Three sanguine dreams and
Expectations lend barb to
This passage of time

But fifteen years or
Twenty and two what lies is
That to which we cling

And yellowed shadows
Drawn deeply in autumn shades
Cipher all reproach


Enraptured fingers clutch at these facades
Bloodless wisps blown by unseen strands
Gathered tightly up in crippled arms
Like bridal veils stained dark with lies

Dissection annihilates all reverie
While harrowed fingers clutch in vain
For convictions that punish this conceit
Like rain that falls only upon the deep

Consigned to whispers and umbral places
They choke on cloying sweetness
And die with smiles on poisoned lips
Like delusion fed fat on pungent truth

The Rise and Fall of the Queen of Chu

I came across this fascinating article chronicling the rise and fall of the Queen of Chu, a player who ran a player-run kingdom in the Chinese MMORPG ZT Online.  The article is fairly long, but well worth the read.

For the record, I actually do support some forms of microtransactions in games.  That being said, there is, obviously, a fine line between effective and exploitive, and who defines where that line lies is itself a minefield.

From a design perspective, however, what is more interesting to me are the design (and business) implications of these various approaches.

This is Not a Review of Diablo

After an endless (okay, years, but it felt like endless) wait, Blizzard’s Diablo III is finally here.

There are a lot of different things one can critique or praise about the game – art style, time in development, length, online play requirement, auction house structure – but what has captured a lot of my attention are some of the design decisions regarding character ability progression.

In Diablo II, the predecessor to the current game, players selected a class and each time the character leveled, the player would allocate attribute points and skill points.

In Diablo III, players select a class and each time the character levels, the player is automatically granted a pre-defined progression of attribute points and automatically given a similarly pre-defined progression of skills or runes (basically, enhancements to skills).  A player can swap out their active skills at any time, essentially changing their build on the fly.

It’s not hard to see where the thinking for this evolution came from: in Diablo II it was fairly easy for an inexperienced player to make poor decisions that in an MMORPG would traditionally require a respec (essentially, wiping the slate clean for a cost).  This was especially egregious for attribute points, whose value to a character was abstracted and frequently obscure.

Diablo III’s approach means that you can’t permanently screw up your character.  Keep dying to zombies?  (Okay, really?)  Maybe switching to another skill will make it easier.  (Presumably for you to kill said zombies and not for said zombies to kill you.  I know who I’m rooting for.  Sorry…zombies before bros.)

This is, in fact, a great example of the difference between strategic and tactical character decisions.  Strategic decisions – in this context – are those character progression decisions that are long term and relatively immutable.  In Diablo III, the only real strategic decisions are class and gender, and the latter is purely visual.  Tactical decisions are those character progression decisions that can change from fight to fight.  Switching out what skills you are using (as well as how you are using them), what follower you are using, and so on all represent short term tactical decisions.

Diablo III – even more so than the original Guild Wars – is purely about tactical choices rather than strategic choices.  In terms of design philosophy, this makes the game an odd philosophical hybrid between their other properties, their MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game) World of Warcraft and their RTS (Real Time Strategy) Starcraft.  (Though, actually, one might legitimately argue that Diablo III is even more tactically focused than Starcraft.)

There are, however, some severe downsides to this design philosophy.

The first downside of no strategic character customization means that replayability is purely a function of selecting a new class, as there is no incentive to ever make a new character of the same class.  In Diablo II, I spent months way too much time rebuilding different Necromancers and Druids trying to find the best build.  Sure, I also spent time hunting for items and other new shiny baubles, but this decision means that my estimated time expenditure in this game is probably a tenth of what I spent in Diablo II.  (Which, granted, is probably better for my job.  Even in the industry, HR frowns on people taking off large portions of time to play games.  Very unsporting of them, I agree.  It’s okay, we’ll remember those frowns when the revolution comes.)

The second downside to having no strategic character customization is more subtle (insidious?), however, and one it is possible that Blizzard honestly didn’t even give much thought to – identity.

There are three main reasons people play the same game (and this could probably be extended beyond video games, but let’s not go there right now) to an addictive and compulsive extensive degree:

  1. Socialization.  All your friends are playing it.  Whether you enjoy the game or not, you enjoy playing with your friends.
  2. Skinner Box.  Must…eat…the…pellets.  This is a mainstay of game development, and a bit of a dirty secret.  Yeah, we game designers are all wannabe psychologists.
  3. Identity.

This last point – Identity – is in my opinion a way too frequently overlooked component of (good) game design.

Essentially, identity in game design is the degree to which a player considers their character an extension of themselves.  Their character is rewarded, they are rewarded.  Their character looks cool, they feel cool.  Their character showed how badass they are by surviving that swarm of zombies (or fire bats, or storm troopers, or girl scouts, or clowns) then they feel badass.

So, identity is obviously a really important thing in this game motivational trifecta (not to be confused, I should note, with the better known serial killer trifecta) but how does a would-be designer get a player to feel this kind of strong connection with their character?  (Translation for any marketing people reading this: we’re talking about revenue here.  Just to clarify.)

There are actually a few different ways to do this, but the specific one relevant to Diablo III is that of choice.  That is, my character feels like “mine” because of the choices I made in the creation of that.  The more permanent the choice is, the harder it is to reverse or go back on that choice, the more significant that choice is.  Your name, class and gender are basically permanent.  Those are big.  Your choice of equipment changes how you look – that’s big too.

What Diablo III – as distinct from Diablo II – does not have, however, is choice in the actually nitty gritty components of character abilities, other than the choice of equipment and tactics, both of which are ephemeral, and thus not significant to the specific goal of generating identity on the part of the player with their character.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the decision.  Simpler + Less Choices = More intuitive = More players = More initial exposure.

The challenge with that logic, however, is that it gives you more initial exposure, more eyeballs who will look at and buy the game, but less staying power longer term.  Diablo III’s primary revenue is of course its box, so in this aspect it’s not an inexplicable decision.  The problem is, Diablo III – far more than Diablo II – is inching into the more modern video game territory of post-sale revenue generation.  Diablo III is aware of this, too – microtransactions and their auction house structure both reflect this.  Weirdly, however, despite this increasing trend towards post-sale revenue generation, Diablo III actually has fewer hooks towards keeping players playing over a long period of time than Diablo II.

Food for thought.


Red geometry
Composed on a canvas of
Living broken things

Hearts depending on
Strings like clotheslines stretched taut
Across alleyways

Lost in those byways
Trapped inside mazes of strange
Past geographies

Dead things sway and swing
In an apology of
Red geometry

The Utility of Art

This evening I happened to read a journal questioning the usefulness and utility of art. After all, what are paintings and sculpture and poetry compared to the material necessities of life?

I would suggest that in the trenches of survival, nothing becomes a sustained force for long if there is not some usefulness, some value in it beyond the relief of boredom. Art is no different.

Societies are at their heart engines for organizing people towards the ends that people always tend towards. Cultures, I would propose, are the bonds and raw materials that society uses to convince us hard-bitten individuals and skeptics that unified purpose has, well, a purpose to us as an individual.

So where does that leave art?

Art is a building block of culture. It is the shared expressions, the shared histories and common contexts that shape our way of thinking, our priorities, our values. What decides whether aggression or diplomacy is valued? What determines whether war or education is prioritized? What shapes whether marriage is defined in terms of love or in terms of economics?

Of course, each of us has our own opinions and beliefs, but these opinions and beliefs do not arise in a vacuum. Our opinions and beliefs arise out of the common context of our lives. The subtle messages that live in the romance novels or fantasy novels or action movies we share as a common culture subtly poke us a culture towards certain assumptions and a certain shared context.

This is the utility of art. This is the great task that the writers, the sculptors, the singers and the musicians serve. They create this common context for us, they create our culture, giving our society the ability to mobilize the people, the ideas, the resources to accomplish the ancient goal of survival.

Art is not a distraction from the business of survival and the goal of material success. It is vital to it, whether we admit to it or not.