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Diablo 3’s Seven Design Pillars

Posted 29 Jan 2013 by

When DiabloWikiJay Wilson announced his departure from Diablo 3 I read over a bunch of old interviews with him, both to update the wiki article and to refresh my memory on Diablo 3’s development. This interview with GamaSutra from right around the time of the game’s launch last year, had some good stuff, but I especially wanted to highlight the Seven Design Pillars and reflect on how they were incorporated and executed in the game.

Here’s the quote from the interview:

Did Diablo III have an official design document?
Jay Wilson: No, not really. I certainly had a PowerPoint that I put together, which described high-level pillars of the project, and was seven things that we considered to be the core of the game.

Do you remember what those were?
Jay Wilson: Those seven things were: approachable, powerful heroes, highly customizable, great item game, endlessly replayable, strong setting, and cooperative multiplayer.

We basically said these are the pillars we have to live by. Each one has a description of what they mean. And any time that we have a question about what the game should be, we just look back at those pillars. And that was our goal. That was how we set the project up.

We had some others, too, that were more [about] what we’re adding to the project. And they were more feature-based, so for example, the PvP mode was one. The bigger focus on RPG elements was one, because we wanted it to be a more story-based game, without getting in the way of the action. So there were a few more like that.

Let’s take those one by one, shall we? But first a vote. You can pick as many options as you like, so click all of the Design Pillars you think D3 did a good job living up to.

D3's Design Pillars. Vote for as many as you think were done well.

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1) Approachable

They certainly succeeded with this one, though many of our most heated pre-game arguments were about “dumbed down” vs. “accessible.” (For instance, decisions they made regarding skill points, manual stat points, freespecs, skill runes, simplified item modifiers, and more.) I often felt (and argued) that the devs were overly simplifying the game and risking a loss of depth and complexity, and as best I recall comments were often largely in disagreement with me and in support of JW and crew.

It’s a debatable issue; I think the game was very well done on approachability in say, Normal difficulty, but that it didn’t ramp up enough on complexity (retaining very basic itemization, lacking of meaningful monster changes to resistances/immunities, etc) in higher difficulties.


2) Powerful Heroes

I think they did well on this. The custom resources and skills designed to always work, removing D2’s “you’re out of mana so now you’re helpless” issue (which went away with good gear in the late game, but made the early going quite a chore for the untwinked). If there’s a complaint here it’s a lack of balance and equivalence… perhaps now that JW, Barb fan #1, has moved on, we can see some long overdue nerfs to the one far and away most OP build in the game, while other chars get some buffs to match?

I don’t see why anyone would argue this; all you Barb players have already spun2wun your Paragon 100s and grown bored with the silly double tornado build. You’re probably hoping for a big nerf that would give you an excuse to play a “real” class, huh? *ducks*


Click through for points 3-7, and hit the comments to offer your own opinions.

3) Highly Customizable

This one can also be argued both ways. The Freespecs skill system allows for huge variety, as any build can change completely in a blink. On the other hand, most players feel there aren’t enough viable different builds, and there’s plenty of argument that freespecs actually reduce diversity and customization, since everyone just ends up changing to do more of less the same thing, rather than working to find ways to make different builds viable, as you did in old fashioned games like D2 where you couldn’t just change all your skills around.

You could also point to the very generic item system as creating a lack of customization, since there aren’t any items that really have unique properties and open up whole new builds or styles for any characters. Likely we’ll see much more variety in those areas in D3X, but we can only review the game we have at this point, and in Diablo 3 there’s a terrible lack of item diversity, with virtually every character and all five classes seeking the same few mods on all of their gear. During development we saw mods such as +%spell damage, faster cast rate, elemental damage types that did more than change color, attributes that were useful to all classes, and much more that was simplified away before release.


4) Great Item Game

On this one I think there’s fairly general agreement that the initial product fell very far short. Even aside from the pathetic state of Legendary and Set Items at release (still fairly lacking with a handful of legendaries sought by every class and 90% of no use at all), all five classes use the same few offensive mods, leech and LoH work on everything (ranged, spells, etc), more complicated D2 mods like DiabloWikiCrushing Blow and DiabloWikiOpen Wounds (which stopped monster life regen) are nowhere to be seen, cold damage and stun and other CC (from weapons) is irrelevant, the elemental types are identical in function (but not color), the same offensive mods work on every type of item, etc.

The devs did a nice job creating and modeling so many different item types, but they fell way short on making them actually work in different ways.


5) Endlessly Replayable

Everyone’s got a different opinion on this, but I’m still enjoying the game. Plus I let enough natural light past my rose-tinted D1 and D2 glasses to remember that those games were FAR more repetitious than anything in D3.

The lack of diversity in items and builds cuts into this one a bit; I sometimes wish I were playing HC (as Xanth keeps urging me) just so I’d have a reason to reroll a character one day. On the other hand, it’s nice to be able to change around my character’s skills and gear to set them up for fast farming MP0, or more sturdy hunting on MP2, or key farming on MP5+.

This question seems to revolve more around the game world though, and that’s open to argument. D3 obviously gets quite repetitive, especially once you’re farming and feeling like 5 or 6 levels in Act 3 is the only place worth doing it, but that’s still 4 or 5 more levels than were worth farming in D2. My opinion is that D3 didn’t do a great job on making the areas feel different and new endlessly, though it’s a big step up from the old, more-static system of D2.


6) Strong Setting

This was hard to miss on, as Diablo and Diablo 2 had created such an archetypal world in Sanctuary, with a grim, dark, gothic feeling (even when expressed in very bright deserts and neon-colored monsters). I think D3 did a pretty good job of this, though I’ve never felt the level of immersion and creepiness that I did in most of D1 and much of D2.

I think a lot of that is due to D3’s very subtle music, compared to the much louder and more present and immersive tracks Matt Uelmen created for the previous games. It’s hard to say, though. D3’s got some great level art and visuals; I clearly remember leaning in really close to the monitor to try to get a better look at all those chained skinned titan things when I first worked my way down the tower levels in Act 3.


7) Cooperative Multiplayer

And we end on a low point, since this is one area where they failed quite noticeably. Yes, you *can* play D3 with other players, and the auto-party options with friends are nice, and them (finally) enabling Monster Power in public games in v1.07 should help as well.

That said… I’ve never felt the sort of online community on Battle.net or in games that I did with previous Diablo titles. The initial chat channel implementation was terrible, in-game chat has always been bad, the Auction House’s efficiency turns trading into a soulless automated activity, the four player limit keeps games small and quick, the lack of proper experience or item rewards scaling in parties discourages co-op, the lack of game names or a proper game creation system is lame, the matchmaking quest system doesn’t work well everyone endlessly creating “Kill Azmodan” games and then doing everything but, and the problems go on and on.

All of those features/changes probably seemed like good ideas on the drawing board, and most of them are clearly technological improvements, but they conspired to create the same Battle.net ghost town effect that Starcraft 2 has suffered. I don’t know if more or less tech is the answer — the simple IRC-style chat rooms we had in Diablo I in 1996 gave vastly more social value than every B.net 2.0 feature combined — but on this design pillar at least I think the devs came up very short.