Tag Archives: RPG

Making the Rules: Drawing Things Out

I’ve been playing Resistance 2 lately, taking in its new cooperative mode on the recommendation of a couple of friends.  Co-op in shooters has a long but spotty tradition, so it was neat to see Insomniac deliver a non-competitive experience with a different feel. This one gives the player one of three classes that can be leveled up independently by matching up to play short missions. Each class has a different loadout and responsibility when played: grunt, medic, supply. In addition, there is a resource that can be gathered during matches in order to purchase upgraded abilities and weapon packages.

It was a fairly addicting experience, as I pushed to each successive level like I might grind an MMO.  The matches themselves were entertaining on their own, with tangible sense of achievement every few rounds.  Unfortunately, I eventually ran out of gas, not because the game itself wasn’t fun enough…  but rather because each creature had 5-10 times the health of their single-player counterparts.  The campaign was a well-balanced shooter with crisp control aim and a great sense of power, but coop had me holding my machinegun on what should have been “popcorn” enemies for several seconds, watching XP pile up as I waited for each bag of hit points to fall down.  Quite simply, it didn’t feel at all like the shooter than I played when not online.

I cannot fault the concept of jacking up the time to kill each enemy…  it’s a time-honored tradition from many classic games.  In Resistance 2, it was clear that they needed to extend the experience and increase the effort required to bring each one down.  It’s probably a useful excercise to discuss why this might be.

The Numbers Game

One reason for enemies to soak up bullets in coop is to match the level of difficulty to the number of players.  If 10 players entered a level that was intended for just one, they would slaughter everything with their added firepower.  Some games ship this way, whether due to limited resources or to reward the effort that used to be involved to connect multiple PC’s for a coop session in the first place.   These days most do their best to notch up the challenge when new players join a session, and sometimes this is done by increasing the enemy toughness.   Diablo did this in the most overt fashion, by reporting to the player that “the enemy forces have grown stronger” when each additional player joins the game.  Behind the scenes it was increasing the experience level equivalent of all the enemies in the world.

Another reason for enemies feeling more invulnerable are in games with a progression track…  ones that reward the player for each hour of play with upgrades in ability and potency (like Resistance 2 does).  Unfortunately it’s easy to forget that in order to build a game where the player feels more powerful over time, you must hold back some of the most potent player abilities at the start of the game.  The player certainly feels a sense of achievement as he gains all the new kick-ass stuff over the course of the game, but sometimes that means he also feels anemic at the very beginning, where he has the least capability.  The damage potential for his weapons are less, his health is less.  His weapons aren’t as flamboyant.  Even the most basic enemies might take far longer to kill than they will later on.  This is a dangerous practice that must be handled with care…  these are the crucial early hours where a player should be falling in love with the product rather than feeling emasculated.

The Numbers GameSomehow this is an acceptable practice in RPG’s…  Those games are almost entirely about progression and acquisition, so it is expected that the player will evolve tremendously over hundreds of play hours (or thousands in an MMO).  But because of these incredible progression arcs, most RPG’s play what I call The Numbers Game.  You’ve doubtless seen it…  when players start off their game doing tiny amounts of damage to wimpy rats, but eventually grow to deal thousands of points while fighting giant dragons.  In these situations there is a continual arms race between the damage you deal and the health of your enemies.

For example:  I’m playing an MMO and start with a character who can deal an average of 20 points of damage to an enemy who has about 100 health. About 5 hits will take him down.   After some play time, I level my character to level 20, and can now deal 100 points of damage. Good for me! …except now most of the enemies have around 500 health. I guess it’s still 5 hits to kill one.  Finally, after months of investment I reach the coveted level 50, and I’m clobbering opponents with 1000 points per hit. Of course, you guessed it, my enemies have 5000 HP (or more).

This shouldn’t be a big surprise, because as you gain power, it would be anticlimactic to see a lessening difficulty…  we all want to grow up to finally beat that huge, scary thing that we fled from many hours of play ago.  Keep in mind what this means, however:  In a combat-centric game, a player’s primary metric of power is the number of hits per kill. (This abstracts to “the ratio of time investment per reward”… but that’s fodder for a later post).   But when I play the Numbers Game, do I really feel better about taking down a Level 50 Hoary Drake with my Level 50 character than I did taking down the Level 1 Scrawny Rat with my Noob?  The answer in RPG’s is often “yes”, but in shooters you can get in a lot more trouble.

The difference is in the essences of the genres…  RPG’s deal with skill advancement primarily on the character itself, as he “levels up” and increases his capability through higher numerical stats.   The player himself has less pressure to hone his actual playing skill, aside from juggling the new options presented to him when new abilities are unlocked.   He makes choices about how he wishes to advance, working with figures like “strength”, “speed” and “willpower”, even though they often just present different ways of hurting an enemy.  These various axes of advancement give the player something to aim for, a vast possibility space that he can explore and achieve in.

Since advancement is so tied to how the player’s capabilities are represented, the player keeps a much greater awareness of the numbers and how they affect him.  He understands and accepts that an enemy that is 5 levels above him is extremely dangerous, because the numbers say so.  This is totally fine, because most RPG’s are not about combat…  they’re about advancement, acquisition, and a bit of exploration.   (If you really believe that you played Diablo for the click-and-kill combat, I think I have some real estate you might be interested in…)

Shooters by comparison leave skill advancement largely to the player’s mind and body.  Your manual aiming ability is your primary “accuracy stat”, and timing, dodging and area management are all critical traits that don’t live in the game itself.   In most shooters the player’s character is just as effective with a pistol at the beginning of the game as he is at the end…  even though the game progressively demands more of the player himself with larger groups of foes and challenging level layouts.

Shooters also are tuned for action experience, living and dying by their weapon balance and ammunition management…  Killing one enemy is usually 1-3 shots, and an FPS starts to instinctively know which weapon is best for each situation.   This is the biggest reason that shooters are so seriously wounded by the Numbers Game. By increasing enemy health arbitrarily, the choice of weapon eventually becomes less important. Enemies that used to be demolished by a shotgun blast take several hits, causing players to switch from surprise or flanking maneuvers to attrition tactics. Pistols go from being the standby for taking out weak enemies with minimal ammo investment to becoming basically useless. Different skills and sometimes abhorrent tactics are adopted in order to succeed because the game becomes increasingly “unfair”.  Players might even start to think in terms of DPS (Damage per Second), a major metric in MMO’s and a strong symptom of the Numbers Game.

More Than Just Digits

So this argument does nothing to help out the intrepid FPS designer, who still needs to solve these difficulty issues…  He’s willing to do anything to make the game as fun for 10 players as it is for one, and to make gamers feel increasingly awesome for each hour he plays.  I don’t blame folks for falling back on the numbers when they need to; Diablo II is still my favorite game of all time, and when working X-Men Legends I personally applied the Numbers Game to near-excess (more on that another day).

Solving this problem through other means is really hard, but going the Bags o’ HP route should be a last resort.  I’ll see if I can scrape up some alternatives in the next post.

Updating a Titan

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to post… I’ve been doing a lot of writing at work lately, so it eats a bit into my “write for pleasure” time. Sometimes it can be tough to keep the balance.

If you’re a long-time gamer (read: geek) like me, you may be waiting in heated anticipation for the Fourth Edition of the venerable Dungeons & Dragons pen-and-paper game to be released. 8 years after the D&D 3rd edition did a revision of the franchise, Wizards are trying to get these rules into the modern age.

D&D Banner

What was the problem? While purists thought that the original system was fine the way it was, clearly it was a work over time built by thousands of hands… this created a rule-infested soup that needed a revamp. 3rd edition was like a breath of fresh air compared to the relatively lifeless 2nd edition that was launched back when I was in college (wow), but it, too, replaced a lot of old rules with new ones that were cool but didn’t come up very often…The biggest thing 3rd edition added was combat options to a melee character. While spellcasters always had a boatload of options from direct damage to crowd control, the humble fighter didn’t have much other than “attack with sword” for the previous 25 years. Now they could do interesting things like Cleave, which allowed you to slice through multiple enemies. Unfortunately, perhaps to avoid ruining the classic balance between characters, the application of many of these abilities were extremely limited (e.g. you could only cleave after purchasing the feat with your limited slots, then only if you strike the last blow when they are adjacent to someone else, etc etc).

There were new moves that were for free to use, like grapple, but they were generally ignored for the purpose of swifter play. However, at least it started to scratch the itch that melee players had to be something more than a meat shield.

And that is the crux of it, people want options but they don’t want to spend hours on every fight to do so. Consider it the influence of MMO’s or shorter attention spans or whatever, but I feel it too. Roleplaying is fun, but D&D is very much about spells and combat… If I want to mostly roleplay, I’ll play something in the World of Darkness. If I want to spend hours on every fight, I’ll play something from Leading Edge Games.

D&D Preview - Races and ClassesIf you are someone who follows game design (and if not, what are you doing here?), you should consider looking at the D&D preview books that were released a couple of months ago. While the information is really an informal collection of articles that most folk will consider obsolete as soon as the 4th edition is released, I personally found it enriching to get into the heads of people who had to completely rework a 35-year-old game system without pissing off too many rabid fans.

Tackling an update like this is doubtless harrowing stuff, to revise a seminal franchise to the entire gaming industry, both paper and electronic. You have to decide which favorite aspect must meet the axe to progress, but also figure out which elements to retain so that it stays distinctively D&D. And people will hate you no matter what you do… (My wife still bears a grudge about the elimination of the ridiculous Chromatic Orb spell.)

Just as interesting reading about the successes and failures of D&D third edition… That team made tremendous strides in adding player choice but it was still lacking. Individual play styles led to aberrant in-game choices… you might say that “the way the game was meant to be played” was pretty different from “the way it was played”…

Probably nowhere else will you read about some of the statistical challenges they faced. For example, the game has always suffered from problems in the early and late stages of the power curve. They expressed rather well the fact that a “sweet spot” has always existed in the mid-levels of D&D, where there was suitable risk yet enough options where play was enriching. There is a lot of volatility in the results of any one encounter, where “volatility” is defined as a significant chance of extremely bad (instant death) and extremely good (success with no challenge) results.

D&D Preview - Worlds and MonstersIn low-levels, you have very little hit points that cause you to rather easily perish… This makes it extremely challenging for a DM to challenge the group without risking that one of them will just fall over dead on a bad run of die rolls. Plus first-level characters just don’t have any options other than “blast the thing”.

In high-levels, you are extremely survivable with a huge pool of hit points and many more options. While enemies do a fair amount of damage, the biggest tool in the DMs chest is either creatures that do a tremendous amount of damage (and -10 hit points is the only buffer against death, whether you have 5 HP or 500) that run the risk of killing the player outright, or by using status ailments and strange effects, which can easily eliminate the player if they don’t have the right counters for it. Plus, the DM and the players have so many options at their disposal that campaigns often collapse under their own weight.

Remember previously when I talked about predictability being an element of fun? Well, it’s true, including games where dice-rolling is all the rage. Dice provide a great tool by adding an element of chance and potential for dramatic failure and success, but you can’t make a game that’s entirely about chance… that’s missing the point. In those cases you are taking the game-playing out of the player’s hand and reducing it to a coin flip.

The “aberrant behaviors” mentioned above were mainly about using tactics that reduced risk and eliminated variability in favor of survivability. To me that sounds like a grind in an MMO. Nice to know that while many of their combat tactics are inspired by MMO’s, they also seek to overcome some of the MMO playstyle.

The books are expensive, $20 each for not a lot of “meat”, but they may end up in the bargain bin after 4th Edition releases. That would be the perfect time to grab them and put on your designer hat for a couple of hours.

Diablo and X-Men

I just noticed today that during my blogging hiatus, Citizen Parker had stumbled onto my posted Analysis of Diablo 2.  It was a fun write, and a Parker had some really cool things to say about it.  Thanks for the nod!

Thanks to Citizen ParkerA bit of history on this, I wrote it while I was in the midst of a job search.  They had asked for an analysis of this sort for one of several games, including my fave, Diablo 2.  I was uncomfortable revealing this at post time because it would have been unfair to reveal their hiring practices, but this was for the sadly-departed Iron Lore in Maynard, Massachusetts.

At the time they were looking for a lead designer for their ultimately entertaining and polished Diablo-like game Titan Quest.  I visited their studios in a cool old New England building, and met with folks like Brian Sullivan and Jeff Goodsill…  It was a nice operation with what seemed like a great culture and feel, and it saddens me that they weren’t able to keep the money flowing.  The public at large (and many developers) seem to forget how hard it is to have an independent studio these days…  New IP is difficult to get attention for, and the game-buying public tends to pool their money on a few selected hits and ignore the rest.

Anyway, back to Diablo…  It was kismet that they had asked me about that game not too long after I finished X-Men Legends.  As you get done developing a game, you mind is filled with the choices you made, and all the things you could have done to make the game better.  Sometimes it’s a struggle to close the book and move on, and it feels important to keep a log of what you’d do different if there was a next time.

God, my head was filled with stuff like this.  X-Men Legends had an early start conceived as a turn-based RPG ala Final Fantasy before I evolved it into the real-time adventure that got released.  Things get so clear after the fact, but in the midst of it we were struggling to get our new console technology going and iterating on AI.  The XML really wasn’t fully playable (particularly having good companion AI) until pretty near the end of production.  (Although I should say that the unstoppable Simon Parkinson really lived up to the challenge of making that whole package work together well).  But, as even the mighty Penny Arcade has finally begun to understand, sometimes games play like shit until they are fun.  It doesn’t happen with every project, but there are times when you just have to trust your instincts and carry out a plan.

Wolvie and SabertoothIn the case of X-Men, there were a few things that dawned on me too late to really get into the design.  The first was a smaller realization…  For a good chunk of development we were looking for solid gameplay elements that took advantage of the various forms of elemental attacks that the X-Men used…  Typically it was difficult because it was custom-scripted, and generally required one specific hero at the expense of all others in order to enact, which went up against our credo of letting the player choose their favorite X-Men and focus on them.  However, after Harvey and Randy Smith’s excellent talk on emergence at GDC 2004, I came back to work all fired up about the possibilities of the interactions of objects with elemental properties and how they could create some unique gameplay.  Creating more water that could be frozen or barrels that leaked flammable oil would have added a lot of variation to the X-Men’s activities, but the idea really came in too late to really act on.  We were pretty much at alpha at that point and couldn’t take the risk.  Ah well.

The second inspiration I got, however, came nearly at the very end of the game, as we were doing final tuning.  For so long, we had been chasing the dragon of encouraging the player to switch characters.  Ostensibly this was to support the X-Men chestnut of “combo attacks” like the Fastball Special.  These would have, ironically, been a breeze if we had stuck with the turn-based Final Fantasy model, but they were really hard to implement and control in the chaotic environment of a real-time, multiple-enemy brawler.  Anyway, switching characters with the D-Pad was a great combat option that existed, but generally any one character was powerful enough to deal with any challenge.  As it was still a bit disorienting to do a lot in battle (and a bit inconvenient because of the use of the D-pad), the player usually just switched for variety and flavor.

What was apparent to me right at the end of development (not that it was a revelation) is that using powers were always going to be the most exciting thing, because that’s where we lavished the most love and custom effects.  The unique opportunity that existed in X-Men Legends, however, was that there were four characters that were usable most of the time.  So, while in other games you shoot your wad and drain yourself of power, then go off and recharge or drink a potion or something, our players could continually switch characters and use that character’s powers while the drained character was busy recharging.  As such, we could have introduced a mechanic that encouraged the player to keep a power chain going, rewarding them for using power after power, ultimately reinforcing the fun that should exist with all these extravagant powres going off.  I think that would have completely cemented the “team” feel and brought the game beyond just being a multi-character elaboration on Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance (and I make no claims that we don’t owe that game a great debt).

Of course by then the game was nearly out the door, and I was gearing up to move on to new opportunities.  I feel a bit sad that we weren’t able to get that sort of thing in, but since that game has spawned two successful sequels built on the same mechanics, I guess I can’t complain.  It just proves that there is always one more feature, one more bit of polish for every game you work on. You can either kill yourself over it, or just save those ideas for next time…

Archive 4: Analysis of Diablo 2

This article was written out of necessity back in 2005… I was looking for a new gig and one studio asked for, as part of its application, a paper analyzing one of several possible games. Diablo 2 was on the list. Great timing! I had gone from X-Men Legends, where I learned the ups and downs of action RPG’s to working on Lord of the Rings Online, where discussions of scope and the feasibility of various online choices was the topic of the day. Both games set a lot of speculation stewing in my head about what could be done with the Diablo formula and why it was successful in the first place.

Analysis of Diablo II

by Patrick Lipo


When the first Diablo was being previewed in 1995, most people (myself included) were blissfully unaware of its all-out potential. “I played that exact same game on mainframes 10 years ago,” we’d say, patting ourselves on the back. While we were congratulating ourselves, we had forgotten how those games had something that kept us playing and playing.

Blizzard could have simply created a polished copy of Rogue, Moria or Hack and done well, but they managed to refine the experience even further. Diablo was about giving gamers what the wanted, or perhaps what they needed, whether they knew it or not. Building off that success, Diablo II was able to add significant new features without spoiling what the original did right.

What Was Done Well

Simple World Presentation

2D may be “dead” to some, but the use of a 2D field was key to Diablo’s initial accessibility to millions. Everything the player needed to know about his surroundings was right in front of him. North was always up, just like a map. Yet, the isometric view and the 3D-rendered sprites kept the game from looking old. The Sims made a similar choice, and enjoyed similar ease-of-use.

Simple Controls

Click where you want to go. Click what you want to attack. What could be simpler? What Diablo I & II offers is a intuitive, rhythmic, and even mindless player experience at the lowest level. This allows the game to transcend the moment-to-moment battles and make people think about longer-term goals, such as completing the dungeon or gaining the next level. They could have added more moves to the player character (as Blade & Sword attempted), but would have clouded what worked so well, and pushed the emphasis to abilities and loot.

Frequent Rewards

From the very first Quill Rat slain, the coins spew forth, highlighting the strong cycle of rewards in Diablo II. While combat with a single opponent is simplistic, each enemy carries its own surprise contents. Who cares if a tiny Fetish unrealistically explodes like a piñata filled with gold, weapons and armor? Each and every kill feels different and rewarding because the player gets the pleasure of collecting new spoils, and rooting through a full inventory of randomly-generated items can be like a miniature Christmas morning.

The level progression curve is equally rewarding. While an MMO or pen-and-paper derived RPG such as Baldur’s Gate must space level advances with huge sessions of play, Diablo II manages to reward the player often, beginning at about five minutes and smoothly progressing towards around an hour. These frequent level-ups give the player yet another gift-unwrapping session of choosing which skills to acquire or advance. And while another game might provide finely-granular skill points to allocate, each Diablo II skill improvement is noticeable, with a beefy jump in damage, number of minions, or power duration.

Identifiable, Overlapping Goals

A major force in Diablo I and II’s long-lasting appeal is their presentation of goals. The player’s quest objectives are bold and easy to understand, such as “go here”, “find this” or “kill all of X in this area”. Beyond quests, the player can easily identify personal goals for his character, such as “level up”, “get this high-level spell”, or “become powerful enough to wield this weapon”. All these objectives are dangled in front of the player like carrots on a stick… You go into a highly-populated dungeon and you know what to do. You look at your skill tree and you see what prerequisites you need to summon an Iron Golem. Check your inventory and you see that sword that you just need three more points of strength to wield.

Coupled perfectly with this is the way that all of these goals overlap. In some games, the completion of a level gives the player an opportunity to catch their breath and consider quitting their session. In the Diablo series, the completion of a dungeon may bring you most of the way to earning another level, encouraging you to finish it off. However, once you earn that level, you might be halfway through another dungeon, drawing you to player just a bit longer to finish that up… And so it continues.

My first awareness of this dynamic came from playing the original Civilization, which had a similar loop of drawing the player from completing one more unit to finishing up that last attack before quitting for the night. Encouraging this sort of compulsive play behavior is not desirable in every type of game… Tetris’s strength comes from the ease of picking it up for a quick game, and massively-multiplayer games become more expensive to host if their players are active for 16 hours a day. However, for games such as Diablo II and Civilization, the goal structure had the effect of keeping people playing until the light of dawn began streaming through the window…

Randomness and Repeatability

The random generation of items and dungeons in Diablo II is something that outwardly sounds like a nice bullet-point for the sales flyer, but ultimately is integral to the series’ enduring presence. The dungeons have enough variation to make successive plays through (with the same advanced character or an entirely new class) different enough to keep the sense of discovery, but they are not so random as to make the dungeons appear “patchwork” (as seen in the PSP release of Untold Legends). The monsters have a sliding-scale difficulty that helps them remain challenging throughout your replay curve. The items have a fantastic, smart variability that provides statistics and powers that are interesting at the times you really want them. That last feature is something that Dungeon Siege had difficulty replicating (where you often saw Colossal Two-handed Mallets of Wisdom™ or Magic Wands of Excessive Strength™).

Integration of the Meta Experience

The effort that was put into making Diablo II replayable was exploited to the fullest in providing a metagame as well. Once the player completes the full story, it wraps almost seamlessly into the next play-through at a higher challenge level. The advancement curve is such that multiple completions are needed to fully experience everything a class has to offer (and even then there are other classes to explore). This embrace of the player’s experience above and beyond a single telling of the game narrative is something that more games should incorporate.

Minimizing Dead Playtime

One final element that helped give the Diablo series appeal was its conscientious reduction of dead time at any cost. Most RPG’s have some measure of uneventful busywork or travel, but elements such as the Town Portals virtually eliminate any dead travel time in the game. RPG purists doubtless were infuriated at this break with “reality” and “world sense”, but this addition had a far, far, far more positive effect on the player experience than a negative one. Diablo II added sprinting and item highlighting that identified and alleviated tedious bits that existed in the first game, showing that the developers considered this issue important to track down and solve.

What Could Be Improved

More Random Side-Quests

The randomized content of Diablo II is inspiring, as is the simplicity of their quests. One thing that I would do to maximize the value of such a powerful and versatile system is create far more simple side-quests than the game originally provided. The content structure and world layout of Diablo II makes a natural potential for creating hundreds of quests with variable properties that an industrious (and thorough) character can embark on. The component-based map structure allows the game to sprinkle quests into almost any map, each with a named monster and a rare or unique drop, so that adding new dungeons to a previously featureless play zone can provide an entirely new feel. There could be only a limited number of quests available for each play-through, so that it might take the player dozens of characters to see all of the possibilities.

These side-quests could also work with Diablo II’s replayability. By tracking the player’s completion history with different characters, the game could open up specialized quests on subsequent run-throughs. Complete the paladin on the hardest difficulty and your next character might get some holy artifact. This could bring more long-term goals than Easter eggs like the cow quest already provide.

Feedback for Hit-or-Miss

A difficult issue with real-time games that use to-hit rolls is what to do when the character misses his attack. Typically, a miss is shown as a normal hit with no effect or sound. Diablo is this way, allowing the player to click frantically at an enemy, but with only some percentage of the attacks resulting in damage, the rest passing through uneventfully. The player feedback on this is weak, resulting in a little bit of mystery around what is a “good” or “bad” attack total.

Having taken on this issue in the action-RPG X-Men Legends, there are a few things that can be done to help better represent it to the player. The first is to play a “dodge” or “parry” animation on the opponent that shows that player why damage was not done. This can be exciting, adding in new motion to the interaction, but it must be done carefully to avoid confusing the player (for example, big dodging motions might make the player think that the AI is doing something to keep away from him, as though he is doing something wrong). It can also put new pressures on the character animators, particularly if you wish to synchronize the animation with the incoming attack (although this is less necessary with Diablo’s smaller characters). Finally, in a game with many attacks coming into a single target, deciding which ones to respond to can become almost arbitrary.

In X-Men the above was impractical due to memory and manpower limitations, so an alternate approach was taken. A failed attack roll is deemed a “weak hit”, with almost no effect and an unsatisfying “thup” sound. For successful hits, an effect is selected from a set of increasingly intense impacts, depending on how much the player’s attack totals exceed the enemy’s defense. In addition to the hit sound, a secondary “rumble” sound is mixed in to give extra “oomph” to powerful hits. The result of this tactic is that when the player first meets a new creature that is fairly tough, he does weak hits, but as he begins to gain experience and outclass it, he is rewarded by much more powerful effects to go with his increased damage-dealing.

More Dungeon Interactivity

Diablo dungeons are very good at providing exactly what they need as far as functionality. Their interactivity needs are very simple… a key may unlock a door or trigger an animation, flipping a bit in the dungeon and little else. This makes “what you do” in the dungeons fairly limited. By adding a few moving elements such as sliding walls and mobile platforms, certain situations could gain more of a time element, such as protecting a caravan or moving through an area before a wall crushes the player.

Also, if destructible structures and walls were added, player spells could have much more tangible impact on the world, and monsters would be able to smash their way through obstructions for dramatic effect.

Encounter Generation

At this point I’ve given suggestions on content, presentation and technology, but played it fairly safe (any schlep can say “more quests!” or “break stuff!”), so I’ll add something that might have more impact on Diablo II’s gameplay. The standard play structure of Diablo II involves creatures that sit and wait for you to clear them out, after which an area is empty until reset. For the sake of contrast, this could be enhanced by creating encounters that come to the player instead. These could be used to occasionally liven up travel through a cleared-out area, or add tension to certain objectives with ambushes, retaliations or pursuits.

These encounters would need to be generated with the same care as the rest of Diablo II’s randomized content, fitting with the appropriate biome, challenge level and terrain features. They would also have to be provided at carefully timed moments, so as to not betray the feeling of accomplishment that a player feels when walking through an area he devastated. A useful technique would be to let the player in on exactly what is happening by announcing the attack with a battle cry or even a special title (“Raptor Vengeance!”) when one is triggered.

In the case of random quests, these encounters could greatly enhance the sorts of events that can occur. Finally, generated encounters could potentially provide the game with the feel of hand-crafted content without the manpower and testing challenges typically experienced by heavily scripted games.


I hope that this analysis of Diablo II was not so drawn out that I lost you two pages ago. The game at its core is so simple, yet it did so many things right. It is amazing that more games haven’t benefited from the lessons it brought to the industry.