggerfall but are a supreme pain in Oblivion. Take risks! Get creative!

    1. To Bethesda’s credit, they do refine the rules for each game, usually by removing and consolidating skills. The leveling system also appears to have changed since Daggerfall. I do hope that in the fifth (fifth!) game in the series, they do a more substantial overhaul of the rules.

      1. Yet it feels like touch-up paint when the muffler is falling off. It might be nice to look at, but you’d rather be driving something else. The focus was clearly not on gameplay upgrades, but perhaps on graphics, sim scope, and narrative. Those are important, but hollow without solid gameplay.

  6. I think Oblivion is mostly poop, at least in comparison to Morrowind. Oblivion does, for its merit, have some advantages and good ideas though:

    – Combat is improved from Morrowind
    – Music is pretty atmospheric
    – Some of the quests are very memorable
    – Horse riding!
    – Some awesome Bethesda implied narrative parts

    There’s a lot that is lame, of course, and I agree totally with everything you mentioned. Oblivion is very strong into the simulation area, but the simulations either don’t make any consistent level of sense or simply add nothing to the game. Most of the simulated aspects (like NPC “schedules”) don’t interact with anything else in the game. What exactly makes this game more interesting, or my play more interesting, to know that X NPC of absolutely no import to anything I am doing, saw a mudcrab during some outing? Not to mention that is what most of the NPCs do all day: eat, talk about mudcrabs, go sit somewhere, sleep. Not very dynamic, nor is it adding much life to the world.

    Lame stuff you didn’t mention explicitly:

    – Terrible aesthetic! Everything is totally mundane, stock fantasy! What happened to chitinous tribal stuff like Morrowind? That was pretty unique.
    – Very dry story and characters. I don’t remember a single character from Oblivion, after completing every quest and the main storyline, except the Dark Brotherhood. Guards are guards, civilians are civilians, kings are kings. Nothing to see here.
    – A very expansive landscape with nothing in it but bandits, deer, wolves, and caves. An occasional ruin too. Seems very sparse for a wilderness.
    – The jump. That jump is horrible.

    As open world games go, I still think the Baldur’s Gate series is the best. Great setting, great characters, NPCs that literally just stand around all day talking and are more interesting and in-setting than anything in Oblivion.

    For more examples of this wonky design that Bethesda has contracted, see Fallout 3.

    1. I’m not sure that comparison is as useful as it seems; it’s too prone to the distinction bias. Still, I agree that the characters are relatively unremarkable; I remember few characters from either game, although Oblivion has a few standouts (the Argonian shopkeeper’s daughter that gets kidnapped, the Adoring Fan, the old Grand Champion, or the awesome vampire count).

      I find the landscape plenty-interesting. I’m not sure what you mean by sparse. There aren’t many towns off the road, sure, but that makes sense, and the place is covered in trees, plants, camps, ruins, caves, mines, and the occasional very pretty waterfall. Maybe the Natural Environments mod I’m using fixed that issue.

      You’re right about the bland aesthetic. I wouldn’t call it terrible, but it is pretty stock fantasy. There are a few standouts, like the heavy-metal-album dimension of Oblivion and the rather pretty city of Leyawiin. Most notably, the Shivering Isles expansion introduces a huge new dimension with cool, dreamlike looks.

  7. The game has many, many serious flaws, but the one that really drains away the fun for me is that the designers were clearly afraid of ever letting you encounter/own anything extraordinary. There are no great weapons, no great enemies, no great spells; you can’t ever be truly skilled at something (in terms of how strong the effect of a skill is). In the name of keeping everything equally accessible to everyone, they’ve reduced everything to meh.

    1. I disagree on the weapons/enemies; with enough digging and questing (or consulting the wiki), you can find some rather amazing named items such as Daedric artifacts. There are also some notable enemies; the ones that come to mind right away are from official addons: the Gatekeeper of the Shivering Isles and Ulmaril from the Knights of the Nine addon.

      Spells? Yeah, they pretty much suck.

      1. But even the rarest weapon will still have you hacking at a goblin for ten hours. The difference just isn’t big enough. Verena played through every single part of the game and collected everything there is to collect (!), and killing an average late-game enemy was still as tiresome as before.

  8. To be fair, Morrowind had problems too. Or should I say a single problem: Cliff Racers! I hate those things. Every Morrowind mod, back in the day, did something like “add anime hair to your game” and “removes cliff racers” just as a side effect.

    1. The main problem with cliff racers, I feel, was their hitbox. You were fighting innumerable flying creatures and you could only hit them at the tip of their tail, as their body was out of reach.

  9. I can’t agree with you more on the leveling creatures problem. I noticed that a lot of things that pissed me off in Oblivion were tweaked to make more sense and ultimately be more fun in Fallout 3, which I’m playing through now. Alas, Oblivion is still one of my all time favorite video games just because of the amazing explorations and quests that were actually fun.

  10. I had a lot of fun with Oblivion. But yes it is severely flawed, in ways that have mostly been mentioned above.

    Here’s another one though – the levelling system was poorly thought out. It is easily exploited by choosing or making a class whose prime skills are the ones you plan to use the LEAST. This makes you incredibly strong by the time you actually have to level up.

    In fact as it stands and thanks to the rubber banding, levelling up is a bad thing and something you want to avoid. If you level up too fast you will be far too weal.

    This is what we call “poor design”.

  11. I think one of the biggest problems with the main quest was that it didn’t center around the player. It was all about Martin Septim, while the player did all the work. It fell insanely short of Morrowind, where the player was no less than a living god.

    But it’s not really fair to say that Bethsoft doesn’t listen to fans. Allot of fans complained that the environment was too realist and that they wanted something fantasy inspired, like in Morrowind. Bethsoft heard them and made Shivering Isles, a conceptual carbon copy of Morrowind. Originality abounds.

    But for all their sins, the overall modability completely redeems the game. For every problem there is a solution. I even remember a player making a patch for the formID bug about a week before Bethsoft released one.

  12. I agree pretty much wholeheartedly with your Oblivion-ramble.

    A quick story concerning level matching and skills in Morrowind:

    I was playing some sort of Argonian monk, and had run into a fellow who was having trouble sleeping. “So”, I thought, “I’ll help the poor guy out”. Turns out that there was a trapdoor beneath his bed, and through there, some ungodly path to a chapel of the dead, whose necromantic shufflings had been keeping the nervous redguard wide awake with fear.

    I hopped down the trapdoor and came face-to-face with your generic low-level fantasy aggressor: a skeleton. It hit me with a sword, taking a good third of my health off. I tried to bash him with my hands, but aside from flaking off a good deal of bonedust, the skeleton was not particularly inconvenienced. On the cusp of death, I ran back up the trapdoor and slept in the Redguard’s bed, to regain my health.

    When I awoke, I did battle with the skeleton again. And fled again. But I didn’t give up. Each night I would jump down the trap door and engage the skeleton. Each night, locked in the same danse macabre.

    But with each night’s ordeal, my “unarmoured” skill grew as I was hit, and by “hand to hand skill” grew as I hit back. I was gaining ground, slowly, I thought. Victory was just out of reach.

    More days passed. I levelled. 50 days passed. I levelled again. Then, I gave the skeleton a name: “Gerald”. “Good evening, Gerald!” I would say to myself as I hopped into the passage, brutally drubbing his skull with my scaly fists, “How’s it going?”. I figured at this point that my character was probably losing it. 140 days passed.

    Eventually I’d had enough. I renounced my monkish ways, bought a double handed sword and a some heavy armour, depite having pitifully low levels in their corresponding skills.

    That night, Gerald died again, for the last time. I rejoiced! JRPGs had taught me well: when you can’t win you just grind, grind and grind again. I strode forward, radiant with joy.

    Unfortunately the undead waiting for me through the next passageway killed me in one hit. Turns out all the time I’d been levelling up fighting Gerald, everything else in the game had too, and far more efficiently.

    …and that’s why I installed a level mod before playing Oblivion.

  13. The most popular mod for oblivion is Oscuro’s Oblivion Overhaul. It modifies level scaling, makes most forms of combat feasible (balancing spells and the like), gives realistic rewards depending on risks taken, makes combat more realistic, and makes the game in general more realistic with many minor tweaks. There are also level progression mods that give you the options varying from traditional assigning stats to basing stats off of their associated skills.

  14. One thing I never liked about Oblivion was when you got to 100% Sneak the game was crap. Then I turn it off and I’m like. Hey I’m an idiot for not using it. I don’t want to use it to make the game more fun but at the same time the game is so impossible at level 30 and 40 that I kinda want to.

  15. Perhaps the most irritating difference I noted between the Oblivion and Morrowind is the exploration. While there are plenty of opportunities to explore in Oblivion, the leveled enemies actively discourage this. This is not to say exploration wasn’t a risky business in Morrowind, but you quickly learned which areas were off-limits for lower-level characters. Oblivion pretty much makes Fast Travel necessary until you can tip the scales so far in your favor to make most fights moot. So the only time exploration becomes a profitable/non-frustrating endeavor is when you’ve gamed the system.

    Paralyze pretty much allow you to dominate most non-undead fights once you have enough magic/ skill level to make it practical. With an undead enemy, the Summon/ Invisibility combo works when you have enough magic and powerful enough summons.

    1. I’m finding that alchemical poisons are very useful, at least in late-game. They can reduce a 10-hit fight to a 3-hit fight. I’m not sure how good they are in the early game, though.

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