Diablo IV and RPG Design Theory

In which I suggest some lessons from "Modern RPG Theory"™ as answers to some of Diablo IV's failings.

Diablo IV and RPG Design Theory

I, like many others, ended up feeling quite cold on the gameplay offered by the much-anticipated Diablo IV. There are probably lots of reasons for this—any game with a long development arc like this, amidst a corporate situation that has to at least be regarded as “troubled”, is bound to have made a lot of sacrifices and simplifications in order to launch.

I acknowledge that Diablo games are always a bit grindy. Especially in the endgame, more linear procedural content comes to dominate the “base game” experience, and the grind is sort of a default gameplay mode to keep that long tail of hardcore enthusiasts playing. I’m not interested in that—and by all accounts Diablo IV has not done a particularly good job of having a “grind” that feels meaningful to those who love that playstyle. I don’t really feel qualified to critique that part of the experience, so I won’t. I’m here to talk about how a lack of attention to RPG detail permeated the base gameplay experience, much to the game’s overall detriment.

There are a number of ways in which this manifests, and here I've picked out three of them that would have been solvable with the application of some modern knowledge from the tabletop RPG world.

Let’s Xander These Dungeons

Every single “dungeon” or otherwise “instanced area” I entered in my playthrough of Diablo IV has a “Melan Diagram” (a diagram that reduces a zone's pathing to a simple line graph) that is almost humorously simple: a line from point a to b. Oh, they use a lot of art, turns, s-curves, etc. to try to disguise this from you, but every dungeon I saw was either a literal line or a line with one or two small offshoots. Not that Diablo 3’s dungeons were nonlinear masterpieces, but they at least usually had more branches and occasionally surprised the player with special events or encounters hiding down by-passable diversions from the main line.

On such a linear, on-rails map, there is precious little opportunity for the sort of “fortunate accident” or “emergent gameplay” that really drive a zone’s memorability and replayability. And when all of your zones are the most basic form of linear railroad, nothing is going to feel memorable or replayable. We can take a partial stab at fixing this by simply adding more interesting pathing, a la Diablo 3, perhaps with the option for procedural event encounters to be seeded in. That gets us up a tier and to Melan diagrams that are slightly more interesting. But a proper fix should aim higher.

How do we aim higher, as zone / dungeon designers? One thing we could do is take some advice from Jennell Jaquays, by way of Justin Alexander’s “Xandering the Dungeon”[[1]] — add multiple entrances to the zone, accessible via different means (exploration, dialogue, skill) that drop you off at different starting points. Once in the zone, provide the opportunity to traverse it via secret, unconventional, and character-driven means in addition to the normal linear exploratory pattern. This has been done in the computer game space for a long time—think about games like Deus Ex, Cyberpunk 2077, Hitman, etc. where there are plentiful paths into and across levels, and exploration and NPC interaction can uncover secret paths or unlock opportunities for alternative traversal. A roleplaying game should also emphasize character differentiation—there ought to be ways that the character classes in Diablo could unlock nonlinear traversal mechanisms. Some zones would naturally favor one or more classes—exploring a tomb? Consider including events and alternative approaches for necromancers! Navigating an instanced bog, overrun by corruption? It ought to be the druid’s time to shine.

By providing hooks for different character classes and player choice to break the linearity of the zone apart, designers provide a great deal of replayability (“Ooh, I want to see what the Necromancer can do here”) as well as facilitating emergent gameplay (“oh man, I found a back door into the keep, but then I tripped an alarm and now we have to deal with threats from multiple sides”). Diablo IV implemented a number of “jumps” / “slides” / “elevators” and one-way traversals to their dungeons, but they’re all pointless bits of smoke-and-mirrors frippery, since they lead only forward down the railroad.

Adding various alternative pathing into and around our zones on top of more interesting layout design unlock the ability to play the same zone in multiple ways, delighting our players with more memorable and emergent fun.

Encounters: Thinking Beyond the Bullet Sponge

Difficulty and challenge rating in Diablo IV appeared to be entirely tied to a creature’s hit point pool. The “Big Bads” I encountered asked very little of me—they had one or two telegraphed “big hits” and an undifferentiated mass of regular attacks. The encounters were usually staged in a simple open arena-like setting. The only real strategy was to move into the arena and then spend longer than usual maximizing DPS, occasionally sipping on a health potion if one failed—or was simply too bored—to dodge a “big hit”. Everything about these encounters was as straightforward and repetitive as possible. Player skill was limited to the priors about your build you brought to the encounter—the conflict was “settled ahead of time”.

How can we fix this, as game designers? Again, we can turn to some thinking from the more modern RPG genre: we can change the environment to make it an active participant in the encounter, we can make the big bad active throughout the zone leading up to a final encounter (the Ravenloft), we can provide more intricate routines or behaviors that change what they ask of the player, or we can provide alternative approaches (the Deus Ex). Let’s run through these approaches real quick—

  1. Environmental change-ups. This is underutilized in the video game genre outside of action games like God of War or Shadow of the Colossus. If your boss fights are locked into static arenas, try moving them—stage it on a moving platform, have the environment crumble and shift, perhaps falling through to other stages, and so on.
  2. More active big bads. Instead of waiting in the arena, perhaps the big bad stages short ambushes, or appears in a non-combat role, and otherwise foreshadows their personality and the more complete encounter. Let the players meet the big bads outside a staged arena!
  3. More intricate and varied routines. Especially if you foreshadow it well, you can vary what boss fights require of the player and character. Perhaps some bosses favor a ranged component, or a social component, or a magic component, etc. This should be more than just “this boss takes 10% less damage from fire” penalties, but really work to get the player off of their line.
  4. Alternative approaches. This is partially covered in the previous section, but in some games entire hostile encounters might be bypassable, or it might be possible to avoid conflict entirely, or to enlist outside aid, and so on.

Utilizing a combination of these means provides more flexibility, increased replayability, and more varied gameplay beyond a bullet-sponge waiting passively in a static arena. Your build ought to matter for more than just DPS button-pushing routines, and capstone encounters ought to require active involvement by and development of player skill.

Building Character: Be Bigger Fans of the Player Characters

Diablo IV’s leveling system is very “spreadsheet-y” — there are loads of abilities with various ranks that spend most of the player’s time incrementing values by small amounts. This strikes me as most appropriate to an endgame progression grind—after all, “you can make the numbers go up” is the basic pitch for endgame grinds. But for the main story arc, I think ability progression should favor bigger and cooler things. Character builds didn’t seem to be very distinctive—this is perhaps in part due to the first two problems—but the more varied we make our encounters and dungeons, the more meaningfully interesting abilities we can offer to players. There’s really only one thing to do in Diablo IV as presented: figure out how to maximize DPS. I didn’t see anything beyond that in the main story arc.

I think most of the fractionated “+0.8% to X” things should land during the endgame, and if that means that there are fewer character ability upgrades and unlocks early, then that’s probably fine. Align your main arc progression to the rule of cool: “would it be cool if?” I suspect that Diablo’s character classes would be better off signposting builds by offering fewer but more impactful abilities that allow players more time to develop skill using those abilities singly and in combination. Progression through the main arc should focus on developing meaningfully different interactions with the game and player skill. If our skill progression allows for a richer interaction with the gameworld, then we’ve scored a double victory.

[[^1]]: Yes, this term used to be called something else—the creator has changed the name: https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/50123/roleplaying-games/a-historical-note-on-xandering