Here’s the first installment of Diconstruction, the new column by Chris Marks, author of retired column Behind the Veil, In Diconstruction Chris is going to examine gameplay issues from the Diablo series and other RPGs, with an eye cast forward to how such issues might be handled in Diablo III. In #1, Chris takes on the issue of item durability in Diablo I and Diablo II. How was durability handled in those titles? Was there any benefit to giving items durability, (besides giving birth to the NPC Griswold) or was it just an annoyance? Is item durability ever a good idea in an RPG? Click through to read Chris’ thoughts on the matter and see if you agree with his ultimate conclusion.

    Durable Endurable

    My relationship with Diablo has always been a little weird.  Originally I would stay up all night and sleep through class the next day, head on my desk.  Then my time went elsewhere, and playing Diablo (or any game, for that matter) fell by the wayside.  Somehow, though, I always keep coming back to it.  It’s like an abusive spouse I just can’t say no to; no matter how many times my accounts expire, I always bring them back to life.

    This time I came back for the sake of intellectual interest.  You see, there’s a video game review column called “Zero Punctuation” which is hosted on EscapistMagazine.com, and which comes out on Wednesdays.  Last January the author did a column on Silent Hill Origins, a game for the PSP.  In it he comments on how useless weapons that shatter after 3 strikes are, and then poses a question:

    “You have one second to name any game in which weapon degradation has been a good idea.”

    Of course, being the single largest time consumer in my life over the past 12 years other than school, work, and sleep, my mind immediately went to the Diablo series.  After all, having weapons that degrade and break over time, but not immediately, gives the game another dimension, namely that you need to be mindful of the state of your equipment.

    The Diablo titles were not the first game to force you to pay attention to the state of your character or his/her belongings; just look at the old Rogue-like games.  In them you had to make sure your character ate and went to the bathroom regularly.  And there was Sierra’s Quest for Glory series (which was originally called Hero’s Quest before there was a trademark issue), where you not only have to make sure your character eats but that he spends time (or rather, that you spend time) practicing his skills.

    Diablo, however, is not really an adventure game like those ones were.  When you get right down to it, Diablo is basically a hack and slash from a third-person perspective where you get to customize your character with the items and skills you want, within certain restrictions.  Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to listen to what the locals have to say and then go out and slaughter everyone they tell you is bad.  So I had to ask myself: given that it takes focus away from rumour-inspired genocide, is item degradation really that good an idea in Diablo?

    The Durability Method

    To begin, let’s discuss the first Diablo.  In Diablo, items degraded with use, until a gold image showed on the right side of the screen when they were heavily damaged. The image turned red when the item was on the verge of breaking. The Warrior character class could repair items in the field, but they lost maximum durability because, let’s face it, the Warrior’s main skill with a weapon was hitting other people with the sharp end of it.  A better idea was to go to town and let Griswold the blacksmith repair your stuff, because he’s had just a touch more experience doing so than you have, what with it being his profession and all.

    In addition to items having durability, some items were indestructible, including all rings and amulets, some unique items, and magical items with the “Of The Ages” suffix.  The obvious benefit of these items is that they couldn’t break, but magical items with the suffix lost the ability to have other suffixes which would modify the item in such a way as to make it better at killing things or protecting you from things that were trying to kill you back.

    In 1997, Sierra released an expansion to Diablo called Hellfire.  This expansion included items called Oils, which could be applied to your equipment to modify them in some way, either temporarily or permanently.  Among these oils were some which increased the current and/or maximum durability of an item, such as the aptly named “Oil of Permanence” which made the item you rubbed it on indestructible.

    Diablo 2 and the Lord of Destruction expansion basically mimicked this initial pattern.  In the main game, items degraded with use, and the game let you know how they were getting along. Items could be repaired by a blacksmith in each town, and some items were indestructible or had small trolls living inside them which repaired them for you.  The expansion introduced these neat little things called “Runes” and “Jewels”, which are basically like oils that are permanent, and that players could always see which ones had been used, and how many could be used on a given item. In most cases that number was 0, rendering them almost completely ineffective on such items, except there was a quest in Act 5 which added a socket (or sockets) to any item as a reward.

    Another change in the expansion was “Ethereal” items, which was a fancy way of saying their damage or defense (appropriately) were 50% higher, and that they could not be repaired.  Meanwhile, mercenaries became somehow magical, since the items they used never lost durability no matter how many brick walls they got banged against or how many times their wielder exploded.

    Get The Glue!

    One thing Diablo 2 did significantly differently than the original Diablo was how it handled items reaching 0 durability.  In the first Diablo, if your weapon broke it disappeared forever, and if you didn’t have a backup jammed down your pants then your only option was to try to slap the taste out of the monsters’ mouths, hoping to catch them so completely off-guard that you’d have a chance to run away and try to find another weapon elsewhere.  Or, if the broken item was, say, your helmet, you got to try to break the monsters’ fists and weapons by biting them.

    In Diablo 2, when your item reaches 0 durability it is broken, but you can still carry it around with you to show off to all your friends, and you can take it to the blacksmith to be repaired.  Also, all bows and crossbows and their strings are apparently made of some kind of indestructible polymer which doesn’t grow weak from constant movement and bending.  Go figure.  The expansion introduced a second weapon and shield slot, in which you can put your backup weapons in case your primary one goes the way of plot in most games.

    The Light Bulb

    So now that we all have a far too detailed understanding of how durability works in the games, the original question still remains: is item degradation a good idea in the Diablo games?  In order to answer that question we need to look at something entirely different than the mechanics of durability, which we’ve lovingly spent the last seven paragraphs discussing.  The new topic of the day is how durability affects gameplay.

    In order to look at this, we first need to see how the presence of durability changes how we’d play the game when compared with the same game where all items are forever pristine.  So basically the difference between playing with an inventory filled entirely with indestructible items, and a game that actually has a chance of occurring.

    If you don’t have to worry about durability in this game, then you get to go out in the world and slaughter, maim and destroy to your heart’s content, stopping only to search through the severed limbs and bodies for items that are completely inexplicable given what you killed to claim them.  After all, it’s not like that giant porcupine really had a place to hide a 9 foot poleaxe, but that’s beside the point.  You’re going along your merry way killing some poor creature’s entire family, and the only thing that can force you back to town is not having enough room to carry yet another pair of boots.  That’s right, you’re only restricted by how greedy you are.  Take that, Communists.

    In a normal game, when that little gold-coloured image pops up on the right side of the gameplay area, it’s time to go back to town before your equipment beats you to the finish line.  So now you have to pay attention to how much longer you’ll be able to beat things with your beating stick.  While you’re in town getting someone you hardly know to hit your belongings with a big hammer, you’re free to wander around and check out the various vendors’ wares, looking for something that might do a better job of killing things than what you already have.  Who knows, one of them might even have some information about someone else they want you to kill.

    Additionally, your strategy and which items you use are directly affected by how durable the items are.  If an item is ridiculously durable, using it allows a different set of strategies than an item that is probably made of a high-tech combination of cheese and chest hair.

    Now, that’s all nice in theory, but in practice durability doesn’t really have that much of an impact.  Ethereal items generally don’t get used unless they’re also indestructible or self-repairing, and going to the blacksmith to click on the handy-dandy “Repair All” button is pretty much part of every single player’s standard routine every time they’re in town, so durability generally doesn’t come in to play unless an item has an extraordinarily low amount of it.

    In reality, the only items that are at all likely to ever get even remotely close to being in danger of breaking are the random things you find on the ground when your character is starting out, or your starting equipment which you’re carrying over from character to character because it’s already so severely optimized that you’ll never need to switch items until it’s time to kill Mephisto.  So basically items you don’t care about and items you’re expecting to use for ridiculously long amounts of time per trip.

    What all of that means is that a lot of time and money was spent by Blizzard developing this durability system, and for all of that it doesn’t really affect the game that much at all, being more an annoyance than anything else.  For all the effect it has on gameplay they may as well have just told us not to use items that are blue because the lead developer was once attacked by an army of rabid Smurfs.

    Durability certainly doesn’t detract from the Diablo games, but its impact is functionally so insignificant that they probably should have just said to themselves “You know what, the players will make this not matter,” and left it out of the game.  As it stands, it’s not a good idea or a bad idea; it’s just… well… a durable one.

    Diconstruction (Diablo Deconstruction) is written by Chris Marks.  It examines differences between the two (soon to be three)
    Diablo games, as well as comparing them to other games, in a hopefully amusing style.  Diconstruction is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Leave your comments below, or contact the author directly.

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