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Diablo III Isn’t Dumbed Down

A few days ago I read an article on Kotaku which posed the question: “is Diablo III dumbed down?” While I can see merit in asking the question, the argument presented by Jesse Ma is inherently flawed. The crux of his argument is that there is a lack of build options. I will admit that I have played neither Diablo nor Diablo II before, but even I can see there is a breadth of options available to the player. And while I think Ma’s argument is faulty, there is something going on with Diablo III. “Being dumbed down” just isn’t that something.

Ma argues that every max-level character is going to have the same skill build, or a cookie-cutter build. I mentioned that I haven’t played Diablo II, but I know people who have. I’ve been told that the best way to play was to pick two skills to max out and you were locked to your choices for the entirety of the game; if you wanted to change your build you had to make a new character. Not only that, but it was best to hold off on progressing your skill tree for a few levels so you could maximize your build. That is a flawed system! You shouldn’t have to put player progression on hold just so you can get the best stuff. What is really happening is that locking in to the build gives a false sense of value to the “choices” you’re making; if you can’t change it, then what you chose must matter, right? However, if your only options are “increase damage by 5%” and “you have a 5% chance to recover 50 health” then you’re going to choose the 5% damage increase. There is an illusion of choice that doesn’t really exist.

Cookie-cutter builds exist for one reason: they are the best possible builds. To pick anything else is to pick something sub-optimal or even underpowered. In Diablo II, what happened is that you had to focus on one or two skills otherwise you’d be fighting high level bosses with low level skills. You’d hit a brick wall and you would need to make a new character if you wanted to try again. Spreading your skills out does give you more choices, but they’re demonstrably wrong decisions. When you have to focus on one skill and it’s the best possible build available then you’re make the correct decisions, but that doesn’t make them good choices. That doesn’t make them choices at all. Diablo II suffered more from a cookie-cutter problem than what Ma claims will befall Diablo III. This tells me that Ma was either making all the wrong choices or he’s a hypocrite; if he’s not talking out of his ass, then he actually was a hardcore Diablo II player which would then mean that he was using a cookie-cutter build… which is the same thing he doesn’t want Diablo III to have!

In World of Warcraft, which I’m very fond of, Blizzard has actively tried to move away from the cookie-cutter conundrum. Blizzard does not like the cookie-cutter model for customization. Before Cataclysm, talent trees were pretty much the same. You spend 65 talent points and then the remaining 6 are left up to you. There is something ironic about customization where you don’t have any choices! This prompted an overhaul of the talent system with the goal of letting players have more customization available to them. Despite the Cataclysm overhaul, Blizzard still failed and is doing another complete overhaul for the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion. Early impressions from the beta indicate that Blizzard is largely succeeding this time around, but I digress.

I bring up World of Warcraft because it’s a Blizzard game. Blizzard takes everything they’ve learned across all of their franchises, brings it together, and reshapes those lessons into something awesome for each of their games. The campaign for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty featured a tech tree where you could research new improvements to your units and buildings. The caveat is that you had 2 choices available for each tier, so you could only pick one upgrade. Wings of Liberty came out in 2010. The revamped talent system in Mists of Pandaria is exactly like the research in Wings of Liberty, except you get 3 choices per tier. This is a prime example of Blizzard learning from their other games and reshaping it into something awesome. They know how to deal with the cookie-cutter problem.

In Diablo III, each of the five classes has a primary skill, secondary skill, and four utility skills. For each of these 6 types of skills, there are no less than 4 skills available. That gives each class at least 24 skills, but the player can only slot 6 of them. Therefore, there are 134,596 possible combinations for skills. Each skill also has five runes which alter the ability in some way, giving each class at least 120 skill runes. My quick and dirty math indicates that there are over 3 *billion* combinations of skill runes available. On top of all of that, each class has 3 passive slots but at least 15 passives to choose from. This means there are 455 possible combinations for the passives. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a LOT of customization, especially in comparison to how much “customization” was available in Diablo II. Ma’s argument that every max-level character is going to have the same skill build looks very shaky.

It would be sloppy of me if I didn’t mention you won’t have every skill and rune available to you from the outset. Diablo III gives skills to players over time as they level to 60. There are roughly 150 skills per class to acquire in 60 levels, so despite the slow drip at the start later levels definitely have to award multiple skills at a time; you’ll have to start experimenting to see what you like best. Not only that, but it has been said players on Normal difficulty will finish the game at around level 30, Nightmare difficulty at 50, and Hell at 60. Players will have every skill by level 30, but not every skill will have even one rune to augment it. In addition, only 10 of the 15 passives will be available. This shows that players will not have the same skills by the end of the game. Granted, Ma’s point was that players at max level won’t have any differences and not players at end game, but he has the gall to say Blizzard should allow for the allocation of stats for the “non-lazy stupid players . . . call it ‘Hardcore mode.'” Now let’s be honest here: not every player is going to reach max level and even more won’t finish the game on Normal; to argue about customization at max level when that is already going to be something reserved for the hardcore is just elitist nonsense.

What Ma doesn’t explicitly address is that you can change your build around as you play. You’re never locked into a build! If you see a group of demons coming up then you can switch to your Cleaves or your Firebombs and just clean house. However, that’s the behavior of a min-maxer. To assume that every player will play the same way with the same hardcore behavior is absurd. It’s more likely that the bulk of players will only swap skills around while they’re in town or maybe before a boss fight—and even then, it’s likely they’d only do this if they’re having trouble! This lack of permanence also creates an interesting scenario where a player who uses Whirlwind might pick up an item that modifies Seismic Slam; they can equip the item and see how the improved Seismic Slam meshes with their play style. Thus the item doesn’t go to waste and it presents the player with an interesting opportunity to try something new.

But wait, there’s more customization!

Diablo III will have artisans available, as Ma noted in an update to his article. The blacksmith will allow players to salvage their unwanted gear and craft new, more powerful gear. The jeweler will allow players to upgrade the gear they have through gems—or remove gems from gear, for a fee. However, these artisans won’t offer up the best goods from the start. Players will need to invest 593k gold in the blacksmith to unlock every tier of gear, while the jeweler will require only 140k gold. Both artisans also ask the player to bring them new recipes and the materials to create new gear. To put it bluntly, to get access to the best stuff on your own, you have to be prepared to work for it. I wouldn’t imagine most players being ready to grind for 80 hours just to unlock an exalted zhezl.

Artisans stay back in town and work their crafts while we’re out slaughtering demons. Their aid is appreciated, but we want more. We want someone alongside us as we plunge into the depths of Hell. That’s where followers come into play. Players will have access to the Templar, Scoundrel, or Enchantress. Each of these followers can be leveled up and their skills allocated. There isn’t a lot of customization here, but players can choose only one follower to aid them on their journey. Choosing a follower will alter your play style. You might play more recklessly with the Templar because he can heal you, for example. That change in play is far more interesting than clicking a + button to max.

Another of Ma’s points was that properly allocating skills in Warcraft III would make or break ladder placement, and also that deep customization made classic Defense of the Ancients infinitely replayable. These are both PvP-centric concerns. Diablo III will have a dedicated PvP system complete with teams and matchmaking coming post launch. Now, I don’t think players will be able to switch out skills, runes, and gear during a PvP match—the way arenas in WoW work—so the decisions you make before combat are likely going to be as important as the decisions made during combat. However, there is one key detail that I do not believe Ma is aware of: Diablo III‘s lack of ladders.

“While we’re talking about PvP it’s probably worth reminding everyone that what we’re targeting is a very loose and ‘for fun’ system. Imagine clicking a button, being matched up against another team of equal skill and gear, and win or lose you move forward (although faster if you win) on a personal progression system that gives you some cosmetic recognition as you go. There won’t be ladders or leagues, we have no intent to expose team ratings, and very likely nothing besides a win/loss record to track performance etc. etc. etc. Anyone who has tried it at BlizzCon knows the PvP in Diablo III is a blast, but I’ve seen some people start to get ideas that it’s going to be an eSport, and that’s just not something we’re targeting – for the sake of our goals in the single player/co-op experience.”

Here’s my assessment: Jesse Ma is wrong about the cookie-cutter builds. He was unaware of the artisans. He doesn’t know how PvP will work. When I look at all of it together, what I see is someone who isn’t saying what they mean. What it all comes across as is “Diablo III is different from Diablo II, therefore it is bad.” There is a very clear lack of understanding of how the various systems work. To say something is bad and call for change without fully understanding it is quite arrogant.

I’ll be playing a Monk in Diablo III.

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