The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART ONE

This is an article about game systems, using one of my favourite game series to illustrate some comments about game theory.

I love both Diablo II and Diablo III, having put hundreds of hours into both. Recently I started playing III again with my girlfriend after work, just as a way of winding down. Luckily for us little Ronan is not offended by this past-time and seems content to feed, sleep, or coo at us from his play-mat as long as we don’t run too long.

Alpha gamers are very vocal about how much they like D2 over D3, and Blizzard has been very forthcoming lately about mistakes and theorycraft around the game. Fans have deconstructed the game as well, but Blizzard’s analysis is very metric driven, which makes it interesting to me.

In both Diablos the player takes control of a single character and runs them through a series of procedurally generated levels. The view is isometric (top down — action figure view if you will) and the main action has the player using various powers to mow down huge hordes of enemies and collect loot: money, modifiers, junk, and powerful magical items. The story in both games is about the player and their allies stopping the lords of hell, usually led by Diablo, and other forces from destroying the world. It is seriously epic stuff, but the story is somewhat convoluted to accommodate game length.

While the story, user interface, and basic elements of both games are very similar there is a deep divide between game mechanics and the driving philosophies behind them. This is why many players hate Diablo III with a passion; if those mechanical changes take away what you loved about D2, very little will make you love D3 — the games are just too different to gamers with an eye for mechanics.

Interestingly, this phenomena reminds me of the fragmentation of the D&D audience with the release of 4th Edition, which was an enormous departure from previous editions of the game. Even more interestingly, some of the major shifts in Diablo III are also present in D&D 4th, especially structuring characters around an all-important primary attribute and the role of loot.

Let’s break down some of the major differences between the two games.

  • Levels
    • D2: Diablo II had a level cap of 99. Each time you leveled up you were given a skill point and a few attribute points. The skill tree had a great deal of breadth, as well as serious depth with 20 base levels in most skills. It could take you some time to max out the few skills used by your build.
      • Monster and item levels did not progress as far as player levels for the most part. Once you reached the final act on hell difficulty monsters rarely got more difficult. This allowed players to outlevel content that might be otherwise hard for their build to overcome.
      • Reaching level 99 and finishing your skill build was a huge deal. Quests often added extra skills and attribute points, ensuring that players wanted to finish all of them on every level.
    • D3: Diablo III has a level cap of 70 (although it has paragon levels, you don’t get new skills beyond 70). Each time you level up your stats increase and you get a new rune, skill, or skill slot. You don’t have any permanent choices to make, and you can switch your skills out with ease.
      • Level in D3 serves an entirely different purpose than it does in D2. It mostly serves as a throttle for gear and a way to slowly distribute skills and powers over the early parts of the game so the player does not drown in choice and has some sense of progression.
      • There is less sense of building a character in D3 because of the way level is used. You certainly would not see people rolling different types of Paladins — you can just change skills whenever you want, which is both good and bad (also very much like D&D 4th)
  • Attributes
    • D2: In Diablo II each attribute functioned more or less the same for every character. While you could gimp your barbarian by maxing INT instead of STR, you sure had more mana. This could actually be useful for some builds. This was compounded by the fact that not all sources of damage depended on a prime attribute, often the level of the skill made the largest difference in damage done.
      • The balance between player choice in attributes was measure against the chance of making mistakes or just confusion as to what each build required.
      • Attributes offered a minimal, but impactful point of customization, both on gear and on leveling up. Sadly, like much of D2 they were not explained well enough for casual players to get it.
    • D3: Diablo III has a very rigid sense of character attributes. Players want to maximize the primary attribute for their class and vitality for hit points, and can safely ignore the other two beyond minimal levels.
      • Attributes are mostly increased through items, increasing the importance of gear.
      • Attribute customization is minimal. You want as much in your primary and vitality as possible and can only really get it from gear.
      • There is no common resource pool — each class has its own way of powering effects, removing the need for balancing mana for your build.
      • The Primary Attribute Mechanic when combined with the Damage Per Second system are what I consider to be one of the cardinal flaw of Diablo III, which I will have to explain in a later post. Just keep in mind how rigid the system is — there really is no choice here, beyond optimizing gear. What is the point in having four attributes when my character is really ever going to use two?

As you can see, there is a huge difference in just two basic systems. In next week’s post I will cover Gear, Damage, Scaling, and Abilities, before delving into the differences in reasoning and where they come from.

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One comment on “The Two Diablos: D&D, Game Mechanics, and Design Philosophy PART ONE

  1. […] This week I am continuing my breakdown of the main mechanical differences between Diablo 2 and Diablo 3 [Click here to read the first part] […]

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