On the Drawing Board #5: Character Design


One of the core design elements of the Diablo series, something that sets these games apart from most other RPGs, is the fact that characters in the Diablo games do not have preset roles in a party. Some characters are better at some things, but all of the characters are designed to be viable playing alone. They can all inflict substantial damage to all types of enemies. There are no characters who must play in the back lines, there are no healers without powerful killing spells, or tanks who can only bash toe to toe and can’t deal with ranged attackers, etc. All of the characters can fill all of the roles, depending on how they are built (though obviously some are better at given roles than others), and you never need a party to succeed.

Most players see this as a strength of the series, and enjoy the freedom to play their characters solo, or in groups. Some players though, with experience in D&D and WoW, would like more interdependence. Not outright tank/mage/cleric/etc roles, but the ability to work better in a group, and the option to use skills that to boost their teammates.  Does this sound appealing to you, or do you want Diablo III to go in the other direction, and not include party-boosting skills like Auras and Warcries?

Click through to see evidence for how the game is being designed, to entertain arguments on both sides of the issue, and to join the conversation…

Diablo III Design Goals

The design goals of the D3 team have been stated on numerous occasions. They intend Diablo III to be a fun game to play by yourself, and want it to be even more fun when played with friends. (Or at least the people with whom you share a common goal and can meet over B.net.) The multiplayer design of the game stresses friendly play: there’s no nonconsensual PVP in D3, health orbs share to everyone in the vicinity, B.net 2.0 will make it easier to find your friends online, each player in a party gets their own item drops that other players can’t ninja out from under you, etc.

That said, the D3 team has also stressed that they do not want to force players to assume roles. Diablo III is influenced by World of Warcraft in many ways, but it’s not following that particular character design path. Diablo III’s lead designer Jay Wilson has said that they are focused on making class composition irrelevant for multiplayer games. There are no healers or tanks or other set roles for the characters in Diablo III, which means a party of any composition of characters can be successful.

At this point it’s impossible to know which party composition will be best or most fun, but it’s fun to speculate. After all, some parties will be more effective than others. Every spell-caster or artillery character knows how nice it is to have a melee fighter in the game, so that you can stand back and spend your time blasting the monsters. Five wizards would be a strong party, but 4 wizards with a Barbarian to tank for them would maintain greater killing speed. By the same token, 4 Barbarians would probably prefer a Wizard to a 5th Barbarian, since spells are so effective against ranged attackers.

Party Skills  

Something else we don’t yet know much about is how many party-boosting skills we’ll see in Diablo III. In Diablo II, Paladins had helpful auras and Barbarians had warcries that shared their benefits to everyone in the party. The Druid had Spirits that worked like Auras, Necromancer curses that weakened the monsters were of use to everyone, as were a few offensive Paladin auras. Other characters could be useful to the party in other ways, whether by tanking or summoning up tanks, slowing enemy missiles, or just throwing out a ton of cold attacks, to slow down the monsters. Every character could also add helpful auras by hiring an Act 2 mercenary.

It seems likely that some Diablo III skills will work in similar fashion; that they’ll be useful to their caster and help other players as well. However, at this point we don’t know of many. In fact, there’s just one so far, the Barbarian’s Battle Cry, from the Battlemaster skill tree, which boosts the defense of the Barbarian and his party.  That’s it. No other Barbarian war cries are helpful to the party, and the Wizard and Witch Doctor don’t have any skills that directly do anything for others.

Obviously, the game isn’t finished yet. The listed character skills are far from complete, the ones that have been revealed are quite likely to change, and we only know three of the five characters. That said, as much as the D3 Team has talked about Diablo III being designed for friendly co-op play, it’s surprising that only one skill of the 100+ so far revealed has a listed benefit to party members. Other skills are helpful; Ground Stomp stuns and knocks back all enemies, Slow Time slows enemies and enemy projectiles, and Mass Confusion terrifies all monsters in range. But these skills work rather like Curses did in D2. They make the monsters easier to kill or avoid for everyone in the party, but none of them are directly beneficial to other players, in the way Auras, Warcries, and Spirits were.

Presumably the D3 Team will be adding many more skills with party benefits, and/or adding party benefits to existing skills. They’ve just not gotten into that stage of the game development yet. But until we actually see some of those skills described, we’re only assuming that the skills will correspond to what we think the D3 Team is designing towards.

Ultimate Design Goals

With the current situation mapped out, it’s speculation time. How will Diablo III play long term? How much party cooperation should there be?

Do you want to see some or lots of party-boosting skills like the Warcries and Auras and Spirits in Diablo II? Should these be in every skill tree in Diablo III, or should characters just have one or two of them? Or would you prefer that characters fend for themselves, and not assist the rest of the party except by killing quickly?

How about the upcoming 4th and 5th characters? Would you like to see those characters with more party benefiting abilities, such as auras or spirits? Or should they be like the first 3 are now, with their skills almost entirely of use to themselves?

Finally, how about the larger issue of game and party design? How much do you want to be able to help, or rely on assistance from, other players? Should Diablo III have skills like Battle Orders and Oak Sage and Fanaticism? Or do such abilities make the game too easy, or make certain party combinations too useful? How about party healing skills, or other buffing skills that would work on all players, or perhaps only on other players (giving the caster less, or no benefit at all). Would you enjoy playing a support character, or a special build that was only of high utility when in a party?

All these issues are currently under discussion by the D3 Team, and the voices of players will influence their design decisions. Have your say.



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.

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