Mad Prophecies #4: Streamlining out the Skill


Brother Laz returns with a new installment of his Mad Prophecies. In this one he’s dialed down the snark and is speaking more seriously about skill trees, the user interface, and other features today’s gamer expects from a modern (so to speak) RPG. Since the “skill” required to succeed at a game like Diablo 2 is primarily knowing which builds to use, which items to use, and where best to find them, will there be any “skill” required in D3 with respecs, improved skill trees, etc?

Here’s the start of the column; click through to read the whole thing.

Mad Prophecies #4: Streamlining out the Skill

Finally a new column. Better late than never, I suppose.

During my long slumber between Mad Prophecies #3 and today, I discovered the new Moba games: Heroes of Newerth and League of Legends. Aside from being PvP and therefore more entertaining than the depressing AI implemented by every action RPG so far, the constantly changing circumstances mean that there is no single best build for any given hero.

The action RPG genre suddenly seems quite old: the massive skill trees and item pools consisting mostly of useless options… the importance of numbers and bug awareness… the lack of interesting tactics against a weak computer enemy… Diablo 2 was revolutionary in its time, but this was the time of the wicked Pentium III gaming rig with an entire gigahertz of pulse-pounding clock speed. Today? Not so much. But neither is Starcraft or Dota at this point. Yet both games are being remade and successfully so. Can Diablo pull it off as well?

Games That Last

Some games just survive forever. When you remake them, the best thing to do is not touch the gameplay unless marketing says otherwise, in which case you should not touch the gameplay.

Starcraft 2 is a valuable remake. There is something worth bringing back in the old RTS: an actual strategy element. The entire genre was disappearing into a sinkhole of auto-everything for the console crowd while everyone screamed for another Starcraft.

Heroes of Newerth is a valuable remake. Dota was a great map, but marred by the outdated Warcraft 3 engine, so HoN is basically a 1:1 copy of Dota including every item, the ingame font and the size of the chat box, albeit with improved matchmaking. And it is very successful and they’re going to charge $30 for it. Devilish.

What do these games have in common? Intricate high level gameplay, albeit at the cost of a gigantic learning curve for newbies.

Diablo 2 does have both: you need to know which skills are imbalanced, which monsters are bugged, where to farm for the best items, how to glitch powerlevel, and generally how to break the game in a million ways. If you’re playing the game as intended, you’re a noob. So maybe Diablo does have intricate high level gameplay… due to the game being really imbalanced and buggy.

It qualifies. Let’s remake it!

The Road to Hell

So Blizzard should just clone the old game exactly? Not that either.

Dota suffered from a passive-aggressive stance towards newbies due to the Warcraft 3 limitations, which Heroes of Newerth duly copied in its quest for authenticity. The control scheme is banned under the Geneva Convention and the item shop looks like a tornado passed over it. This is allowing its much more newbie-friendly competitor, League of Legends, to carve out a nice niche and according to some measures (Xfire) actually beating HoN in terms of hours played.

Back to action RPGs: nobody wanted town portals and identify scrolls in Hellgate London. In fact, the old hit point/mana point system is showing its strain as well: Torchlight manages to bring back the potion-spam-induced immortality of Diablo 1, as well as its repetitive dungeons and monsters. Sigh. Snore.

Diablo: Defeat the skill tree to save the world

Modern players want convenience and user-friendliness. No clunky interface. No opaque manual attributes that have to be spent a certain way or else you’re useless. Which is why League of Legends, Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 are far less punishing than their predecessors.

Yet… League of Legends and Starcraft 2 remain very good strategy games despite the removal of all the unnecessary UI flaws and quirks (if we ignore the faint whining sound from Korea about auto-mining). And as we have established above, the ‘high skill factor’ in Diablo 2 is about knowing where the bugs are and what the best builds are – and nothing else. Moving your character and killing monsters is trivial.

Diablo 3 will implement respecs, automatic stats, remove the need to endlessly reroll because you spent your points wrong… what difference does it make if you are ‘good’ at Diablo 3? What is there to learn after you beat the game? Is there any knowledge left to accumulate?

Is the item hunt really the only remaining hook?

Summary

Diablo 2 survived until now because it has the characteristics of a long lasting game: lots of details and intricacies for experts to learn, at the cost of a steep learning curve. Yet in Diablo’s case, for better or worse, these characteristics may well be a consequence of the old game design and interface, rather than baked into the gameplay. What happens if the game is streamlined – will we end up with a game without any skill factors?

Mad Prophecies are written by Brother Laz, creator of the Median XL mod. Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, and not necessarily Diii.net.

 

Tagged As: | Categories: Diabloii.Net Columns, Game Features, Skills

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  1. I didn’t realize how rare those things were. I was fortunate to win myself one at blizzcon. I will snap a few screens and send them along.

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