Seeking Sanctuary: The Definitive Diablo III Preview - HotHardware

Seeking Sanctuary: The Definitive Diablo III Preview

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In 11 years of writing, this is a story I've never told. Back in 2001, as a senior in college, I took on development of a Diablo 2 mod project that was born out of a "Fusion" (hence the name) of other mods. I released a follow-up to the original Fusion Mod, dubbed Fusion 2, then began work on a sequel, called Cold Fusion. Unlike Fusion 2, Cold Fusion was a top-to-bottom overhaul of D2 that adjusted difficulty scaling, introduced an entirely different leveling curve, and featured new gems, sets, and unique items, all scaled for Normal, Nightmare, and Hell difficulty.

Our team built new skills out of unused animations in the game data, redesigned the skill trees, and rebalanced the magical prefixes and suffixes in an attempt to make a greater range of builds viable in the endgame. It consumed a huge chunk of my senior year and was scarcely a solo effort. Cold Fusion served as my best friend, Justin Gash's, senior computer science project (he's now a PhD of mathematics at Franklin College) with contributions from another friend, John Stanford. Another programmer and math genius; Matt Wesson, was instrumental in designing the mod's monster statistics and changing the leveling curve.

Diablo II has evolved tremendously since Cold Fusion was popular (the last version of Diablo 2 it works with is 1.06b and the website is 11 years old) -- but the enormous amount of work we did back in the game's early days gives me a unique insight into how Diablo 3's design improves and expands the original game's formula. Let's get started.

The Road To Tristram Runs Through Azeroth -

Diablo 3's flexible, switchable skill design owes a lot to World of Warcraft and the evolution of Blizzard's thinking on class design. When WoW launched, class respecs were expensive and hybrids were penalized by default. Druids, for example, could theoretically tank, DPS, or heal, but were treated as though these capabilities gave them an inherent advantage at all times. In reality, Druids who were busy in one role had no time to jump into a different one and were never wearing the proper gear even if they switched assignments mid-fight.

Blizzard eventually abandoned this viewpoint and, over a period of several years, modified Paladins, Shamans, and Druids so that they were able to perform their specific roles as well as the mainstream classes. This has more to do with Diablo III than you might think.

From Static Trees To Flexible Fabric -

Trying to balance the original set of skills before any form of synergy was possible was an ugly job.

Skill scaling in Diablo II was originally a mess. Game mechanics overwhelmingly favored life drain as a healing mechanism. The Barbarian skill Whirlwind, which hit multiple times, is the best example of the problem. There was no viable alternative to using it above Normal difficulty. The only way to make the Barbarian's other late-tree attacks like Berserk viable in the end-game was to completely rethink the role (and need) for vampiric life drain and change how the ability functioned.

Skill scaling was static. If putting a point in a skill increased its damage by 15, putting in a second point had to do the same thing. There was no way to way to increase the damage ramp by a percentage or to add an additional effect at the 5 point or 10 point level. Weapon Masteries -- the skills that gave you a flat percentile buff to your DPS with a specific type of weapon, were an attempt to improve ability scaling. Unfortunately, investing in Mastery meant diverting talent points that could be used to open the later (and better) skills. Blizzard addressed this to a certain degree Patch 1.10 by adding synergy; certain late-game abilities now scale further if you have invested points in earlier skills.

Why Diablo III's Approach is Better -
Diablo III's skill approach dumps the need to carefully invest in a min/max formula in favor of improving player choice. The Skill/Rune system is a far more effective way of accomplishing this goal than anything we achieved in CF or that Blizzard has built into D2.

Consider the core Barbarian ability "Leap." Here are the runes available for Leap, alongside their unlock levels.
  • Iron Impact: Increase your armor for a limited time after landing.
  • Launch: Slow enemies from your takeoff point as you leap into the air.
  • Toppling Impact: Send enemies hurtling away from where you land.
  • Call of Arreat: Draw enemies toward you when you land.
  • Death from Above: Stun enemies at the point of impact.
Depending on player preference, Leap can be used for retreat, improving your defense, crowd control, or a the opening move of a blistering offensive. Leap+DfA combined with Ground Stomp is an effective way to stun a group of monsters for several seconds, while Leap+CoA combined with Cleave guarantees maximum AoE damage. Frenzy, another core Barbarian ability, has runes that launch additional throwing axes, increase fury generation, heal you, or call down bolts of lightning.

Adding Runes keeps early skills from turning stale and replaces the customization that was previously available through assigning Attribute points, and it does so in a way that's tied more directly to game play than investing points in abstract values. Each class has a core attribute that bursts damage; non-core attributes have less of an impact on character scaling.

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I don't think I ever touched multiplayer in any Diablo game, yet I still put a hundred or so hours into each. I don't think my hands can survive a clickathon like they could years ago, so I'll have to pace myself, but I'm totally pscyhed about this release.

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Excellent preview of Diablo III, my friend. I’ve read scores of online articles about this game, but none of them have been written by anyone with the deep understanding you have of this franchise and the numbers behind it. I have been obsessed with the Diablo series for a long time, and I desperately want to love D3 as much as I’ve loved its predecessors.

Since the original announcement of D3, I’ve become increasingly disappointed/bitter about anything in D3 that seems inconsistent with D2. Changes in feel, style and game mechanics have really worried me. Last fall I reached the point where I was bracing for a Star Wars: Episode 1-like heart break.

Fortunately, I gained access to the D3 Beta in February. Spending 50+ hours playing the game has been nostalgic bliss, and has given me the chance to come to terms with changes to the franchise. I don’t know that I’ll ever reach a point where I can say my heart belongs to this game the way it has to previous installments in the series, but your article has been a big help. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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I'm glad you liked it. As someone who invested so much time into Diablo 2 relatively early in its life, it was extremely interesting to see how Blizzard evolved the game in later years. I have wondered if there's a reason why these schematics: have the name they do. I honestly don't know. I do know that some of the skills we invented for the Sorceress (Volcano, Frostbite) showed up in Lord of Destruction. Hard to say.

I have some balance concerns about D3, but what got me started on the road to modding Diablo 2 was frankly anger. I decided to start modding when I had a Barbarian character get one-shot in Hell by an aura -- Fire, I think -- and lose more than 4 hours of playtime XP.

Back in town I grabbed all my +HP gear, used Battle Orders or whatever the equivalent spell was to boost HP temporarily), walked back, and died as soon as I was in range again. Because the mob was on an island I had to walk across to continue the level, I had no way to get past it. I tried two leaps in quick succession, I tried to find an alternate route by using Leap to cross a gulf..nothing worked.

I tried until I'd lost the entire level's worth of XP; I'd been about to level up and was all the way back to the beginning. I started modding because I'd felt the game had changed from difficult to cheap. One-shot kills and the like aren't fun and they aren't challenging, they just leave people feeling cheated, at least when they come with such a penalty attached.

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Now I'm really looking forward to May 15!

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Life leech isn't a problem, it's a necessity. The problem is that ranged characters may be able to kill by kiting and take no damage, whereas melee characters generally can't avoid taking damage. Health globes are a great solution for random monsters, but boss fights are long and can exhaust the health of a melee character. Life per hit is good in that it doesn't scale too well with gear, though it does scale somewhat with attack speed. Lifesteal % is good in that it scales with your damage overall. This can be balanced as long as the leech % is kept low and in balance with incoming damage, but it is certainly a necessity, especially for the barbarian. From what I've seen in beta, life leech is under 2%, so stacking it would give you maybe as high as 10%, but I've only seen it on weapons. Normal is quite easy and the incoming damage so low that the lifesteal doesn't matter, so we can't really judge if it's a problem, we can only predict. I think it's going to be very easy to die even with lifesteal on items as a barbarian (which I plan to play primarily) and that we will need to rely on skills that grant healing on attack/crit/kill or that grant lifesteal (runed ignore pain) to survive tough battles.

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The problem with life leach in Diablo 2 was that it was the *only* percentage-based boost that tied directly to an absolutely essential game function (healing). Other % modifiers, like +talents that increased your mastery levels, or %MF, had an indirect impact. The reason LL scaling didn't work was because of the following: 

  • Player health scales linearly.
  • Player damage scales supra-linearly.
  • Life leech, being percentage based, is both stackable and dependent on weapon damage. 

It leads to the following situation: Assume, at level 20, you have 200 life and 10% life leach. You deal 100 damage per hit, which means you steal 10 HP, or 5% of your total HP per strike. This overwhelmingly favors fast weapons, because the value of the weapon is in how much it heals you per second, *not* how much damage it does. (Granted, this is not an absolute).

The problem is that your damage output will scale much more quickly than your HP. This leads to scenarios in which the value of life leech *increases* as far as how much healing you get from it, even if you don't increase the amount of LL that you carry. This was exacerbated by skills like Whirlwind, which hit multiple times per contact with a mob.

As you've said, life leech becomes essential to healing because Blizzard assumes everyone stacks life leech, and therefore increases damage output to the point that using life leech is the only way to survive. This is *not* an unbreakable chain, but fixing it required a different approach to the problem. 

This can be balanced as long as the leech % is kept low and in balance with incoming damage

In Cold Fusion, we balanced Life Leech by confining it to unique weapons, very specific pieces of armor, and Skulls. We also rebalanced gems such that Perfect gems were still useful in Hell Difficulty. The Forgemaster in Act IV of Normal (I forget his actual name)'s anvil still gave a variety of gem drops, and if you played your cards right and got a few lucky shrines / drops throughout Normal, you might end with a flawless or a perfect gem.

If we'd been able to work with some of the abilities that Blizzard added in Lord of Destruction, particularly skill synergy, we would've taken a further look at restricting LL still further. Wesson wanted to, I favored keeping it. 

Low, rare, life leech will not be a problem. That said, there *are* ways to balance without using it. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback we got on Cold Fusion was that people greatly liked the difficulty because the game was consistently hard without tipping over and becoming enormously frustrating or degenerating into a mindless slaughterfest you could play with 1/4 of your attention or while watching ***. 

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Player health wasn't entirely linear. Damage went up with base item damage, multiplied by ED, multiplied by skill damage bonuses, and multiplied by aura buffs. Health went up with vitality and +life, multiplied by +%health skills, of which there were several. It didn't scale as well as damage, but people still had HP in the thousands or tens of thousands. Healing outside of life leech was rare and ineffective, and the only % based one I can find is carrion vine. Life leech only became a necessity when they made the game harder. Before 1.1, you could beat everything with just potions, but after the improved difficulty and addition of new, much harder bosses, even life leech from items may not have been enough, and a reliance on life tap became crucial to some.

It's possible for Blizzard to make D3 work without lifesteal, but I see many of the same problems. Globes only heal you after battle, which doesn't help vs bosses unless they spawn adds like Leoric. Healing abilities don't seem to scale with items at all, but I'm not sure if this is the case. It looks like Barbarians are stuck being dependent on life leech (or similar effects), so it has to exist at least for them, but it doesn't look like the other classes will have much to choose from, nor would they be as reliant on it. Either way, it doesn't look like lifesteal will get as high (for non-barbarian) as it was in D2, and it sounds like damage from monsters in Inferno will be pretty intense.

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Do remember that a lot of things changed in Lord of Destruction -- I explicitly note at several points that my data sets are old and that D2 evolved considerably. Skills like Carrion Vine didn't exist in classic D2. You are correct that HP didn't scale perfectly linearly -- the more accurate way to express the situation is that HP (including the max amount of HP you could *practically* carry before gimping yourself) was far more linear than life leech. 

There are no "bad" abilities, life leech included; there are simply abilities that are more difficult to balance and can distort gameplay as a result. Could Blizzard balance life leech in a way that makes it available without making it overwhelming? Yes. Certainly D3 contains more alternate approaches to the problem than D2 did; Diablo II's life-restoration mechanisms were very crude, particularly in the original game. Spamming pots (and later rejuvs) and an over-reliance on LL was not a particularly elegant solution.

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Love the review and thanks for all the juicy details about the mechanics. I can't wait to get my hands on this game and the fact that I will have some time in June to actually play makes it even better.

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Thank-you for being the one person on the internet that truly KNOWS Diablo when talking about Diablo 3.

I am so tired of hearing in Diablo 3 articles:

"The gates of sanctuary are open again and are calling all all the action lovers out there for another click fest."

We know its a *** ARPG and that it is coming soon... why do these people bother writing these articles?

Thanks again.

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