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

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]

Before I delve into the the major differences again, I think that it is important to point out that there is a huge disparity of time between the two releases. Diablo 2 was released in 2000 and Diablo 3 was released in 2012. Interestingly the editions of D&D in publication at the time if release were 3rd and 4th edition respectively: I find that significant for several reasons, and I will write about that after I break down the major feature differences, likely next week.

  • Skills
    • D2: Diablo 2 was an early pioneer of skill tree systems, and certainly the most dominant game of the time to use them. The skill trees offered both active, passive, and uniquely flavoured class skills like paladin auras or barbarian shouts. Each class had around 30 different skills once everything was unlocked. Each skill could take up to 20 skill points to maximize (excluding items, which could push the total up to 30 or more IIRC) in effectiveness.
      • A maximum level character could have up to 110 skill points at level 99, spread out over 30 skills with up to 20 levels this made for a large potential variety in builds.
        • Some skills were weaker than others or just did not fit into popular build strategies. Thus, despite the high potential variety, it was argued that actual variety was fairly small in top tier character builds. This was something they tried to address in D3.
      • Some skills had “sweet spots” other than maxing the skill out, while the main skills used by most builds generally desired a full 20 levels at level cap.
        • As a counterpoint, viable builds did have some variety within each build beyond just the core of that build.
        • Mana costs often increased as the skill went up in level. This could result in an odd situation or sweet spot where the player would not want to increase a skill just because the increased cost to effect ratio did not work out. Some skills would decrease in mana cost at higher skill levels as well, which was inconsistent.
      • Skill trees followed a set pattern to get to higher level branches on the tree. This led to characters having to take points in skills that they would not always use. It was fairly minor, but aggravating to some players.
    • D3: Diablo 3 moved away from the skill tree and followed an entirely different skill system. Skills are divided into active skills and passive skills. Each active skill has six runes that can alter the effects of the base skill, often radically. The idea behind this was that there would be a higher variety of builds in D3, since every skill is viable. In practice, however, the variety is limited in the same way as D2 since some skill/rune combos simply work better with the build you want. D3 makes it very easy to switch skills, runes, and passives which create a sense of fluidity in the character.
      • Instead of mana each class has its own unique power pool which helps create a unique flavour for the class.
        • Honestly, aside from different names and different colours the different resources do not really change playstyle too much. If you notice them at all, it is usually because you have run dry…
      • Runes often alter the damage type of the skill. This allows every class to build around certain damage types without limiting their endgame. On the other hand, given the way DPS scaling works in practice you want your skill damage types to match up with any weapon bonuses as much as possible, which can be limiting.
      • Skills in D3 do not have levels. This follows in the same vein as attributes. The way to make your skill more powerful is not to put skill points into it but rather to level your prime attribute, mostly through items, and increase the DPS of your weapon.
      • Items can radically alter some skills, often in very powerful ways.
  • Damage
    • D2: In Diablo 2 damage can come from multiple places. Spells had their own base damage determined by skill level. Strength added to melee weapon damage, while dexterity added ranged weapon damage. A mage character could viably use a weak weapon with desirable bonuses instead of having to max their DPS so long as they had a decent level of skill in their spells.
    • D3: In Diablo 3 all attacks use the same DPS, determined by the weapon the character wields and their primary attribute level. This same DPS level determines the characters base damage for all attacks. Thus your wizard had better well be really well armed.
      • I cannot emphasize how much this makes the two systems play differently, especially in conjunction with the primary attribute system. Weapons in D3 are ridiculously important and weapon damage, along with the bonuses accrued by equipment to your character`s primary stat take the place of skill levels as a provider of damage and even advancement. Shoehorning everything into one stat seems to reduce the variety of play in the game, which seems greatly at odds with the desire to promote variety.
      • The DPS system in D3 was the first indication to me that the game was overdesigned. I will discuss what I mean by that later, but basically it is a level of polish in a system that smooths the game out but makes it rather bland at the same time.
      • Oddly monsters in D3 mostly kill the player with ground effects.
  • Scaling
    • D2: In Diablo 2 monsters had a set power level based on what act on what difficulty level you encountered them on. Damage scaled based on weapon wielded, attributes, and to a huge extent the level of the skill being used. If an area was too tough the player could level up and keep trying until they overcame the enemy.
    • D3: In Diablo 3 difficulty scales with the player and player choices. If an area is too tough, which is unlikely given how smooth the game is, the player can change the difficulty (this is different than when it was first released, when it followed a similar system to d2). You cannot overcome content by outleveling it in the same way that you could in D2.
      • On the other hand you have the ability to start the game on a higher difficulty with new characters, which is nice.
      • The addition of paragon levels to D3 did add some customization to the game, although it is still limited by the game`s inflexible approach to stats.
  • Gear
    • D2: Gear is very important in Diablo 2. Items can make a huge difference in power level. Gear is randomized and is one of the major rewards of playing, beyond simply gaining levels. The Gear system in D2 influences a huge number of modern games.
      • Gear in D2 did scale, but that scaling was not nearly as regimented and the most powerful gear could be found and equipped long before reaching level 99.
    • D3: Gear in Diablo 3 follows the same scaling patterns as World of Warcraft and other MMOs, increasing greatly in power from level to level.
      • Until you reach maximum level in D3 your gear, especially your weapon is disposable. Find an awesome artifact? well it will be good for a few levels at least. This is because the whole game was designed around gear advancement and then balanced to perfection and beyond.
      • Gear in D3 is the main method of mechanical customization. I would go so far as to say that what to equip is the only meaningful choice beyond class that a D3 player must consider.
      • Gear in D3 has a large variety of properties, however, many of these properties are less desirable as others. DPS, Primary attributes, Vitality, and regeneration are of supreme importance. Given that character advancement is so dependent on gear desirable stats become must haves and the variety in gear is actually reduced to better or worse and a few rare abilities that only occur on artifacts.

Ultimately The gear system in D3 is where all of the overdesign problems came home to roost and I think it is at the root of why so many people feel the game was not better than its predecessor, despite a much bigger budget. I will tackle that next week!

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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.

The Hugo Awards: The Money Angle

I wanted to write something about the Hugo awards, but I don’t really know enough about them to contribute meaningfully to the discussion one way or another. I have never been to Worldcon, and as a self-published author who flies well below the radar I don’t expect to see any of my book up there anytime soon, nor do feel bad about that. I’m just here to write and entertain.

Personally I dislike both the extreme right, and extreme left getting involved in this debate. North American directional politics, fed by the twenty-four hours “news” channels and the pundit blogs, is capable of very little other than bringing rage and ruin to everything it touches right now. I hate to think that in the midst of the massive boom in genre fiction that this ugliness could turn people off, and possibly even stunt the growth of SF/F.

What interests me most about the whole debate is that none of the articles that I have read about the whole Kerfuffle, most of which are very good, none cover the economic aspect of winning an award.

I would not buy a book simply because it was a Hugo award winner. However, if I was on the fence about a book and saw that it won an award, that would make me more likely to buy it. An award is an indication of quality, at the very least.

Perhaps more importantly winning (or even being short-listed) an award acts as additional exposure acts for both the work and the author. It will not push a niche intellectual work to bestseller status, to be sure, but I am confident that winning an award, especially a prestigious award, will expose a book to new readers and elevate sales in almost all cases.

Many authors are ego driven enough to value the award above the sales that it generates. Some writers, however, are far more motivated by sales figures and really don’t care how they get them. Attaching “Hugo” to their name and book will get those extra sales and so they have an economic motive, regardless of what ideology they might be espousing to justify their actions.

So while there is an ideological battle here, which is very sad, there is also the simple fact that by gaming the system the Sad Puppies have gained publicity and increased sales. The people who are outraged by their actions are not in their intended readership and I suspect that they, or their publishers, know it. The very nature of their very public campaign, and the amount of publicity it generates for their works, win or lose, demonstrates that at least some of them are motivated by sales as well as ideology.

Making money is not a bad thing, of course, but while winning an award increases sales, battles like this can damage how people view the award, which degrades the value of the endorsement that the award represents.

Unfortunately, it is a hard problem to fix. Every system can be gamed, and as George RR Martin brilliantly stated changing the rules to stop this behaviour only feeds into the narrative of a liberal conspiracy at the Hugos promoted by the Sad Puppies. Incidentally this will get like minded people to buy more of their books as well. Readers will often support writers they feel are being persecuted, as I found out when this happened. After I complained, readers picked up on the attack and sales increased.

Which means that there is also a possible economic motive behind complaining about being persecuted, which can get people on your side and sell more books… 😦

P.S: I don’t like identity politics, but people who form factions to promote their works based on not being part of a certain clique are only engaging in reactionary identity politics.

Pitchfork Time: Externalizing Blame when a System Fails

When you want to know how things really work, study them when they’re coming apart. William Gibson, Zero History

Its that dude’s fault, get him and everyone like him!

One the biggest problems of modern society, as I see it, is our obsession with laying blame (and avoiding blame). I frequently encounter situations in life and work, where people are so focused on blame that they ignore the actual problem, often letting it get worse. A reasonable approach to a problem is to solve or contain it first and only then move on to analysis, which should concentrate on responsibility (blame), but also prevention.

This propensity towards blame becomes truly disturbing (and fascinating) when systems, ideologies, and institutions fail.  A failing ideology rarely accepts responsibility for its own failure, and instead often externalizes blame, looking to direct the anger of the people towards a convenient scapegoat. Blame is assigned to minorities, social classes, foreigners, homosexuals, or people who have different political or religious beliefs. We’ve seen just how ugly this can become, time and time again. Despite the ugliness, or perhaps because of it, this kind of conflict makes for an interesting Fantasy Story.

In previous musings, I have examined the potential systems and ideologies as villains in modern fantasy. The basic idea is that systems become corrupt and ideologies are never as perfect as they seem. When skewed badly enough they can become truly monstrous. The NSA surveillance scandal/Patriot act is an excellent example. I can almost feel The Eye of Sauron Homeland Security peering over my shoulder right now, just mentioning it. I am minded of William Gibson’s Spook Country, where the characters discuss how behaviors changed after 9/11, how we always consider the possibility of people listening to our calls now. Surprise! its true. This is an excellent example of a system starting to go awry, it is very easy to imagine how it could get worse and reach truly villainous levels. The power of an institution like the NSA makes for a truly epic villain, while remaining eminently believable since everyone who lives in modern society has felt the heavy hand of one of our institutions at one time or another. The human agents of the system provide the interactive component for a nice tale, normal men and women serving the dysfunctional and broken, almost victims themselves.

Here are a few generic examples of how this could play out in a Fantasy World:

1) The Bright Kingdom loses a war. The King is actually a terrible field commander, but no one is willing to tell him that. The Kingdom is humiliated by the loss and needs to pay a rather hefty tribute to the victor. Additional taxation makes the already irritated people angrier, with major unrest beginning. Before things get out of hand the King decides that he can deflect blame off himself by blaming the rich Dwarven tradesmen. The Dwarves are easy to blame because they are a relatively new people to the Bright Kingdom, and racial prejudice is always depressingly easy to to stir up. Plus the Dwarves have money, which helps pay off the war debt and line the king’s coffer. The King has his agents stir the pot with rumours, and then “discovers” that the Dwarves have been acting as spies for the enemy! The protagonists would a Dwarven Family trying to survive and a noble who sees through the king’s scheme.

2) Long ago after a terrible conflict with Demon worshiping cultists the people of the Midlands created a series of mystic Guardians to watch over their cities. These Guardians are the souls of the Greatest heroes lost in the conflict encased in powerful magical armour. Over time the Guardians have become synonymous with justice, righting many wrongs in their constant vigilance against the Demon cultists. An entire Order has grown around the Guardians, assisting them and growing strong. Problem is that the Guardians have started to go loopy and kill people who are not cultists. The Order fears that if people find out that Guardians are breaking that they will lose influence and possibly look weak to their enemies. So they blame the erratic behavior of  the Guardians on magic and crackdown on “illegal magic, rounding up all mages.” The protagonist would be a mage who saw a Guardian go crazy.

3) The Scarlet Emperor is advised by the Guild of Celestial Mathematics. The Celestial Mathematics’ Calculations have just failed in a key prediction and adherents of the idea are frustrated. The Emperor is displeased and the Guild risks falling out of favour, In truth the problem lies with the idea of Celestial Mathematics, but instead of blaming the system the Guild decides to blame the scribes who performed calculations. They scribes declared unclean and their families are exiled. The protagonists would be one of the family members, and a mercenary bodyguard.

When a powerful entity lays blame on others to preserve itself, all kinds of chaos and brutality can ensue. Many of the great genocides, wars, and injustices of modern history begin with this sort of action. Fantasy is a great genre to examine this tendency. The writer can delve deeply into race, religion, and creed without involving real world groups, or even invent a distinction to act as a focus for prejudice, like the ability to wield magic. This step back from reality lets us examine the idea of prejudice and its relationship to externalizing blame in a pure environment. The reaction to this sort of  blame makes an entertaining backdrop for any fantasy tale, especially those of a more modern bent. Failing systems and prejudice itself are the sort of villains that we intuitively understand in the modern day, and still seem strong to us. You don’t really need to look very far these days to run across examples of massive over-reach from our largest institutions.

Ideologies as Villains in Fantasy

“Ideology: (plural ideologies) a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy:

  • the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”  Oxford English Dictionary

“To err is human, to persist in error is diabolical.” Georges Canguilhem, Ideology and Rationality in the History of the Life Sciences

Recently I posted about how systems are an excellent villain for modern works of Fantasy. Just as systems can become corrupt and run down over time, so can the ideologies underpinning them. In fact, the two generally go hand in hand. Today’s blog post is about the idea of using an ideology as a villain in a work of fantasy.

Ideologies have a life cycle. They start as theories, usually a gathering of ideas put together in a scholarly fashion. This theory describes some important part of social, political, or economic reality in a convincing manner. If properly ideological it predicts that following certain patterns and systems prescribed by the theory will result in a great leap forward or even a grand utopia (or the reverse: staving off Armageddon!  as is popular with modern ideologies, which like to be all cool and dark). Once the theory reaches a critical point it is disseminated to society as a whole. People encounter and accept the ideology and eventually either comes to power by being  popular or appealing to an elite group. The disciples of the ideology then try to apply the ideology to reality.

With most ideologies the initial application results in an improvement in some areas (new ideologies are often adopted as old ones fail, which makes the bar for improvement very low). This encourages the disciples to apply the ideology even more diligently, often in questionable ways. The heady mix of theory and power also starts to corrupt. At this starts running into cases where it is not the best solution. Ideologies are perfect on paper, but few complex prescriptive theories survive full contact with reality: no idea is perfect. These failures frighten certain types of adherents, who seek to blame anything but their beloved ideology for the failure, often lashing out with whatever power they have. Sometimes the ideology gets modified to meet reality, but often more fanatical disciples will prevail and attempt to apply the ideology more rigorously. This doubling down only creates more failures and starts to turn people against the ideology. As the systems that based on a particular ideology distort or fail more and more the underlying ideology suffers from an identity crisis.

Truly drastic measures like The Final Solution, The Three Bitter Years, The Inquisition, and so many others are often enacted as a result of a collapsing ideology. The ends justify the means in desperate times;  people tend to be more fanatical about ideas that they have really invested in. These ideologies in winter, with the true believers desperately groping for anything that can keep their beloved theory (and the position they have gained because of it) going, make excellent villains in any story.

I will use a favoured ideology from my own work Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale to illustrate.

The Theory

Descriptive: The Reckoning was a great cataclysm caused by the fallout of a devastating war between powerful magic-users called the Gifted. The Reckoning mucked up the world pretty bad and the remaining Gifted were forced to band together with the last remaining City, Krass, just to survive. The Gifted swore an oath to protect the city in exchange for shelter. When the storms finally broke, the survivors emerged to find a world greatly altered by tainted magic, full of hostility.

Prescriptive: Because magic caused the Reckoning, magic is dangerous. Because magic is dangerous the Gifted must be controlled.

Systems arising from the Theory

  • The Chosen: The strongest of the Gifted who survived the reckoning were called the Chosen. They were allowed to keep their magic, but had to swear an Oath to Protect the City and Upholds its laws. This was considered an imperfect solution at the time, but beat out mutual destruction. The Chosen were powerful to begin with, but the power of those who survived only grew. The oath still binds them, however.
  • The Deliberative: The Deliberative is a body that oversees and polices magic in the Domains. Among other things they administer a test to all children, to see if they will develop magic. Those that will are taken away to be trained. They can choose to become Vassals or Gladiators.
  • The Vassals: Gifted who are sundered from the destructive and dangerous aspects of their magic are called Vassals. They generally serve the State, the Chosen, or the Deliberative for a certain period before they are granted full citizenship in the Domains. This period of service is seen as recompense for their kind causing the Reckoning.
  • The Gladiators: Some Gifted don’t want to go through the sundering. Early on these were sworn to the legions or as the bodyguards of Chosen at war. Chosen frequently fell in battle and pragmatism dictated replacements were required. Duels were fought over who replaced a Chosen when they fell. These grew into the Gladiatorial games, which were seen as a way to train Gifted to use magic in combat, weed out the weak, and familiarize the people of the Domains with potential new Chosen.

Failures of the Theory

  • The Chosen are too Powerful: While the Oath binds the Chosen, it is open to interpretation, and creates an odd dynamic among them. The arena system eliminates potential rivals, ensuring the Chosen remain in power. Many Chosen attempt to manipulate the game in order to ensure that their favoured candidates win. The Chosen don’t grow old, so the only way to get rid of them is through violence. Their main rivals are other Chosen, the political institutions that they are sworn to uphold,  and outside enemies.
  • Segregation is bad: Separating the Gifted from the populace keeps them from understanding each other.
  • Waste of Useful Gifted: The early games were more lethal. The people hated the Gifted. The Chosen were harsher. Few Gladiators survived, which robbed the armies and agencies of the Domains of potential assets.
  • Heretics: Any Gifted who does not adhere to the ideas of the Domains regarding magic is branded a heretic. The Domains have historically Chosen to shoot first and ask questions later with Heretics. This was not much of a problem in the early, expansionist days of the Empire, but now creates problems when diplomacy is a better solution.
  • Family problems: Separating Gifted children from their families creates problems. In the days when the Reckoning was still memory and not legend, people saw the need. Now it is seen as cruel, and many rebel hiding their Gifted Children. This creates heretics within the Domains. Since the penalties for this are harsh, these people all become rebels.
  • Great Games: The Gladiatorial games have taken on a life of their own. Imagine if popular professional sports were to intermingle with politics and tradition. It is now the system that dominates all others in the Domains.

Ideology as an enemy in Bloodlust: A Gladiator’s Tale

Magic is power. Magic must be controlled. The Gift is now a curse of sorts. While the ideology of controlling the Gifted has made the Domains a safer place, the Gifted see it as unfair. The Great Games have become an obsession and have grown to such a stature that they drive the politics and the economy of the Domains in many ways. This is ugly for the Gifted who become Gladiators, but worse for the enemies of the Domains who become fodder for the tests and trials of of the arena. Vested interests make it hard to change the Great Games, and thus hard to re-integrate the Gifted with the people. The Chosen use the games for social control and to battle for influence.

This ideology is a villain in Bloodlust because it forces Gavin down the path of the Gladiator so that he can keep his magic. It prevents him from seeking knowledge and exploring  the wider world because he is seen as a danger: a living weapon of mass-destruction and not a human being.