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What the current RPG can learn from Diablo 1
by Joshua McDonald on 02/09/12 06:45:00 pm   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.


Although Blizzard's Diablo basically invented the Action RPG subgenre and influenced many other RPGs, it wasn't just innovation that made it a great game. Though outdated in many areas, there are other aspects of the game that are rarely if ever done as well in the games that came after (including its sequel). Having gone back and played it recently, these are the things that stood out to me.

You fight an enemy type. Not an enemy level:
In my opinion, one of the worst trends in RPGs is representing power by a little number next to the enemy's health bar. A skeleton that looks and acts just like one from earlier in the game will literally be 100 times as powerful. And it will be the same power as the giant you just fought that happened to be the same level. Sure, Diablo did some reskinning, but it carefully limited how powerful each model could get.

The automatic argument most people make against this is that you need too much art to keep changing enemy types, but this isn't true. In fact, it's one place where the limitation actually leads to better game design.

Instead of a level 20 character fighting two level 20 goblins and a level 40 character fighting two level 40 ogres, maybe the level 40 character will fight an ogre surrounded by a horde of goblins. Or maybe the ogre will be a mage that summons goblins. Since these goblins are the exact same power as those the player has fought previously, their character's progress is highly visible ("I remember when one of these guys used to be hard"), yet they are still challenged. Instead of changing the stats on each enemy, change the context under which they are fought. This will actually add more variety than making a bunch of new models that are functionally the same as the old ones.

Anything had a realistic chance of an awesome loot drop:
The key word in this sentence is "realistic". A .00001% chance doesn't count. Further, don't confine specific loot to specific enemies or areas (other than loosely connecting power of loot with power of enemies). Setting which items drop from which enemies encourages grindy behavior as players seek specific equipment, while loosening this up encourages players to just play the game and enjoy the occasional great drop. If players know that they have a reasonable chance at getting a great drop from any playing session, it greatly increases the excitement they feel when going through the regular game tasks.

If you want to make some items that the player can choose to obtain (rather than relying on randomness), make those items reliable drops (ex: dragon boss always drops sword X) or purchasable so that they player doesn't feel like effort to gain that item is simply wasted until they get a lucky session in.


Fewer item slots made individual pieces of equipment more meaningful:
When you can equip 20 different items that all give stats, a loot drop rarely makes a significant visible difference in your performance. Diablo, if I remember correctly, had 7, and I tended to notice a significant difference most of the time when one of them got replaced.

An alternative if you like a lot of slots is to have a few with very specialized roles that do not include giving stats. Low level trinkets in WoW function like this (i.e. Gnomish battle chicken and Linken's Boomerang do not give stats), but at higher levels, they just turn into stat sticks like everything else you equip or have useful but very passive effects.


Shops had equipment that was both random and good:
Getting gold in Diablo was more rewarding than in any RPG I've played since because the shops, on occasion, would carry really awesome items. Likewise, good drops that you couldn't use sold for a lot, so finding those was still exciting. Naturally, this becomes a more complex issue in MMOs because of gold buying, but if it's not an MMO, make money fun.


Minimal clutter in item drops:
In many modern games, you get so many drops that are potentially good that to feel like you aren't missing stuff, you have to spend a lot of time mathematically analyzing them. I'm not talking about interesting choices (i.e. Do I want the bow that stuns the enemy or the one that hits targets behind it). This is more focused on analyzing which stat stick will increase your effectiveness in doing the exact same thing you've been doing.

In Diablo, drops that were worth investigating or even carrying around to sell were quickly identified, often just by the name, and were rare enough to avoid excessive clutter (while being common enough that you didn't feel too deprived). I've found that action RPGs in particular tend to be overcluttered most of the time.


Permanent cool bonuses could drop or be purchased:
In Diablo, this only applied to characters who used magic (generally the mage, though the other two classes would often carry around a few spells). Finding duplicate spellbooks increased the power of your magic permanently and significantly. The advantage to this is that it provided drops that were ALWAYS exciting with no fear of simply being replaced when something better came along. Naturally, this won't work in an MMO environment, but in any other, this adds another layer of excitement to looting.

Other characters were able to get permanent bonuses in the form of elixirs, but these were a lot less interesting.


In many regards, Diablo is an outdated game, but there are enough well-designed aspects of this that every RPG designer should give it a second look.

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Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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I would like to add one little item to the list that I noticed recently in current RPGs (especially hack and slash):

Don't make randomly generated loot random!

I'm talking about item rarity/quality here. In D1/D2 a "blue" item was -always- significantly worse than a "yellow".

In recent games, an example here could be Borderlands and Kingdoms Of Amalur, the rarity of an item barely gives improvement sometimes.

Especially in Borderlands I found Epic "purple" weapons or "teal" Alien Artifact weapons that plainly -sucked- compared to one lucky "green" drop I got 4 levels ago.

I finished the game with a LVL24 rare sniper rifle at character level 36, and I did find purple sniper-rifles aplenty, but they were all worse.

This can be also summed up that the character-progression, be it gear or levels needs to be -significant- if rare.

I'd rather have a game with a level-cap at 30, where every level will give me a noticeable gain in power rather than 100 levels of progression where my sword steadily does +1 dmg/lvl.

Joshua McDonald
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Both excellent points, and I had the exact same thought in Borderlands. The color wasn't much use in determining how good a weapon was. I loved the game, but it definitely needed some work on its loot system.

Same on visible progression. It's well worth the wait if it means you can really see a difference (and it's one of the things I dislike about the heirlooms in WoW. They're exactly what you just described).

Tiago Raposo
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You could add Torchlight to it, where normal magical items could have the same modifiers as a rare or even a unique one, thus making rarity just a color change to the name.

Dave Endresak
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Major correction needed:

Blizzard did not invent the action-RPG hybrid, not even close by about two decades. The Ys franchise from Falcom is generally recognized as the first action-RPG hybrid, and the first game for Ys came out in the early to mid 1980s.

All other action-RPGs since then have emulated the Ys style in one form or another, except for the rather unique Ys trait of having different attack angles change the defense/damage. In 3D games, one might say that the use of 360 degree attacks and blindsides is an evolution of the original idea in Ys. That's about the only argument I can see, though.

Joshua McDonald
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I have never seen anything like Diablo that predates it, but that doesn't mean that it wasn't out there. Thanks for the correction.

Eric Schwarz
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I love Diablo, and agree with pretty much everything in this article. The sequel I probably spent more time on, but the focus on loot really started to suck the fun out of the game for me. Diablo is still, at its root, a roguelike - your goal is to get to the bottom level and kill the bad guy. What makes it interesting is the choices you make on the way. Do you risk activating a shrine, potentially getting a big bonus, or a permanent stat decrease if you're unlucky? Do you continue to the next level or try to clear out the current area in search of gear?

Diablo was a lot easier to play than most roguelikes, true, but that strong focus on progression through the game rather than on building the biggest, best character possible was a distinction that really damaged the action RPG genre once Diablo II came out. The result was a ton of RPGs focused primarily on giving the player tons of loot to feed the kill->get stuff->sell stuff->repeat cycle, from Titan Quest to Torchlight (as much as I love those games, they really did go overboard with that stuff). Even today we see games made that are primarily about getting new gear rather than advancing the plot or working towards a goal. Truth be told, it comes across as shallow ego stroking, though perhaps I'm a bit jaded when it comes to these sorts of games. Of course, there's nothing with a loot-driven game, but I think the focus on it has really limited the scope of action RPGs.

A few more things about Diablo that I loved, and that I think Diablo II changed for the worse:

- Running. Diablo did not allow running, and as a result combat was tactical and difficult. Instead of charging headlong into battle, you had to check your resources and make sure you had a proper place to attack from. Using choke points or range to your advantage was key against the more difficult enemies, and if you were stupid you would often quickly be overwhelmed. Being able to run might have made the game more convenient, but it also reduced a lot of the combat to kiting enemies and spamming abilities over and over, not to mention that you could escape just about any situation and enemies would never follow you.

- Town portals. Diablo limited your access to town, your safe haven, and it meant that you had to carefully gauge whether to press on or turn tail in exchange for a valuable town portal. Similar to the point above, it also forced you to fight rather than flee - bosses in Diablo II especially were more or less about pounding at the enemy's health bar and teleporting back to town to restock on potions, over and over, to ridiculous excess later in the game (especially against Diablo himself). In Diablo, you simply couldn't chip away at an enemy forever - you had to engage that enemy in close quarters and see the encounter through to the end.

- Focus. Maybe it's a bit of an unfair or aesthetic point, but Diablo was a very focused game, with limited but consistent lore and story that required multiple play-throughs to learn all the details (which really helped replay value). The game might have been a bit monotonous, but the feeling of descending deeper and deeper towards Hell itself was very real and reflected both in the locations and the enemies. By contrast, Diablo II felt like it just threw everything in - dark crypts and rainy grasslands, deserts and tombs, jungles, snowy mountains, etc. I appreciate the attempt to expand the universe but it also meant losing the iconic Diablo look and feel. Afterwards, just about every single action RPG needed an ice level, fire level, jungle level, etc. in order to compete, and I feel this generally put more emphasis on visuals at the expense of solid gameplay (not to mention raised the barrier of entry and production cost).

- Skill system. I liked the fact that in Diablo, even a warrior could learn a few spells with enough investment, and in fact it was practical to try to expand beyond your existing abilities (but not without risk). It gave more utility in a genre that desperately needs it (really, single-character RPGs are getting stale, parties add so much more variety and so many more options), and forced you to choose between specializing or being a jack of all trades. The switch towards fixed skill trees in Diablo II brought about the reign of archetypes as players could then calculate ideal gear/skill combinations; the system itself encouraged min/maxing rather than flexibility, even if on the surface it looked like you have more choice.

I'm glad someone agrees with me about the original Diablo. Of course, nothing against Diablo II and other games in that vein, but the focus in the action RPG space on loot and grinding out XP has left me pretty tired with the genre lately. A game needs to have interesting context for those systems to exist in, and an endless treadmill does not make for a fun game in my opinion. There needs to be some sort of finality or end point to what the player is doing, a goal beyond feeding an XP bar. There's a few exceptions, like Mass Effect and The Witcher, but I'd like to think you can make a hack-and-slash type game that's interesting not because it has a million loot tiers, but because of strong mechanics put into interesting contexts.

Thanks for writing!

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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D1 and D2 are like two brothers that seem nothing alike.

I love both of them because they appeal to two completely separate sets of dynamics to me.

Diablo 1 is the more mature game, its like you said a Roguelike at heart. It appeals to the part in me that likes methodic and slow play with the absolutely -best- atmosphere i've ever experienced.

Diablo 2 appeals more to my power-trip side, slaughtering hundreds of minions in my way, collecting epic rewards and looking for way to make my character godlike.

Also one should not forget that the most enjoyment of D2 comes from the multiplayer with friends.

Both games are fantastic for what they are trying to be and not necessarily warrant comparison, even if they are set in the same universe.

In the same way Fallout Tactics is not comparable to Fallout 1/2 even if set in the same franchise. I actually played FT first, before i came to F1/2 and I enjoyed it for what it was without any prejudice about what its "supposed to be".

I think that while your criticism of D2 is absolutely correct in your comparison, i also consider it not applicable in the sense that a comparison can and should not be made between D1 and D2.

They are separate entities that are only tied together with lore and the franchise name.

Jeremie Sinic
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I like your points, especially about lack of running (which increased the tension when enemies walk faster) but regarding the skills, I have some reservations.

I personally found out that I should not have tried to make a warrior out of my mage when my overall magic skills suffered the lack of mana (which doesn't regenerate unlike Diablo2) and I was still nowhere as good as a warrior with weapons.

And if I remember well, at high levels the game difficulty was pretty much biased in favor of the pure mage characters.

I loved the look of my heavy-armor-wearing mage, though :)

David Holmin
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All good points. Nice work with this post.

Jake Ryan
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Wow. I only just tried to revisit Diablo. Last Week. No Joke....and it didn't work out lol.

But dude I am in total agreeance with your first point.

You fight an enemy type. Not an enemy level.

^^This has annoyed the heck out of me in some games--and completely turned me off a game before.

It's good to know that by leveling your character you are working towards something.

Being able to defeat larger more fierce enemies, travel through more dangerous parts of the game world.

Not just running on a treadmill. Which is essentially how playing a game with leveled enemies feels to me.

Good stuff.

Jeremie Sinic
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Very interesting points.

Also, apart from game mechanics, I felt Diablo 1 overall had a deliciously dark and creepy atmosphere that didn't really translate in Diablo 2 (although I found Diablo 2 awesome and went back to it several times), where the colorful palette and speedy action made it feel more arcade.