Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Game Designer's Take on Diablo 3's Loot System

Only just before and after the release of Diablo 3 I made posts on the sigil's that you could obtain through their release contest, other than that I've until now decided to stay silent on the topic of the quality of Diablo 3, allowing Blizzard to get their heads around 'fixing' their game.
Short version: Diablo 3 is a terrible game when weighing expectations (provided not by the fanbase, but Blizzard themselves) against the actual result.

But, I have had a hard time trying to explain just what exactly made the game so bad, I could not point it out exactly. However, this post from Yamahako was sent to me, and it explains exactly the issues I have with Diablo 3, and I wanted to share that with you. It is a very long read, but it is worth it. I have quoted the part of the text I found interesting because of the psychology aspect/game design view on things. The rest of the post is available on the forums here

Now the text, posted by Yamahako on 29th of May, 2012:"A lot of people seem to be complaining about many things in Diablo 3, but most of it boils down to loot. Even progression boils down to loot drops at a functional level.

It's not to difficult to identify the problem here. People enjoy getting loot for their character. People enjoy seeing loot drop. These trigger certain pleasure centers in our brains. People don't really enjoy searching the auction house for items. But the most efficient way to get gear for your character is not by seeing it drop.

Rational behavior will dictate that the path of least resistance (in this case, time) will direct behavior. So, because the Auction House is faster to obtain loot, this will be the default "best" place to get it. Especially since you can get what you want, right now. Even though it is less fun.

This means, that the Auction House needs to not be the cheapest best place to get all of your gear, which means that the game needs to - generally - have lower drop rates - because the existence of the Auction House increases the visibility and availability of gear. If everyone had good gear, and everyone could put it on the Auction House, then the prices would drop and the Auction House would be defacto the best place to get gear.

Unfortunately - the problem is that the Auction House pricing is already deflated. To the point of making the Blacksmith (another gear acquisition path) a non-option for someone attempting any semblance of rational behavior (Rational Behavior from an economics/Game Theory stand point - path of least resistance).

The huge problem with this is that the 'fix' from an economics perspective, would be to lower drop rates even further, so that prices rise, so that farming for items becomes more profitable. However, since people are getting less positive feedback from this game from a loot dropping perspective (and we've established [for most people] that the AH is less fun than seeing loot drop) lowering that even further would drop the positive feedback even MORE!On top of this, the rarest of items (which can cause the largest spikes from a reward perspective) are not proportionally better that the most common items. So when you see a legendary item drop, the sheer volume of good blues and rares that have dropped have a majorly significant chance to be better than that rarest item drop. This creates a NEGATIVE feedback for what should be a highly positive feedback spike.

Since good blues are fairly common, and good r
ares and fairly rare, you eventually stop caring that you are getting good blue drop loot - from continuous reinforcement (see B.F. Skinner for more on this) - and the pleasure of gear acquisition in that respect no longer triggers an endorphin release. That coupled with the negative feedback from a legendary and rare drops, make people not get the same sense of happiness from this game as they did from D2.

Since this is supposed to be the fun part of the game (loot acquisition- as stated multiple times by Blues), that leads people with high levels of frustration to turn to an area of lower frustration to express the need to gear - the AH. Since the AH is not "fun" (unless you're interested in markets and the buying and selling of goods) then this also doesn't trigger reward mechanisms that would keep people playing the game.

Add to that the fact that is is frustratingly complicated to farm in the game (as specifically designed by Blizzard in order to reduce the effectiveness of Boss runs) due to the quest system being required to run in order to progress, it basically creates a system that discourages you from farming to gear up - hence why people just want to hit inferno running (they haven't gotten their loot fix yet and really need it to justify the game to their wallets). This then causes the brickwall to hit them as their gear level (and possibly skill level) isn't up to that level yet - and then the whining happens.

This is a MAJOR design flaw. The most fun thing in the game (getting loot), should be accomplished by most fun thing in the game to do (slaying monsters). This is Game Design 101 (I'm speaking as a designer myself). The best way to gear up needs to be by farming for gear (triggers 2 pleasure centers). Inferno difficulty is not a problem if:1) is it possible to gear up in hell difficulty, and2) you can get enough small upgrades in order to trigger the endorphin release frequently enough to make this behavior feel rewarding.Since this was the design, but its not succeeding (at least by my perspective) - I'll add a couple of more concepts to this list - though they would not strictly be required for a successful system:3) the process of farming gear is fun (fun would be created by dynamic content that is both optimal to complete and varied in its execution)4) the process of farming gear is 'easy'. I don't mean easy as in accomplished easily, but rather as in its easy to get into a game where you can explore around and complete events and kill bosses in a way of your choosing. The content can be difficult - but the process of attempting the content should not be difficult.

But since number 2 on that list isn't currently happening, number 1 won't be perceived as possible by the players (10 clears, 0 upgrades, I will go complain on the forums that its impossible - even if its possible and I needed 100 clears. Since I've received no positive feedback from the game that my effort is being rewarded, I will feel as though my efforts are pointless.) This is the problem most people are facing. Take into account that waypoints are largely ineffective due to the questing system, and clicking through quest text on subsequent playthroughs is (for the most part) an annoying time sink, its not even 'easy' to go farm for loot that likely won't drop. And that random events have little or no reward, and random spawning packs of mobs (which are irrelevant to map variance) don't create enough of a varied exploring experience.

Now there's a 3rd item acquisition method, which I've touched up only slightly - which is the blacksmith. We'll ignore the cost and time associated with leveling him up at an in game level appropriate time for now. The cost of his combinations are too high. The lost opportunity cost of even just vendoring items (rather than salvaging them), and then paying the combine cost is much higher than the AH cost of items. This means its never worth it - even ignoring the cost of leveling the blacksmith - and even ignoring the random nature of his items. So his existence, from a player's perspective will typically never be rewarding - and it needs to be.

Yamahako clearly outlines the issues with the current loot system in Diablo 3, and how in almost any case, is a negative experience to play the game. This is exactly how I felt. Starting Diablo 3 on my computer is a disappointment, even before logging in now. I have spend many hours with absolutely no rewards. I did finally find a Skull Grasp ring that sold for 11 million, because, trading was not option, and the money quickly left my hands in return for better gear for my characters. Naturally, this money was spend on the Auction House, the only place to go to get money.