Something I’ve thought about a lot – A LOT – with the introduction of Diablo IV at Blizzcon 2019 and all the loving callbacks to Diablo II is the gameplay of Diablo II.
Diablo II, truth be told, was what I would call my first “real” role-playing game. First time messing with stats, first time picking spells and ranking them up, first time crafting a character from the ground up. I’d played console RPGs – Japanese-made ones, mostly – and while they kind of mimicked that sort of play, they rarely got that deep into it. Most of the Final Fantasy games I could play let you equip a single weapon and single other piece per character. Final Fantasy VIII’s Junction System was probably the closest I got to actual RPG-gameplay, using the junctioning of spells to stats to create meaningful improvements in my party.
So Diablo II was tricky to me at first, because every level offered a choice of where to plug in my new stat points. To be honest, I didn’t have a clue where they belonged – I spent a ton of my leveling up as a Necromancer plugging points into everything across the board, and then as I began to ascend difficulty levels, it got much, much harder to win. Something I learned from that (and a thorough reading of a strategy guide later) was that stat distribution was something of a trap – it was indeed possible to roll down the path and put too much into bad stats for your class. You could also recover from that a bit – an overly-strong Sorceress or Necromancer could end up with a fun melee build that would put that to use. There was also value to investing in stats outside of your “main” – Strength was necessary for equipping better armor, and so it was not uncommon to put points into them.
In looking back, Diablo II did often allow you to recover from a “bad” build. What I find interesting is that it let you even have a bad build at all.
“Bad” Builds and Modern Games
My biggest pet peeve in modern gaming is that there are fewer ways than ever in most titles to build your character. It feels like choices are relatively safe, sanitized, and often made to be a simple choice. You have freedom in that, but it also comes with a reduced sense of accomplishment. In WoW, talents went from a point-per-level investment tree to a once every 15-ish level choice between 3 talents that are roughly equivalent. The game no longer lets you have a bad or sub-optimal build – at worst, you might be 5% under on damage from a single talent choice, and even that is a huge margin in the game these days.
When I talk about sense of accomplishment in this context, I think of one of the first Death Knight mains I raided with during Wrath of the Lich King. His character name was Alcibiades, and his trademark was playing with a dual-wield build…as Unholy. In patch 3.2. For those needing the history lesson, this was deemed sub-optimal – it was at the point at which Blizzard started to split the DK talents into more defined directions – Frost was the dual-wield tree, Unholy and Blood both being two-handed weapon wielders. The talents that made dual-wielding possible without a massive DPS loss were deep enough in Frost that taking them and then moving to either other tree often meant your build was trash.
Not Alci’s, though. He routinely was near our top DPS with a “sub-optimal” build.
When I think about how one would even accomplish such a feat in the modern game, my brain starts to melt. It is almost impossible to set yourself apart as a player in such a way – to not just meet a passing standard from a bad build, but to exceed and be near the top. I think of this often as a fairy tale of sorts – and routinely, players in the old systems could make bad choices and succeed.
Modern games (it’s not just WoW in this regard) often strip players of this agency. The game design team would rather you have an easier time performing at par than giving you means to excel in fun and fascinating ways. The fun of bad builds (assuming you do them purposefully) is to test your upper limits as a player – to see how far you can exceed expectations. I think, for all the good the franchise was and could be, Mass Effect was a bellwether in this regard – it brought RPG gameplay into a sort of action-y engine, and did so by slowly trimming “the fat.” By the time BioWare pushed out their sequels to Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both games had even more simplified RPG elements. They were still talked about like RPGs, but the audience wasn’t talking about RPG anything – it was an action game dressed up with loot and stats.
I think a lot of modern games in general have cribbed from RPGs in a way that overly simplifies what RPGs are and can be. Borderlands is a shooter, but it has loot, an equipment screen, and stats that matter – sort of. Call of Duty and Battlefield both have progression systems that unlock features but read an awful lot like RPG levels with none of the added complexity. The end result of all of this is that more games can scratch some portion of the RPG itch – but at the same time, our vision of what makes an RPG good on its own merits is hazy.
When I advocate for a chance to fail, I don’t think games need trap talents, bum stats, etc – but rather, the Diablo II design is actually a really good example of what I think works in this regard. It is possible to make a “mistake” in a sense, to rob yourself of efficiency early in the game. However, investing in Strength might not altogether be that bad – you can then equip heavier armor, and that allows you to “recover” your build and play in a way that works with your choices. Modern games use scaling systems, flexible difficulties, and the like to adjust to how you play so that the game poses a similar degree of challenge to everyone – unless you are a Souls-genre title or something with a hard-coded difficulty switch. What I loved about Diablo II is that the game taught me how to make that choice better through gameplay, and gave me gameplay methods to fix the wrong choices. If I over-invested in a bad stat, I could gear differently, or build differently and begin to focus in on different choices. I could play a tanky-caster, or a glass-cannon Barbarian, and if it drove me nuts to do so, I could farm levels on lower difficulties or in lower Acts in the same difficulty until I reached a point where I could level out my build and proceed forward.
The thing about that process is that it is fun – it gives me a gearing puzzle and an invitation to play more and engage more with the game. In most modern games with RPG elements, hell, even in a lot of modern RPGs, the game simply makes an invisible-to-me difficulty adjustment designed to keep me playing without thinking about the choices I made before. That is the key to me – Diablo II made me think about how I distributed skill points and attribute points, and caused me to debate how I should handle it going forward, where a lot of progression-system games today simply provide a smaller possibility space and don’t expect me to think about it much at all, or provide me with simple tooltips with green up and red down arrows to attempt to distill these choices to binaries.
I wouldn’t advocate for the removal of all of these things – quick comparisons are good for gear, for example, but I want agency and choice to come into these things. If that means I can make a wrong choice, so be it – as long as I have gameplay means to fix that, a wrong choice is only temporarily burdensome.