Skyrim Design Nettles

Skyrim thus far has been as amazing an experience as everyone says. There is something to be said about how the fidelity of an experience engenders instant immersion in ways videogaming might not have achieved even five years ago. I already posted the screenshot of what I saw exiting the tutorial dungeon for the first time, and I was immediately struck by the same awe and infinite possibility I felt leaving the Vault in Fallout 3.

My current desktop background. Well, at +1000 resolution.

What I want to talk about today though, are the Design Nettles in Skyrim. These are the little things that take me out of the experience with their sting, no matter how much I try and ignore them. Every game has its idiosyncrasies, but what elevates these particular annoyances is either how out of place they seem within the context of a fidelitous experience, or how much they are artifacts of a bygone design era.

Imbalanced Skill Gains

Raising one’s Sneak level by auto-running into the wall for an hour has been a staple of Bethesda design since at least Morrowind. Why they choose not to fix that isn’t the problem. The problem is simply the imbalanced skill gains generally.

I gained two entire character levels in the first town from simply pickpocketing; going from level 6 to level 8 within the same house, in fact. Indeed, I gained 5 skill points for pickpocketing ONE ITEM, a magic ring from a sleeping guy. My pickpocketing skill is currently north of 70, I am level 21, and I haven’t even seen a 3rd city or a dragon yet. Meanwhile, I have probably picked 30 locks in the same time period and received ~4 skill ups. Same with Blacksmithing, Alchemy, Enchanting, Sneaking, Archery, and so on and so forth.

This is more of a problem in Skyrim than it was in Oblivion, because gaining any skill points increases one’s level, which in turn increases the level of all enemies in the game world. More insidiously, you can go hours (or specifically 18 hours in my case) before the problem even begins to manifest itself. I ran into some bandits on a bridge who were immune to my normal tactics which had hitherto worked in every encounter, and I only succeeded by “gaming” the system in rather ridiculous ways – playing Ring-Around-the-Cookpot and ladeling myself 16 servings of Apple Cabbage Stew in Matrix-esque bullet-time.

Enemies on Minimap

I can appreciate the design challenge that comes from choosing to have enemies appear on the minimap. Specifically, once you do that, you cede the ability to create tension via unknown enemy placement without resorting to dumb gimmicks. I like to call this the Silent Hill effect – unlike Resident Evil or other survival horror games where monsters can jump out at you at any moment, Silent Hill gives the player a radio that plays static whenever enemies are about. No static, no monsters.

Silent Hill as a series gets around this “limitation” by being fucking scary even when there aren’t enemies around (and by segmenting the game into rooms), but Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas fall into the trap of essentially lying to the player; “You can see enemies, and even raise stats to see them from farther away, unless we need to generate tension in which case your abilities will be useless.”

Skyrim attempts to have it both ways, while simultaneously stepping into one of my biggest pet peeves in “realistic” games.

In Skyrim, enemies that have aggro’d to your presence appear as red dots on the map-bar. You can even track the movement of these enemies through walls and barriers. Other than that, nothing appears on the map-bar other than locations. Which is… fine, right? Resident Evil, Half-Life, etc, don’t have minimaps with enemies on them either. My peeve though, relates to how high-fidelity games play out as if my highly skilled avatar is as clueless as me, the player.

Look. It’s clear the Skyrim designers decided not to put animals/people/etc on the minimap in order to increase realism. If I’m chasing butterflies to eat their delicious wings, it’s fair play that the tiger I wasn’t even looking for gets its turn too. But if I’m specifically hunting that tiger, or I’m sneaking up on the bandit camp, it simply feels dumb to be surprised due to lack of information. I can’t hear the guy in full plate walking around because the designers refused to give me that input; or if they did, they made audio-only to the point where I’d blow out my desktop speakers trying to hear it.

You can’t ask me to put myself in that field, and deny me access to my normal senses. And you can’t pretend that my normal senses are adequately represented in your arbitrary, game design way.

In other words, Christ, I want NPCs on that minimap. It obviously changed my behavior in the Fallout series knowing where people are even through walls and such, but removing it and pretending my character is as careless as I am playing the game is worse. Indoors? Yes, it works well to force people to be careful. Outdoors? Completely ruins any semblance of stealth-ish gameplay. At least, until I “beat the system” by Quick-Saving every 30 seconds and simply reloading if I stumble into a bandit camp without the opportunity to sneak attack someone.

Posted on January 31, 2012, in RPG and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I see you found the error of your ways. You can’t ignore combat skills and just go sneaking or pickpocketing and then expect to fight them. After all what training did you do for actual combat? None.

    And for clarity many places around that first town are about level 8 so the game wants to level you up fairly fast at the start so you can deal with those mobs. But you need to pick comabt skills. While the game doesn’t tell you that, it is what it is. People had to learn from thier mistakes and thats what you get when you have a game that lets you do whatever you want to do.

    As for mobs on the mini-map may I suggest you listen. See walking around you will hear wolves, bears, the heavy stomp of mammoths etc. And in a dungeon you should expect moba as what do you expect in a dungeon except enemies? And of course bandits talk. So the game offers many ways to spot mobs way before you see them or they see you. I have no problem hearing this in the open world. If you don’t that means you are moving too fast or your sound isn’t set right.

    Finally, dragons appear as part of the main quest line. So if you choose to ignore it then the game follows your wishes.


    • “Found the error of my ways?” What I “found” is that the Bethesda designers were morons when it comes to balancing their skill gains. There is no circumstance wherein gaining 5 skill points from ONE pickpocket attempt at level 6 makes sense. Can you imagine gaining 5 skill points in One-Hand Attacks from getting a critical hit on a rabbit? Whatever formula they use to calculate Pickpocket skill gains is broken.

      I have indeed learned from my “mistakes.” Presently, I 1-2 shot every mob in game either via 15x sneak attacks or 3x arrows. Unless they are mammoths, in which case I stand in a puddle or on a log and arrow them down with impunity.

      In any event, as I said, I have already cranked my speakers 50% louder for this game than everything else I play. It’s fine to have audio-only cues in games (Silent Hill, etc), but let’s not pretend it is for “realism’s” sake. Enemies still appear as red dots on the minimap. Anymore, if I don’t feel like Quicksaving and Quickloading, I will periodically fire an arrow into the distance. If enemies are around, bam, they appear on the minimap. GG.


  2. I have tried to duplicate the 5 full skill points in pickpocting a single item but have never had this happen after 2 full hours of trying. I tried at a low pickpocket level and at a higher one. The best that happened is just over 1 skill level going from 18 to 19.

    Not saying it can’t happen but it does sound like maybe it was a bug in your game and doesn’t happen except in some special situation. What were the details?

    As for audio clues who cares for whatever sake. Bottom line is you don’t need mobs on mini-map if you go slow and listen. Plus here is why. Not all animals are automatically violent. Even bears leave you alone if you side step away from their little zone. So do you want every freakin animal to show up on the mini-map then?


    • My point is that any mob that would go hostile on sight should be on the minimap. If the devs want to play the realism card, that’s fine, but then why do aggro’d mobs show up on the minimap? They can’t have it both ways. As I said, it only encourages me to fire a random arrow every now and then to “light up” an area to see if hostiles are around.

      I had the damnest time early on figuring out whether the group I was looking at out in the wild were bandits or normal NPCs. Now I fire an arrow warning shot, since only bad guys react to it. GG devs.

      And I’d prefer them not to rely on audio-only cues in the open world to begin with. Just about every 9 bears out of 10 were sleeping and otherwise impossible to detect until I stumble into them. I didn’t even realize they *made* sounds until yesterday when I heard the bear before seeing it.

      As for the Pickpocketing, my own attempts to reproduce the event as a level 1 character were unsuccessful; the Skyrim Wiki formulas are sufficiently convoluted that I cannot tell how likely it would be to get 2+ skill points from the same item. What I do remember was that I was level ~6, a Brenton, with the Thief Stone (+20% skill gains), and pickpocketing items and/or gold worth > 500g. I was pretty sure I went from 18 –> 22 from a single item, but I concede that it may have been 5 skill gains across all the items pickpocketed from that guy’s inventory.


  3. Azuriel, in real life you see a group of people in the distance. You don’t know if they are a caravan or a group of bandits. So why shouldn’t Skyrim treat that the same way?

    As for bears, yes many times they are sleeping. If I was quiet and walking there is a good chance that I won’t wake that bear and can sneak away. But what happens in real life when you stumble across a wild animal that was sleeping and wake it unexpectedly?

    I guess we’ll just have to disagree. I love it that I actually have to be careful out in the wild. I like the fact that I can blunder into a fight if I’m not watching out. It makes me walk instead of running all the time.


    • Azuriel, in real life you see a group of people in the distance. You don’t know if they are a caravan or a group of bandits. So why shouldn’t Skyrim treat that the same way?

      A) IRL, I don’t automatically know someone’s name/occupation when I am within 5 feet.
      B) IRL, hostile enemies don’t appear on a minimap.
      C) IRL, there are no minimaps. Maybe GPS counts?
      D) IRL, I have to shit, sleep and eat. Where’s my hunger meter in Skyrim?

      You are making my argument for me. I am not someone living in the Skyrim world. If I were, I would know the difference between a bandit and a normal NPC. My very survival would depend on it on a daily basis! And nevermind how there is somehow a 1,000:1 bandit NPC ratio anyway.

      Skyrim tells me I can sneak around by crouching, I can eat 20 helpings of soup instantaneously, that I can summon daedra and cast Fireballs. But somehow… I can’t tell if dude over there is a bandit until I can smell his body odor? Or I can tell if I fire an arrow into a tree nearby, because ONLY BANDITS go hostile at such a thing. And, hey, I can kill their friend with an arrow in the face, and after a half-hearted 60-second search, they go “Must be nothing” as if their friend isn’t still dead on the ground.

      It is a video game. There has to be concessions not only in terms of design (no one wants poop simulation), but also in how information is presented to the player. And in this regard I am saying Skyrim is inconsistent. If I couldn’t track hostile mobs through walls and floors, you might have a point. But you can, so you don’t.


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