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BlizzCon 2011: 'Dizzying' Loot Tuning Behind  Diablo III 's Long Dev Cycle
BlizzCon 2011: 'Dizzying' Loot Tuning Behind Diablo III's Long Dev Cycle
October 22, 2011 | By Zoran Iovanovici

October 22, 2011 | By Zoran Iovanovici
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    17 comments
More: Console/PC, Design



Diablo III isn't even expected to launch until early next year, but ever since the action RPG's initial announcement back in June 2008, all other games in the same genre have, to some extent, lived in the shadow of the next entry in Blizzard's loot-happy franchise.

Recent games in the action role-playing genre are often judged in terms of how adept they are in tiding players over until the eventual release of Diablo III. In many ways, no game in the action role-playing genre can escape the shadow of the Diablo brand, highlighting just how powerful the name has become in the industry.

But greatness isn't achieved through sheer luck. While certainly it has its own notable influences, the Diablo series is often thought of as the progenitor of the "loot drop" mentality and gameplay style that put PC action RPG's on the map.

Behind the graphics, character art and level design of Diablo III is this very loot drop system that requires years of testing. So how difficult is it to strike the perfect balance of loot drops, challenge, and reward to keep the player endlessly striving towards greater in-game progress?

"That balance is honestly the main reason why it takes so long to make a proper Diablo game," Kevin Martens, lead content designer for Diablo III told Gamasutra.

"The bulk of our work goes into tuning the game's loot drop system," he said. "There are so many parameters to alter, it can be dizzying. Even the slightest increase to gold drop can suddenly change everything in the game. Even a .01 percentage change in loot drop can drastically change the balance between player challenge and reward."

Knowing that the margin of failure can be so high, making a game expected to sell millions at launch alone is a high-pressure situation. "[Keeping fans happy is] absolutely one thing we always have to keep in mind when we tweak anything in the game, because we have to normalize those slight changes to over a million players, or even 5 million players."

Martens added, "Even defining what 'super rare' means in the game changes when you scale to five million players. So even if we make a mistake with a 'super rare' item and it only affects 400 players out of 5 million, that still is 400 players who have a bad experience. It's really a big deal."

Naturally, Blizzard keeps an eye on the action RPG space. There have been notable Diablo-inspired games, whether talking about Runic's Torchlight or Iron Lore's Titan Quest, or games with less-obvious Diablo flavor like Gearbox's FPS Borderlands. Every successful action RPG that has come out since the last Diablo has in some way raised peoples' expectations for Diablo III.

"We honestly think there are a lot of fabulous games in the space," said Martens. "Even console games, like Borderlands and mobile games like Dungeon Hunter where the loot drop mentality is a very important part of game design. We know how hard these kinds of games are to make and there's so much pressure on us because we have enormous shoes to fill."

It's a matter of respect and reverence for the Diablo franchise, and what it's done for the gaming community, that keeps the competition in the genre very civil -- it's a contrast from claims of "Halo killers" or executives going back and forth over who has the better military FPS.

What Blizzard is looking to do is exceed fan expectations and live up to the very legacy that the studio has created, which is no easy feat considering that the lengthy time span between 2000's Diablo II and next year's Diablo III. The studio will have to cater to hardcore series veterans while trying to appeal to new gamers in a considerably different demographic market than the one Diablo II saw 10 years ago.

When asked just how big a concern this balancing act was, Martens was honest in admitting that it sometimes keeps him up at night. "Our team's approach from the very beginning is to make hardcore games for the mass market. We want to make games that everybody can play."

"So many of the design decisions we make go into making the game more approachable for all players," he said. "We spend so much time and energy with that, but it's still a hardcore game and players who stick with it will realize the full depth Diablo III has to offer. We think even the most casual players who ... invest time will end up becoming hardcore as a result."


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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I just hope that they really go back to what made the loot system in Diablo a lot of fun. Diablo II's focus on rare items, set items, magical items, etc. kind of reduced most of them to vendor trash and it was rare that you ever found anything worthwhile. I think that initial buzz of "oh, a rare item!" you get can become both too common and can lead to feeling underwhelmed, diminished by the fact that, rather than being truly unique or useful, it's just another thing to sell off. I loved Torchlight and Titan Quest, but they ended up suffering even more from this phenomenon of "so many items, so little use for them". I wasn't a fan of how the "economy" side of Diablo II started to cut into the actual game itself (and it only got worse over time), so my hope is that Diablo III strikes a much better balance. Considering Blizzard's push towards more of an MMO experience, though, I kind of doubt it.

Jacob Pederson
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@ Johnny



The more I hear you talk about TQ, the more I get the feeling that you never actually played it :)



As a guy who still has Diablo 2 installed on his USB key, and plays TQ with Nvidia's 3Dvision, let me offer my opinion that as an visceral action game, TQ absolutely holds up to Diablo II. You are correct that tuning a combat system is a finicky and difficult process, one merely has to play Sacred 2 for a few seconds to learn how badly a combat system can be screwed.



I'm not sure what you mean by technical or clean. Was it the clearly available DPS displayed for your equipped weapon? Did you prefer arguing over Diablo 2's DPS on forums? Or perhaps you're talking about TQ's design aesthetic. Primary colors and clear silhouettes do not necessarily subtract from an experience for me.



I do totally agree with you on Magika (if we forgive them their horror show of a launch). In terms of visceral combat, they really can't be beat. Magika is the game in which you really do feel like a wizard, improvising spells on the fly or relying on complex muscle memory to perform your more powerful summons. Magika even allows for your own combat panic to reflect in your spells, press a wrong key, and you might accidentally throw down some mines on top of your allies.

Eric Schwarz
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@Johnny Fox



I mostly agree with you in the sense that Titan Quest doesn't have particularly exciting combat (though flinging fireballs at enemies and watching them literally get blown away is still fun for me). I'd say Torchlight is a step above, but again, compared to the original Diablo I also agree it's not as satisfying.



That said, I'm also not sure about your interpretation of why people liked Diablo so much. Your interpretation may well be correct for you, but I think it's a bit presumptuous to speak for everyone else. I know that certainly much of Diablo II's post-release success and longevity came down almost solely to the loot grinding, and while satisfying combat might factor into it, I think the unified online system, ladder play, class balance, etc. had more to do with its success than sound effects and gritty visuals, even if they were excellent.

Javier Arevalo
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Johnny, I agree with your assessment of TQ: too technical and clean, yeah, I was never able to put it in words but that's it.



However, I think Blizzard understands perfectly that another of the pillars of Diablo's success is accessibility. Even with just a mouse, and a single mouse button, the game is still 100% playable and still madly fun! That's why they are not going more hardcore on the action side.

[User Banned]
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Justin LeGrande
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I've never found loot driven games to be addicting because of the loot... but rather, because of the community. Both of which Diablo 1 and 2 did not impress me with. It is not fun to play with people (mostly angsty teenagers) who demonstrate either sparse communication (less common in chat rooms) or act like simpletons (also less common in chat rooms). On the other hand, five years ago, Final Fantasy XI's community impressed me with it's cohesive persistence and tightly-knit guilds, and Phantasy Star Universe's community impressed me with it's overall "rural town atmosphere".



A community is what makes an online game more than the sum of it's parts.

David Holmin
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@Fox



Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 are hardly RPGs.



And on the topic: To this day, I prefer Diablo to Diablo II, because it's a more contained and focused experience.



Diablo: The church in town has been corrupted. You go down, always down. Your goal: Hell. In the village you have characters with very distinct personalities, all with a different purpose. The game evolves in story on the surface, and in action below.



Diablo II: Everything is more spread out and feels thinner. Your purpose is a bit more vague. There are too many items, causing inflation. Stuff feels like junk after a while. Focus is on loads of enemies instead of mood.



DII is still a good game, but I honestly don't look forward that much to DIII.

raigan burns
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I don't really see how Diablo is an "action" RPG: the action may be realtime but it's very abstracted... you're just clicking stuff. There's no "game feel" and I agree with Dave Smith that as a result it degenerates into psychological triggers/hooks.



Compare this to Zelda/Shining Souls/etc. (or even Demon/Dark Souls) type ARPG where you're properly controlling the character... you're actually performing actions and controlling things directly rather than indirectly; this just feels so much more fun to me.



I get that there are "good" (at least addictive and rewarding/pleasurable) aspects to Diablo, I just don't understand why they don't pair all of the loot-drop and gorgeous audiovisuals with some proper "gameplay" rather than a soul-less RTS-lite "click on stuff" approach.



I guess cause then it would be less "accessible" to "casual gamers"?

Jacob Pederson
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Diablo II is only very slightly more abstracted than Zelda, and only by the design necessity of its time period and chosen platform (the mouse pointer). In Diablo you are pressing one button to attack, in Zelda you are pressing one button to attack. (Tycho voice:This is in fact the same number of buttons.) At a high level of Diablo II play you're required to keep track of far more available actions than even Demon Souls or Devil May Cry. Just because blocking, countering, and combinations aren't part of the gameplay, does not mean there are no tactics or strategy.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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Blizzard's Diablo II hit the nail on the head. One of the darkest story lines in gaming, medieval and magic, a dark look/sound. Female chars to play as and fight against. Online coop, PvsP... Because of the 2D graphics, we didn't have full rotating sky cameras, allowing non-FPS'er players to simply click...



I'm dying for sky FPS'er style camera/movement system... (WoW doesn't count)



It's simply not possible for Diablo III to fail and even if it does, Blizzard has the gold to make whatever game they wanna make

Christopher Enderle
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I thought Darksiders was Zelda with more developed combat.

Carl Chavez
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Zzzzzz... all this squabbling over games that don't even match ToME 2.3's loot dropping or playability... (rants a jaded oldster)

Justin LeGrande
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Diablo/Phantasy Star Online loot systems, huh...

I psychologically prefer a loot-identify system where you find new items in pieces, putting them back together like a puzzle, i.e. Monster Hunter. Finding a randomly dropped unique or set item makes me feel like it's just being handed to me, and finding ??? items is like recycling computer equipment from a county dump- you find usable things sometimes, but it's mostly useless until extracting for the proverbial gold.

Justin LeGrande
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I think the biggest flaw about the Diablo storyline was it's near-exclusive containment within the instruction manual and side story books, not the actual game. Who would have thought that the Necromancers were actually scions of balance in the universe? They were a seclusive cult of priests who were immune to demonic corruption by principle, living for a purpose we would think of as "green stewardship" compared to most other class cultures. Their storyline identity was far from the "anti-hero bad-ass" most players would interpret them as during gameplay.



Blizzard might be recognizing this, because judging from diablo3.com, the Diablo 3 character storyline identities seem more carefully woven into their gameplay identities this time around.

Jeremie Sinic
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I think we all have our reasons for liking or disliking Diablo, but the game surely had enough polish and depth to stand the test of time. After playing the game upon release, I bought it again twice since. Last time was one year ago when I bought 2 Diablo 2 packs to play with my wife in private online play. I was just amazed at how the fun came back intact past the first 5 minutes of shock at the slightly old graphics. It was fun like the first time again, and in my opinion, what makes Diablo fun is the incredible amount of items and the character building, and most of all, that the whole is done perfectly. The Diablo is in the details :)

Casey Brown
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@ Fox

I think a studio closing doesn't represent a bad game specifically perhaps just poor financing and management.

LA Noire sold quite well got good reviews and had big marketing yet Team Bondi has closed its doors after 6 months. Team Bondi was plagued with "Management" issues which caused its closure the game however was quite good.


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