Nephalem's Progress

As I prepare to match wits and wills against the final boss of Diablo III for the first, though certainly not the last time, I do a final check of gear and skills for my wizard, Muisyle. (It’s Elysium spelled backwards. Get it?) I make a few shifts in gear to bump up my vitality, and thus my hit points, while trying to minimize a loss of the intelligence that provides the primary modifier for my damage.

The skills adjustments take longer. It’s not just a matter of whether I want Frost Nova or Diamond Skin as my defensive skill — that’s a tough enough decision on its own. But when I settle on Frost Nova, I equivocate endlessly on whether I want the rune that lowers the recovery time of the spell or the version that doesn’t actually freeze enemies but slows them down and does damage. That decision made, I’ve already decided I want a Hydra for my force skill, but do I want the fire, arcane or lightning version?

This never happened in Diablo II or its predecessor, of course. These kinds of decisions were made in many cases long before the character was ever created. You would enter the Rogue Encampment likely with a scripted plan for talent points well established in your mind, and the only question worth asking before any fights was what level you were, and therefore how far you had progressed through what really was in practice a static skill tree. You knew that you were going to be an Auradin, Bowazon, Bonemancer or Frozen Orb Sorceress even before slapping impotently at the first Fallen in the Den of Evil. And, that’s the build that you would be playing with for the next however many hours you choose, come good or ill.

There have been plenty of contentious design and feature decisions made in the run up to Diablo III’s launch, but somehow the idea of not having a pool of points to spend on specific skills felt the most impactful to me. I love spending skill points, getting that incremental boost here and there from a very specific update, and the idea of not having that was at first anathema. I say that only so you know how far I had to travel to get where I am now, prepared to say that the way Diablo III handles skills is one of my favorite things about a game I’m already in love with.

I liked playing pet classes in Diablo II. I would march through dim halls of fetid death with an army of skeletons at my side, and they would cavort through the world, slashing and tearing at the enemies that lay between me and Diablo. I would steamroll through waves of crashing horrors, joyfully picking up the detritus — otherwise known as loot — left in the wake of my undead army, until inevitably I would saunter into creatures or a boss who seemed the perfect counter to my minions.

Then, as I watched helpless bones disintegrate under the might of some new foe, and thought about what was left in my bag of tricks to dispatch this new threat, I would inevitably realize that my eggs had been, as they say, all in that one bone-woven basket.

And even if things weren’t quite that bad, places like the Arcane Sanctuary or Maggot Lair, with their bizarre tight confines and awkward environments, just did not suit a pet style of play. These were not the cavernous spaces where my approach to play worked best, but a claustrophobic environment where my army could only line up and fight in a miserable single file. They would get weirdly bunched up in the wrong places, and I would suddenly find myself minion-less and under enemy fire because they’d all gotten stuck on an oddly angled corner.

Tough, I would have to say to myself. I took the Skeleton Army path, and that’s just that.

I really was surprised how freeing it was to not be bound by this constraint anymore in Diablo III. The first time I changed my build essentially on the fly to adapt to my surroundings, I had to do something not entirely unlike a mental double-take. I’ll grant you that most combinations of skills will suffice in the game’s normal mode, but even early in act 1 of Nightmare I find myself looking closely at what an enemy is capable of and making decisions about attack strategies based on that.

Had this been Diablo II, the situation would have looked quite different. “Well,” I might have said, “it looks like that bloated vomitous mass of living hell is capable of walling me in. I guess I’ll use my skeleton army against him. Oh, and that scum-ridden pustule of slouching damnation can lob mortar-like bombs my way, so I guess I’ll use my skeleton army against him. Gads, that morbid mucus-dripping, shambling tumor is carrying a Skeleton-Army-disintegrator … get ‘em, skeleton army!”

Diablo III instead plays to what we all knew ahead of time its strength would have to be, specifically being a surprisingly action-packed slot machine. Every click of the mouse is a quarter down a one-armed bandit’s gullet, and the piñata candy that pops out could be anything from a broken piece of useless equipment — the candy corn or Tootsie Roll of loot — or a legendary item of unimaginable capacity.

Building out a strategy, when it comes to the place in the game where you actually need one, is an adaptive and evolving experience where skills are a tool rather than a hindrance. Yes, I suppose you could make the argument that this approach makes Diablo III less hardcore, but my understanding is that there is no lack of death in Hell and Inferno modes. Even with every skill unlocked, even with every rune at players’ disposal and even with the supposedly game-breaking auction house in play, I see plenty of videos of bosses and unique creatures dispatching would-be heroes with casual ease.

That suggests, I think, that there are still synergies and strategies, tactics and tricks yet to be discovered by players. It suggests to me even that more pieces having been put in play add to, rather than subtract from, the complexity. It suggests to me that the elimination of skill trees, rather than being a black mark on the game, actually makes it better.

But, that’s just me.

Comments

It's not just you. I can only imagine how much rage there could've been when they nerfed the Monk's Boon of Protection rune to the point of obsolescence had they retained Diablo II's skill point system. The fact that a change to a skill doesn't invalidate hours upon hours spent on a character is a huge boon to this franchise. Let alone, as you write, hitting a brick wall that forces you to re-roll because your build can't handle a certain situation. This was exactly the right kind of modernization that makes sense and pushes the franchise further.

But, that’s just me.

Yes, it is.

paketep wrote:
But, that’s just me.

Yes, it is.


No, it isn't.

Sean, your opening paragraphs make me think you've been playing without elective mode turned on. If so, you should turn it on ASAP and experiment. I regularly run around with both diamond skin and frost nova. I've spent a good amount of time with lightning armor, magic weapon, and familiar all running simultaneously. Your potential options increase drastically once you turn it on.

I think the way Diablo 3 handles skills is a stroke of genius. It's an elegant, flexible design that can be adapted nicely to any number of game designs. I suspect that we'll be seeing it in a wide variety of games for years to come.

And yet, this:

Diablo III instead plays to what we all knew ahead of time its strength would have to be, specifically being a surprisingly action-packed slot machine. Every click of the mouse is a quarter down a one-armed bandit’s gullet, and the piñata candy that pops out could be anything from a broken piece of useless equipment — the candy corn or Tootsie Roll of loot — or a legendary item of unimaginable capacity.

Keeps me away from the game.

Muisyle

Reminds me of this.

shoptroll wrote:
It's not just you.
Dyni wrote:
paketep wrote:
But, that’s just me.

Yes, it is.


No, it isn't.

I like where this is going.

wordsmythe wrote:
shoptroll wrote:
It's not just you.
Dyni wrote:
paketep wrote:
But, that’s just me.

Yes, it is.


No, it isn't.

I like where this is going.

Nazis argued like this, ergo, you're both wrong and clearly toast. Godwintoasted.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
I think the way Diablo 3 handles skills is a stroke of genius. It's an elegant, flexible design that can be adapted nicely to any number of game designs. I suspect that we'll be seeing it in a wide variety of games for years to come.

Can anyone summarize it for the ignorant? Pretty please, with whip cream and a random candied fruit on top?

Gravey wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:
I think the way Diablo 3 handles skills is a stroke of genius. It's an elegant, flexible design that can be adapted nicely to any number of game designs. I suspect that we'll be seeing it in a wide variety of games for years to come.

Can anyone summarize it for the ignorant? Pretty please, with whip cream and a random candied fruit on top?

This blog post summarizes the particulars of it and discusses why it's good design.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
Gravey wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:
I think the way Diablo 3 handles skills is a stroke of genius. It's an elegant, flexible design that can be adapted nicely to any number of game designs. I suspect that we'll be seeing it in a wide variety of games for years to come.

Can anyone summarize it for the ignorant? Pretty please, with whip cream and a random candied fruit on top?

This blog post summarizes the particulars of it and discusses why it's good design.

Thanks! Your random fruit is... durian! Sorry.

According to my friend from Shanghai, durians are banned on many buses in China because of their smell.

This has been another useless fact.

To be fair, Diablo I didn't have skill points either. But it also didn't have any skill customization like Diablo III has. You just built up your skills via dropped spell books or whatever, so skilling up meant a lot of playing.

Personally, I am loving this type of skill system. I love the ability have to some creativity in my own personal build. I can spec my monk for dps or protection or single dmg vs aoe.

When I first started this skill system it reminded me of Guild Wars. That system gave you 8 skill slots and points you could allocate at anytime. In this system you could create truly unique builds selecting from 100s of skills to select 8 that complimented each other to a either a broad do-all or singular purpose build.

Now in Diablo I've found I've fallen into old habits of reading wikis of skills and spending time in the character builder to find how I can piece together the most effective build for my current purpose. I've did a little math to figure I can get up to a (theoretical) max dodge rate of 87% (for short duration). While this would drain too much spirit I think I can hold a comfortable upper 50%.

This is how I know I'm a nerd. I take pride that my monk is different from your monk. I obsess over details. I get excited to see what other people are using as their build and their reasons why. Maybe someone has figured out something I haven't.

Diablo's system is a little more streamlined than Guild Wars. Fewer variables so you can't totally screw yourself by having a broken build but less chance of finding something truly unique. I remember finding the 55hp invinci-monk in Guild Wars and being amazed at the creativity to create a unique build.

I hope to find something of similar awesomeness in Diablo 3 as the game matures.

Nicely written, Elysium. Muisyle can by Stormageddon's wingman any time.

I have problems with other parts of the game, but this is exactly how I feel about the skill system. I was really worried, but now I realize I like the change.

I miss my skeleton army.

---

Regarding the skill system, I understand the change and I appreciate why it was done. But, I feel less invested in my character. My barbarian is essentially no different from any other barbarian, and unless they do some sort of inconceivable character wipe, I have no incentive to ever build another barbarian.

In D3, I feel like there is a dense, rich layer of cloying polish over a core game that is less connected, visceral, and compelling than Diablo 2.

Skeletons are the new zombie.

Something I found myself wondering a while after reading the article, does the lack of permanence in skill selection and committing to your choices change the type of game D3 is compared to previous entries?

I think the most common title applied to Diablo (or diablo clones) besides rogue derivative, is Action Role Playing Game, and one of my personal defining characteristics for a RPG is that you commit to choices, so would D3 move from an ARPG to being 'just' an action game?

Nomenclature nit picked.

So that video of Jay Wilson talking about Diablo II's skill system... I've seen it before and I took it to be Blizzard owning their prior design issues. Now that I think about it though, it could be interpreted as Jay ragging on his predecessors.

Have the Torchlight designers said anything publicly about character progression? I'm curious to know what the folks who actually built Diablo II are doing with those design lessons. I don't really count the first Torchlight as a major step here... they built that so quickly that they didn't have much time to refine their designs...

polq37 wrote:
Regarding the skill system, I understand the change and I appreciate why it was done. But, I feel less invested in my character. My barbarian is essentially no different from any other barbarian, and unless they do some sort of inconceivable character wipe, I have no incentive to ever build another barbarian.

Not disagreeing, just playing devil's advocate:

Would you feel different if your skill choices were "permanent" but the game included a respec option? How difficult does respeccing have to be before you feel that sense of investment? When it costs in-game gold that you have to grind for? When it costs real money? Is it enough just to have to go back to town and talk to Johnny Respec the Respec Wizard?

I agree that there's no reason to ever build more than one of each class, but then, is respeccing your build really all that different? I'm finding that running into enemies that I can't beat, taking a close look at my skill loadout, and re-jiggering things until I can beat those same enemies scratches much the same itch as restarting the game with another character of the same class and trying out a different build used to in D2. It's not so much that they've changed a core part of the game, they've just tightened the feedback loop. Instead of twenty hours of grinding through Normal to see if my stupid idea for a dual-throwing-ax Barb can hack it in Nightmare, now it takes five minutes (or maybe a couple hours of grinding for gold and futzing with the Auction House if my new build requires vastly different equipment). To me, that doesn't make it any less satisfying when my stupid new build actually works.

Secret Asian Man wrote:
I take pride that my monk is different from your monk.

polq37 wrote:
My barbarian is essentially no different from any other barbarian.

It's really interesting to me that both of you were presented with the same system and came away with diametrically opposed impressions.

I can see where you're both coming from, though. moment-to-moment, the chances of any two characters of the same class having the exact same combination of powers and runes is low. Add equipment into the mix, and the chances of identical characters drop through the floor. Everyone is unique, and (at least so far) there doesn't seem to be a single optimal build that everyone who's anyone is playing.

At the same time, because respec is cheap and convenient, any character could potentially become any other character at any time. Past a certain point, everyone always has the same options available to them, making every character essentially identical at a base level. One person's character isn't fundamentally different from another person's character because it takes all of a few minutes to rejigger one into the other.

It's fascinating that two people each picked up on a different aspect of the skill system to feel both more and less unique.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
At the same time, because respec is cheap and convenient, any character could potentially become any other character at any time. Past a certain point, everyone always has the same options available to them, making every character essentially identical at a base level. One person's character isn't fundamentally different from another person's character because it takes all of a few minutes to rejigger one into the other.

I still think this will result in more character variety, not less. Under the D2 system, a lot of people stuck to predefined builds because if you tried something new and it didn't work out, you'd have to abandon that character and start over. D3 will have its own set of "optimal" cookie-cutter builds, but there's also a much lower barrier to trying out alternatives.

Ultimately, I agree with you, but I can see where the ability to respec on the fly could lead to a feeling that "if everyone's special, then nobody is."

ClockworkHouse:

Bear in mind that that's what "Depressed Dash" and Syndrome both say. There's a sense to it, but that sense is founded on a need to be considered superior to everyone else. It's not a particularly bright sort of philosophy, and it ultimately is founded on a lot of people being struck in miserable, sad failures of games.

I, too, can see what it is, but (like you) I don't agree that Diablo should be shooting for that sort of environment.

Ultimately, the opportunity to play a build and stay in a build is not diminished by everyone being able to emulate it. Ideally, if every build is an equal but different experience, then every build is special in its own right, because it cannot be directly compared to anything else.

While I really do appreciate that the ability to respec on the fly makes the tactical aspect of the game stand out more, the problem I'm starting to have is that I'm faced with just too many choices. Most of the writing I've seen about this talks about it as if it's a good thing, but I see it as paralyzing.

If you have a skill tree that you work through and the choices are set, the points you allocate with each level will be those that harmonize with the ones you've picked before. But in Diablo III, every time you level, you have to look at the skills you got and think not only "Do these upgrades work well with what I have right now?" but also, and more importantly, "Would these work well with every other thing I've unlocked before but haven't used?", and, as a key aside "Would these work well with every other thing I've unlocked before if I had different gear?"

I find that kind of decision making daunting to the point where I'm adopting an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" model of play, where I do a cursory examination of new skill runes to see if there's something that would really synergize with what I'm doing now, and tend to ignore the ones that don't rather than reinvent my system, so long as my current system is working. That's all well and good, except the end result is really unsatisfying leveling, as more often than not I'm not choosing any of the runes I unlock.

Granted, I'm only slightly over halfway through normal, so I haven't started playing the "real game", and I'm sure I'll appreciate the system more when I get smoked by an encounter, have to rethink my entire strategy, and have a plethora of options to chose from rather than having to stay locked into my choices.

Still, I think a better solution would have been to go for some kind of mixed system (Germany's MMPR to Canada's FPTP and France's PR electoral systems) which allowed for some degree of tactical flexibility while still giving the player a tangible sense of progress.

To echo what kjhsad said above, I agree that it feels more like a Call of Duty style loadout system rather than an irreversible skill tree. Hell, I'd be happy if I could just respec freely, but this certainly takes things one appreciated step further. Just by making abilities more free form and adaptable, they open the doors to skyrocket the difficulty because they EXPECT people to change their abilities to account for the unique bosses and situations. Good stuff.

Dysplastic wrote:
If you have a skill tree that you work through and the choices are set, the points you allocate with each level will be those that harmonize with the ones you've picked before. But in Diablo III, every time you level, you have to look at the skills you got and think not only "Do these upgrades work well with what I have right now?" but also, and more importantly, "Would these work well with every other thing I've unlocked before but haven't used?", and, as a key aside "Would these work well with every other thing I've unlocked before if I had different gear?".

I'm unclear on whether gear really varies between optimal builds in D3, though as I'm still in Normal as well I suppose it's too early to tell. However, instead of paralysis I like that the open skill system gives me the option to experiment without consequence, partially for pure DPS reasons and partially to find the play style I like best.

I guess it's no accident that I'm a fan of this approach, since it's basically the same one used in Guild Wars and I'm a huge fan of the mechanics in that game. What D3 really needs now is a way to remember skill sets and swap them out on the fly, since it doesn't seem unusual to have one build for solo play, one build for boss fights, and yet another for multi play.

I miss my skeleton army.

I don't get this. Is it a skeleton thing?

The Witch Doctor zookeeper:
gargantuan
4 zombie dogs
passive fetish
nearly a zillion 4 sec spiders or a handful of spider queens
1 enormous 5 sec toad
1 flame column turret
1 fetish shaman
2-3 slimes

All Blizzard did was make you have to be more active with your summons by making most of them temporary.