Nod along if this sounds familiar: you start playing a game online with friends but regular sessions become decidedly irregular, then you miss a raid or two, and suddenly everyone else is a level 27 technomage and you’re still a level 8 ponysquire who can’t keep up. Playing together now feels like a level-grinding chore, the fun disappears, and you set fire to your consoles and take up cross-stitch instead.
With the possible exception of console arson, it’s likely to be a familiar story for many. The trickiness of keeping pace with online friends while balancing the demands of real life is a low-key struggle, and if it’s a problem for players, it’s definitely one for developers of multiplayer games.
It’s a conundrum that Gearbox Software wanted to solve for its upcoming shooter/RPG hybrid, Borderlands 3 – and it may have done it with a new dynamic levelling system. The innovative approach will allow players of any level to team up, play the same missions, and face the same enemies, with everything tailored to their own individual levels – and it’s all done on the fly.
“Co-op is a big pillar of this franchise, and being at different levels can cause people to make decisions about whether or not they should or should not play together, or how to play together,” says Steve Jones, chief technology officer at Gearbox Software. “We want people to be able to have fun and not have to think about it.”
Enter the dynamic levelling system, which “lets you play with anyone of any level, while still being able to care about your own progression, your own levels, and your own hunt for better gear,” according to Jones.
Here’s how it works: say Player One is level 14, has unlocked a few skills, has some decently powerful guns, and wants to tackle some missions on the alien frontier world of Pandora with her friends. She hosts a game session and invites Player Two, who’s just started Borderlands 3, and Player Three, who’s at level 25. They begin playing together, and even though Player One is hosting the session and the enemies’ “true” level is based on her campaign progress, the opponents Player Two fights are scaled to his lower power, while Player Three will need to employ their more devastating skills to take them down.
“When you join a session, we want all players to perceive the game at basically the same level difference that the person who is already playing, the host of the session, is experiencing,” explains Jones. “If the host is in a level and he’s seeing enemies that are a couple of levels ahead of him, and I join in, no matter where I’m at level-wise, I’ll see enemies at the same relative difference.”
Borderlands 3’s dynamic levelling isn’t a case of player power being artificially boosted or handicapped to average out damage, as some other titles have attempted in the past, but rather a series of immediate calculations that the game is doing based on the host player’s level and that of each client player. The result is that each player gets the same feel as they would in their own local games, not a sudden spike or drop in weapon power or skill efficiency. Given the game supports teams of up to four players at a time, that means a lot of on-the-fly maths is going on under the hood.
“What we’re doing is reinterpreting the damage simulation that’s happening,” says Adam Fitzgerald, the gameplay programmer responsible for implementing the dynamic levelling system. “The kind of player who this is working for, they have expectations for how their guns behave, they know what they should be able to do, and so we want to make sure that they actually get the damage they’re expecting to get.”
What this means is that the game looks at the damage a host player deals to enemies (or receives from them), and then recalculates it on the fly, scaling up or down for higher or lower-levelled guest players. The result is that the guests get a damage effect instantly appropriate to their own individual prowess.
But how does all this stack up in practice? At Borderlands publisher 2K’s studios in Windsor, I played through a solid two hours of the campaign in co-op. For the first playthrough of the mission, which was set roughly halfway through the game’s story and saw me and an ally battling through a downed ship to take out a malevolent AI, I was a meagre level two.
I played as FL4K, a robotic beastmaster eventually able to summon various monstrous creatures as aides in battle but currently not capable of much more than point-and-shoot. Despite not having any interesting skills unlocked and the guns I collect being glorified pea-shooters, I’m able to competently play alongside a level 25 player – also as FL4K, one of four playable characters in Borderlands 3 – and actually contribute to the battle, rather than being downed in one shot and having to be constantly revived. Replaying the mission with the more powerful version of FL4K, the enemies feel considerably tougher, requiring the use of the skills this version of the character had unlocked to defeat, but also finding myself saved on occasion by the level 2 co-op player. In short, the dynamic levelling feels like it works, and I soon stopped worrying about the usual problems level disparity brings to online play.
Dynamic levelling doesn’t just impact enemy strength though – it also affects the potency of weapons and gear players find from downed foes or discover in chests found across the world. Just as the risk is scaled to each player’s level, so is the reward you receive once an enemy is dispatched.
“For the loot that players get, [we take] the level that a client player is seeing the enemy at, and give you legitimate loot rolls as if the enemy was truly that level,” says Jones. The loot roll is the probability that the game drops a certain item after any given encounter, or when you open a chest, and is “being done independently for every player, so when an enemy dies, all four could be at radically different levels, and the loot we each get will be appropriate [to] that level.”
In keeping with previous Borderlands games, gear typically has level requirements before you can equip it anyway, so this approach isn’t about stopping low-level players grabbing over-powered weapons, but instead ensuring they get versions of weapons in keeping with their own individual progression. There’s a caveat though – loot has rules, and some drops don’t even exist in the game at lower levels.
“If a boss can drop something that only is possible to exist at certain levels, and I go in at a very low level, the boss will not necessarily be able to drop that for me, or if he does drop it for me, it won’t be able to be all the way lowered to my level,” explains Fitzgerald.
Given just how much loot players will encounter in a typical Borderlands session, getting dynamic levelling working on item drops was actually the tougher challenge for Gearbox.
“The most interesting aspect of it was really on the instanced loot side – changing the systems we formerly had, to be able to do completely independent loot rolls for each player,” Jones says. “When a chest is opened, we used to roll [probability for] one set of loot; just very straightforward. Now, when that chest is opened, and there’s four people in the game, every slot in there gets a different decision for each player. That stretched our systems the most, required the most rethink into how we built it – but I think the results are pretty compelling.”
Gearbox’s efforts appear to have paid off, allowing each individual player’s experience to remain consistent, while helping friends play together without fear of anyone being left behind or underpowered. The system will be put through its real-world paces when Borderlands 3 launches next week, but if it holds up in mass play conditions, dynamic levelling could prove to be a great and much-needed equaliser when it comes to online co-op.
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