Like most gamers out there, I’m in the midst of slaying hordes of demons in Blizzard’s highly anticipated Diablo 3. I was around for the original Diablo, and also spent a great deal of time in Diablo 2, so you can imagine how much time I’ve already put into Diablo 3.
When I first started reading about D3, an early design decision jumped out at me; no more skill trees. For many, this was blasphemy. Diablo 2 was BRUTAL with skill trees, meaning that once you allocated a point, you could never go back. This was problematic for one of my early characters, a mage I didn’t spec properly that became unplayable at higher levels. But that didn’t mean skill trees were bad per se, just that you need to be a bit less punishing when designing them. Either A) every combination in a skill tree needs to be playable at all difficulty levels or B) give players some way to re-allocate points. This can be something that is easy in the game (with a a few clicks) or a money sink, something developers often insert into games to balance the economy.
Enter World of Warcraft. WoW elected to allow you to re-allocate points for a small amount of gold coins. Problem solved, right? Why not do this in D3? One word: choice. Although each class in WoW has 3 specific talent trees, and within each talent tree many different choices, Blizzard discovered that players in WoW simply went to various website forums, found the ‘template’ build that optimizes performance, and followed that. So you ended up with millions of mages, for example, that all had an identical build. Not a lot of choice in something like this. Leading up to D3, Blizzard wanted to make sure the players had interesting choices to make regarding talents and abilities.
Instead of unlocking points you can allocate in a skill tree like in Diablo 2, you now unlock abilities at each level in D3. Eventually, you end up unlocking somewhere around 25 active abilities (each with 6 customization options) and 15 passive abilities. The catch is that you can only ‘use’ 6 active abilities at any given time, and 3 passive abilities. Specializing your character looks something like this:
Later in the game, Blizzard designed mechanics in such a way that you’re greatly encouraged to pick a set of abilities and stick with them for long periods of time. I personally find this system appealing, but it’s worth pointing out that other games follow similar mechanics (see Guild Wars for an example).
So did Blizzard achieve their design goal in terms of getting away from ‘template’ builds and provide players with interesting choices around skills and abilities? From a recent game update:
“The most common level 60 build in the game is only used by 0.7% of level 60 characters of that class.”
To me, that looks like success.