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Difficulty Scaling In Warframe


Onihikage
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Let's talk about difficulty. DE has understandably been seeking ways to increase difficulty, but it's always hard to increase difficulty in a game which hasn't been designed from the beginning with a certain difficulty curve in mind. So their method of increasing difficulty has generally been to throw changes at the wall and see what sticks. Higher level enemies are no different from lower level enemies except that they have better stats in every way. More and more enemies are given the ability to stagger or knock down the player, which makes certain warframes and abilities more viable than others (Iron Skin, Link, Hysteria, etc.). We need to think differently about difficulty in a game where the player is supposed to feel like a badass space ninja/warrior/mage.

 

Level Scaling

 

Right now, the only change that occurs as enemies level up is that they deal more damage and have more health. In all other ways, they're identical. Put simply, this is the lazy way of increasing difficulty, and is slightly damaging to lore when all the Tenno's enemies are apparently capable of churning out massive armies of ultra-powerful soldiers that can withstand tactical nukes and deal enough damage to wipe out even a squad of elite Tenno in a heartbeat. The infinite scaling is additionally bothersome because most of the player's weapons and abilities don't scale infinitely, which makes utilitarian abilities, scaling abilities, and high-DPS weapons more useful than all the rest.

 

How could this be avoided? Well, there are a number of ways. Given that the devs can easily know the maximum potential damage that any combination of weapons and Tenno abilities may deal, and the maximum potential resilience that Warframes can reach, they can scale enemies much more intelligently if they take the time to do so. Here are a few ways I can think of:

 

:: Low level enemies have Stormtrooper accuracy, high level enemies have sniper accuracy.

:: Low level enemies ignore cover altogether and never dodge the player's moves, high level enemies will move from cover to cover, attack more viciously in moments of player weakness (reloading or knocked down), and flank, dodge, tackle, or use abilities more often.

:: Enemy armor, shields, or weapon damage could scale in noticeable chunks rather than gradually, similar to how Tenno weaponry gains power in chunks as we throw on new mods while leveling them. Lvl 1-3 enemies would all have the same stats, then 4-6, 7-9, etc.

:: Enemies could spawn in a wide range of levels, rather than just one or two levels. There would always be hordes of low-level grunts scurrying around that a well-geared player could stomp easily, while the occasional group of more elite enemies, with superior resilience, tactics, and weaponry, may catch us off guard. The XP for kills would scale based on the highest possible level of enemies in the mission. If that's level 40, then level 5 enemies would only give 1/8th the XP of a level 40 enemy during that mission, while a level 5 enemy in a level 5 mission would give full XP. This is to balance out the fact that the lower level enemies would be more numerous and easier to kill. The presence of lower level enemies also means lower-level abilities will always be useful no matter what mission you're in.

:: Enemies may form "squads" where a particular group of "elite" enemies share one AI routine and work together, such as a napalm, scorpion, and shield lancer. At higher levels, squads will appear more often, have deadlier combinations, better stats, and do smarter things. It will be up to players to identify these squads and prioritize them, as killing the "linchpin" of the squad (often a leader-type enemy) would render them disorganized.

:: Meaningful, faction-specific traps, such as a blinding Grineer trap which, when the alarms are on, periodically charges up and unleashes a radial blind, darkening the screen by 90% for players and functioning like a radial blind to those caught in it. Grineer wouldn't be immune to it, but would intelligently take cover when it starts to charge. The electroshock trap would go to the corpus, and look more like a corpus device. Infested would get traps which spray out toxic but flammable gas when they detect movement (introduce fire and it becomes a flamethrower; shoot the source with fire and it explodes like one of Ember's WoF explosions).

 

These are just a few ways that difficulty could scale more sensibly than just endlessly boosting damage and HP, and introducing more knockdown-spamming enemies.

 

Knockdown/Stagger

 

Nobody likes it when control of their character is totally robbed from them, especially when the control they're given otherwise is meant to make them feel like a badass. Knockdowns and staggers are a great way to present risk to a player that could otherwise annihilate the enemy, but when the only counters are to have certain abilities active, or to kill the enemy before they hit you, they become merely a punishing mechanic to those caught by surprise or without those abilities. On the other hand, if a simple, one-button counter were implemented, players would merely memorize the counter, and then complain that the game is too easy. Back to square one.

 

I propose a system of quick time events to allow the player to make some badass counter to an enemy's ability. If the enemy is on-screen and about to use a knockdown-type ability, a short QTE prompt will appear around the reticle, using one or more of some pre-set, mandatory controls (jump, roll, reload, shoot, quick melee, etc.). If the player gets it right in time, the Tenno will counter the knockdown in some way that feels badass. Going back to difficulty mentioned before, a higher level enemy's ability will require quicker reactions to counter via the QTE. Otherwise, the Tenno's counter will merely block incoming damage and get them back on their feet. Get the QTE wrong, and the Tenno is knocked down as usual. This would allow the player to take responsibility for being knocked down in more ways than just "I didn't kill it before it got too close". How about some examples of what could be possible with such a system?

 

1) An on-screen scorpion launches a grappling hook at the player. The QTE appears moments before the scorpion actually fired, the player gets the QTE right, and depending on the Warframe, the Tenno might either dodge the hook while blocking incoming shots, grab the line and yank the Scorpion, sending her tumbling through the air, or grab the line and swing the scorpion around like a really long mace, knocking down surrounding enemies (this would be great for Rhino and Valkyr). If the Tenno had their melee weapon out, they might perform a melee counter on the Scorpion. All flourishes would be quick, and automatically block incoming attacks for the duration. No downside.

 

2) An on-screen scorpion launches a grappling hook at the player, and the player gets it right, but too slowly. The Tenno is knocked down, but releases a burst of channeling energy to throw off the hook, block incoming shots, and stagger nearby enemies. If the Tenno had their melee weapon out already, melee counters will be triggered on nearby enemies. Slight downside, the Tenno receives the damage of the hook's impact, but wasn't fully knocked down and blocked incoming attacks.

 

3) An off-screen scorpion launches a grappling hook. The player gets the QTE only when the grapple fires (the noise alerts the Tenno). They have from the moment the audio plays to the moment the hook knocks them down to get the first counter, otherwise they do the "late" counter.

 

4) A scorpion which is off-screen but is under the effect of Sonar or enemy radar launches a grappling hook at the Tenno. The QTE triggers as if the scorpion was on-screen.

 

5) Same as #1, but it's a Shield Lancer. The QTE appears when the lancer gets relatively close (higher level = it gets closer before the QTE triggers). Countering early enough, the Tenno might grab the lancer's shield, swing behind the lancer, and send them flying. The Tenno might snatch its shield away and spin with it, knocking down nearby enemies. The Tenno might just dodge right past the shield and hit the shield lancer with a melee counter. Countering later, the Tenno gets knocked down but rolls or flips right up, dodging bullets or other melee attacks.

 

6) The Tenno is hit by a blast proc. The QTE will only allow recovery from knockdown, rather than avoidance, due to the nature of the proc, but recovery from knockdown would be as described in #2.

 

7) The Tenno is staggered by an impact proc or a melee hit. The QTE, if successful, will have the Tenno spin-kick in place, blocking incoming bullets and sending enemies within melee range flying, as well as suppressing staggers and knockdowns for a few seconds.

 

Ability Synergy

 

I just wanted to link to this megathread on synergy between Warframe abilities. The basic idea is that most frames' abilities will have some secondary effect when combined with another Warframe's ability, granting an extra boost in usability to abilities which otherwise fall off at higher levels.

 

Conclusion

 

To summarize, such changes would enable player skill to have meaningful impact on gameplay. Recognizing a squad of more dangerous enemies and prioritizing them over hordes of inaccurate peashooter-wielding fodder, that's skill. Having the reflexes to get the QTEs in high-level missions (which triggers a moment of damage immunity while damaging at least one enemy), and doing it repeatedly, that's skill. Keeping calm to lure cover-seeking enemies out into the open, that's skill. Collaborating with fellow Tenno to combine effective abilities, or recognizing and combining them on the fly, that's skill, or at least deeper teamwork, which always makes things more fun.

 

I won't say that everything I've mentioned here is a good idea, but I wanted to throw a lot of things out there and get us thinking about the many ways that difficulty can be meaningfully improved in a way that accounts for player skill by altering existing content, rather than creating more. If anyone else wants to think of similar ways that difficulty scaling could be enhanced with relatively small changes, please share them here. I'll try to keep up with this thread and add them below.

 

Edit 1: Consensus is building that we do need some way to counter knockdown when it inevitably happens, but it should not be a QTE. Alternative for being knocked down is to hit a specific button (such as [Jump]) to recover. Another is to be able to shoot with our secondary while being dragged by a grappling hook.

Edited by Onihikage
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- Enemies already scale XP awarded by level, no need to tweak XP when having a wider Range of Enemy Levels in a Mission. ;)

 

- i never like QTE's. ever. so i can't ever say yes to having them.

 

- don't we all wish Powers would finally work together like you'd expect in a Co-Op game?

 

 

 

any point i didn't touch on i have no qualms about and would be more than welcome to see in the game.

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I agree. Just simple lvl scaling gets stale after a while. Difficult enemies shouldn't be ones that just eat your ammo but enemies that challenge the players skill. Difficulty 2.0 pls.

 

Also I feel like this game is a bit too fst paced for QTE but knockdowns and such is something that needs to be addressed for certain.

Edited by nickelshark
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Grapple pulls are already dodgable, already preventable by killing the puller, and have mods that specifically resist them.

 

They are not lethal enough to merit an additional form of avoidance, especially a twitch one. 

 

Now, make it so if you fail the QTE, you're knocked down, and then they perform a shield-ignoring, armor-ignoring, power-ignoring finisher that is almost certain to kill you, and we're more in line.

Edited by Phatose
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^ Actually, the mistake that's often made with QTEs is that too often, developers make them a split second of "PRESS B TO NOT DIE!!" while the penalty for failing the QTE I propose here would be getting knocked on your &#! for two seconds. As well, I would argue that they absolutely can be lethal under the right circumstances (Lvl 50 Corpus Tech says hi), and players who aren't super high level elites with extra copies of every mod may appreciate another way to avoid that while fleeing to extraction in a survival.

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I'd prefer to avoid QTE mechanics altogether. When getting tagged by the grappling units (Scorpion, Ancients), I would prefer instead of having to sit there and be drug across the screen for a few seconds, give the player the option of pulling out the sidearm and shooting them to force them to let you go. It's not particularly dangerous when a scorpion does it, but its pretty damn bad when an ancient does it since they have way greater range, the other units will beat the living crap out of you while your being drug across for what seems to be forever. 

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I agreed with you 110% all the way. Everything you said was like reading pure gold. It brought me great joy to know that others thought the difficulty scaling sucks, and the knockdown feature is just simply annoying, and honestly wants me to put down my... keyboard...

 

At least... until you said QTE. Please... please never ever ever put QTE's in this game. Please. I really really hate them. Please no QTE's. Please.

 

Edited by saltshaker42
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The consensus seems to be that we do need at least SOME button that we can press at the right moment to free us from the grapple and/or recover from a knockdown, but that it definitely should not be a QTE. Hitting [Jump] or being able to fire the pistol while being grappled, those are a couple of good options.

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1A. I disagree with all the quick time hate. They can be correctly implemented (Asura's Wrath's hitting it changes things slightly at best but things keep going) and incorrectly implemented (Bayonetta's instant death with 1/4 of a second response time). As a whole they are not bad.  The idea of a single press to counter a grapple or shield slam is the perfect solution and with people suggesting hitting jump with correct timing I can't see how they think quick time events are bad since that is, for all intents and purposes, a quick time event just without the on screen prompt.

 

The grapple and shield slam break the flow of the game and take control away from the player (Something you NEVER do in game design). Either add the counter grab, recover move or allow the player to attack while being pulled and that is solved.

 

1B. I always see the response that we currently have everything needed to avoid knockdown and such and to that I say we don't.  Yes, we have mods for that, but if we want to be effective we usually need that mod space for something else.  Yes, we can roll/shoot them before they use the power, but what if they sneak up behind you? I can't tell you how many times I've had a Scorpion hit me with a grapple from off screen without any chance of dodging because I didn't even know they were there.

 

 

2. Difficulty Scaling: I definitely agree with your idea to increase enemy AI and skill instead of turning them into bullet sponges and walking death beams.  Just beefing up enemy health and damage is one of the laziest forms of artificial difficulty, similar to rubber band AI in racing games.  One of the better forms of difficulty scaling I've run into was the game The Dishwasher: Undead Samurai for Xbox Live Arcade.  On the hardest difficulty that game had enemies that would normally have shown up in later/end game levels show up in the starting area. It gave the enemies incredibly boosted aggression and attack speed (not damage mind you) and even spawned bosses during some normal encounters.  Now, they did buff the enemy health but this was semi-reasonable because you could only play the hardest difficulty after beating the game once and you had the same stats and upgrades you had at end game so they needed to counter that.

 

3. Ability Synergy: Not much to say here, I completely agree.

Edited by Aumaan
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