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Diablo III: An Eternal Abusive Relationship
by Eric Schwarz on 05/31/12 02:45:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Though the question of fun is often at the core of game design, engineering different emotions is just as important in crafting an experience.  Just as pacing of gameplay is necessary to keep the interest of players, so too is an emotional pacing needed to provide the highs and lows that keep our attention focused.  A monotonous experience simply isn't going to keep someone happy for very long.

Diablo III is an interesting game because of how completely and explicitly it depends upon its feedback loops and its expertly-designed pacing.  While the feeling of defeating a new enemy, unlocking a new achievement, finding a new piece of gear, or leveling up is certainly fantastic, there are many, many parts of the game created exclusively to build tension and even outright annoy us.

In this article, I'll be looking at a few of the ways Diablo III manipulates players into loving it even as they find themselves screaming at their computers.

You're Dead, Sit in the Corner

Diablo III's death penalty is probably the most pure example of creating a mechanic entirely around frustration that it has to offer.  Granted, at first, it seems death is exceptionally cheap compared to many other multiplayer games. Diablo II, for instance, penalized players with a very real drop in experience and gold, such that one death was annoying, but many deaths could result in hours of lost progress - this has largely been dropped for Diablo III.  A aside from a small penalty to current item durability, only one thing is truly at stake: your time.

Initially, death is cheap.  Below level 10, players won't even suffer the durability penalty upon dying, making sure that in the early learning stages of the game, experimentation with the controls is encouraged.  By level 10, it's assumed players will have mastered the interface, and the penalty for failure becomes a bit more severe to match.  Death at lower levels and difficulties is infrequent, but as the game goes on and Nightmare, Hell and Inferno modes roll around, suddenly that modest 10% durability penalty becomes a major gold sink as death becomes an inevitability, and finally a routine occurrence often necessary for victory.

Death in Diablo III comes more frequently the longer the game goes, and serves to infuriate players by keeping gameplay just out of reach, while also motivating them to avoid death in the future.

It's here that Diablo III truly begins to make players rage, because with frequent deaths, they will often spend more time in the penalty box, running back to the spot they died at, rather than actually fighting enemies.  The chance to play itself becomes positive reinforcement: do well, and you get to have another pull at the slot machine.  Lose, and you'll wait your turn a little while longer.

Additionally, checkpoints are engineered in the later stages of the game to accentuate and increase the distance traveled upon death, as returning to the battlefield will often require several minutes of boring, eventless running through stages that have previously been cleared out.  A similar tactic was used in World of Warcraft, with long periods of time spent in ghost form after death, allowing players to explore the world, but not interact with it directly.  It's a method that is nearly brutal in how heavy-handed it comes across - but like an idiot, no matter how many times the game made me run back to the spot I died, I never once stopped playing.

In multiplayer, it's possible to instantly teleport to other players from town, which dulls the death penalty somewhat and keeps the game moving forward.  However, a second, and initially hidden penalty, presents itself upon more frequent deaths: an ever-increasing timer that makes you wait just a little longer for every failure.  It's never long enough to actively impede gameplay, but those few lost seconds can often mean the difference between a victory, and the entire party being wiped out.  The emotional anxiety created by just a couple of extra seconds is more than enough to get the lesson across.

The Zen of Grind

Many games, both traditional role-playing titles as well as more modern social games, rely heavily on the player aspiring to particular goals that are often only attainable through repetitive processes.  There's often a very fine line between an acceptable amount of grind and too much, and it varies from person to person.  It's easy to cynically dismiss some games as "mindless" grinds, and as a cheap and effective way of inflating the size of a game, and while this is sometimes the case, grinding can be just as finely-crafted an experience.

Blizzard's Diablo series is a prime example of grinding used to provide emotional highs and lows.  Though there are some story objectives for players to accomplish in Diablo III, and the game is certainly fun and enjoyable on a kinesthetic level, the "real" game is actually in the carefully-structured mix of long- and short-term goals, most of them largely devoid of meaning beyond the system itself, but appealing for social and obsessive-compulsive reasons.

Achievements are the easiest to put under the microscope, because they really are just a series of goals for players to chase after.  There's a huge mix of them, some designed to encourage players to interact with the game in new ways, others simply to encourage game completion, and others are aspirational, unlocking only after extremely specific and difficult requirements are met.  Some of them even boil down to taking advantage of basic game functions, like inviting friends into a session.

Diablo III is littered with achievements, hundreds of them in fact, and they exist to structure gameplay both moment-to-moment and over a period of months or even years.

The mix in these goals provides a very natural ebb and flow to gameplay, a series of rewards that start out easy to earn and gradually become more scarce.  They provide motivation just as much as they structure play once the story is long finished, and the feeling of losing out on an achievement at the last minute serves as great motivation to keep trying and replaying the game, without ever forcing the player to do anything.  While we often speak derisively of players who actively seek achievements above all else, in Diablo III it is one of the only things propping the game up after the first play-through.

Other game elements are less explicit, but rely on frustration and well-paced rewards to drive them all the same.  The loot system is the most obvious example.  As a literal slot machine, it can be infuriating to play over and over, finding endless amounts of equipment, but none of it what we really want - yet we keep playing anyway, because the promise of something better, any minute now, is fulfilled just often enough to maintain our interest.

The slot machine manifests both in a long-term fashion (waiting for that next item to drop) as well as in the short term (a given item dropping to the ground to be claimed, or waiting a few seconds to identify a rare piece), and it is expertly tuned to provide rewards just as our interest begins to wane.  Players go back to kill the same bosses again and again, even if they receive poor-quality items nine out of ten times, because the rush of finding something truly great makes it worthwhile.

The Heat of Battle

The design of combat and placement of encounters is just as strongly manipulated as any other element of gameplay.  Boss encounters occur nearly hourly, almost on the hour, and Diablo III actually takes pains to include boss fights, many of them pointless story-wise, solely to keep the pace of the experience going and break up the standard combat.  Though I've been critical of the game recently, truth be told when examined from this purely functional perspective, some of the more bizarre and pointless story events suddenly take on a new life.

The spawning of elite and champion monsters in the field is just as carefully manipulated, despite random elements being thrown into the mix.  Almost unflinchingly, there are about three or four of these tougher monsters (or groups of them) encountered every 20-odd minutes of gameplay, regardless of difficulty level.  The random modifiers on each, coupled with the prospect of better loot drops, ensures that gameplay is always varied, while also tying in with additional game systems.

The world of Sanctuary is full of boss monsters which have zero story value at all, but are all lined up one-by-one to be slaughtered by players in sequence, all in service of gameplay pacing.

Interestingly, this doesn't change on the harder difficulty levels.  There are more elite and champion monsters to be found all over the game world, but because they take much longer to defeat individually, the same pacing of about three or four every 20 minutes is maintained almost perfectly.  Each encounter is more demanding, and the base level of challenge increases as those enemies get tougher, but the overall pace and flow of combat stays nearly identical.

Though it's interesting to talk about the pacing of encounters, what really strikes me as interesting is the way in which the very mechanics of combat are created around micro-incidents of tension, apprehension, frustration and release.  Though I'm on record as being generally against cooldowns in games, Diablo III is one of the few games I've played where they have felt so natural to the design of the game.

Combat in Diablo III is effectively the most fundamental, distilled form of resource management, requiring a constant balancing act on the part of players as resources are spent and filled in equal measure, and the interplay between health, mana and cooldown timers serves to create a strong repeating cycle of gameplay:

It's an extremely simple relationship, and goes both ways between each resource - skills require mana, and are needed to restore health, while health is also necessary to continue attacking enemies safely, and regenerating mana.  Many characters have skills which are also able to restore health or mana in various ways, sometimes by putting a third resource at risk - such as the Barbarian's "Fury Generator" skills, which are melee attacks that build mana (Fury).  Incidentally, this was a system also employed by Dungeon Siege III, perhaps even a bit more explicitly.

Not only does managing these resources form a very natural pace to the combat, an attack-and-retreat flow that becomes more apparent the longer the game goes on, it also creates a constant feeling of "almost there", such that players will always feel wanting for something, whether that's more health, more mana to use a skill, or for a cooldown to end.  It's an emotional state which is only ever resolved once battle is over and the enemies are dead, but resumes as soon as the player moves on.

Closing Thoughts

More than anything else, Diablo III demonstrates the effectiveness of relatively simple mechanics and systems when used intelligently to fuel one another.  Diablo III is rarely much fun for its own sake - while it is attractive and has a good game feel to it, the mechanics governing play exist almost solely to keep players in a state of suspense.  As a result, there's almost always something more for players to come back to, and creating new things for players to accomplish can be as simple as adding some more achievements or a new modifier for boss monsters.

If there is a downside to this, it's that the lack of true satisfaction with the game can eventually become wearisome.  One reason Diablo-style games haven't captivated me too much in the last few years over the long term is because the systems are too transparently manipulative for my liking, and I know that I'm pretty much never going to "win" the game - success is a function of me putting it back on the shelf or uninstalling it, not mastering its mechanics or completing the story.  While effective for online experiences, as a model I don't think it works well within the single-player space, where closure is key to satisfaction and fulfillment.

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E McNeill
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"The chance to play itself becomes positive reinforcement: do well, and you get to have another pull at the slot machine."

Part of the issue with slot machines was that they are using an extrinsic reward as the sole motivator. Similarly, in many social games, the big rewards involve skipping most of the gameplay. Shouldn't "the chance to play itself" be the perfect example of an intrinsic reward?

Similarly, you say "like an idiot... I never once stopped playing" and call the game "transparently manipulative" and "rarely much fun for its own sake". It's all well and good to find a game too empty of deep mechanics, but you also seem to be *reproaching* Diablo 3 for a well-paced and attention-keeping design. While I definitely think that reward schedules can be used exploitatively, I think the Diablo series is a good example of a game that at least attempts to use randomness and pacing to create interesting challenges and intrinsic rewards. I could expound on some of these challenges, if you'd like.

I wrote a bit about this blurred line earlier. You can see I'm still conflicted, but that's because I'm not prepared to concede reward schedules (i.e. pacing) and other design techniques to the guys who truly are as "transparently manipulative" as you claim:

Eric Schwarz
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I wasn't really trying to get into a discussion of whether it's evil or not - only how the mechanism works in Diablo.

I don't think Diablo is as random as you say it is. Some odds are very low and sometimes you do have streaks of bad luck, but that's no different from a slot machine. I doubt there are any true random numbers in the game, and certainly would not be surprised that there are measures taken to "bump" things in the right direction (i.e. making sure a yellow item drops every X minutes) to keep the player interested. Either that, or the spread is simply such that the probabilities have fallen within a perfectly ideal bounds to ensure constant engagement.

E McNeill
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You're not using the word evil, but you do include a value judgement, right? You certainly make it sound like Diablo is a game that tricks you into playing it. I don't usually see the word "manipulative" used with a positive connotation.

You make a good point about randomness; I should use another term. There's probably an interesting conversation about how games can hide or display their probabilistic functions (and whether they should).

Robert Boyd
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I disagree with you on your closing statements.

"I know that I'm pretty much never going to "win" the game" - that implies that it's impossible to win the game which just isn't true. There's a very clear goal for the player - defeat Diablo. Defeat Diablo on your difficulty level of choice and you've won the game.

"Diablo III is rarely much fun for its own sake" - I strongly disagree with this. If you took away the achievements and the grinding and gave the player access to all of the skills and an assortment of equipment from the very beginning, you'd still have a fun game. Even without the lure of even more power, it's fun to design your own hero or heroine by selecting which skills, passives, and equipment you'd like to use and once you have your character, it's fun to use your abilities to lay waste to hordes of enemies.

One thing that I thought Diablo III did that was very clever was remove the idea of a regular default attack. Instead, each class has a variety of Primary Abilities that they can use freely and that are much more interesting mechanically than just "Hit enemy with weapon."

Eric Schwarz
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The issue with "winning" Diablo III's story is it isn't definitive enough. While beating Diablo is a clearly identifiable main goal, the focus on replaying the game with different characters, builds, items, on different difficulty levels, in multiplayer vs. solo etc. all contribute to a feeling that I can never really finish the game in the same way I can finish one with a more definite ending as defined both in story and mechanics. Diablo III only really has a story ending; the mechanics and gameplay say otherwise.

I agree that Diablo III is kinesthetically enjoyable - I said as much above - but I don't think it's enough to sustain the game. Maybe I'm a little jaded, but that sort of thing wears off for me very quickly. Shiny new graphics and good game feel are important, but only initially - afterwards, it's the gameplay mechanics themselves I start caring about, and in my opinion many of the changes made to Diablo III's systems and mechanics (most notably loot and character building) sap it of a lot of the depth Diablo II sported. I didn't think it was really relevant to talk about that for this article, but I can see why maybe my stance might not make quite so much sense without the proper context.

E McNeill
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I agree. I'm not sure about high-level play or the auction house yet, but so far I'm very impressed with the systems design. Sirlin gave a good example / analysis:

Joshua Sterns
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Perhaps win is the wrong term. DIII will never be completed. There is always some other build, item, mp team, difficulty, etc. to try. In contrast, you can complete a Zelda game because eventually there isn't any more game left.

For me, DIII needs the gradual rise to greatness. I used to mod DII. Max everything out and then go hunt for loot. Game got old quick. Had a lot more fun going the legit route.

Harold Myles
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I've played a few hundred hours of D3 and I am really impressed with it.

I couldn't agree more with the "almost there" feeling you pointed out. It is pretty amazing to keep that feeling going on for so long.

Ramin Shokrizade
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This new concept of "Fun Pain" in games seems to be a popular trend for developers as I first mentioned in this article (and classic video of a Zynga designer) from last November:

Charles Egenbacher
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Hi Eric. Interesting article on Diablo III. Thanks very much for posting!

On a related note, I found an interesting little article that you may enjoy. It kind of runs in parallel to your topic about keeping players hooked in Diablo III.

Also, there's a link in the bottom of that article that takes you to an interesting deconstruction of D3 from a designer's standpoint. Pretty interesting stuff.

Thanks again for the post!

Eric Schwarz
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Thanks, I'll be sure to read that article shortly!

EDIT: That article is spot-on about what the problem is (poor loot frequency and to a degree poor loot variety/etc. in general), but that's something I figured out while I was playing the beta and learned about the Auction House. Part of me wants to say that it's simply an unfortunate consequence of that change, but another part of me, the cynical one, thinks that it was intended all along in an attempt to encourage Auction House use, due to the real currency connection.

Either way, the game needs (or doesn't, depending on your perspective) an expansion or patches to significantly improve the quality and frequency of item drops (and as I said, there need to be more varied and interesting items in general). Otherwise I don't think I'm going to go back to it anytime soon, because unlike Diablo II the late/endgame content simply does not hook me.