13 October 2014

Diablo 3 - the item game

In item games, the main goal of players is to continuously upgrade their gear. Diablo 3 (D3) is the perfect example: kill monsters in order to drop better gear in order to kill monsters faster. Bungie just released Destiny, an item-game FPS budgeted with half a billion dollars. Yet Destiny could learn from Diablo 3. So here are some thoughts about the item game in D3.

Prevent farming ...

In D3, like in D2, the drops are completely random: with a few exceptions, nearly any item can drop from any monster or wreckable object (e.g. jars). The odds are just higher for harder monsters, and way lower for wreckable objects. The exact drop rates are secret (except the 10% legendary drop rate from Kadala). This secrecy has led to various rumors and tinfoil hat theories about how loot can be influenced.

D3 has, or used to have, farming spots such as the Decaying Crypt, but they were mostly for XP, not for drops. In D3, farming boss monsters actually brings fewer drops than farming normal or elite monsters. This contrasts with Diablo 2, where players were grinding bosses like Baal or Diablo for XP and loot. So in a way, the grind in D3 is less boring than in D2.

... Yet allow farming

As of October 2014, there are 2 exceptions to what I just wrote: 1) bounty rewards like RoRG or Helltrapper, and 2) Hellfire Amulet.

The RoRG was introduced in February 2014. It is a mandatory item to reach the game's highest difficulty levels. Players have to camp Act-1 bounties to get one with good rolls. To farm as quickly as possible, players join co-op games to split farm: instead of spending 15-20 minutes completing the 5 bounties together, they each complete a bounty in 5 minutes. I am surprised that the developers did not see it coming: split farming is very clearly not how we want players to play the game. Yet nearly a year later, they still have not changed the bounty system.

The Hellfire Amulet is not as mandatory compared to the RoRG. But its bonus is so useful that all of the top players have it. Farming it is somewhat more fun than farming for RoRG, since it is a quest in itself: a) hunt for the 4 Keywardens on the game's largest maps to obtain 4 keys, b) combine the 4 different keys into a portal, c) kill 2 super bosses at once, a somewhat more difficult task than the Keywarden hunt, and d) combine 4 super bosses' loots to obtain a Hellfire Amulet.

The Reaper of Souls expansion

From launch in May 2012 until the retirement of the Auction House (AH) in February 2014, players were mostly buying their gear from the AH, and sometimes grind-crafting it. They nearly never dropped it themselves. Legendary weapons had 7-8 affixes. After the AH retired, Loot 2.0 arrived, and the expansion Reaper of Souls (RoS) shortly after that. Legendary weapons now have 4 primary and 2 secondary affixes. Secondary affixes do not matter much (e.g. more XP when killing a monster), so RoS drastically reduced the item entropy.

The expansion also reminded me of Blizzard's somewhat elegant solution to a common MMO problem. Most MMOs in the early 2000s had the same problem: players who have been playing for a year have too much of a head start compared to players who have been playing for 3 months. New players are hopeless, especially in PvP situations. World of Warcraft solved this problem with what I call expansion gating: WoW vanilla capped the character level at 60 and item level at 92. Until the first expansion came out to increase these two caps, players were gated there. The advantage of expansion gating is that it gives the same chance to old and new players. The main drawback (if any) is mudflation. Diablo 3 is no different: level-70 items have twice more DPS than level-60 items. Thus when the expansion launched, players threw away all the gear they had acquired before.

Few links to other end-game activities

Item games have a great loop, but it is not enough in itself. D3 launched in May 2012. The Auction House (AH) launched in May 2012 too, so players could play two games in one: the action RPG and the auction game. Note that you did not need to play the aRPG to play the auction game, but you did need to buy gear off the AH to play the aRPG well. Had it been the opposite, I think the game would have been much better.

In July 2012, the developers realized that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game. Since launch, the game also allowed players to hunt for achievements and start new characters (in softcore or hardcore). In August 2012, the developers added the leveling up grind through 100 Paragon levels. Every Paragon level increased the chance to drop an item and the amount of gold dropped by 3%. In February 2014, Paragon levels became infinite, and the 3% bonus was removed. Clans and communities were also added in February 2014. Since August 2014, players can compete on the greater rift leaderboards, and start new seasonal characters (in softcore or hardcore). Interestingly, the item game is completely independent of all other end-game activities (except the AH and the original 100 Paragon levels increasing magic find and gold find). In other words, the item game of Reaper of Souls could be directly copied into another game without having to also copy the other activities.

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