Thursday, October 16, 2008

balance vs customization in Diablo 3

Damion Schubert gave a good talk at the Austin conference one year in which he spoke of how the game aspect, world aspect, and social aspect of any MMO often interfere with each other. He presented a triangle with those three points and argued that a good designer is conscious of where within that triangle lies the focus of the game.

Of course, tensions like this exist among many other aspects of design. One such tension is between "balance" and customization. The more influence designers offer players over direction of their experiences, the less they are able to predict and control the gameplay overall. I prefer more emphasis on customization in the games I play.

One of the most successful games that favored customization over balance is Diablo 2. It offered unprecedented freedom in skill selection, gear selection, item customization, attribute distribution, and even pacing. Because the world repopulates with each play-session, the player could choose to replay old areas rather than push forward (thereby providing excellent control of the gameplay's difficulty to the player).

Each character was not only capable of being unique and personal, but likely to be so. Through both choice and luck, five characters of the same class and level were likely to all have different degrees, and types, of power. Customization and dynamics go hand-in-hand, and that's why I and many others are still able to enjoy Diablo 2 over seven years after its release.

So I'm wary of the news that character attribute points will be distributed automatically and not by player choice in Diablo 3. Blizzard says this allows them to go even further with items, but it seems at first glance like a step back from customization and toward the more common emphasis on power balancing.

Even if it is a step towards balance, the gameplay of Diablo 3 is still likely to be more customizable than that in most games. But Blizzard has also replaced the health potion system with health globes which cannot be stored in inventory (they can only be used automatically when running over them). I like the idea, but again choice seems to be taken from the player. Will players be able to control the pace and difficulty as much as in Diablo 2?

Two similar changes does not equal a trend. But if I see a third change of this kind, I might wonder if Blizzard is bringing Diablo 3 in line with the dominant design culture of balance obsession. Will Blizzard emphasize uniform difficulty and predictability over player choice? If so, I doubt I'll enjoy it as long and as much as I enjoyed Diablo 2.


  1. From what I understand, players will have potions in addition to hp/mp orbs dropping. Supposedly this is to keep players from having to go back to town so often (although in D2 I went back to town to sell loot more often than I did to restock on potions).

    But I will say that I'm extremely disappointed that we won't be able to allocate stat points anymore (I didn't know this until I read your post). It was definitely part of the character building process, and sometimes I wanted to cast certain spells even though my class wasn't set up for it.

    Other than that, I for one, am freakin' pumped!


  2. I think they did away with health potions entirely. It makes sense. They created the orb system to control difficulty more and make combat strategic (ex: kill the little guys first to hopefully find an orb and heal before finishing the big monster). If potions were also included, then a player could ignore the orbs.

    I'm really excited about the game. The revised attribute system is the only thing I've heard that's really worries me so far. I like to make unbalanced characters (like a brute with high strength and little else).

    Blizzard might give more items attribute bonuses. Perhaps they just want us to customize our attributes in a different way.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.