I played a ton of Diablo when it was first released, and I played a ton of Diablo 2. In fact, I wrote more than a dozen strategy articles about it for the now-defunct tech-base.com. Diablo 2 had a lot of strengths, but for me the key elements of its magic were:
- The skill trees
- The interesting equipment decisions (primarily the unimportance of resistances early on, and their eventual dominance in importance.)
- The sense of epic accomplishment as I built each character, and overcame tricky situations. I would swap stories with my friends of how my throw-barbarian had defeated The Summoner by accident from offscreen, or how my hardcore Raven-focused druid died a grizzly death at level 25.
So imagine my disappointment when, with noble intentions, the designers at Blizzard killed all three of these elements within Diablo 3.
A step astray
To explain exactly what went wrong, let me explain why things were changed at all - why mess with perfection?
Well, despite the widespread outpourings of love for Diablo 2, the game was far from perfect. In particular, there was one element which caused more headaches than any other - the Infinite Skill Depth. Each skill in Diablo 2 could have 1-20 "skill points" put into it - but could be raised to be level 30 (or more) through the use of shrines + equipment advantages. This meant that every skill needed to scale to an arbitrary number of skill points. Furthermore, these scaling skills would progress in a strict linear fashion. Let's take a look at what that means.
The Sorceress had a level 1 skill called Firebolt.
- Level 1: 3-6 damage
- Level 2: 4-7 damage
- Level 3: 6-9 damage
- Level 4: 7-10 damage
- Level 5: 9-12 damage
- Level 6: 10-13 damage
- level 7: 12-15 damage
- Level 20: 45-60 damage
Can you see the problem? The problem is that one of two situations must be true: Either Firebolt is the best skill to sink your points into, or another later skill is superior - in which case you really don't want to put ANY points into Firebolt. Players who put 6-8 points into Firebolt before discovering that it becomes weak later on have "wasted" those skill points.
Yes, this system was flexible and lots of fun to experiment with - but for every player out there who was enjoying the number-crunching element, there were probably several players quitting the game in frustration. Blizzard needed to address this issue, and they did.
But they over-reached.
Learning from Civilization
A similar problem happened in the Civilization series - moving from Civ 2 to Civ 3. Civ 3 was generally seen as a step backwards for the series - because it over-corrected the economic problems from Civ 2. Civ 3 was full of conflicting systems to limit economic growth - so much so that growth of any kind was extremely difficult for most players. The team at Firaxis threw 3 or 4 solutions at the problem, instead of just one. Researches know that if you change multiple variables, your ability to compare results plummets to near nothingness, but the desire to "fix everything" is strong in a major game release, so exuberance won out over caution.
Diablo 3 followed a similarly over-enthusiastic course of action. They implemented four distinct changes to the skill tree - all of which serve to adjust the core problem identified above
- Skills are now boolean - you have them or not. There are no "levels" within a skill.
- Players may change the allocation of skills at any time.
- New skills are simply granted at specific levels - players only decide which to use or not.
- All damage skills have their damage scaled to the average damage per second of the player's weapon.
All four of these changes are perfectly reasonable - any of them would have done a reasonable job of correcting the infinite skill depth issue. But taken all together, they muddy and flatten out the entire issue.
Skills are now a very simple set of options, and players may switch between these options at any time. Furthermore, your current selection of skill options is entirely determined by your level, and your damage is entirely determined by your weapon.
This immediately kills most of your equipment options - because now you are simply focused on getting the best weapon possible, period. Even worse, since damage scales off the average DPS, interesting differences in attack speed, damage range, and attack range are totally moot. Similarly, armor becomes about nothing but protection - no skill bonuses to juggle, no secondary focus which will serve you in interesting or unique ways. Armor is now just about protection, and your weapon is just about damage.
But worse than that is the fact that I feel almost no pride in my character - she doesn't do anything that any other character of my level could do equally well. If I have a harder or easier time with a particular quest - it is entirely due to my skill or mistake in skill selection, and not part of an interesting narrative about my unique, personal journey. If I find something really effective my friends can just instantly perform the same feat - which ends up making me feel that there are no interesting feats to be done.
Diablo 3 remains quite playable - the achievements are fun, the drop-in friends system is solid, and the story & cutscenes are good. But the specific elements of flair which burned so brightly for me when playing Diablo 2 are muted, and that seems like a great tragedy to me.