During much of Diablo III’s development, the game had seven skill hotkeys. 1-5, LMB, RMB, and you could even stick another skill on the TAB key to switch it with the RMB. As development progressed the 5 key became the default button for health potions before health pots were moved to their own dedicated key, and the Tab skill switch was removed as well, dropping the total skill hotkeys down to six.

    Eight skill hotkeys; PvP Arena demo movie.

    Back in those days players mostly thought of that change in terms of skill point allocations, and wondered how the total skill points would be tweaked to spread across one or two fewer skills. That consideration became irrelevant not long after when skill points were removed as well (though some players still want them back), and the total number of skills was dropped to six. (This is not ancient history — check the DW Interface article — the belt had 8 skills as of Blizzcon 2010 and 7 as recently as mid-2011.)

    The number of skills became an issue shortly after release, when players first hit Inferno, found how hard it was (before all the nerfs in post-release patches), and felt overwhelmed by the difficulty and underwhelmed by their build options. Inferno was a big adjustment, in those days, since most players loved the smorgasbord of offensive skill choices while they leveled up, and it was common to use 3 or 4 or 5 different offensive skills to slaughter the Normal and Nightmare and even the Hell enemies in multifaceted varieties. And then came Inferno and any build without at least 3 or 4 skills devoted to defense, escape, movement, debuff, CC, etc… was a failed build.

    This provoked much fan outrage and anger (and death) and many were the complaints from players who felt “straitjacketed” by the required play style in Inferno. At that point, in a number of podcasts, we pondered the issue of more skills. I don’t recall the exact wording of my questions, but I remember asking several guests if they thought the end game builds would still feel limited in attack variety if there were 7 or 8 skills, instead of just 6… or if everyone would just add more defensive skills and still use just 1 or 2 offensive skills?

    Click through for the rest of the discussion and a vote.

    Putting the Toothpaste Back Into the Tube

    Thanks to D3’s lack of modding options, those questions had to remain hypothetical. Furthermore, they’re largely moot at this point, since the game has moved on and grown easier (from in-game nerfs and the spread of better equipment, builds, and player skill) and we’ve all sort of grown used to playing how we have to play.

    This is true even though we could vary it now, if we wanted to. Not just rerolling (hah!) and trying different builds on the lower difficulty levels, but with high level characters in easier parts of Inferno. Most players with good gear can blast through Inferno on MP0 at this point, but does anyone do that with a weird build just to test out more offensive options? Not often; mostly players use their same build and put on more Magic Find gear, or turn up the Monster Power a bit to add challenge and more key finds.

    Playing in a Straitjacket

    I really noticed this over the weekend while trying out a new “Bottle Rocket” Wizard build. See the thread for full details and movies and stuff, but basically it’s DiabloWikiArcane Torrent and DiabloWikiHydra for offense, DiabloWikiDiamond Skin and DiabloWikiEnergy Armor for defense, and DiabloWikiMagic Weapon and DiabloWikiFamiliar for buffs. The resulting Wizard has no mobility and not much variety, but can deal huge burst damage to chew up bosses, and does even better against packs with heaps of splash Arcane damage.

    Which is fine and quite effective… but it’s boring. The play style is very repetitious since you’re doing nothing but fishing ahead with Hydra and nuking anything that gets closer with Arcane Torrent. My Wizard is basically my 4th character, and she’s entirely Ironborn so the gear isn’t overwhelming, but I had zero trouble chewing through Act One and Two on MP0. Act Three got more challenging since I couldn’t kill everything so quickly before they could hurt me, when switching Diamond Skin to DiabloWikiMirror Image wasn’t enough to keep me from dying I eventually added traded damage for mobility by swapping Magic Weapon out for DiabloWikiTeleport.

    With that I stopped dying and feeling helpless against any kind of DiabloWikiJailer or DiabloWikiWaller or DiabloWikiVortex bosses, and I enjoyed the play more since I had to move around and dodge stuff rather than just standing still and winning through superior DPS… but even as I was making those changes, I kept thinking, “Imagine if I had another hotkey and could add in some big AoE like Blizzard! Or could have kept Magic Weapon’s damage buff and still had Teleport for escape! Or could have added Wave of Force or Frost Nova for close range panic button assistance!”

    Ferret Companion! Sort of…

    And sure, I was only thinking those thoughts since my Ironborn Wizard has 40k DPS instead of the 100k I could easily increase her to by investing 5 minutes and 500k on the GAH, but my Demon Hunter and Witch Doctor are strong enough to faceroll through Act Three… and I still wish they had more skills in their builds. I know the DH the best and I switch around offensive skills fairly often, whether I’m in the mood for DiabloWikiMultishot vs. DiabloWikiBall Lightning, or DiabloWikiGloom or DiabloWikiMarked for Death, or DiabloWikiEvasive Fire vs. DiabloWikiHungering Arrow vs. DiabloWikiBolo Shot, etc…. but I still wish I could use 2 or 3 of those at once, instead of just one or the other. Or that I could carry DiabloWikiRapid Fire or DiabloWikiCluster Arrow around for just occasional burst damage. Or that I could tack on the DiabloWikiFerret Companion for the bonus gold and retrieval.

    Balance, Balance, Balance

    That said, there’s one big obvious drawback to adding/allowing more skills. And no, I don’t mean that it messes up the stupid, late-game tacked-on, training wheels, arbitrary categorization system that DiabloWikiElective Mode mercifully allows all non-noobs to avoid. The problem is balance.

    That there are only six skills allowed forces players to make hard decisions about which skills to enable. If you want more offensive options that means you have less defensive power. If you want two CC skills then that’s going to limit your offense. And so on.

    Yes, it would be a blast to have more skill slots to tack on situational skills, and it would let us use those fun skills that just aren’t good enough to break into your real build. But it would also mean players could add two more CC or debuff skills, and we can all imagine a character using one of the powerful builds and getting to tack on two more skills to make the build just comically overpowered.

    Happily, I have a solution. Skill points. Those are the traditional method to limit skill power, and we saw them leveraged to that purpose in that other popular ARPG… what was it called? Oh yeah, Diablo 2.

    We had not six but sixteen hotkeys in that game, and could use damn near every single active skill at once… but not very well, since they needed multiple points invested in them, 20 in most cases, to become really kick ass. I’m not suggesting that D3 go back to that system and throw out the entire new skill design, but even a simple 1-3 point (per skill) mechanism, where players could max our 3 or 4 skills, but had to have at least one point in everything, would seem to give the devs enough knobs to twist to keep balance at least semi-balanced. (And since perfect balance is neither possible nor desired, that’s good enough.)


    So, there’s the argument presented as a conversation-starter. Would you like to see more skill hotkeys in D3? Would you enjoy adding a skill or two to your build? Can you imagine all the new builds that would be invented, and changes the devs could make to add variety to rune effects, if they were freed from trying to make everything “good enough” to fit into just the handful of skills a build can now include?

    I think it would be awesome, though obviously compensating changes would have to be made across the board. It’s certainly not something to stick into a patch, but as we’ve been talking about potential Expansion features lately, I’d love to think of this as one of them. New class, new act, new play modes… and a new skill slot! (Or two!)

    Should Diablo III add more skill hotkeys?

    • Definitely. At least 7 or 8. (56%, 414 Votes)
    • No way. Six is a better design. (27%, 196 Votes)
    • Not sure / no opinion. (17%, 124 Votes)

    Total Voters: 734

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