Erich Schaefer on Item Design and Story


I really enjoyed this interview with Erich “the Silent Sibling” Schaefer, conducted by The Critical Bit. In it Erich answers questions about TL2’s design, company creation and structure, things they learned and changes they made based on beta feedback, and more. I’ll quote two bits, about story in aRPGs and and item system, but I recommend that you read the whole thing.

Action role-playing games tend to be paced very quickly. Does this make it difficult to include narrative elements with a lot of depth? How important is a strong narrative in an ARPG?
I’m not sure if it makes a strong narrative difficult or if it makes a strong narrative completely impossible. In my mind the storyline for Diablo is “Uh-oh, Demons!” the story on Hellgate was “Sci-fi Demons! Kill them all!” and the story on Torchlight is “Crap, more Demons!” This is a complete simplification and does a disservice to a lot of fine efforts to give these games a story, but are we successful? I have no clue. Personally I can’t follow or read stories in games, even games well-known for having a great story; I have some kind of mental block. The real story, in my experience, is just my internal narrative about what I am doing now, what am I finding, where am I going, why am I unique and better than everyone else.

I could expound on the complexity forever, but it’s pretty dry to discuss and probably not that much different from any other RPG, so let me digress to where I think our methods are different, and where it gets fun, for me, at least. I don’t even try to balance the game!

I suspect that’s a shocking statement, considering how much balance gets discussed in reviews, within our team, and amongst my peers in the industry, and it may come back to haunt me if our game isn’t well received, but I think we do it differently here at Runic. One reason, as you allude to in the question, is that the game is simply too complex; there are too many systems and too much randomness for my puny brain to deal with. But the more important reason is that I think balance is boring.

I specifically want you to find a weapon that’s just too good. I want you to discover a skill combo that makes killing certain monsters seem too easy, and I want your summoned Nether Imp to feel “way overpowered.” But these imbalance spikes are designed to be temporary. A few levels deeper into the game, you might be struggling to find a replacement weapon, your skill combo won’t work as well against the new monster varieties and your pet will start to seem weaker. The multiple, overlapping systems and heavy randomness work to my benefit in this respect. I just stand back and try to manage the chaos. So all my spreadsheets and assumptions become less important as we finish development, and I concentrate on playing over and over again, getting tons of feedback, and ironing out the really crazy peaks and valleys. Fun always trumps balance.

That last bit made me sit up straight in my chair and reminded me exactly of some of the many criticisms of Diablo III’s item system. (Erich was largely responsible for the well-loved item system in D1 and D2, and he’s handling that system in TL2 also.) This whole article we did about how Diablo III doesn’t seem to have the peaks/spikes of excitement and joy that most of us got from D2’s slot machine item system ties very well to Erich’s comments about not striving for balance.

D3’s item system seems to be very well balanced, in that items exhibit a steady progression in quality. But it lacks the spikes of “OMG this is awesome!” that you get from really interesting and powerful and fun items, which largely came from Sets and Uniques and Runewords in D2X. Finding a slightly better rare armor with +20 more main stat and better all resist is useful in D3, but it never makes you leap up and feel great excite.

Hopefully the upcoming improvements/changes to D3’s legendaries and sets will change this, or at least modify it.

Tagged As: | Categories: Ex-Blizzard, Items, Torchlight 2

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