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Thursday
May032012

Diablo 3's Ability System

Diablo 3 comes out in a couple weeks. I'm giving it the coveted award for "Biggest Comeback In System Design." Diablo 2's ability system was so bad that it's almost unbelievable, while the way Diablo 3 handles ability customization is one of the very best systems I've seen.

Diablo 2

Diablo 2 had talent trees where you spend points to unlock new abilities, very similar to how talent trees work in World of Warcraft. Also, you could allocate stat points into various different stats however you wanted as you leveled up. At first glance, these seem like ok things, but let's look at just how deeply problematic they really are.

Don't Use Points!

First, the best way to play Diablo 2 is have this big red "+" button on your screen almost the entire time, the one that says you have extra points to spend. The reason that will be on you screen for weeks is that you'd be a sucker to actually spend the points as you get them. You counter-intuitively (and unfunly) should stock up on those and spend them much later on. So the simple and fun thing to do (spend points as you get them) is just a trap for noobs.

Next, the whole system of allocating points in the first place didn't really customize anything. It was just a giant test of if you did your web research enough to know the only reasonable way to spend those stat points. You don't have to take my word for it either, let's see what Jay Wilson has to say. He was an avid Diablo 2 player, and the Game Director of Diablo 3 for the last 5 or 6 years.

Here's a written transcript of the relevant part, in case you don't want to watch the vid:

"You usually take as much strength as you need to get the armor that you're targeting, and that's usually around 120 or 220, depending on what type of armor. You take 75 dexterity because that's the amount you generally  need for good block percentages. You take NO energy at all unless…there's like one type of build you can make on a sorceress that uses energy shield. And then you put everything else in vitality. That's a shitty customization system. That's just not a good system." --Jay Wilson, Diablo 3 Game Director on Diablo 2

Talent Trees

Next, there's the talent trees. There's two problems here, one medium sized and the other is one of the most mind-blowing fumbles in design out there. First the medium problem: it's pretty hard to make talent trees that give any real choice. They sure seem to allow choice, and in theory they really could, it's just very hard to balance it all so that there's a lot of good builds. Blizzard learned this in World of Warcraft, and I think we can see a clear progression in their thinking here. The first thought was that talent trees are great (and I was on board with this). Then there were too many talents that were "required" because they were so damn good, you couldn't pass them up. Stuff like +5% damage, you just have to take that compared to various utility skills. Blizzard reworked all the talents (well several times, but I mean one time specifically) to get rid of all those "required" talents. If something was just +damage, they mostly got rid of it as a talent. If a talent was an ability that was *necessary* for a class, they just gave you that ability outside the talent trees. So now what was left allowed for more flexibility in your choices.

I was on board with that, but it kind of didn't work that well in practice. Blizzard then gave it yet another try, trying to open up the reasonable choices even more. The next step in their progression in WoW talents was to get rid of the trees entirely, for the Pandaria expansion. In the new system, you will pick one of three possible talent powers every 15 levels. (Here's the Warlock one, for example.) Diablo 3 takes an even further step in this progression, but let's come back to that. There's one more thing about Diablo 2.

Start The Entire Game Over To Change Even One Damn Talent Point WTF

In Diablo 2, you can't respec your talents. Just think about that for a minute. If you spend a talent point wrong once, you have start over your entire character. What? Yes, really. If you want to try out a new ability and see what it even does...you have to start over your entire character. This is completely ludicrious. The best way to play the game is actually to download a hack that lets you set ability points to whatever you want instantly, just so you can see which build you might want to play, then go back to the real game. I've seen many players defend the lack of respec as "replayability" but that's not what replayability actually means. That's just an enormous time sink for no real reason and it severely damages the play experience. (Note that 9 years after Diablo 2's release, there was a respec thing you can do, if you jump through some hoops. Too little, too late.)

Years ago I saw several official Blizzard posts that defended a similar idea in World of Warcraft. Their claim was that the intentional difficulty (and originally, the complete inability) to respec talents was to create more diversity, and to make choices matter. This is really wrong-headed and actually the opposite of true. If you have a balanced system, you would not have any need to prevent everyone from switching their specs around. You're basically saying that you're happy that a lot of people are locked into bad specs they aren't happy with, because that means there are more different specs out there being played. What a terrible thing to inflict on your players. Again, you'll have varied specs out there if you actually have several viable ones and small or zero switching costs. Imagine if we made a fighting game and "balanced it" by saying you are stuck with whichever character you first pick! The big variety of characters played shows how great our balancing is right? (No.)

The no-respec mindset is actually counter-productive to the goal, too. When switching costs are really high (like creating your entire character over from scratch...) then no one really wants to experiment. It's too risky to do so, and it's better to go look up the cookie cutter build and go with that. So you get less variety, not more. The variety you do get is often from players who you pissed off by punishing them for mistakes or for exploring the system.

The good news is that Blizzard's thoughts on this have clearly changed over the years. WoW respecs got more permissive over time, and the next step in that progression is Diablo 3.

Diablo 3

Allocating stat points as you level up: gone. Great, this was busywork that contributed basically nothing, so the subtractive design makes the game more elegant overall.

Talent trees: gone. You have exactly 6 slots for abilities, and you can put whatever you want in those slots. There are approximately 24 abilities per class, so your build involves making meaningful choices about what to keep and what to leave out.

Runes: interesting new feature. I read that this system took far longer to design than any other system in Diablo 3, and I totally believe it. When I first saw the interface in the recent open beta test, I couldn't believe what I saw. I was so blown away, that I had to go read about it before clicking on anything because it appeared too good to be true. I think this actually happens a lot in design, where when you finally create / see / experience the "right answer," it seems so obvious, like it couldn't have been any other way, but it might have taken years for the designers to figure out that answer. Elegance is hard.

Here's how runes work. A rune is a modifier to an ability. Every ability (each of your class's 24 abilities) has 5 runes associated with it. And I don't mean the same 5 choices, these are custom for every single ability. You can only have rune selected for any given ability. So that means you have to choose if you want your Magic Missile to have 1) increased damage, 2) split into three shots instead of just one, 3) pierce through enemies and keep going, 4) generate mana ("arcane power"), or 5) track the nearest enemy and do slightly more damage. Here are the abilities for the Wizard, along with all their possible runes.

So the combination of possible builds here is ridiculously large, given that you fill each of 6 slots with one of 24 abilities AND for each of those 6 abilities you chose, you also choose one of 5 runes. Oh and you also choose any 3 out of 15 possible passive abilities for you class, so even more combinations.

Infinite Instant Free Respecs

Now here's the part that was too good to be true to me. You don't spend points on these runes. You don't muck around with them in your inventory. You don't commit to them and have to pay some annoying respec fee or something. At *any time* you bring up the ability menu, set which abilities you want, and for each one click on the rune you want. It's all in a nice menu with no hassles. Again: any time. With no cost. As much as you want. The only drawback is a three second cooldown so you don't do this in the middle of a fight. Wow!

As you level up, you automatically gain new abilities and runes. Gaining them requires no action on your part. And at any time, you can switch amongst any abilities and runes you have so far, eventually all of them. You can fully explore the system all you want. You can see what every ability does. You can try out any combination of abilities. The freedom is amazing and it shows newfound confidence from Blizzard. There is no need to slow the progress of people figuring out good builds: Blizzard is telling us that exploring builds basically *is* the game, so go for it.

Elective Mode

I do have one minor complaint here. Internally, Blizzard said they divided the abilities into different categories that helped them think about what's what, then they realized that players should be able to see these categories too. So they exposed them, and tied them to the 6 different slots you have. I think this worked really, really well. It makes the whole system easy to understand, elegant, and imposes an interesting restriction: that you can only have one ability from category one, one from category two, and so on. It would be absurd to think you don't have enough choices, because you actually have over 29 BILLION possible builds per class with that system.

But really, I think Blizzard had already done a lot of development that assumed you could choose multiple abilities from a category if you wanted. They were maybe already too far down that road. So while their new system is easy to understand, elegant, and has an interesting limitation, you can turn on "elective mode" in the menus to get a less elegant UI that lets you put any ability in any slot. And of course you have to because it's strictly better for you to remove that limitation. So yeah, too bad they couldn't have made the simpler concept with better UI and the category limitation work. But whatever, it's fine.

Nephalem Valor

There is one more surprisingly great thing about the Diablo 3 ability system. That you can respec at any moment as much as you want does create one problem. If you are super hardcore, you will have a different spec for like every encounter in the game once you have memorized it all and are farming for items. That means the best way to play is tedious once you reach that level of mastery. It would really suck to "fix" that by limiting the respec in any way though. Normal humans want to explore the system freely and I'm so blown away by this infinite, instant, free respec thing that we should NOT ruin that to address this hardcore problem.

Of the top of my head I thought, "Hmm, maybe have a separate mode where respecing sucks or something, let hardcore people play that." But Blizzard's answer is much better. The Nephalem Valor system kicks in at the max level (60). So before that, meaning your first run through the game, you really can respec all you want for free with no drawback at all. Go for it! Once you reach 60, you can get a buff called Nephalem Valor that can stack a few times, maybe up to 5. Each buff increases your gold find / magic find stats. Also, if you kill a boss with that buff on, the boss will drop extra loot. You get the buff by killing rare or champion monsters.

The genius part is actually how you lose the buff though. I think it lasts about 15 minutes, so you have to keep progressing to stay buffed. But you also lose it if you *leave the game* or if you *change your abilities or runes at all*. Ok think about that. If you plan to farm the same 3 minute segment of the game over and over and over, you can do that. But you'll be doing it without the buff so it won't be optimal to get rare items that way. Also, if you want to respec before every single encounter, you can. It's just that you won't have the buff so it won't be the optimal way to get items either. The optimal way to get items happens to line up with the fun way to play: to go an entire big run where you stick to one spec. This is a very clever way to solve the problem for the new player and the expert without really sacrificing anything. 

Conclusion

Thanks to Jay Wilson and the rest of Blizzard. I think this ability system with 6 slots, the lack of tech trees, the 5 runes per ability, the infinite instant free respecs, and the valor buff system overall is a very solid design. I'd go so far to say that it advances the craft of game design, even. Blizzard has come a long way in designing these kind of systems, and I think they've finally nailed it.

Reader Comments (126)

As someone who rushed through the open beta weekend and got all the achievements, this was super insightful, I didn't even realize elective mode was in the game and honestly walked away from it feeling a bit flat, this along with the difficulty adjustments they've apparently made fill me with a bit more excitement.

It's interesting how simple and effective Nephalem Valor seems, especially in a game thats primarily about the pursuit of loot rather than the progression through the bosses, it takes what would be seen as optimal behavior (to swap the talents to suit the encounter) and makes it sub-optimal.

Do you have any idea how it works in groups? I know they had to attempt to fix some issues related to groups and magic find just because someone could gimp themselves with a ton of magic find gear, and just come along for a "free ride", I wonder if losing stacks of nephalem valor actually affects your parties average magic find, which might be a bit punishing, but likewise, having other party members re-spec to have an optimal fight while another person keeps maximum magic find might also be unwanted behavior.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDingobloo

Thanks. While I can't really be an authority on an unreleased and still not final system, my understand is the following:

In a group, magic find is the average rating of the entire group. But, the valor buff is still an individual thing, just a buff on each player. So like if you had the buff, and someone else in your group leaves, it has no affect on your valor buff.

May 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

Awesome read, thanks for writing this. Diablo3 does some interesting things that I didn't quite grasp (cause the game isn't out, and I haven't played it yet), and this cleared a lot of things up. All I can say now is I wish they'd implement something like this in WoW.

I would love it if one day you could write an article just about talent trees. They're one of my favorite aspect in games, and I feel that games like WoW took a step backwards with them. You say that in theory they could allow choice. I'd love to hear your thoughts about that.

In WoW for instance, they used to allow quite a bit of choice. As you could spec down two trees and pick up certain abilities along the way. You could come up with ability combinations that were really out there. I know I did this a lot too and came up with some unique builds. Sadly though, that functionality was removed from WoW, though it seems it was done in Diablo3, albeit without the actual trees.

I'm curious if you think this could be accomplished with the more traditional talent trees?

I'm also curious how do you see something like building a deck in M:TG as far as customization. I don't think any other game out there offers as much customization. A deck could be seen as a talent tree. Assuming you have a set number of cards, putting a card in the deck necessarily means you're not putting some other card in there. And some cards require other cards to work (much like a tree), like how a black card requires a swamp.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBigJohn

I've seen some people defending D2's no-respec system recently, didn't really get their reasoning. Having a cost associated with a decision makes it more important, sure, but if that cost is just "time spent", it's not very good design. Also, you're supposed to make these decisions based on the future usefulness of these skills, so uhhh, good luck on your first playthrough.

Blizzard did make a slight mistake in D3's skill system: they kept no-runed skills the same as what they were back when runes were still items. That makes no-runed skills pointless, because anything else is a straight upgrade of some sort.

Also, I think a skill system like this works better in a game with random encounters on separate battle screens (Tales of Destiny PS2 being my usual example here), where skill swapping in battle is not even an option, not just a bad one because of a cooldown and the UI being in the way. I don't suppose you could've solved this in Diablo much better though without ruining the pacing completely. And the Nephalem Valour buff does address this in a way, making this tiny nitpick even more insignificant.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

No-rune is not a "mistake." You start the game with no runes, as you should for ease of learning and simplicity's sake. So the interface has a setting for that, and you change it to some other rune as you unlock them as you level up. Luckily the no-rune option still exists for consistency of interface and in case you want it for testing purposes.

May 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I think you missed the point there a bit: all I'm saying is that no-rune should continue to be a viable option even after you've unlocked some other runes. I don't see how that makes it harder to understand or whatever. I mean, 5 out of the 6 skill variants are already supposed to be equally viable - why not make that 6 out of 6?

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpkt-zer0

@BigJohn: Sure, you might have played a "unique" spec. But that spec was just worse than any of the optimal specs. The issue with WoW is that there are optimal specs, because the underlying mechanics (DPS / don't stand in the fire, scripted boss fight) are too simple to allow for multiple valid strategies. The only way you can customize are the very few risk/reward choices: Some combinations require a low ping and good reactions (some procs), others are slightly worse, but more lenient (such as longer dots).

Nephalem Valor: That is absolutely genius. Mephisto-farming suddenly is much less optimal when you lose your buff every five minutes.

Recommendation when playing the game: Whenever you get a new skill or rune, immediately slot it. That way, you will have seen all ability versions when the game becomes more difficult, and can make informed choices. During Beta, I found that I needed to actually play with most abilities and theorycrafting wasn't enough, probably because I am not yet very familiar with the game.

"No respec": It's not always a worse system. It just doesn't fit the current Diablo. For example, StoneSoup (a good Rogue-like) would be far worse if you could respec your class mid-way through. But then, StoneSoup has permadeath, and ends when you kill the last boss. Its not about item-collection, but about getting to the end. D3 and Guild Wars are about character design and item acquisition. Different targets, different mechanics.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKdansky

Great post. It's been frustrating talking to "veterans" who think that these changes are terrible heresy, somehow arguing that putting every stat point into vitality is a better system than attributes having real meaning (and still being completely customizable via gems). Or the old skill system where your "build" usually consists of one skill that you spam all the way up to level 99, with dozens of points being spent on synergies.

I've been waiting years for a developer to stop falling into these same traps in this genre, over and over again. Leave it to Bliz to be the ones to fix it.

11 days! Also, didn't peg you for a Diablo fan, David. Definitely a good design fan though. :)

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Zehnich

I didn't play the D3 beta, but from your description the skill system seems to have similarities to the wargear system in Dawn of War 2: The Last Stand.

In DOW2:TLS (which is just a "bonus" game mode) your character has has a certain number of slots of different types (so you have 2 slots for hands, 1 for armor and so forth) and a larger number of available gear of the same different types. You can switch your equipment freely between games (which typically last about 15 - 30 minutes) and you get new available gear when you level up or for certain achievements. Certain pieces of wargear grant passive or active abilities.

This is the character page for one of the character classes: http://i49.tinypic.com/vnl8j8.jpg

The number of combinations is generally much lower than in D3, mostly due to the lack of runes and the fragmentation into different types of gear, but for a mere "bonus" game mode it's pretty good.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPlay Nicely

Very well written, David, and it echoes many of the same sentiments I've had about Diablo games, and similar titles like Phantasy Star Online, for years.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Good write up. From the beta I became a huge fan of the skill slot/rune system, though I think you give Elective mode a bit of a hard time it doesn't deserve.

Elective mode on means you build a pretty well balanced and well rounded character that always has some ability that generates and uses the class resource as well as offensive & defensive options. Turning it off lets you customize into builds that are more situational or possibly group oriented. You can make a glass cannon with no defense, a burst damage class with a ton of spenders, but few generators, a sustained damage class that's the opposite, or even a full supporty/tanky character. It'd be nice to not have the split, and honestly I am not sure why Blizzard felt the need to put in the restriction in the first place, but having the freedom to slot anything anywhere is pretty key for making the builds interesting.

On another note have you looked into Guild War 2's skill customization system at all? They have a pretty nice system for speccing out as well. Basically you get 5 skills from your weapon(s) then get to pick 4 skills (1 heal, 1 elite, 3 utility) out of all of your classes skills. Each class also gets a class mechanic and in combat weapon swap that is up to 5 more keys. It sounds like a lot, but it's actually less than WoW's in practice I found.

In terms of weapons and skills you can reslot anytime out of combat, but it's easily done from the actual UI. Changing equipped weapons is usually rare as you only have 4-5 weapon types for your class. Changing equipped utility skills is handled well on the UI, you can click an arrow at the top right of any skill to bring up a menu of all other skills available for that slot. So even if it's optimal to switch constantly, it's almost instant to do.

The trait system is pretty well done too, though weaker by comparison. You have 5 trait lines that offer small/moderate boosts to certain stats (not a huge fan of that part, but in practice it's not a huge factor), for reference you get 70 trait points overall. At 5,15, & 25 invested into any line you get a minor trait that's chosen for you. At 10, 20, and 30 you get a slot for a major trait. For each talent line there's about 10-11 traits you can chose from. There's no restriction on which slot in the talent line the major skill can put in, so all the skills available for the 30 point major slot are there for the 10. The minor talents are usually pretty small bonuses by comparison so there's not really a concept of "I need 30 in this tree for this talent" because you can just get the same talent for 10 points in that tree and then spec elsewhere. Unlike WoW the talent trees each have set roles for the classes. Everyone has a Dmg line, a Crit/condition line, a Support line, a tanking line, and a line for their class mechanic. Since it's more divergent than say a Mage who has 3 damage lines you do actually seem to gain some room for customization (do you want to be a guardian support or guardian tank for example).

Anyways with D3 and GW2 both coming out now I think every game that follows needs to pull from what these skill systems show otherwise they'll feel old and dated by comparison.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLogo

Just a note on the skill UI: Blizzard had much nicer, smaller UI to fit the runes early in the beta, before they came up with this Elective Mode thing. It was very Diabloish, as it covered about 1/3 or the screen to the side, like how your inventory is now. The non-elective mode i believe is to teach casuals how to pick their skills and make builds, as the game was designed so that even your grandmother can play, since it is so simple you only need a mouse to do it. You can see in this video the old skill UI at about 3:30:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovTUpsenzFo

Youshould also take a look at the skill build calculator at the Blizzard site, which is very similar as how it (should) look like in-game:

http://us.battle.net/d3/en/calculator/barbarian

They said they made it cover the entire screen due to localizations issues - in some languages the skill name was too big for the UI. Hopefully they came up with a better solution in-house and just didn't bother to update the beta with *crosses fingers*

Also, to the guy above me talking about MTG, well Diablo 3 skill build is basically MTG deck build. It is also similar to Guild Wars: you can pick a total of 6 skills (or cards) out of 24 for your character, and you can switch as you like.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVictor Beaklini

Great article David! Halfway through I was thinking to myself "what prevents players from switching before every encounter?" and obviously you hit that topic in short order. :) I agree that the Nephalem Valor mechanic is brilliant. In fact, it gave me a great idea for addressing a design dilemma I've been trying to solve for several weeks...

- Jon

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Shafer

BigJohn, talent trees take away choice simply because there's inevitably a "right" way to use them (and everything else is wrong). It doesn't tend to matter when you're just solo grinding or doing quests, but once the difficulty starts to ramp up there are massive differences between the 3 good builds for a class and the 2 million bad ones in effectiveness.

There was also a lot of problems throughout the history of the game with required talents, as the article mentioned. Except for maybe 5 points at the end in Wrath, there's only ever been one correct Warrior tank build. Most of the talents are just required to make it work well. That's particularly true in raids, because no serious raid tank will EVER pick up a damage talent if they can pick up a mitigation, avoidance, defensive cooldown, or health booster instead. Never. Ever.

Ditto for Holy Priests and healing talents vs damage ones. It's the illusion of choice, but not a real choice because one answer is so much better then the other ones.

Rift has a much more expansive talent system and it has similar problems. There's virtually infinite soul combinations and talent builds, but the set of cookie cutter ones tends to beat everything else easily. You have the choice to make less-optimized characters, but what's the incentive to do that?


(I'm also delighted to see the article comment on the flaws in Diablo 2's system. Not spending points was so annoying, but it really was the best way to play.)

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTridus

Thanks everyone, glad you enjoyed the post.

BigJohn: The deeper the tree goes, the fewer choices you have (just as a straight math statement, not a subjective opinion). While the WoW trees have a lot of leaves in them, given how you progress in the tree, there just aren't a lot of actual choices.

Consider this spectrum: 1) no customization at all, 2) WoW tech trees, 3) ???, 4) diablo3, 5) Magic: The Gathering.

If you want to go with 1), that's fine and makes sense to me. Yomi does that, and by having fixed decks it means I can build weakness into the decks on purpose that can't be customized out. Also, by having 10 (fixed) decks, it's possible to balance all those known quantities so that every one is viable. Meanwhile, if you took a game that had waaaaaaay more abilities than all of Yomi put together, and allowed super maximum customization (MTG), you could very well end up with FEWER viable decks. It took me many years of working on these games to fully come to terms with that. The promise of customization is very exciting, but the more you have, the more chance for some degenerate thing to outshine everything else and make the entire system just an illusion of choice.

The CCG I'm working on is in that #3 slot that I labelled ??? on the spectrum. Lots of customization, but way less than MTG. I'll have to write a full article someday on why that ends up being way, way better than full customization. I resisted that for a long time, but after testing it for years, it's definitely the way to go.

ANYWAY, you care more about the Blizzard stuff probably. I think 2) on the spectrum ended up being kind of a no-man's land. Lacks the advantages of "no customization" yet doesn't have the excitement you'd expect from a customization system because there ends up being too few viable choices. Diablo3 is much further along in the spectrum. My suggestion in my main post was that they might be better off being in position #3, with the limitation of one ability per category. But they are further along, in position 4 where you can build your "deck" of abilities with any 6 you want. That can still be fine.

I think the takeaway (and it requires a ton more than just my comment here to fully understand) is that there are tradeoffs for every possible point in that spectrum. And they are not necessarily obvious tradeoffs. It took me years and years of dealing with these systems to understand the value no-customization, the dangers of too much, and the sweet spot of something in between.

May 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

@pkt-zer0, your argument seems to be based on the idea that an unruned skill was ever viable compared to runed skills, which was not the case. Even when runes were items, an unruned skill was inferior to its runed incarnations. The only reason you would ever use an unruned skill in the old system is if you wanted to use the skill and hadn't yet obtained a rune drop for it. But once you were talking about level 60 endgame builds, you would never use an unruned skill unless you wanted to cripple yourself.

The new system is essentially the same way. You will still use unruned skills at times when leveilng up. For example, say I really love the Familiar spell on my Wizard that I just unlocked, but I won't unlock any runes for it for the next 5 levels. Oh well, I'm going to use it unruned anyway because I really like it.


@Sirlin, I disagree that elective mode is a downside. Being unable to spec more than one skill from a category would close off a lot of options. For example, you really couldn't make a Witch Doctor designed around creating and maintaining a small army of monsters to fight for him. You'd have to choose limit yourself to picking Zombie Dogs or Gargantuan. They'd close far too many doors by limiting you to one of each skill per category.

Like you said, the unrestricted skill choice system was always their plan. The non-elective/simple mode UI was only added very late in the development cycle as a way to ease less-hardcore players into the potentially overwhelming amount of skill choices they'll have. It gave them a hand-holding template that basically said, "here, we'll try to keep you from doing something really bad like picking 6 skills that use fury and 0 that generate it on your Barbarian." But it was only ever meant to be an optional interface limiter, not a build limiter. In the video you linked, Jay talks about how they want people to be able to make a Demon Hunter build that only uses Hatred and ignores Discipline, or a Wizard build that never runs out of Arcane Power -- they just don't want those to be optimal ways to play. Non-elective mode wipes out a lot of those kinds of options.

Admittedly, the interface for elective mode being tacked onto the simple mode interface is kind of clunky, and I definitely preferred the interface used earlier in beta, as Victor Beaklini mentioned. Unfortunately, it's the UI we're going to be getting at release. Hopefully they'll streamline it in a patch down the road, but I'm not holding my breath so we'll probably just have to get used to it.

Something else I thought of: simple mode isn't that great either, because of the way it forces which ability goes into which action bar/click slot. What if I don't like how it feels playing with skill C being on button 1 and skill E being on button 3? I can't just rearrange them in simple mode (like you would move your abilities on your action bar in WoW or something). Sure, I can go to the key bindings menu and swap those around, but then my action bar looks like:


Skill : A B C D
Hotkey: 3 2 1 4

Which is strange as well. Hell, if I want the ability defaulted to my right click to be activated with the "1" key, and the ability defaulted to the "1" key to be activated by right clicking, I'm not even sure there's a way to change that in simple mode. The whole "each class of ability has a specific slot it goes into" thing is pretty restrictive. Fine for newbies, sure, but I think most players will graduate out of it if they play the game long enough (whether that be 10 minutes or 100 hours), and I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterforty

Awesome post as always.

As someone who loves game design (though my own attempts have served mainly to make me appreciate how difficult it is to create balanced, robust, fun systems), I was wondering what other blogs you might recommend on game design and balance? There must be some that you yourself read? Obviously, if you have a few clones secretly helping you out, their own blogs would be ideal (seriously, how else does one explain your many overlapping projects combined with the time you need to play other people's games for both fun and learning)?

Thanks, and looking forward to D3 a little more now...

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDemonac

Demonac, hmm I don't really follow any other blogs in particular. For years I followed Mark Rosewater's articles and also Randy Buehler's when he used to write for mtgdaily.com. Danc at lostgarden.com is also good. As for me, I spend a lot of time developing my games, but I only really write a little about that. Hard to do everything.

May 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin

I actually stayed completely away from Diablo II after playing the snot out of Diablo I primarily because of what I'd read about the skill system and it's shortcomings.

From what I've been hearing lately it looks like they've got a customer back...

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB. Bennett

Demonac:

I actually just started a website a few weeks ago where I put up articles on game design (as well as project management and other industry-related issues). You can find it here.

[/Shameless Self-Promotion]

- Jon

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon Shafer
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