One of the topics most frequently asked about earlier this week during our two live chats was the issue of Diablo 3’s controls and user interface. How do the controls work, how are hotkeys set, what sort of skills can be mapped to to the 1234 keys, and how does it all actually play in the game? Well wonder no more, since the DiabloWikiInterface page in the wiki has been updated with new screenshots and information. The coverage is quoted and expanded upon in this article, with additional commentary added on what it was like to actually use the controls in game.

    Click through for all the hands-on details.

    Diablo 3 Controls and Belt Interface

    Here’s how the belt interface looked in the last official screenshot released, in April 2009. (Blizzcon saw some additions to the quick icons on the right. See the wiki page for more details..)

    There are four skill slots (1234), a health potion slot (5), a left mouse button, and two skills on the right mouse button, which you cycle between using the mouse wheel or the Tab button. This design allows you to have 7 active skills at your fingertips; 3 on the mouse, 4 on the keyboard, plus the health potion on the 5 key.

    Other types of Potions may also be mapped to the 1234 keys; health potions, elixirs, or scrolls of various types.

    The general operational theory is that players will put their active skills, the ones they’re using the most, on the mouse buttons. Skills like buffs, debuffs, summoning skills, and others that are used less frequently are mapped to the 1234 keys. This is not mandatory; the left click has to be a skill that lets you move your character around (just like in Diablo 2; where you can’t put say, Summon Golem, on that mouse button) but you can map active skills you use every second on the 1234 keys. In fact, some builds will probably have to. By level 14, my Blizzcon Wizard was constantly using 5 attack spells, and I had two of them on the 1 and 2 keys.

    The skills mapped to the number keys function just like skills mapped to the mouse keys. When you click the 1234 key, that skill is cast, with the cursor targeting it. Putting active skills there is no different than having them on the mouse; it’s purely a matter of preference and ease of use where you choose to map your attack skills.

    The 5 key can not be mapped to a skill anymore. (It apparently could in earlier builds.) That spot now only works with potions, and all I ever used it with were healing potions at Blizzcon. Healing potions in Diablo 3 come in a variety of sizes, they stack up by type, they heal X amount instantly, and they have a substantial cool down time between uses. Potions can be consumed by right clicking them in the inventory, but it’s easier to use the 5 hotkey. New characters in the Blizzcon build started out at level 12, with several lesser healing potions in their inventory. These were automatically tied to the 5 key, and if you drank all of your starting quality potions, and had picked up more healing pots of higher quality, those would automatically appear in the 5 slot. Any healing potions in your inventory would appear on the 5 key; you didn’t have to drag them to some special belt inventory space, as was the case in D2.

    There are no skills in D3 (yet revealed) that work simply by being active on the RMB, as the Paladin’s Auras did in Diablo 2. It would seem that such skills won’t be supported in Diablo 3, since with just 2 skills to cycle through on the RMB, the whole control system conspires against that game mechanic. (True, many Paladins in D2 keep the same aura active all the time, but with the effort the D3 team is putting into adding variety and strategy to gameplay, it seems unlikely that they would repeat that control system when only two auras could be conveniently cycled between. Nor that a Paladin-type character could be effective if she cycled between just two aura-like skills.) More debate on that issue here.

    Setting Hotkeys

    Mapping skills to the controls is very easy in Diablo 3. You just open the skill tree and drag skills down to the buttons you wish them assigned to. To change around skills, you drag a new one to an occupied slot (RMB, LMB, Tab, or 1234) and drop it. This puts the previous skill on your cursor, where you can drag it to a new spot or drop it anywhere else to discard it.

    In addition to the skill tree, there’s an icon that opens the DiabloWikiactive skills window. This is a small pop up window that appears just above the belt interface, which displays the icons for the active skills your character can use. Only the active skills; no passives, no skills without points in them yet, etc. This makes it very easy to see which skills can be assigned to the 7 skill places on the belt.

    All of the keyboard keys will be fully-customizable in Diablo 3, so players won’t *have* to use 12345 and the other keyboard shortcuts if they don’t want to. I imagine I’ll remap mine to somewhere along the QWERTASDFG range, which is what I used for the skills in Diablo 2.

    HotKey Theory

    (This section was added after several comments made clear the need for it). The next section down on the Wiki Interface page covered this issue, but I didn’t include it in the original version of this article. The following quotes from the wiki page:

    The appearance and function of the belt interface are two sides of the same coin. The appearance serves the function, and both mesh with the various skill and play style changes made in Diablo III. The D3 Team is designing Diablo III to be played with 5-7 active skills per character. There are many more skills than that, but specializing in a half dozen or so active skills is the intended route to success. Therefore, rather than throwing in 16 hotkeys, as in D2, there are only half that many in D3, with the design theory being that characters will have maxed out their points in a handful of skills which they will use constantly. (And respecing will allow changes, if necessary.)

    They want the controls to support the half dozen skills characters use a lot, rather than allowing the unbalanced one-skill wonders we see in D2, or requiring D3 players to juggle a dozen or more skills for some builds, as is the case in D2.

    The other main goal of the Diablo III interface is to be easier to use and more visual. Hotkeys were easy to use in Diablo II once a player knew how, but to a new user their technique was not immediately evident. There was no way to see which custom keys were set as hotkeys without opening a different interface, and only the active skills could be seen on the left and right mouse button icons, which forced players to memorize their skill setup. The D3 Team wants the skill menu to be much more visual and visible during play.

    There’s some debate about this approach amongst experienced Diablo II players. Some fans are skeptical, wondering if the D3 Team is going too far to make it easy for beginners, and watering down the controls and over-simplifying things in the process. Early play testing at BlizzCon and other gaming shows has yielded positive feedback, and the guys on the D3 team play the game every day and they like the new design. It won’t be until the beta test that gamers get a chance to spend enough time at the controls to form an educated opinion.

    The Inventory

    The inventory has changed several times (so far) during development, and more changes are quite likely. The screenshot to the right is from a gameplay movie taken at the Gamescon show, which was the same build that we played at Blizzcon last month. Earlier this year, the inventory was divided into multiple tabs, with one for large items (armor and weapons), and one for small one (jewels, runes, potions, etc). That system was out at Blizzcon. In was one large inventory grid into which both large and small items were placed. There was a second tab that held Quest items, which were essentially BoP (Bind on Pickup) since you couldn’t drop them; they were automatically added to or removed when your character completed quest events.

    The new inventory grid was huge; 8×5 for 40 spaces. However, 27 of those spaces were from the pack (located in the lower left space on the paperdoll). I took it off and found that my level 12 character had just 13 inventory spaces. Blizzard had fixed up the demo characters with a very large pack, one presumably much bigger than a level 12 character will have found by that point in the regular game. (The lower right inventory space is for the still mysterious DiabloWikiTalisman. It was disabled in the Blizzcon build.)

    All items now are either large or small. Large items are armor and weapons, and these all require 1×2 spaces in the inventory. (They’re taller than they are wide.) Everything else requires a 1×1 space. This gives the game a very slight aspect of the “Tetris” style of inventory, but it’s a Tetris so simple that anyone can play it. It was very simple in teh Blizzcon demo, with the full 8×5 inventory, but when I checked out a character without the huge Adventurer’s Backpack on, my inventory was just 13 spaces. There were 8 across the top row, and then 5 more on the second row. That meant I could have held just 5 “large” items, and then 3 small 1×1 items. At most.

    It’s hard to say how adequate the inventory space was at Blizzcon, since there was no town to return to, no stash in which to save stuff, and no NPC merchants to buy/sell items with. Most players picked up almost everythign they found (since new players were curious about the items and didn’t know what was good), which resulted in a full inventory fairly soon. I was a little more selective in my item gathering, and only picked up rares (there were no Uniques or Set Items in the Blizzcon build). Even so, I ran out of space every 15-20 minutes. When that happened I’d find a quiet spot, open up my inventory, ID everything in there (ID scrolls were plentiful) and just drop anything that wasn’t an immediate upgrade. New characters in the Blizzcon build started off at level 12, with a variety of fairly good items on, so not everything was an improvement.

    It was my impression that drops were turned up, in quality and quantity for the demo, since Blizzard wanted new players to have fun and find a lot of cool stuff, so there’s really no way to estimate how like the real game the Blizzcon demo experience was. We’ve also got no idea how players will unload items, since there are no Town Portal scrolls in the game, so it’s not clear how players will return to town to unload their extra stuff. Items will be salable, everything you pick up includes a gold sale price in the hover description; it’s just unclear who we’ll be selling to, or how we’ll reach them conveniently.

    Incidentally, the lack of town portal scrolls isn’t a bug or a short term thing, it’s a design goal. The D3 Team wants players to use strategy and to feel endangered when they play D3. Hence limited red pots, most healing from health orbs, and no easy town portal escapes to town. How this works with selling the town trips required to sell items is an unanswered question.

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