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News  28, Mar 2014

Diablo III’s journey to self-improvement

The development team of the new action RPG expansion Reaper of Souls explains how it shakes things up to placate its customers

Anyone who has touched a PC game since 1996 must have heard of the game Diablo, an action RPG series where you slay demons led by the title character Diablo, get lots of gear and loot to power up your characters, and explore randomised dungeons and planes of evil. It isn’t a stretch to say that May 15 of 2012 was the day people were anticipating the third iteration of Diablo.

While its release was plagued with early server errors, the real issue that made the game disappointing among fans was a combination of lackluster loot and the real money auction house (RMAH) that reduced the game to a monetary-focused grinding borefest. Yes, the game sold 15 million copies as of February 2014, but fans were burnt out by these shenanigans.

Naturally, Blizzard Entertainment had to fix it, so the obvious solution was the introduction of its new expansion labeled Reaper of Souls, currently out now in stores. Producer Alex Mayberry said on GameSpot that it’s a strange scenario; having a game that sold so well, yet linked with a feeling of dissatisfaction. “I don’t know if it gets overemphasised. Who’s our vocal minority, and what is that number? Even if it’s only one per cent, or two per cent, that’s a lot of people,” said Mayberry.

Just so we’re keeping score, two per cent of disgruntled Diablo III owners equal 280,000 people. “It’s been hard to distinguish all the voices in that loud cacophony,” he added.

Money walks

So the first few steps to redemption was to axe off the auction house (on March 18) and introduce a new rewards system called Loot 2.0. Here, the items and weapons a player gets in-game are tailored towards a player class, and in abundance to boot, depending on the game’s difficulty level.

Diablo III designer Michael Chu said to e27 that having the core game set-up made the updates all the more easier to think up of. “We identified that we wanted the item-acquisition game to be as good. We felt that the RMAH and the last loot system was rewarding. But it wasn’t where we wanted it to be. “The one thing we did was incrementally plan fixes [and do post-mortem following the Diablo III launch three months later], then we figure out bigger solutions down the line,” said Chu.

Chu’s team felt that the loot system felt right, as items were tailored to the class a player was currently using. “Speaking for myself, it was always me wanting to get more loot — that was interesting to me and it felt like I was making the decisions in-game. So I think that’s the problem that we’re addressing; more loot that’s tailored for your class, stuff that I want to hold onto. When you get something, you’ll be like ‘do I want to wear this? Do I want to keep it?’ These decisions are what we want to instill onto the player,” he said.

The only downside to the system is that the items you trade with friends may not be the one they want unless they either share the same class or same attribute bonuses. “We don’t have a great answer to that, unfortunately,” said Chu.

A class act

The other fix is to include another class to justify people paying for a new expansion. The Diablo series had a range of classes from the shapeshifting Druid to the ghost-summoning Necromancer. So why settle for a heavily-armored Paladin archetype in RoS? Chu said that the Crusader class was a result of fan feedback from previous BlizzCon conventions and various forums asking for a holy warrior-type character.

“There was something that felt right about the Crusader,” said Chu, “and that’s the character’s background that matched with the expansion’s setting of Westmarch, alongside the dark fantasy and gothic overtones.” The warrior of light bears a shield and mace, with his/her playstyle being more defensive in nature while striking blows with holy attacks and onslaughts.

The Crusader was not the first pick among the group of other classes that was considered for the expansion. “You know, it’s been a while since we’ve made that decision. The Crusader early on stepped out from the crowd; we felt that it was the one to go with.” The crowd in question was old archetypes that were popular from Diablo II, like the all-purpose Amazon and the werewolf-shapeshifting Druid. While Chu hinted that either one of the two archetypes came close, the details weren’t clear as the Crusader stood out and would be the final piece that made Westmarch a whole package for RoS.

Moreover, this was the kind of class the fans wanted, according to Chu. “People were sad that there wasn’t a Holy-type character in the original Diablo III game. [The Crusader is proof that] we listen to feedback and social media, forums and interested in what they think. Our fans are a passionate lot; after hearing them in any of the BlizzCons, I just head back and feel inspired to just make games,” he said.

Thrill kill

Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

The one thing Diablo III didn’t need fixing was the actual combat. What really makes an action RPG click for Chu is the combination of visceral feeling of combat and the responsiveness of it. “When I play a Barbarian and I hit something using a heavy hammer, I should feel [through mouse clicks] that I am that Barbarian. When I’m a Wizard, I should be this guy casting all these crazy spells, to make it feel good,” he explained.

Chu added, “When you’re looking at doing an action RPG, there are so many different directions you can go. There’s this core idea you have to flesh out from there, you set up your characters, you build your character, you have power, you explore worlds. I think that you can have different backdrops and mechanics. It’s a big enough umbrella to cover it all.” He stressed that the feel of combat needed to be nailed down with as many playtests as humanly possible for everything to come together.

“It’s all iteration, iteration and iteration,” Chu said, “You look at the Barbarian class from Diablo II and we’re like ‘what do we do? It feels pretty good’. Our challenge was to figure out how to condense what we love about the Barbarian and then just giving him that feeling of power.”

Chu said that the team had to do loads of experimentation just for the game’s fighting alone, “We had to figure out which visual effects and what sound feels good. What kind of ability and what kind of speed. It’s all about tweaking, tweaking and tweaking.” Chu added that getting it all right was also about nailing the class power fantasy. “We had to ask simple questions like ‘what do you want to be and do when you’re this particular class?’, and then proceed to do it,” explained Chu.

Rift track

One of the more gothic layouts of Reaper of Souls. Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

While Diablo III had a few randomised levels, there’s no harm in going back to Diablo I and Diablo II’s random dungeon routes. With RoS’ Adventure Mode and Nephalem Rifts, Chu said that this is to ensure that the experience comes out fresh instead of players having to wade through Campaign mode from Act I to Act V. “We want players to keep having fresh experiences to talk about. [The best part is] since the original game was set to be random at certain points, we just tweaked our tools and tweak the system more so that we can support the new modes. The framework is already there,” he said.

Game objectives for Adventure are randomised too; your bounties can vary whether you have to kill a target demon or clear the field of a number of enemies while also surviving an undead Horde mode for a minute or three. He added that the Blood Marsh is laid out at random for each different playthrough in the campaign.

As Chu’s past background is of MMOs, he felt that the exploration and World of Warcraft’s boss design helped influenced RoS and its Adventure Mode trappings. He said, “Early versions WoW was like running blind. You come across interesting quests and you go check about Azeroth. We wanted that sense of adventure in RoS; to let players go out and discover the unknown in a different fighting mechanic.” Chu added that other titles like The Legend of Zelda help contribute the challenging boss fights in RoS, with each of them having their own patterns and states to scale against a solo player or Diablo III party.

Devil in the details

A typical scene in a Diablo III multiplayer session. Image credit: Blizzard Entertainment

But what about multiplayer duels, an idea that was announced a while back for Diablo III but was postponed? “It’s something we’re sorta interested in, and we’re still experimenting with it,” said Chu. He said that the idea is still in the backburner and something to think about, so fans hoping to use their dueling-specific character builds can still cling onto a ray of hope for the mode.

Mayberry said that it’s up to the consensus of players to decide, “[Multiplayer is one of the] things we’re talking about now. We’re not making definite plans yet. We have our first content plan figured out. First update. But after that, [game director Josh Mosqueira] really wants to wait and see what the community says. What the reaction is.”

One thing is clear between Alex Mayberry and Michael Chu’s words; Blizzard has erased words associated with mistakes and errors when it comes to Diablo III. Rather, the company looks forward and does not dwell on supposed missteps.  “It’s nice to now see people reacting to the changes,” Mayberry said,” and I think the changes are great.”

Chu really sees the journey between Diablo III and its RoS expansion as a process of refinement, “Even the new features were there to push for a better gameplay cycle.”

Soul searching

Image credit: Inc. gamer

It’s too soon to tell on how this expansion will fare among the general populace since it was out only this week. Online stability seems decent, though lag showed its ugly head. In fairness, a majority of people have yet to be timed out of games by surprise. The Crusader can switch between a heavily-armored in-your-face melee character or a heavily-armored mid-range ballista; the ‘clickety clack’ sounds emanating from his armor, movement and firepower seals the deal for players looking for a character with a refined hands-on arena control approach than the original game’s Barbarian.

The Nephalem Rifts have impressed us with its varying scale and unpredictability; we had to kill off a clone of Act I’s main boss in a narrow crawlspace of a rainbow-colored plane of Hell while fending off Lacuni elites shooting arcane sentries and poison spreads. The bigger question remains unanswered: are the legendary drops a lot more frequent in Adventure Mode than in Campaign Mode in the eyes of the hardcore and mainstream players?

Despite them not stating anything else beyond regulated hyperbole, it’s easy to tell from Blizzard’s actions that Diablo III: Reaper of Souls is a different and arguably improved beast since since the 2012 original. Few companies stick around their lackluster or failed products and some even outright disown them, so it’s a testament to a company that believes in its own brands no matter the insurmountable odds it faced.

Stay tuned to e27 for our more detailed report on Diablo III: Reaper of Souls.

Jonathan Toyad

Jonathan Toyad

If you want an elaborate answer on who would win in a fight between Ultraman and Godzilla, Jonathan Toyad is your man. A six-year veteran in the game journalism industry, he did words and videos for outlets such as GameSpot, GameAxis, IGN and Stuff.TV. Fears coyotes and scorched earths.

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