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.

2 thoughts on “This is Not a Review of Diablo

  1. An interesting analysis of Blizzard’s design choices. I especially like the points on Identity. I was just walking home with some lunch after reading the latest updates on Starbases, thinking about how excited I am about this shift in role identity (not “roleplay” in the fantastical sense) for my time spent in STO. I was mentally drafting the weekly fleet mail updates I’ll be writing!

    I’m in a very large and very cool fleet (both factions), and they are going to indulge my desire to be a Starbase Quartermaster. (If that isn’t already a title accolade, I beseech you sir! ;D ) There are other multiplayer games I could contribute to, but this appeals to who I am, and it’s going to affect my entire STO routine. I’ve had fulfilling career experiences in management, and here I am excited to be working on pushing buttons each week for 400 people I’ve never met, in a game system I haven’t even seen.

    Identity, not mechanics or reward, is the most compelling content a designer can make for me. The STF system, and the rewards that come from it, have almost no value to me as a player. I don’t need the Purple 387 if I already have the Blue 368. That’s as true for my STO characters as my Diablo characters. I often relate to Jerry Holkins/Tycho.. are these decisions relevant and appropriate for my character? Does it look right? Screw DPS, am I a badass or not? Where’s my Renegade-interrupt button? Clackity-clack.

    So what I’m really saying is, good job sir. I hope to see you giving a talk at GDC one of these days.

    • Hm, I wonder what we could hook up to Quartermaster with the system. I will have to check to see what hooks there are.

      Wouldn’t at all mind checking out GDC at some point. Right now I am hopeful I will make it down to Comic-Con.

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