If you take roguelikes, and change the design in one direction, you get Auro. If you move in the completely opposite direction, you get Diablo. This is a great example of how philosophically different Dinofarm Games is from a mainstream game developer like Blizzard. Allow me to explain.
First, let’s start with roguelikes – games like Rogue, Nethack, or Dungeon Crawl. These games are turn based dungeon-crawls that evolved out of D&D and the early CRPG era – games like Wizardry and Ultima. These games, themselves were a blend of “game” and “high fantasy simulator”, and so a lot of that stuck around for roguelikes. These games are most certainly more complicated than they have to be as pure games, but a lot of this complication is there to help support a “fantasy” of being a wizard or paladin fighting hordes of monsters in an underground lair.
I love roguelikes, but they all have huge problems stemming from this somewhat undecided purpose. Some of them have an “auto-explore” key, and anyone who plays these games enough will want this feature in just about any of them. This means that the big, expansive levels (of Crawl in particular) are entirely wasted. The UIs are arguably needlessly fiddly, with the player constantly needing to remove his “+2 sword” when he gets a “+3 sword” and other such situations that are entirely the result of a “loot drop” mentality, a mentality which is inherently illogical from a classical game design perspective but makes tons of sense in a high-fantasy simulator.
If you’ve read about Auro, you already know that we’ve taken careful steps to look at what our game is fundamentally about, and then erected only the mechanisms required to express that concept. I intentionally started it from scratch; a blank canvas, to avoid exactly those kinds of pitfalls, while focusing hard on one element I love about the genre.
Did you know that Diablo was originally going to be a fully graphical, mainstream roguelike? It was itself inspired by games like Rogue, and in its alpha version, it was a turn-based tactical game. When I found that out, it helped me to understand the course of events and the evolution of video games better. How different would the world be today if Diablo had been turn-based? The status-quo answer would be that the game would have done poorly and Blizzard would have met the same fate as Origin, Black Isle, Sir Tech and so many other great 1990s game developers. And I’ll concede that answer may be right – after all, if they didn’t create the real-time Diablo, it could be argued that someone else would have (I’ve always thought that this was their mindset in designing World of Warcraft after seeing the success of the rather abysmal Everquest – “if we don’t make a well-produced Everquest, someone else will!”).
Regardless, once Diablo became real-time, the difficulty had to be cranked way down and something like permadeath (aka: an outcome other than “winning” is possible) was out of the question. Yes, yes, I know there’s “Hardcore” mode which involves permadeath, but I’ve always seen that as a bit of a novelty in Diablo. You can’t just slap permadeath onto a modern video game, the entire game needs to be designed around this.
I played a bit of the Diablo III beta the other day. Like anyone who was 15 years old when the first game came out, I had a huge Diablo phase, and I was very curious to see what this new one brought to the table. From a game design perspective, I was sad to learn that the answer was “almost nothing”. Early on, there was talk about removing potions, but apparently they backed out of that at the last minute. Good – that might have made the game a little bit difficult.
I figured out years ago that no Diablo game is worth my time anymore, and Diablo 3 (being little more than a graphics and UI update to Diablo 2) is no exception. I find that when looked at as games, they are awful, abysmal failures. They only succeed when looked at as something much more sinister and pointless.
Firstly, you’re guaranteed to win(which makes you wonder if you can actually win at all, when losing wasn’t a possibility). This, of course, goes for almost all modern video games, and is largely the result of building a game around a narrative. It’s not hard to stay alive in Diablo – all you’ve got to do is follow a very simple strategy of backing up and using potions when you’re hurt, and otherwise attacking everything that moves and using all your best abilities as often as possible. However, even if you do die, it doesn’t matter – you lose a little gold and just keep going. Death is but a minor set-back, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to you in the game.
Marvel at this bizarre idiocy from Blizzard designer, Jay Wilson, when asked about death penalties in Diablo III:
Jay Wilson: “We have not actually decided on the final death mechanic. I can guarantee that you will not lose experience. We are not urging to big penaltys for death[sic]. But we want enough of a penalty to be there, so that death has meaning! Like to lose a little bit time[sic], some kind of decrement[sic]… We do not currently have a durability, but some kind of … a gold cost is actually not so bad. And having the player to waste some time[sic], that is certainly an element. Generally we kind of rely on the effect that players do not want to die. You know, you just do not want to. So there is no real reason to add a further “ding” to them for something happening that was already unfavorable to them. But we have not got our final mechanics on that, yet.”
So his argument is essentially this: thematic “death” is already punishment enough. So if you simply print text to the screen that says “you died”, but there is absolutely no penalty otherwise, that would still be enough of a “deterrent” from dying. This is so far removed from any kind of basic understanding about game design, and so completely and utterly wrong, that it upsets me to know that this man has infinite game-development resources at his fingertips.
Further, a quote like “a gold cost is not so bad” implies that they really don’t even care; it’s an after-thought. The idea of what happens when you die is so un-important to them that they’ll probably just go with, oh, I don’t know, a gold cost, sure, whatever.
Those impressed by the theme of Diablo are not going to like this, but at the fundamental level, Diablo and Farmville are very, very similar. Both of these products are not games – they are a contract between the computer and a player that say “if you continue to click stuff, I will increase a number.” They are not any kind of contest; they are a number-gathering application.
Diablo, Farmville, World of Warcraft, and even many RPGs like Pokemon are not about making interesting decisions and building player skill. They are about COMPULSION. In this way, they have much more in common with slot machines than they do Chess. I think this is not only not helpful for human beings, but actually harmful and wasteful.
Sorry, either Adobe flash is not installed or you do not have it enabled
Couldn’t get a Diablo 3 beta key? Here you go. This is the core gameplay of Diablo, boiled down (and even DARKER!). If you look closely at just the pure gameplay inputs and outputs of Diablo, you’ll see that they very closely match this SWF file.
As a side note, the dialogue and voice-acting are abysmal. They are on a par with a children’s Saturday morning cartoon, and so clearly the game isn’t about story or narrative. The voice-acting is actually so bad that it’s funny – we got a kick out of the “old-man voice” for Deckard Cain. The best thing about the game is probably the visual art, which is great. I suppose that would mean that Diablo 3 is best suited as a “semi-interactive screen saver”? I really don’t know.
The truth is, Diablo seems almost to be a focused effort to not have a focus. Someone might argue that by not being so focused, Diablo is taking the route that the largest number of people will enjoy. I hope that the example of a “one-size-fits-all” glove is a good illustration of why this is not true. I’d rather have one fantastic thing than fifty mediocre things, and I believe whether or not anyone consciously realizes it, this is what we all want.
In conclusion, Diablo is not a game, and I’m not sure what it’s even supposed to be. It certainly does not excel whatsoever as a game, as a movie, as interactive fiction, or even really as any kind of simulator. I don’t think it’s a toy exactly, and I don’t think it’s a puzzle. What is it? In your opinion, how does Diablo 3 excel?
In the meantime, I have designed Auro to be as focused as possible. It is a game, and no one will ever be confused about that. It’s hard enough trying to excel even when you know what it is you’re trying to do, but mainstream digital games can’t seem to even make this important first step.
EDIT: Wow! Okay, so, I think Naomi Clark just “won” Black SWF, the above SWF flash game. She got 9999 points, beyond which it’s impossible to tell if you got a higher score. If anyone’s interested, here’s the version in a standalone page: http://www.dinofarmgames.com/blackswf.html