On the Drawing Board #12: Monster Variety

This installment of On the Drawing Board examines the issue of monster variety, and after establishing what the D3 Team has told us so far, speculates about what we might see in the final game. The subject of monster variety is a question of balance. We all want some variety, but how much is enough, and how much is too much? Do you want 3 different types per area, or 10? Do you want to see the same monsters in the same areas every game, or do you prefer the D2X v1.10+ Act Five style of Guest Monsters, where you never know what you’ll find in the next fungal, stinking grotto or desolate, ice-licked plain?

It’s all basically opinion, at this point. How many, how much, how often? Click through to read the article and join in the debate.

On the Drawing Board #12: Monster Randomization

At the start, let me clarify what I mean by “randomization.” I’m not talking about the appearance of monsters, which is a topic worthy of discussion; but not the one I’m going to discuss here. If you think not, and that whether a skeleton wears a hat with horns or a skullcap is of no real importance, I encourage you to check out the lively discussion about it right here. The overall argument can be broken down to, “Give us as much randomization as possible, without degrading game performance.” But just what defines those terms is an interesting debate.

As for the topic of this column…

Monster Variety in Diablo 3

This is the real issue, and it’s not something we know much about yet. Will we see the same monsters in the same areas every game? Some different monsters? Or a total grab bag, reminiscent of the Guest Monsters in Act Five, v1.10+? It’s unknown at this point, in theory or practice. The D3 Team has talked about improving the AI, and discussed ways they can make the monsters work in teams.  But they’ve not talked about how the beasties will be distributed. A quote from one of the WWI panel discussions:

Can you give us some examples of monster AI and cooperation?

Blizzard: We try to make monsters work together. A lot of just mob monsters, and the big guys behind them are designed to be more specific. There’s a summoner skeleton in the demo. When you get several of those guys going they’re really hard to keep up with since they’re generating just lots and lots of skeletons. The goatman shaman is another example. He is what we call a “support character.” He can do all sorts of buffing of his other guys. He becomes a really high priority target. That’s what we keep revealing. We have soooooo many monsters. Endless variety. The ones we’ve shown today are cool, but the ones we held back are better.

As we’ve seen in screenshots and movies, Skeletal Shieldmen will spawn near and protect Skeletal Archers. Both might be supported by regular Skeletons, supplemented by Skeletal Executioners, and summoned and buffed by Skeleton Summoners. All of these types (and others yet to be revealed) won’t always spawn together, and when/where they do their numbers and types will vary. But the general principle is that monsters will complement each other in Diablo 3. More commonly and more formidably than they did in Diablo 2, at least.

That sounds like fun, and it’s a sort of randomization, but if the same pack(s) of the same types of skeletons are in the same places on the same levels in every game… it’s v1.07 D2X Act Five, all over again. We don’t know if Diablo 3 will be like this, but it might; the team has said that the game will feature a huge variety of different types of monsters, but they’ve said nothing about how much monster variety we’ll see, from game to game.

Diablo II’s Example

The obvious examples come from earlier games in the series. How did D1 and D2 handle this issue? Looking at Act Five in D2X is the best example, since it illustrates both extremes of the monster variety continuum.

Too Cold

In v1.07-v1.09, Act Five had no monster variety at all. It’s still this way in normal difficulty, and prior to v1.10, Nightmare and Hell were the same way.  In those olden days, every area had just a few monster types, who were found there every game. There was no variety or randomization whatsoever. Well, there was a little bit, just in the number and location of random boss packs, but some areas didn’t have any random bosses at all (the Bloody Foothills and World Stone Keep 1-3, for example), and even then the monster types were always the same.

That said, the monsters were all very cool, and were all well-suited and themed to their areas. Yeti and Frozen Horrors were found in the ice caves, Succubus and Minotaurs in the River of Flame-style Pit levels, Imps and Siege Beasts in the fortified surface areas, etc. Players knew exactly what they’d find in every area, but the monsters were varied enough from place to place that a fair variety of different builds were favored.

Too Hot

All that changed with v1.10, which blasted apart the static, no-monster-variety gameplay of Act Five. The v1.10 patch introduced Guest Monsters, monsters seen in earlier acts, that had upgraded stats and that now appeared all throughout Act Five. In that patch and ever since, every area of Act Five has been a crap shoot of variety. There are more than 50 types of guest monsters, and up to a dozen different types of monsters can spawn in every level of Act Five, giving less than infinite variety, but not a great deal less.

The variety was fun after the unchanging non-variety of early D2X, but Guest Monsters seemed to be thrown in fairly randomly and without any thought given to how they would work together, which lessened their effect. It wasn’t just that players didn’t know if their character would find a level impossible or laugh through it, it was that there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the monster combinations. An area might have quill rats and skeleton archers one game, then Blood Lords and Prowling Dead the next (one of each would have been a much happier mixture), which made for a very uneven, unbalanced play experience.

Just Right?

The randomization of everything is a big selling point of the Diablo series, but the principle can be overdone. D3 isn’t one of those Baldur’s Gate type D&D RPGs with every map man-made and every encounter carefully pre-planned. That said, Diablo players do want some method behind the madness of monster allocation, a feature that was handled very well in D1 and D2. To take the more recent example, every area in the first four acts of Diablo 2 has some variety in the enemies to be found there, but there’s a fairly limited number of monsters that can spawn in each level, and their values are set such that appropriate, varied bunches are spawned. Seldom do you find a level with only melee or only ranged attackers, or with every type of monster immune to the same element(s). There will always be some builds that find certain areas/monster-combos much easier or harder, but the overall experience should be doable for all characters; not too easy or too hard, relatively speaking.

This theory went out the window with Guest Monsters.  The variety was intriguing, but it was overdone. Not only are the guest monsters very uneven in individual difficulty (even with their boosted stats, most of the Act One/Two ones are underpowered compared to Act Four/Five demons), but the ragtag variety of inappropriate monsters ruins any thematic beauty and grace of the levels. It gets boring if you only see ice-based monsters in the frozen tunnels, but it’s weird to find Corrupted Rogues and skeletons there. Not to mention what it does to any semblance of plot or story behind the types of monsters found in various areas.

Seeking Goldilocks

There are a variety of questions to ponder, when designing our dream version of Diablo 3.

How much randomization do we really want in Diablo 3? I assume most players fall somewhere between the extremes of v1.09 and v1.10 Act Five—more variety than none; less than almost totally random—but I?m just assuming. Did anyone prefer early Act Five, where things were totally predictable? Does anyone think the current Guest Monster system is ideal?

How many types of monsters would you like to see in an area? Diablo II usually has 2-3 types per level, chosen from a pool of 3-5 possible types.  Is that a good number? Or do you prefer the Cow Level, or the original WSK2, with just minions, minions, and exploding minions?  Or would you like more different types per level? How would a level play with half a dozen different monsters mixed in together? Fun variety, or crazy chaotic confusion? On the other extreme, how about super rare monster spawns? What if there were a 1/100 chance of Lister-type monsters appearing in the Flayer Jungle, or the Chaos Sanctuary? (Assume their stats were balanced up or down, appropriately.) Would that be fun, or gimmicky?

Finally, how about boss bonuses? In lots of levels of Diablo II, one or two types of monsters can appear, but only in boss or champion form. What if this were taken further, and there was a sort of boss-only Guest Monster feature? You might get Fallen, or Quill Rats, or Greater Mummies in Act Four… but only in boss packs.

There are so many possible ways to deal with monster variety, and opinions differ. What’s yours?

On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.

Tagged As: | Categories: Diabloii.Net Columns, Monsters


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