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Seeking Sanctuary: The Definitive Diablo III Preview
Date: Apr 02, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
Diablo III is the sequel to one of the most popular games of all time; its launch on May 15 could cripple college graduation rates, triple the number of insomniacs worldwide, and slash national productivity. Believe us--we know. We've spent about six weeks with the beta and have just recently escaped from Khanduras to detail our findings.

This time, there's a twist, however. Our preview is written in two parts; a big-picture examination of the game and a fine-grained, behind-the-scenes look at how Diablo 3 deals with some of the problems and design flaws endemic to its predecessor.

End of Days

Diablo III's story begins here, in Tristram's old cathedral.

You arrive in New Tristram roughly a week after a falling star smashes through the old cathedral (shown above). The town is beset by rampaging hordes of undead, and loremaster Deckard Cain is lost in the depths of the old Monastery where the Lord of Terror first awoke decades earlier. The player's first task is to rescue Cain and end the undead threat.

Deckard, from a Diablo III storyboard

Deckard, already old in the first game, now bears a passing resemblance to a Shar Pei and is convinced that the Falling Star heralds the End of Days. His adopted niece, Leah, is less certain. It's been 20 years since the archangel Tyrael destroyed the Worldstone atop Mount Arreat (the conclusion to Diablo II: Lord of Destruction), but the intervening decades have been dark and troubled. New heroes are needed to prevent the rise of Azmodan and Belial, and the road to Hell begins in the moldering ruins of Tristram.

Zombie Steve Ballmer makes an appearance -- you can almost hear it moan "Developers..."

These early events play like a love letter to fans of the original Diablo. Unlike Diablo II, which only sent the player back to the ruins of Tristram for a single mission, Diablo III's first act is threaded with the journals and letters of the original townspeople. The nameless hero of Diablo I who became the Dark Wanderer of Diablo II was originally named Aidan. He was the son of the Mad King Leoric, who returned to Tristram in the original game to right the wrongs of his father. In the first game, the Skeleton King was a unique boss encountered in the upper levels of the Cathedral; he returns as the first boss in Diablo III.
Story and Gameplay

Long-time fans of the series will recall Lachdanan, the heroic knight who resisted the evil that corrupted his comrades, even as Leoric's dying curse warped his body. There's no direct encounter with him -- Aidan released his soul back in Diablo I -- but you'll come across his journals in Diablo III and even see a ghostly echo of the murder of Leoric. Even the Mad King is as much to be pitied as scorned. Unlike his son, Leoric refused to serve Diablo, even as the Lord of Terror's whispering drove him mad.

His transformation from footnote to significant player is emblematic of the storytelling changes in Diablo III as compared to its predecessors. Blizzard wants Diablo III to tell a better, deeper story than Diablo II did. The good news, for those who prefer minimum encumbrance to their hack-and-slash, is that the details are optional. Lore entries are archived in the player's journal, and while they're worth a small amount of XP, players who don't know Lachdanan from a latte won't have to sweat the minor details.

So how's the gameplay?

In a word, fantastic. The game's mechanics have evolved considerably since Diablo II, and almost entirely for the better. Skills, for example, have been entirely redesigned. Unlike Diablo II, where skill points were invested and locked-in ever-after (until Patch 1.13), Diablo III's skills are entirely dynamic. Various attacks, AoE abilities, and passive skills become available as you level -- as do hotkey options. In the beginning of the game, you're confined to the two mouse buttons and a potion key; hotkeys 1-4 unlock as you gain experience. Players can have up to six skills available at any time.

Skills can be Active or Passive, with new passive skills unlocked every 10 levels

Unlike in previous games, you're free to switch your hotkeyed skills out in any combination, but there's a time delay before the new skills can be used. Unlike in Diablo II (post-Lord of Destruction), there's no fast switching between weapon sets; skill swaps are meant to provide this flexibility while the time delay prevents mindless min/maxing.

Skills are further modified by the use of runes. Runes also unlock as you level and change the function of a basic skill. The beginning Barbarian skill Bash, for example, normally knocks an opponent backwards. The first rune you gain, Clobber, changes the effect from a knockback to a chance to stun. Swapping runes also triggers a cooldown on the related skill. As in many games, certain endgame skills are on a timer and can only be used every few minutes. Skills and runes are linked -- you can't bind Bash+Clobber to one key and Bash+Onslaught to another.

The Hammer is her...erm. Nevermind.

All this talk of timers might leave some fans nervous that Diablo III eschewed D2's frantic gameplay, but in practice, that's not what happens. D3 puts a much greater emphasis on strategy than Diablo II did, but it does so in a way that caters to fast combat. Got a nasty group of Elites to tackle? Lead them down a corridor with a badly reinforced wall and drop it on them. Need a fast escape? If you're a Barbarian, you can use Leap to move between various levels in the dungeon, provided you lead the mobs to an appropriate spot.

Heading Backstage
Diablo III is poised to deliver all the slaughtery goodness of the original while simultaneously updating and expanding on D2's core gameplay.We've focused on the Barbarian in our screenshots, but we've spent time with all the classes and they're both distinctive and a lot of fun. Each feels different, and it's easy to see why Blizzard is talking up co-operative multiplayer--there's a lot of fun to be had in teaming up with others.

If all you wanted was a quick look at the game, we hope you've enjoyed this. If you want to know more about why we think Diablo III will be a great game, keep reading.
Delving Deeper: Underlying Game Mechanics, D3 Skills
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.
Behind the Scenes (Cont) : Leveling, Experience, and Death
Leveling, Death, and Endgame
It's harder to characterize D3's leveling system given the beta's limited play, but there are some noteworthy differences. In the early versions of Diablo 2, the amount of XP you needed to gain a level increased far more quickly than the amount of XP you gained per kill.

The XP curve becomes exponential at ~lvl 50.
Neither Lord of Destruction or Cold Fusion
changed this curve

Because deaths in Nightmare and Hell difficulty removed 5-10% of your XP and a number of monster abilities were bugged and could result in one-shot kills, walking in range of the wrong named mob could nuke hours of play time.

Cold Fusion vastly increased XP-per-kill (thus decreasing the number of monsters needed per lvl)

Blizzard "fixed" the problem in Lord of Destruction by multiplying the amount of XP monsters awarded in Nightmare mode by a flat 1.71x and 2.54x in Hell difficulty. The curve shown here is a best-fit line; depending on what level you are when you exit Normal and Nightmare, the number of monsters you need to kill to level up will actually *fall* significantly rather than just flattening as we show.

Diablo III retains D2's "Hardcore" mode, in which death is permanent, but jettisons the XP loss at upper difficulty, which we consider a huge improvement.

The current situation is harder to parse.  Either D3's XP-per-kill rate drops off more steeply than D2's, or the beta is poorly scaled as far as monster levels versus character progression. This is likely a not-so-subtle encouragement to group -- D3 is meant to be experienced via cooperative multiplayer, and like D2, players get an XP bonus for playing together.

What's new in D3, is the vast number of ways to earn bonus XP. Rack up a hefty number of back-to-back kills? You get an XP bonus. Lure a bunch of mobs into an area an drop a wall on them? Substantially smaller XP bonus. Kill a bunch of mobs with a single blow? Moderate XP bonus. This linking of XP to achievements can significantly speed leveling and it encourages creative play.

The other new feature is the addition of a "+Additional XP Per Kill" magical suffix. I'm wary of this one, not because its overpowered, but because its presence suggests a sub-optimal, poorly-designed leveling curve. The problem with a static +XP per kill system is that it's a challenge to create value ranges that can't be aggregated to break the system at one end, yet still matter at the other. +6 XP per kill on a single piece of gear might constitute a handy bonus, whereas +54 XP per kill (the same bonus on all gear) creates scaling problems.
Behind the Scenes: Health and Mana Management, Conclusion
Heal Health / Mana Regen
In Diablo II, potion-spamming was a guaranteed requirement, no matter what class you played. Available health regeneration wasn't nearly fast enough for primary healing. The game relied on two types of potions -- health/mana pots, which had a fast (though not immediate) refill timer, and Rejuvenation pots, which took effect immediately. Potions were a primary gold sink, particularly on troublesome bosses.

The need to watch your life more carefully adds strategy -- and you earn XP for playing things close

In Diablo 3, all of these are jettisoned, save for health pots -- and the latter are on a significant cooldown timer. The gap is somewhat filled by the existence of "Health Globes;" potion-like orbs that are dropped by dying mobs and automatically heal you when you pass near. Town portals aren't instant-cast any more, there's now a casting time attached.

These three changes have a huge impact on gameplay. Instant rejuvenation pots and immediate TPs made it genuinely hard to create a consistent atmosphere of challenge in Diablo 2, without resorting to cheap one-shot kill tactics (something we absolutely loathed and sought to avoid). The game now offers boosts to health/mana regeneration via gear attributes and through LAEK (Life After Each Kill) modifiers.

Unfortunately, life leech is still present and readily available, at least in the beta. This is something we very much hope Blizzard changes. The central problem with life leech is that it's a percentage modifier that can be stacked on gear and is dependent on weapon damage -- not base HP. It becomes an overwhelming heal that forces developers to assume everyone has tons of it, and to build the game accordingly. D3 was supposed to avoid this problem -- as of this late date, life leech is still hanging around.

As for Spellstuff regen, default attacks no longer drain mana, while Monks, Barbarians, Demon Hunters, and Witch Doctors all have specialized energy reservoirs, each with its own characteristics. Barbarian attacks generate Fury, which is spent using other attacks (this is roughly analogous to Warrior's Rage in World of Warcraft, for example), while Monks and Witch Doctors have a regenerating energy type. Demon Hunters are unique, with a quick-regenerating energy pool for some abilities (Hatred) and a slow pool for others (Discipline).

Better Structures Make For Better Games 
I think Diablo 3 will be a much better game than its predecessor. Its foundations are better-laid, with fewer obvious pitfalls, while its skill and rune system is far more graceful than Diablo 2's talent trees. I'm wary of both life leech and the narrow XP/level scaling that the current beta offers, but the game is still in beta.

This may be the nerdiest darn thing I've ever said in a decade-long career of saying nerdy things, but I'm going to forgo pride and any chance of a date in the next 12 months and say it anyway -- better math makes for better games. Diablo 3 appears to be more consistent, better balanced, and more fun than its predecessor.

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