I realize that, in the wake of the release date announcement, the entire free world (also a good portion of the indentured servants out there) are awaiting midnight on the 15th with bated breath. Our heads are dancing with visions of everything from our first level-up to getting the perfect level 60 cloth dye combinations to, in all likelihood, sugarplums. We will finally experience the Diabolic diversion for which we have waited literally a decade. It is going to be glorious.
Today, however, I want to discuss an aspect of Diablo that – with the game more or less finished – we are finally qualified to talk about: how the game looks from the perspective of a game designer.
(Disclaimer – I’m only qualified to talk about the design of Diablo 3 in one sense: I toooootally think designing games is awesome.)
If you are like me, you’re not just a computer game junkie, you’re a total game/fantasy goob. It is highly likely you have, at some point in your life, cracked open a booster pack of Magic: the Gathering cards.
If so, then you probably know of Mark Rosewater, the lead game designer for Magic. He’s a 20-year vet of making fantasy games fun, appealing, balanced, and beautiful. He also tweets a ton. The following is one in a string of tweets he made about his job:
One of the hardest parts of design is that you have to give your audience what they need not what they want. #designtruisms
It’s an important aspect of game design that gets talked about all the time: Players and fans want any variety of things – game features added, game features subtracted, different difficulty curves, different creative direction – but it is the job of the game designer to ignore these requests with the greatest prejudice and cruelty.
At least for the most part.
You see, product designers are more like architects than construction workers – they are, at their highest aspiration, artists. A consequence of this is that to give gamers the best experience possible the game designer has to work as an artist does.
So how do artists work? And why can’t artists let you play hardcore mode from the start?
One of the most persistent tropes about creating art is the idea that the artist is a channeller of inspiration – ideas bubble up from the subconscious and the artist molds them into a final form. Sure, painters and writers study what makes art good and choose what messages their works send, but when it comes down to it, what the artist is really good at is organizing these ideas that just come to them.
This idea of artists being organizers can be applied to game design too. Lots of cool card designs come up when Mark Rosewater is building an expansion for Magic, for example, but it’s his goal to organize them into a synergistic organism – a set of cards that looks good and is fun to play with.
The process of organizing inspired parts into a complete whole lies at the center of good art – and good games. I posit that artists and designers have to reject consumers’ “wants” because those influences fail to take into account the overall organization – the gestalt appeal – of the work.
When buying a meal at a restaurant, you can pretty much expect to tweak a few aspects of what you get and be satisfied. No tomato on that burger? No problem. Still gonna be a kickass burger. What gets tricky is when you start modifying the menu at a gourmet restaurant where the chef has been trained to expertly mix tastes, textures, and temperatures to create a complete dining experience. If you take the tomato out of one of his dishes, it might become rather pedestrian. That’s because gourmet meals are basically a form of art, and your request to take out the tomatoes just failed to account for the nuanced interactions and relationships that make up the overall impression of the meal.
The same is true of games design. The people in charge of Diablo 3 have guided a very complex process full of delicate interactions that combine to make a delicious Voltron of action-RPG goodness. The point isn’t getting each piece right – that’s impossible. The point is getting a kick-ass whole.
Individual consumers only have their personal interests in mind. They are simply not in a good position to guide the direction of design projects.
To frame this concept in the language of Mark Rosewater’s tweet, designers have to give consumers “what they need” not because what the consumers “want” is irrelevant, but because it fails to take into account the gestalt feel of the entire product as a whole. What consumers need is to have someone looking out for them by making sure the game’s inspired systems, characters, and concepts are being channeled into a product that looks great from every angle – a product that works as a whole.
I particularly wanted to address this point as it applies to the product that is Diablo 3. Just a few quick-hitting examples of where the communities wants – however reasonable sounding – had to be ignored by the developers.
What they wanted: Dark, moody color palate befitting Sanctuary’s morbid story.
What they need: Vibrant, crisp color that helps give the classes distinct identities and push combat action to the foreground.
This was one of the very first debates when the public got their hands on concepts of Diablo 3’s art, with its painterly landscapes and bright, cartoony (yeah, I said it) figures. Lots of people complained that the style was inconsistent with the dark tone of the Diablo world and would reduce the impact of the game.
From a design perspective, however, there are several reasons Diablo 3’s art direction has taken the course it has. Notable among the designers’ reasons are the fact that bright colors for skill effects make the characters feel more powerful and the skills more important. Likewise, using brighter palates allowed for more color identity from class to class – with the Monk’s yellows and blues standing out from the Witch Doctor’s greens and oranges, for instance. Both of these reasons add important depth and clarity to Diablo 3’s gameplay that would have been lost with a more somber palette. The game would’ve had a different feel otherwise – perhaps scarier, but with seemingly less responsiveness in combat and less connection between players and their characters. In the end, I think there is little question that the designers got it right here.
What they wanted: Attribute points
What they needed: Fewer meaningless choices, replaced by more meaningful choices
In Diablo 2, clicking into stats at every level-up felt good, but you weren’t really progressing things forward at all. For most classes, it would be appropriate to choose one out of about 6 different builds (i.e., enough strength for gear, and then everything into mana, or enough strength for gear, then everything into vitality, etc.). This dynamic was the same as just choosing clicking on a “vitality build” button except you had to click the button 500 times to select it. More importantly, it was easy for some (“new”) players to NOT get there at all, i.e., by trying to build dexterity sorceresses or strength necros. The old system, while “a plus” for many, was ultimately broken. It ruined the experiences of newer players and grew meaningless over time to experienced players.
The designers recognized this problem, and knew that for Diablo 3 to have a polished final feel, they couldn’t have a “broken” system with the illusion of choice and the added downside of wrecking new players’ experiences. Although stat points may have been fun for many players, they were part of a flawed system, so cutting them was necessary to preserve the “quality tone” of the game. Additionally, cutting stat allocation led to more customization coming from items, which synergizes with the game’s focus on the item game. A few weeks away from release, it is pretty clear that both of those choices have led to an item game and a character customization scheme that interact pretty nicely and fit into the game.
Let’s take one more example.
What they wanted: Hardcore from level 1
What they needed: A uniform approach to how user-friendly the product is
Diablo’s designers have said that depriving gamers of hardcore mode from the start is partly to protect new players from a disappointing death, and that is what the CMs say. But it also helps make the game a better product period – even for seasoned vets. How? The game is holistically designed to have a certain “friendliness tone” – to coin a phrase. If some aspects of the game play to an intense difficulty tone (i.e., hardcore from level 1) while other elements play to a very soft tone, there will be an inherent tension in the game that reduces its appeal to everyone.
This concept may seem subtle, but compare the “friendliness tone” of Diablo to that of a famously well-designed product: the iPhone, designed to be appealing in large part because of a very high “friendliness tone.” There is no doubt that adding an Android-style widget capability would add value for some iPhone users, but it would pollute the product with just enough complexity that the net appeal of the product might go down for most users – even some users who like widgets.
IPhone designers understand that some people are just inherently Android people – the designers don’t let the “wants” of that subset of users guide the direction of their designs – and that is because they understand what they are doing is basically an art form.
This is what Mark Rosewater’s tweet is getting at. Designers have to ignore a lot of user input because those people aren’t concerned with the well-being of the project as a whole.
There have been many outcries for various changes over the last three years or so, and the game designers have done a good job of tuning out all but the ones that actually made the whole game stronger. And you know what? It’s working.
1. Players get furious about something
2. Now that the game in a finished product, the players aren’t furious anymore
As the product gets closer and closer to being a completed work with a uniform “gestalt” look and feel, people recognize that it is good. Some people still may not like the bright colors in theory, but since they work so well with the rest of the game, they tend not to “taste the tomatoes” in the delicious, delicious meal that is Diablo 3.
It really is amazing how few complaints (or even “wishes” for new systems) you hear about the game now. The team took out PvP and you barely heard a peep. Maybe its just because people will be too excited to verbalize their thoughts until about May 17. But I believe this dynamic – Rosewater’s notion that the wants of the many often fail to contribute to the quality of the game as a whole – is one the Diablo 3 team has done an excellent job of understanding.
And a hell of a game it appears to have led to.