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

After reading my last two articles you might be forgiven for thinking that I dislike Diablo 3. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love D3, both on PC and on console and have sunk a fair chunk of time into it. This series of articles was spurred by a recent bout of play with my Girlfriend and I playing D3 while hanging out at home with our 2 month old son, (occasionally joined by her teenage son). I love it.

Playing the the current iteration of D3 has been a great deal of fun, but I can clearly see that as good as the game is now, there are deep flaws within the basic design. These flaws are so deep that it has taken a powerhouse like Blizzard, arguably the greatest design house in computer gaming, to fix them. This week I will discuss those flaws, how they weaken the game, and then how Blizzard found a way to fix them, despite the flaws in the system.

For today, I will skip the idea that D3 is a fundamentally different game than D2, and focus on mechanical  and the gameplay contract. Let’s start with talking about what a gameplay contract is and a few other definitions.

  1. The Gameplay Contract:  I could call this the ludic contract, from the Ludonarrative dissonance terms, but I prefer clarity in this case. The Gameplay Contract is entirely about the expectations that the player has when playing the game. Good game design will reinforce the Gameplay Contract, while bad game design will clash often clash with it.
  2. Contract Dissonance: Contract Dissonance is when a mechanic, or narrative element clashes with a Gameplay Contract. A great example of this is when a player is playing a badass character and then a cut-scene occurs in which their character is rendered helpless and captured. It breaks the Gameplay Contract, the promise that their character is badass.
  3. Systems Clash: Systems Clash is when two game systems work against each other. D3 suffers from this problem extensively, although I would argue that Blizzard has managed to polish the game to the extent that they the systems clash does not create contract dissonance. This is my own definition, and is not always part of the whole ludonarrative dissonance that others have defined and I am calling Contract Dissonance and The Gameplay Contract.

The Goals of Diablo III and The Gameplay Contract

When Blizzard set out to build Diablo III they had years of additional experience with systems, especially World of Warcraft, but also all of the lessons learned in game’s made outside of their company. Blizzard is a very R&D focused game studio, and so they put a lot of though into their games and tried to apply these lessons to D3’s design.

  • Blizzard felt that cool loot drops were a central part of The Gameplay Contract for the Diablo series. Given that Diablo is known for that, this was a safe bet. Originally they focused on rare items, since these were favoured by many players late in D2. From their World of Warcraft experience they decided that since finding cool loot was a large focus of The Gameplay Contract, then said loot should be the primary way that a player customized their character.
  • Blizzard was also conscious of the way that gameplay congeals around a small variety of effective builds and wanted to fight against that. Their skill system, reminiscent of Guild Wars One in some ways, allows a player to switch out abilities and try a wide variety of builds. While very, very flexible there is not a lot of depth in these builds.
  • For now I am leaving out the fact that The Gameplay Contract that D3 be like D2 may be broken. I’m saving that next week, so I can fixate on a pet theory of mine involving D&D 4th edition.

Systems Clash in Diablo III

If loot is the primary fashion in which a player customizes their character, then it follows that:

a) There needs to be a wide variety of useable equipment and bonuses on said equipment.

and

b) There needs to be some variety in the top tier, or most desireable bonuses on said loot.

Initially there was an enormous variety bonuses on D3`s equipment. Unfortunately the vast majority of those bonuses were useless to most classes.

Rares, the standard high level items, could have up two minor bonuses and up to four major bonuses. The minor bonuses were interesting but are ultimately trivial while the major bonuses ranged from useless to incredibly important. How did this happen? System clash.

D2’s item system is and was almost perfect. A few games have improved upon it in some ways over the years, but it still reigns supreme. D3 is build on that item system, but the game that supports it works in an entirely different fashion, which created a massive Mechanical Clash that Blizzard did not clean up until the release of D3’s expansion.

This Mechanical Clash occurs between several of the core mechanics of D3. It pits the purpose, the very Gameplay Contract of the itemization system, finding cool randomized loot that can be used to customize your character in a variety of ways, against the DPS mechanic and the primary stat mechanic.

  • In D3 maximizing DPS is of great importance since it is the basis of damage for ALL abilities and skills. In D2 builds that depended on damage from spells could often get away with a weapon with lower DPS. In D3 you almost always go with the highest DPS that you can get, with rare exceptions for a few important stats. This go big or go home DPS mechanic severely limits item builds.
  • The primary stat mechanic is nearly as crushing to item variety. In D3 each class has a primary stat. This stat gives them a massive damage increase in addition to the small bonuses that the stat already comes with. In D2 each stat had a set function more or less regardless of class, while D3 changed this up completely. In doing so they removed almost any reason for any class to focus on any stat other than their primary and vitality.
  • Caveat: In Diablo 2 items with Life-Drain were extremely desireable. In order to promote variety, Blizzard capped life-drain at a very small percentage of damage, especially at high levels. Unfortunately, in an oversight that seems very odd to me, they created Life on Hit/Life per second, which are even more necessary for most builds at high level play than life drain was in D2. This was just a mistake, really.

Shortly after release, as players started to get into the endgame, the limitations caused by this Mechanical Clash started to create an enormous Contract Dissonance. Players quickly realized that be best endgame gear consisted of a small number of highly desireable properties with everything else essentially being junk. The worst offenders were items with undesirable primary stats, which were just useless to most players.

Very quickly players whittled down the item system to a small number of desireable properties. Since there was no offset to be had by maximizing skill levels because of the DPS system, most builds had to maximize

  • Primary Attribute
  • Vitality
  • Resist All
  • Life per Second/Life per Hit
  • Primary properties related to damage (attack speed, critical, bonus damage). Given the way that DPS functions in D3 these ended up being more important than they might seem at first.

That really is a short list, especially since not all item types can have all of those properties. The DPS system and the primary attribute system prevented many of the abilities that were randomly assigned to items from having any use to most characters creating itemization that turned out mostly junk with a tiny number of desireable items and no variety at the top. This broke the Gameplay Contract and by making it hard to find cool loot and having very little variety in what was considered useful.

It is my opinion that the DPS and primary attribute systems were too deeply embedded into D3 to be changed once the game was live. This left Blizzard’s development team with the unenviable task of working around the mechanical clash to fix the gameplay contract.

Polishing a Turd into a Diamond

Let’s face, D3 was always going to do well. Much of the success in the design comes from Blizzard’s mastery of UI, look and feel, and the simple stuff that every other company seems to fuck up. Still, breaking the gameplay contract for cool loot did hurt the game. Blizzard fixed this rift with two interesting workarounds, iterated and polished over time.

  • Undesirable properties were removed from items, or shuffled off into minor property slots. Playing a character with a Dex primary stat? that’s cool we won’t drop loot with any other stat. other desirable properties became more and more frequent. This did away with the constant useless drops. (Along the way rares became the new blues in terms of frequency and lower level items simply became fodder for crafting)
  • So if every piece of equipment has a very small selection of stats that are necessary for high level play, how do you promote variety without going back and fixing that pesky mechanical clash? The answer is unique properties on artifact and set items! Basically Blizzard created a series of special items that have gameplay altering effects on them. These have all of the desirable base stats, plus some cool ability that customizes your build, even changing the way some skills function.

It wasn’t pretty, but these solutions repaired the Gameplay Contract, even though the mechanical clash remains and still limits the game. Next week I will tackle why D2 and D3 were so different in terms of basic mechanics and how that also breaks the gameplay contract for older players.

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

  1. […] with the differences between Diablo II and Diablo III, two of my favourite computer Action RPGs. The third post discussed how the systems clash between the Damage and Primary Attribute systems and the […]

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