The stories we tell ABOUT the game matter
“What is Diablo?”
My mom looked at my dad. “It’s the Spanish word for ‘devil’.”
“Okay,” I said, glancing at the plastic bag hanging from the closet doorknob. Inside, I could see a shape I was very familiar with: a software box. And on it, pressed up against the white plastic was the face of the devil himself.
This was 1997, a year or so after we’d upgraded to a Pentium computer with 133 MHZ of RAM and a CD-ROM drive. I could play SimCity and the newer King’s Quest games, which was good enough… until now.
So I conspired to catch my parents playing this new game, and did, a few times. When I asked if I could play, they gave each other another look and mouthed… “the Butcher.”
I managed to wear them down after a few months, and soon was hacking my way through the corrupted church, the catacombs, and deep into hell. That moment, though, stuck with me. The look on my parents’ faces, a mix of parental concern and remembered terror.
Last week, I listened to an audiobook edition of Stay Awhile and Listen, a recounting of the formation of Blizzard North and creation of Diablo. In it, designer/programmer David Brevik recalls what they refer to as “the mom test.” That is: “is it simple enough that my mom could play it, or will she not understand it?”
I’m not sure how literally he meant it, but in my case it was very literal. My mom did play it. And she got it, too. She and my dad would swap stories of particularly grim corpse runs, of awesome finds and, particularly, the Butcher. The Butcher, for all of his limited palette and choppy walk cycle, who, despite having no fantastic abilities other than being a bit faster and a lot stronger than other monsters, remains the most memorable scare in gaming for me — and my family.
Spare the rod, spoil the player
Unbalanced bosses like the Butcher and corpse runs are a good example of this. The Butcher shows up on the second level of the dungeon (if I recall correctly) and turns unprepared characters into mincemeat. After tipping over a horde of tiny fallen demons and fragile skeletons to learn the ropes of sword-swinging and spell-blasting, the Butcher teaches players the next lesson: you can fail. You WILL fail.
Corpse runs are an even better source of frustration — and stories. Diablo was patterned on early Rogue-likes, but it removed the punishing permadeath mechanic. The replacement, corpse runs, is genius. They require players, used to smashing through troops of enemies, to play it safe, be crafty — or lose it all. The stakes are high. High-risk mechanics like this are exactly what stories and memories are made of. Remember that time you just barely rescued your magic sword from a dogpile of balrogs. Remember that time you didn’t?
Make real moments
I’ve picked up Diablo 3 again, recently, to play the new Necromancer DLC. It’s a very fun game, and — though I miss the mood of Diablo 1 and the skill progression of Diablo 2 — the studio has done a pretty good job in making a fun game. I can dip in, crunch through a few rifts, then go back to coding.
Yesterday, I looted a new scythe that essentially doubled my damage. This means that I could breeze through levels, and had to up the difficulty to be a bit harder.
A few runs later, I get ANOTHER weapon that doubled my damage. Again. And I had to crank up the difficulty, again. It’s exciting to get these cool drops. It feels like a minor jackpot at a slot machine — especially when you get something that synergizes well with a clever build. But when you rebalance the difficulty, the gameplay is essentially the same. The only thing that changes is the numbers, which get bigger. More zeros spring onto the screen. Ks turn to Ms.
For all of its smooth gameplay and well-built classes, the moments in Diablo 3 are all bigger numbers. And bigger numbers are NOT a good story. I do not tell the story about the time my base damage jumped from 200,000 to 300, 000. But I still remember, and talk about, the first time I met the Butcher.
(Don’t get me started on the actual storyline of Diablo 3, which was unremarkable and forgettable).
As supplementary watching, GameSoup did a good breakdown of randomness and habit in aRPGs like Diablo:
Game dev lessons from the Diablo series
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. And I’ll be the first to admit that a good amount of my argument hinges on nostalgia. Games like Diablo 3 are very fun and easy to learn and enjoy. But I do find that a lot of AAA games these days favour hand-holding in order to retain casual players vs. forcing players into difficult, memorable situations. After all, in a market where games are cheap and plentiful, it’s easy to give up on one and move to another.
(Of course, it’s all a continuum, since the first Diablo steered Rogue-like gameplay towards more casual, user-friendly play.)
My one big takeaway from this is that the “bigger numbers game” isn’t fun. Earlier in my design progress for Restless Ground, I envisioned it as an endless stats-slog. That’s no good. My major design work over the next couple weeks will be to move towards a simpler, more contained game. I want distinct bosses, a basic storyline and a feel of real completion. Also, I plan on revisiting my skills system. Currently based on Diablo 2’s skill-tree system, I plan on revamping it a bit to add some flavour. I do love one thing about Diablo 2 that I haven’t mentioned yet: building a character had real consequences and no takebacks!
I’ll give more details on that as I put them together over the next week.
One final note: many modern indie games balance player punishment with gameplay in order to make “good stories” as I have defined them. I’d recommend checking out Red Hook’s Darkest Dungeon if you haven’t yet!