The Ninth Circle #6: Designing Diablo III, Part One

Designing Diablo III, Part One

We’ve all daydreamed about what Diablo III might be like, so here I’m going to take a stab at defining it. This is not an attempt to create the “one true Diablo 3” game, but rather a look at what the game could look like. This is no true design document, as those are dry, descriptive things, not made for light reading at all. It’s also worth mentioning here that a Diablo 3 game is not in Blizzard’s forward plan right now, as they concentrate on WoW, though with the Warcraft III expansion pack to ship soon, who knows where Blizzard will turn next?

When designing sequels, people often fall into the mistake of saying something like “we want evolution, not revolution!” In fact, you want both in a sequel. A sequel should have enough familiar elements to attract people who liked the first game, and enough changes to make it worth their while to play it. For a Diablo III, it is not acceptable to merely add and extra three or four Acts to the existing game- that is what expansion packs are for. A true sequel, while being true to what came before, will also introduce new elements that take the game further, and give players plenty to explore and experiment with. With any changes made though, the “elegant simplicity” of Diablo II should be retained.

For ease of reading, I will divide this article into different sections, looking at characters, items, dungeons, and so on. To make it easier on the eye, this is part 1 of 2, the next article will look at characters and items. While I won’t be going into skill tree progression, looking at what each skill does at each level, or writing down every word of NPC dialogue, there will still be a fair amount of detail. The sections aren’t going to be a shopping list of things I want to see- I’ll give a rationale for including them, and I will also talk about some of the things I don’t want to see- and why.

Section I: Setting and Storyline
Let’s be honest; the Diablo series is never going to win prizes for innovative storytelling. The plot, insofar as it exists at all, serves merely to take the player from one fight to the next. This is fine, as it means we don’t have much to live up to in the third installment. So, the story goes a little like this:

The Worldstone is gone, shattered into a million pieces. With the Worldstone gone, the human world and the demon world are now easy to pass between. Dozens of gates have appeared allowing demonic hordes access to the world. Humanity has not even had time to recover form the escape of the prime evils, and isolated forces are being driven back. Walled cities provide humanity’s last refuge.

The end of the Worldstone has also brought changes to demons and the demonic realms. They are now mortal, and with this knowledge, the demons are less eager to throw their lives away, as death means oblivion rather than inconvenient banishment. This new-found recalcitrance has given humanity respite from the assault. Humanity’s control expands once again, and now the world is split into areas controlled by demons, and areas held by people. Humans and demons now fight for control of a landscape dotted with shards of the Worldstone.

By far the greatest threat to humanity’s existence comes from the Avatars of Evil. The Avatar of Baal, and the Avatar of Diablo. Little is known of these shadowy figures, except that they command total loyalty from their demon hordes, and each Avatar controls a large and expanding amount of territory. This territory is centered around some of the larger shards of the Worldstone, which exert a warping power on nearby life.

Once again, a band of brave adventurers emerges to defeat the evil, save humanity, and find some really powerful magical artifacts.

Characters will start in a medieval gothic city, and this will set the tone for the look of Act I. Yes, I liked the structure of Diablo II, and see Acts being the way to lay out the third game. Act II will see players freeing the folk of the grasslands from the Avatar of Baal, as players fight to wrest control of some of the larger Worldstone shards from demon forces. The third Act will have as its base the temple of the newly reformed Horadrim, with our old friend Cain in residence. This Act will have some weird and wonderful terrain, warped by the power of nearby Worldstone shards. Act IV will see the player return to Hell, which itself has been changed by the Worldstone shards (which are to be found there also). A more Earthlike Hell, yet still the home of the damned.

The final quest will see players fight the damned creature who has been controlling the Avatars, a powerful, winged terror. Yes, it’s Tyrael, corrupted by Baal’s power even as he destroyed the original Worldstone. Like Izual, Tyrael is freed once his corrupted shell has been destroyed, and greets players with the line “I thank you, mortal, for my freedom….” Who says you can’t have humour in a Diablo game?

Section II: Maps, Dungeons, Quests
I didn’t call this section “levels” in case you thought I was talking about character levels. No, here I want to talk about the environments your character will traverse in their quest to defeat the Avatars of Evil and find every last unique exceptional in the game.

The Waypoints from Diablo II were a great feature, and they will certainly be in Diablo III (or at least in my fantasy version). I will bring Waypoints more directly into the game. Rather than being passive doorways, they are sites of strategic value to all sides in this struggle. Players should expect Waypoints to be guarded at the other side, should they use them to enter hostile territory.

One thing that I felt Diablo II could have done better was to have more active NPCs. While I enjoyed the barbarians of Act V, there was so much more that could have been done in this area. I remember the first time I ventured under the palace in Act II. I was expecting to come upon a desperate battle for survival in the palace cellar, but the battle was already over. The monsters had won, and were now patiently waiting for me to come and kill them. If there had been a few squads of NPC palace guards down there to fight alongside, it would have made those levels something other than a place to get through on the way to the Arcane Sanctuary.

Missions With A Difference
The game starts with the player placed in the walled city of Caverat* which itself is having some problems. Demon forces have captured a nearby Waypoint and have flooded into the city. Half the city is under the demons’ control, including the Waypoint itself. The city needs volunteers to recapture that part of town. This mission will work somewhat like the Den of Evil in Diablo II, with players needing to kill all the monsters in the fallen area to recapture the Waypoint. Once this has been done, the city will return to normal, with city folk entering the once-occupied sector once more. With the monsters dead, the players can go through the Waypoint to secure it at the other side too.

Another different type of mission is the defense of a beach being attacked by demons aboard ramshackle boats. Here, the player is assisted by NPC men-at-arms who man catapults, and guard the narrow passes from the beach to the clifftop. The demons arrive in waves, 30 boats in all, with each boat containing 10 demons. The latter waves will have the more powerful monsters on board, and be supported by flying demons too. Here, the entire map is the quest, and demons arrive when the player enters the map. The demons won’t mill about aimlessly on the beach, waiting for the player or an NPC to come close enough for them to rush. Instead, each wave will take one of several possible routes from the beach to the cliff tops, engaging any NPCs they meet on the way. Players will find themselves dashing from one hot point to another, unless they decide to meet all the monsters on the beach and fight them under the catapult bombardment. On completion, players will receive a bonus depending on how many of the men-at-arms survive, giving an incentive to protect these NPCs.

NPC interaction can be more important than that. In this third (and final for now) mission example, the player must venture under a castle to stop a demonic attack from below. Already in the labyrinth under the castle are the Duke’s three sons, who must be kept alive until the end of the mission. The player’s mission reward depends on how many sons survive. If none survive, there is no reward; the Duke is too grief-stricken. If one son survives, the players receive money. Two live sons, and the player also gets a yellow ring or amulet. If all three survive, the player gets the money, the jewelry, and a halo added to the item of their choice. What’s a halo? You’ll have to read the next article to find out…

Maps That Matter
One difference with the maps I would like to see is in the maps. In Diablo II there was far too much wasted space, players were forced to traverse large areas which had no reason for being there. Take Act I with its identical ‘moor’ maps. Realistically, you could have had just the Blood Moor, with exits to the camp, cemetery, and Dark Wood. Dark Wood itself would contain the circle of stones, and an exit to the Tamoe Highland, which would contain the monastery entrance and the ruined tower.

Yes, that kind of design would save a lot of the pointless running around in Act I. Not all running around is pointless though. Large maps are fine as long as there is a purpose and rationale to them. I loved the first map of Act V, for example. There is also a fine line between a tight map, and a crowded one. All the important point in Act I could have been placed in one map, but that would have been going too far. The best thing to say is that map size should be appropriate for the quests players will be running across those maps. What will have no place in the design of Diablo III are maps like the Great Swamp of Act III, which have no discernible purpose.

Maps will therefore be only as large as they should be. No cases of four sprawling, identical maps, when two would do the same job. While each map will follow a theme for the Act, there will also be room for some “one-off” maps, similar to the way the Arcane Sanctuary leaps at you from the deserts of Act II.

Another column, another record number of emails received. All of these mails are feedback for my last column, Designing Diablo III.

The most common emails to appear gave story suggestions, or ideas for improvement. A lot of you suggested a prequel based on Cain and the soulstones, which is a great idea, and wish I’d thought of that. I’ll continue down the path I have set for myself. I’ll leave it to some of you to design the perfect prequel, and remind you that flux is alsways looking for interesting guest articles.

Below are just some of the many comments I have received, loosely sorted by topic. Most have replies, though I defy anyone to come up with a cogent response to the one about the Pokemon. Enjoy!


Instead of the Avatars Id take the two remaining lesser evils; Azmodan, Lord of Sin and Belial, Lord of Lies. Most people dont know they excist in the Diablo storyline, but if you read the Diablo I booklet, youll see that they play an important role, and that they are still alive. It also fits perfectly in your storline, the barrier between the mortal world and hell is gone, the forces of hell can easily acces the mortal realm. Id say the armys (which contain most of hell’s forces, since they remained in hell) of Azmodan and Belial are planning to take over the mortal realm, and your task is to stop them. This would make the Diablo storyline complete, all evils would be destroyed eventually, and it is a legit and most logical concept of the story (I think ).

I received a lot of emails mentioning those two. To be honest they were in there, but were just one of those things that did not make the cut for the first article, simply for reasons of space. To me, the avatars were more interesting, but al lot of you wanted to know where the other two lesser evils were. Yes, they are in there (in Act 2). In fact Andariel and Duriel are also in there, as having been “killed” in the mortal plane, they were banished back to hell, rather than destroyed. With the onset of demon mortality, the powers remain laired in Hell, and expose themselves only with great caution.

David Williams:

I’m still waiting for Lachdanan from D1. His last word hinted that he would be back, and I actually expected him to be in D2 in some way, so I think it’s about time he showed up.

Next to story points, technical details, which I had mostly worked out but pretty much ignored in the article, were the things mentioned most.

Ryan Libby:

May I be so bold as to suggest you seem to be ignoring a very important part of D3? You haven’t yet mentioned the interface or the engine. I think it would be most interesting to discuss this, since if D3 is ever made, it will no doubt implement 3D graphics; and such a switch is no small detail, for programmer or gamer. How would the player control his character in this new environment?

That’s a good point, and Part 3 (yes I could not fit everything I wanted to into Part 2) will look at technical aspects of the game, as well as other things.

A few of people seemed confused as to what game was being designed here. I received quite a few game suggestions that basically described Worlds of Warcraft, Shadowbane, Everquest, or I-don’t-know-what. I’ll share some of these with you’re here.

Here is my suggestions. In the new online realm it should be one massive world. Instead of joining one game out of 1000’s you would join one part of the world. Players could ban together to make strongholds, and put there resources together, such as gold to arm there characters. This would also make certain areas more strategic value. This gives a whole new meaning to the idea of Clans. Characters can still maintain their individual stashes, but if they wish share stuff with others, have things like an armory and what not. When a group of players both agree that could have a war siege against one another, victory could mean your encampment could be raided, but personal stashes would stay.

Interesting game. It’s called Shadowbane.

to take with you? not like a hireling… this would be a pet… like a pet wolf or something… it would bring about pet dueling… like those little Digimon things.. you take it with you into battle, and it could help fight, just like the hireling… but you have to take care of it.. feed it, train it, play with it… that would be so cool…

… I want the aspect of POKEMON to come into DIII.. not turn based fighting, but I want to have to party up with people for a reason! pokemon was ingenious for this for having some monsters immune to the attacks of other monsters… this would also be great in dueling!

I have nothing to add to those two comments.

like asheron’s call 2… they put in a new feature every month 🙁 I don’t even get a new runeword every 6 months… hell… I don’t get a patch every year! so why do I still play?

Will that be with or without the monthly fee? Right now I favour Blizzard’s existing model, and think they’ve done a good job supporting Diablo II, which these days is only costing them money (from running the D2 side of and paying two programmers to work on a patch at this stage. I know this is just a fantasy Diablo III, but expecting monthly support without a monthly fee is too unrealistic for ANY game.


More interaction with NPC’s is a good idea. Taking part in some massive battle would be great. The quest in that could be freeing someone, taking out someone or something or finding some sort of artifact. Maybe a choice between them. Making bonuses for quests more rewarding when you take more risks. Sure a quest maybe over when you defeat a certain someone who guards some passage you need to take. You could decide to take a detour and take out his brothers as well. Each being more poweful than the other and the last being very hard but will wield the best reward. Maybe a set or something. Kill one, one item, kill two, two items and kill three get the full set. They quest can only be played once so no coming back later.

On the subject of ‘quest’ battles, you are right, they would only be triggered once per game, most likely by the player first entering that map. Once all the conditions were filled, there would be no going back for a second attempt for that character (until Nightmare level).

I would refrain from giving set items as quest rewards, unless the reward was simply ‘green item of TC x’ as this would create a set that every player would always see, which would quickly get dull. Other than that, again what you said is what I had in mind, several conditions for the player to fill, and a better reward depending on how many of the conditions are met.

Damien Browne:

I feel you are neglecting an important category in the next edition, if you are only reporting on characters, skills and treasure. And halo’s, what they ever might be. That category is monsters.

Yes, you are right about the monsters. I guess the main reason I didn’t think about monsters in D3 is that I don’t think about the monsters in D2. They’re so stupid. The only point of interest is in what abilities the random boss monsters have, and that’s it.

So I will include a section on monsters in part 2 (or part 3 if it comes to that) as they are very important, and yes, I do have an idea about them.

You know, in many ways the stupidity of the monsters was my first main turn off of D2. Probably because I was playing Half-Life at the same time, and being stalked by marines, and flushed out with grenades is a lot different from waiting for the next mindless rush.

Paul Canosa also had an interesting idea on monsters

Take the game time into account. For example at night (gametime) you would see more were-creatures and ghoulies than during the day. Just some sort of spawn formula by bliz could accomplish this.

I like this idea a lot. Making monsters on each map more or less likely to appear at day or night, and having some monsters only seen at night, and others only seen at day, sounds fairly easy to add, and would be a nice touch.

Still on monsters, here’s Brian Jackey:

Frequently a player is frantically fleeing a pack o’ monsters and hastily drops a TP, seeking the safety of town. But what if all monsters (excluding uniques, SUs and bosses, of course) within say a 15’ ft radius of the TP were portaled with you when you went through?

While I see what you’re trying to do here, it would not work, since you would have to allow hostile actions within towns. One of the few things that limits online grief play is having “hostile-free” towns and cities. One way to limit the use of town portal scrolls to get out of trouble, (heal, come back, repeat as often as necessary) would be to make a time delay of two to three seconds, where the player is frozen on the portal’s edge before going to town, this would give the monsters a chance to get a few hits in.


So what we have is an unannounced project at Blizzard North (the people behind Diablo.) with a whopping *two* people working on the 1.10 patch. Something is being made and it quite possibly could be Diablo 3 just not announced. That’s not what I, personally, think it is… Can’t wait for E3 to see if they announce what it is.

Hmm, I had always assumed Blizzard was Blizzard and both studios would work on the same games. If not, then what could this project be? And DON’T say it’s Warcraft: Ghost for the X-Box.

Chris Cone:

i read your article and i like some of the ideas about D3, but the missions sound a little lame. i mean monsters attacking waypoints? i though waypoints can only be used by your characters? i think they should just add a few new chars to mess round with, and few more acts.

Extra characters and extra acts? That’s fine- for an expansion pack. A sequel should have a lot more than that. Imagine if Diablo 2 had simply been and extra 15 levels to the Tristram dungeon, and 2 new characters along with the three old ones. If it had, I don’t think we’d be here now.

Ryan Ledvina:

I disagree with your “Maps That Matter” philosophy. Well, sort of. I agree that players shouldn’t be forced to venture through vast areas with no quests in mind. But players should be given the option of exploring vast offshoot areas with new monsters and treasure. I always enjoyed venturing to the drifting caverns and that other small offshoot place found in ancient’s way. The fire pits in act V of D2 were some pretty cool places with somewhat unique terrain. If they have a variety of monsters and terrain with opportunities for treasure, there will be people who enjoy fighting in them. And not all of these little offshoots should be a small little room; some of them should be large and grand, and maybe include optional bosses that (sometimes) drop nice things. Places like these add character to the game, and it brings an exploring aspect to the game.

I have no problem with “useless” maps that are still interesting to the explorer types, I did not like being forced to go through every map in the game, full of useless vacant space. Little caves alcoves, and entrances to hell will certainly feature.

Shane Portier:

there should be horses. You could armor them as though you would a mercenary. They are much quicker than any character. Making it fun and quick passing through the large spaces of areas like the Cold Plaines and Blood Moor.

I’d rather do away with large, functionless areas, than design transport to get around that.


As for more active NPC’s, I’m somewhat torn. I’ve played mods where there are NPC’s fighting the monsters, but they either tend to do relatively nothing (Bloody Foothills Barbarians) or they defeat all the monsters, and you are left with no experience when you finally get to a place where there are no NPC’s. Blizzard would have to find some delicate balance in between those extremes.

NPC fighting interaction does need some fine tuning. As you say, finding the balance between useless and too good is not as easy as it sounds. I envisage being able to rally NPCs to you, or have them do so automatically when you get near in some missions. In others, they would remain stationary and use missile weapons, so they could help, but their presence would not be overpowering.

Jason Kemp:

Okay first thing – Caverat? You want a town called Caverat? That will quickly become Cave-Rat. I’m sorry, but I had to get that out. But CaveRat? I mean seriously, what were you thinking?

When I’m writing, I frequently use “place-holder” names until I think up something more appropriate (this usually happens as part of the creative process). Pay no attention to the name, it’s just there to use less letters than “nameless gothic city #1”.

Disclaimer: The Ninth Circle was written by Lorelorn (David Kay) and hosted by The views expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of

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