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Diablo 3 Swallows the Spider to Catch the Fly
by Neil Sorens on 07/03/12 11:55:00 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.


Anyone who's read my (now ancient) article on revitalizing the MMO genre knows that I'm a fan of the Diablo series.  Though behind the times in some ways even when it launched, it offered a streamlined MMO-style experience that didn't suffer from many of the issues that bogged down Everquest-style MMOs.  Like the first entry in the series, its woes were technical, the result of hacking and abuse from players, rather than significant flaws in its game design.

Diablo 3, though more technically advanced in many ways than its predecessor, makes one questionable design decision that inevitably led to more bad design: using the real-money auction house (RMAH) as a post-purchase revenue stream.  

And just as the old lady kept swallowing larger and larger animals to deal with the fly she initially ate, the RMAH forced Diablo 3 designers to implement game design that is giving its players a severe case of indigestion.

In order for the RMAH to be a viable, substantial source of revenue, the players had to have a need to use it. 

The problem was that Diablo 2's game balance didn't provide a sufficient level of compulsion in that regard.  Sure, there would be some demand from players who wanted ultra-rare items like D2's Zod rune and Windforce bow.  However, it was not necessary for players to acquire these rare items in order to conquer the top enemies at the highest difficulty levels in the game.  To use MMO lingo, there was no "gear check" that put a soft but unyielding barrier in front of insufficiently equipped players. 

Diablo 3 takes a different approach, forcing players to upgrade gear substantially for the Inferno difficulty mode with radically increased damage from enemies and "enrage timers" that basically kill off the player if certain enemies essential for acquisition of good loot aren't defeated quickly enough.  As a result, there is a "grind" for upgrades (or for the in-game currency of gold to buy the upgrades on a gold-based equivalent of the RMAH) that begins on Inferno difficulty and makes the RMAH more tempting.

This spider to the RMAH's fly does not make the game more enjoyable, is inconsistent with Diablo 2's approach, brings the game's well-paced progression (up to that point) to a screeching halt, and forces the old lady to swallow a larger animal to compensate: instant, nearly consequence-free re-specialization of character abilities.

Because of the gear upgrade requirements and the associated time/money investment needed to make the upgrades, it was necessary to allow players to "respec" without a penalty, lest they sink hundreds of hours or however many dollars into the character, only to discover that its skill configuration did not hold up well towards the end of the game.

Unfortunately, this allowance has its own set of drawbacks.  For one, it takes away one of the most enjoyable facets of Diablo 2 for "Johnny": dreaming up new character skill configurations.   Many pieces of gear you found in Diablo 2 were worthless to the character that found them, but they lent themselves well to a specific skill or combination of skills.  The disappointment of having no immediate use for a good item was tempered by the puzzle of figuring out exactly what type of character the item would be useful for - and then the enjoyment of creating that character, reaching levels where the gear in question could finally be equipped, experiencing the satisfaction of seeing your idea come to fruition, and testing it against a wide variety of content and difficulty levels as you progress through the game.

It also speeds up exploration of possible configurations to such a degree that players discover optimal builds too quickly.  In Diablo 2, experimentation and subsequent spread of discoveries to other players took weeks or months, since each new configuration idea had to be tested with a brand new character with equipment specially gathered to support it.  In Diablo 3, that iteration is condensed into days or even hours, and the auction houses make the acquisition of specialized gear a simple matter.  Imbalances in skill configuration manifest and propagate rapidly, forcing the old lady to eat the "nerf bat" (a metaphorical tool used by developers to weaken player characters) much more frequently than in Diablo 2 to compensate.  And I'm sure you know how that has gone over with the player base.

In short, game balance predicated on a need for auction house use to progress has caused a series of design decisions that, while making sense in and of themselves, aren't good for the overall game.

Blizzard's solution? It looks like they are tamping down the need for the auction house by allowing players to get more and stronger items earlier in the game.  Will they be able to strike a balance between keeping players happy and keeping the demand for the RMAH intact? We'll see, but so far the story has been the game's rapid loss of active players. 

I can understand why Diablo 3 swallowed the fly; nevertheless: perhaps she'll die.

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JB Vorderkunz
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Another "Why D3 sux..." article. *yawn*
"In Diablo 2, experimentation and subsequent spread of discoveries to other players took weeks or months, since each new configuration idea had to be tested with a brand new character with equipment specially gathered to support it. In Diablo 3, that iteration is condensed into days or even hours..."

Seriously? Comparing the state of the internet in 2000 to 2012? Things happen faster now? No Way! Every aspect of the D3 fanbase fiasco surely confirms Nintendo Reggie's lament: Fans are now insatiable, unreasonable and inconsolable. How many people have put 100+ hrs into D3? $.60/hr for entertainment that's great, yes please!

Jonathan Jou
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There are really two parts to most people's outcries at Diablo 3, and the sheer number of them (and the many, many places they show up) should probably be an indication that something noteworthy, not yawn-inducing, is going on...

First of all, from a game design perspective, Diablo 3 is an unabashed exercise in endless frustration. With the Auction House, the game isn't challenging until a player reaches inferno, and without the Auction House the story bosses are the easiest encounters with proper names. "Challenging" encounters consist of frighteningly, incredibly sudden amounts of damage (in a game where lag persists, no less, so your reaction times are only as good as your latency) from enemies that literally just use a random bag of deadly 1-second kills without hesitation or warning. After you run into suicidal explosive champions you'll understand that this "random creature design" wasn't polished enough to make every encounter interesting, only to make sure players were going to die a lot. Dominant strategies to increase resistance (or die) prevailed, and the "build" system that was first in trading card games and Guild Wars lacks interesting combinations, giving players late-game runes that scale terribly in comparison to other skills while spacing out critically synergistic skills several levels apart. What's worse, after churning through who knows how many hours of play in one profession, trying a new profession meant starting all over, which wasn't a nuisance because of the slow progression, but was seriously discouraging because the easier difficulties were never challenging to begin with. Locking away the higher difficulties, preventing faster level progression (or at least a more interesting skill set), and limiting the game to 4 players meant the actual *content* of the game got really old, really fast, and then you would have to do it four more times if you wanted to try all the professions. The sensation of being incredibly powerful was removed from the players in an effort to make them aware of the Auction House, and the allure of new, more powerful loot drops an encounter away was diminished. Players can and do go for hours getting brutally murdered, prizing victory from death's door only to receive things that reduce their max HP, defense, and DPS.

How was this game supposed to be rewarding? From a game design perspective, a lot of good ideas on paper evolved into an experience that might prove more profitable than pleasant.

The second, more frightening perspective is one where we watch the self-publishing studio that gave us timeless classics like Starcraft slowly go from being defended on the grounds of their actual game design merits to being defended on the grounds that "everyone else is doing it too." People say that Diablo 3 was "more than worth $60," and compared to other $60 games that is without question true. But Blizzard is not other companies, Blizzard is the company that polishes a game until it is ready, or doesn't release it at all. Blizzard is the company that tried Starcraft Ghost with three studios, only to indefinitely postpone it. Other $60 games are filled with bugs, patched without ever being fixed, and fundamentally lacking in some ways while being barely above the bar in others. There are $60-duds, and I fully believe that many of us who are surprised by Diablo 3 were expecting a $60-gem, worth far more than its dollar value. I was expecting a $300-game, not one whose PvP has not yet shipped, whose core experience is repeatedly and negatively affected by a meaningless "online" imposition, whose PvE is strangely getting *nerfed*, not buffed, and whose core gameplay is neither "interesting builds" nor "interesting loot." So maybe I put Blizzard on a pedestal.

If what you're asking, though, is for me to lower my standards, I'm going to tell you that I have no interest in letting a legendary development studio go quietly into the masses of mediocrity.

Which is to say, I bought D3, and I don't want my money back, I want my Blizzard back.

Cody Miracle
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How does this have to do with the state of the internet? He's remarking how in Diablo 2, if you wanted to test out a new character build or ability configuration, it would take weeks or months. With the new system, your character has everything available with a quick re-spec and players have easily found the most optimal setups in a shortened amount of time, killing a lot of the "replayability factor" that a good ARPG should have.

JB Vorderkunz
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"subsequent spread of discoveries to other players took weeks or months" -

The speed of sharing that's accelerated the process - and that is the state of the internet: higher speed connections, a bajillion interlinked websites etc etc blah blah blah.

leveling up isn't taking that much longer than d2 - a single build was still a 12-20 hrs right? So the fact that you can simply rebuild a character having leveled them up has killed Alt-itis, yet this is a BAD thing? gg. See all the posts below on why the respec is GREAT, not bad.

And, MOST OPTIMAL? Other than Passives, what skill build is EVERYONE using? Less than 2% of builds are identical. gg.

Neil Sorens
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"Alt-itis" and "twinking" a character were two of the most enjoyable parts of Diablo 2. Remember the feeling when you finally got the skill you needed to complete your build, or when you finally reached the right level to equip an item that dramatically increased your power?

Now's there's a cap on how many times that happens. Now, once you have all 5 characters, pretty much all the loot you get, you don't use, because there's no incentive to create a new character to use it. All the different builds and playstyles can be experienced rapidly (a day or two, once you've reached level 60), which is akin to taking a handful of Jelly Bellies and shoving them all in your mouth at once. The feeling of reward from loot acquisition - which has pretty much always been the primary appeal of the Diablo series - is dramatically reduced.

Diablo's design should revolve around enhancing that feeling of reward, and the design choices that stem from the inclusion of the RMAH do the opposite. Instant, unlimited respec in a vacuum? Good idea. In Diablo? Not so good.

Adam Bishop
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I agree with the criticisms of the loot problems on the higher difficulty levels as a game design issue, but I wonder what percentage of the player base that really affects? I've played through Diablo 3 on co-op now on normal with two seperate characters, giving me roughly 50 hours of play time. I'm now playing through on whatever the 2nd difficulty is called with one of those characters, so I'll be at roughly 75 hours by the time I'm done that. How many people are actually playing Diablo III for more than 75 hours? 5% of the audience? 10%? I suspect that the auction house/equipment power issue is the kind of thing where a small minority of very vocal players are making this seem like a much bigger problem than (for most players) it really is.

Joshua Sterns
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The 10% are the ones keeping the game alive for years on end.

Robert Boyd
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Being able to respec your abilities was the best decision the Diablo 3 team made. Now, you can design your character WHILE ACTUALLY PLAYING THE GAME. Now there's no need to spend hours outside the game with skill calculators, reading forums (to see if the abilities you're reading about actually work like you think they do), and planning out your character. Now, there's no need to repeat the game if you made a mistake 10 hours ago with your skill choices. Now, you can just play the game and experiment with different builds until you discover one that you like.

In short, if your game's design requires substantial amount of time spent outside of the game to succeed, that's a serious flaw.

Joshua Sterns
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Agreed. I don't necessarily like all the skills and runes, but I do enjoy the streamlined system. I don't think you should have to re-roll just because you want to try something different.

E McNeill
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No kidding, Robert. I was stunned to see that modification cited as the "swallowed spider".

> Because of the gear upgrade requirements and the associated time/money investment needed to make the upgrades, it was necessary to allow players to "respec" without a penalty, lest they sink hundreds of hours or however many dollars into the character, only to discover that its skill configuration did not hold up well towards the end of the game.

You could drop the first clause of this argument and it would still be true. The changes to the gear system have almost nothing to do with the justification for allowing respecs.

> It also speeds up exploration of possible configurations to such a degree that players discover optimal builds too quickly. In Diablo 2, experimentation and subsequent spread of discoveries to other players took weeks or months, since each new configuration idea had to be tested with a brand new character with equipment specially gathered to support it. In Diablo 3, that iteration is condensed into days or even hours.

Isn't this unambiguously a good thing? Can't the D3 designers now nerf and buff these skill configurations much more adroitly (and with less blowback, since respecs are allowed)? And then won't the different configurations represent different playstyles (i.e. an interesting choice) rather than a plainly optimal or nonoptimal strategy?

Neil Sorens
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The instant respec has its advantages and disadvantages, but it would have more advantages and fewer disadvantages in a game that was designed and balanced around that system. Diablo 3 is not.

The main problem is that all of the truly difficult challenges are similar to one another. Because there is little diversity in challenge, there is a limited selection of optimal builds or playstyles -and to succeed in Inferno, you will need an optimal build (plus a lot of gear to support it). You still need to read the forums to find these builds if you don't happen across them on your own. For example, anyone playing a pet-based Witch Doctor will discover that there is simply no way for it to be viable in Inferno. If you're playing a multiplayer game with competent players, you'll find very little diversity in builds - when all the problems are the same, everyone will use the same tool to deal with them.

In addition, Diablo 3 loot modifiers have far less variety (making for a smaller variety of possible builds), and there are a handful of modifiers that you need to have on nearly every item: your primary damage stat, Resist All, and Vitality, for example. Attack Speed used to be the end-all be-all until they reduced the magnitude of the modifier bonus. The modifiers that affect skills are negligible, a dramatic shift from Diablo 2, where you could make a viable build based on almost any skill simply by blowing it out enough with +skill bonuses.

Also, as you say, "In short, if your game's design requires substantial amount of time spent outside of the game to succeed, that's a serious flaw." That brings us back to the issue of looking for gear on the auction house, as the game is balanced not to give players the gear they need to progress without using it.

Robert Boyd
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Eh, some people are having success with pet builds in Inferno. There are more viable builds than you think.

"The main problem is that all of the truly difficult challenges are similar to one another."

The truly difficult challenges in the game are Elites & Champions. Since the modifiers on Elites & Champions are randomized, there's actually a fair bit of variety from one challenge to another. And since you lose your nephalem stacks when you swap skills, there's a definite incentive to find a build that will work over a variety of situations.

I agree with you that Diablo 3 has some weaknesses, but I think the skill swap system isn't one of them. However, I do think the RMAH is the root of many of these problems (most noticeably, the always online requirement that results in lag and a completely inability to play the game at times).

Neil Sorens
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The randomized modifiers differentiate elites/champ packs early in the game, but not so much in Inferno, because of the overlap that the sheer quantity of modifiers on each enemy causes.

The challenges that you absolutely must be configured to deal with are:
- Control (jailer, frozen, waller, vortex, nightmarish): you need to have an escape skill or sufficient protection gear or skills, although nightmarish is pretty weak.
- Damage areas (molten, plagued, desecrator, arcane enchanted, fire chains): you need a way to move away quickly (escape skill), absorb (damage reduction gear & skills), or replenish life quickly (life on hit).
- Avenger, Electrified, Extra Health, Health Link, Illusionist, Invulnerable Minions, Knockback, Mortar, Reflect Damage, Shielding, Teleporter, Vampiric: largely irrelevant in terms of character builds.

Because many of the damage area effects are impossible to avoid (for example, a melee character fighting plagued enemies) or are such high risks (being vortexed into a damage area that hits you before you can do anything), and because the penalty for dying is so high (loss off progress on whittling down the enemy life bar, plus the repair costs, which were recently increased dramatically, plus the cost of health potions wasted, plus the time needed to return to the fight), it is absolutely necessary to a) get gear that allows you to survive: Armor, Resist All and Vitality, and b) select enough defensive skills that you can survive being hit.

In my experience, champ/elite encounters all play out pretty much the same, with difficulty increasing the greater the combination of control and damage area effects the encounter has (and the less room you have to run around).

As you say, nephalem valor provides an incentive to have a build that is based around fighting the gamut of champ/elite packs. Unfortunately, that is essentially the only thing worth doing in the game, and as such, there is no incentive to make any other sort of build.

Bernardo Del Castillo
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I played diablo 2 very long, and I never felt the need to consult a calculator until very far into the game. The system however, made me feel INVESTED in my decisions it gave importance to my playtime.

In a decision to streamline and make everything available to the player with ease (which has been plaguing WoW for a while), Blizzard has seriously crippled the ritual that made their game special. In diablo 3 nothing really matters, everything is replaceable and expendable. The rain of Rare items, the eventless respecking and the by the numbers customisation have taken D3 much too close to a skinner box for my liking.

To me, this search for simplification is interesting from a design perspective, but it is not necessarily better for the game. It seems like a patch solution for a quick gratification. Its not stopping you from smoking, its giving you as many nicotine patches as you want.
And it neither has the pleasure nor the pain.

Neil Sorens
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edit:double post

Jeremie Sinic
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I agree with the usual complaint that the Auction House is killing the fun (I basically think the bound-on-pickup mechanism would work great, as said by another author here:

However, I am of those who --although reticent at first-- came to love the freedom to change skills any time.
My only problem is that those don't appear to be better and better as player unlocks them.
I play a level 60 Witch Doctor and I have more or less the same build since level 30ish.

Some good skills did unlock at higher levels but I was disappointed by many of them.

Also, it's nice to be able to reconfig my character for, say, a boss battle, but at level 60 it means losing the nephalem valor bonus so in that regard both mechanics don't really work well together.

Jean-Michel Vilain
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1 : The RMAH isn't "killing" the fun because D3 is 0% PvP. Yes it's unethical but it doesn't ruin everyone's experience.

2 : Anyway if Blizzard doesn't manage the item market, players will do it for them even if they have to go against the law.

3 : Have you ever considered that Blizzard decided to leave the D2 spec system because it was rusty and not fun? Offering tons of skills to chose from without actually providing relevant and readable information in order to decide what skill to pick ... is bad. And it can turn into a punishment if you can't respec.
This is why Blizzard kept the tree spec system in WoW, but gave the ability to respec for some game gold. The D3 respec system is an evolution, and I think it suits the game pace pretty well, but maybe there is something even better.
In conclusion, they designed that system with those issues in mind, and not because they were supposed to include a RMAH in the game...

Neil Sorens
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I didn't say that the respec system was designed as a result of the RMAH. I said it was designed as a result of the "loot grind" end game.

Jeremie Sinic
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"1 : The RMAH isn't "killing" the fun because D3 is 0% PvP. Yes it's unethical but it doesn't ruin everyone's experience."

I don't think it's about PvP, and I don't even think the Auction House is unethical, but it does kill the fun of treasure hunting --and what else is Diablo 3 about, especially from max level?-- as soon as you use it.

Finding a cheap item in the Auction House that suddenly doubles your DPS does kill a lot of fun. And if you buy that item (which is quite tempting: what better way to spend that gold anyway), you're probably not going to be satisfied by any drop in the game because it will always be weaker than what you have.
Basically, there's no more intrinsic fun to play the game itself, except to get gold to spend on the Auction House. Even the crafting becomes pointless.

You could argue this is akin to toggling the difficulty down on the fly in Skyrim, but in Skyrim the fun can be found in so many other areas than combat that it doesnt matter as much.

And talking about Skyrim, there must be quite a few mods I didn't check since playing Diablo3. Back to killing dragons :)

Chris Proctor
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"RMAH" is a misleading term to use here.

It's not the "Real Money" aspect of the auction house that causes the problems you describe, it's the plain old auction house.

Neil Sorens
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I refer to that obliquely with "In short, game balance predicated on a need for auction house use to progress has caused a series of design decisions that, while making sense in and of themselves, aren't good for the overall game."

However, the inclusion of the gold auction house no doubt came about because it was a necessary corollary to the RMAH. You can't have a RMAH without a gold auction house - it simply would not make sense. I suspect so, anyway, because business models tend to drive design decisions, rather than the other way around - and you know that Blizzard did not want to repeat the "play online for free forever" mistake they made with Diablo 2.

I even suspect that eliminating the offline mode was done to rope more potential RMAH users into the system.

Stephen Marsh
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All I can say is what I had to say here:

What went right, what went wrong, how to fix:

So, what went right?

* Just about perfect voice acting.
* Continuous upgraded sidekick appearances
* back stories for all the sidekicks that are well developed.
* similarly good back stories for the jeweler and the blacksmith
* Gorgeous and rich graphic backgrounds at every level
* Continuous voice and other interactions from the wallpaper -- the various villagers and such who talk and communicate.
* Great promotion and advance videos and interviews
* Free with other Blizzard services, along with free items (Tyrial's mount, for example)

What when wrong?

* Tuning levels of items for most of the game so that they are 10-15 levels below the character.
* "trash" drops that are really trash drops. Such minimal scaling that Act 1 normal "trash" is very close to value to Act 4 hell "trash."
* No filters on the affixes for items. Wizard hats with barbarian skills on them, wizard sources with +str, etc.
* Instead of the classic Diablo/Diablo 2/LOD difficulty of hard at first to roflstomp at the end, the difficulty is reversed. It starts out fairly easy and moves to brutally hard.
* Instead of the classic Diablo/Diablo 2/LOD play where your character's skills are more important than gear, introducing gear check encounters and an entire difficulty level that is nothing but a progressive gear check.

That combines with:

* Having a real money auction house that makes the drop/difficulty level/etc. decisions appear to be made to drive players to "pay to win"
* Not delivering the scenarios, game play or even perspectives from the promotional videos.
* Allowing exploits to have some players leapfrog past the "brick wall" so that they could seed the AH with gear from the exploits
* No quest reward gear to provide background leveling to correct for really bad luck on gear drops.
* A gambling system that is expensive and retrograde from the prior games
* Vendors who are retrograde from the prior games (I mean, seriously, who has been able to buy the equivalent of an arch angel's staff from Adria in D1? Yet that was standard then, as were equivalents in D2)
* Hideous main villain dialogues
* Much of the game is almost a reboot of the original themes rather than a continuation, but the game is not advertised as a reboot/homage


3 days ago


85 Blood Elf Mage



So, there are lots of backgrounds that you can never get a good camera perspective to actually get a good look at, but that sure look as if they would be worth looking at. Nice to see, but frustrating as well.

It also frustrates players who were pushing forward to the Diablo/Diablo 2/LOD "end game" experience where you slaughter everything in sight. Part of the problem with the skill system is that most players do not experiment much while leveling -- they push through to the end and then want to experiment. At that point they can't.

It has been fun to talk about this with other game designers (there were about 14-15 of us as guest of honors at the recent NTRPG Con -- probably the best con in the industry, though the promoter is a superfan/collector who is willing to lose several thousand dollars every time he puts the con on and can afford it). I would say the community is split on some things.

Many of them see the entire drop level/affix design and distribution system as intentional. They have too much respect for Blizzard to assume that the design team did this by accident. I'd say a growing consensus is that Blizzard intended to force a "pay to play" end game. That merges with a good number of people who think that the exploits that let some people leapfrog to the very end and get a leg up on the community with gold and items was intentional so that there would be a source of high level items at a higher number than you would have without the exploiters getting there first.

The funny part is all of the people claiming that the game is too influenced by WoW. WoW has the drop rate and item tuning nailed. It has an AH that works very, very well.