Diablo 1 items: the beauty in “broken” game design

diablo six guardians

I recently was thinking about the original Diablo, which is still my favorite of the Diablos next to Diablo Cody and El Diablo, the Mexican Satan. But in terms of the video game series begun by Blizzard North (and later watered down by Blizzard Blizzard), D1 was a weirder, more interesting, and grittier game. It was definitely more Rogue-like than its successors, and while it had some rough edges, those rough edges gave it more character.

One thing in particular sums up what I like about the original Diablo and how Blizzard’s design principles changed over time.

Unique items were absolutely bonkers.

Check out this item, for example:

constricting ring

CONSTANTLY LOSE HIT POINTS! Hahahahahaha! That’s hilarious! I’m not even being sarcastic. That’s funny in a genuinely wonderful way. I love it.

And it’s not a terrible item either. It gives you MAX resistance for everything. That’s really powerful. Of course the counterbalance is that your health meter (or mana meter if you’ve got mana shield active) is constantly falling.

This kind of trade off is something that gave the original Diablo more texture than its successors. It just has more “umph” to its experience because the choice of what items to equip actually carries some weight.

Sure, there’s some number crunchers out there who could tell you whether having max resistance saves you more hitpoints than you lose through the ring’s draining feature, but most of us just have to think: “Do I prefer having stable health or do I prefer having max resistance?”

It forces us to tackle some interesting ideas and genuinely consider HOW we’re playing the game. We have to actually engage in the game in a meaningful way.


Or what about Diablo’s helmet, Götterdamerüng, which in addition to some other perks, gave you +20 to all your attributes, but made all your Resistances a constant 0.

You’d never see something like this in Diablo 2 or 3.

It forces the player to actually think about what they’re doing. They have to engage in the experience more so than if they were making decisions on autopilot by following some build tree they found online.

Player engagement isn’t as necessary in Diablo 2 and 3 because the question, “Should I equip this item?”, is answered by one simple question: which item has the higher numbers? Done.

It’s easy, simple, and thoughtless. Which is exactly how you want to design your game to maximize its addictive aspects.

But, the original Diablo wasn’t trying to get people hooked. It was trying to be an EXPERIENCE. It wanted to be tense, and scary, and make the players nervous.

Items with negative traits managed to add to the tension to the game even once combat was over. They also made the game more immersive than its graphically superior successors because the “broken” nature of some of the unique items made the world feel more real and natural, and less like it was artificially constructed.

Look at this ring:

ring of the dark

It detracts from light radius. THAT’S THE ONLY THING IT DOES. It’s completely useless, and yet there it is, in the game, capable of being worn if you really wanted to, adding to the game’s atmosphere if not its gameplay. It’s a waste of ROM and programming, and yet the designers thought that items like this were worth putting in the game, and they were correct.

Check out this sword:

ice shank

It doesn’t even tell you how much or in what WAY the durability is altered! I genuinely think that’s lovably funny. It makes me like Diablo more. Not listing the numbers of things would be unheard of in a Diablo sequel, because uncertainty is the antithesis to marketability.

There are unique weapons that add 100-250% damage, but at the cost of health, or stats, or spell levels. Some unique items increase stats but make the enemies do more damage to you.

The negative traits on these items weren’t always balanced with the positive traits, either, and sometimes the unique items were just bad, but that was okay. That was part of the weird, gritty style of the first Diablo. Unique items weren’t as polished, but when you polish something you wipe away the unique features that distinguish it from everything else. In Diablo the weird item design led to interesting builds, such as a sorcerer equipping a longbow or someone carrying a sword to increase their armor stats.

I can only imagine that Diablo 1’s designers were having FUN when designing these weapons. They weren’t making a business platform, they were making a game.

I still wish more modern games gave you weird decisions like this. Things that made you actually stop and think, “Well, shit, what DO I want to do?” I know some RPGs kind of do this in their quests trees, but that’s not quite what I’m talking about.

(End of blog post side note: The Shrines

The uncertainty to things like the Ice Shank’s vague “altered durability” was a technique used in other aspects of Diablo’s design, most notably the shrines.

stone shrine

The names of shrines never really addressed what the shrines would do. And when you used them you still weren’t told what happened. You’d get a little saying or “riddle” that would hint at the shrine’s effect, but it was rarely clear what had happened. You had to figure it out for yourself (or use some sort of cheat guide). Many of the shrine effects were negative and permanent which added to the tension.

power of mana

And that was only with the shrines on the first four levels. Further down there were goat shrines and cauldrons, which were exactly like regular shrines except they didn’t have unique names, so you couldn’t even use a cheat guide.

I always just avoided the shrines because it was way to tense of an experience for me.)



  1. The War Fist

    Good post, dude! :D

    I think Path of Exile may be the closest thing to providing options with dual effects: both positive and negative. They have a MASSIVE grid progression mechanic, similar to what you might see in Final Fantasy X, that allow you to make serious choices of how to build your character. I haven’t played the game too much myself, but I do enjoy some of the concepts. I will leave a link at the bottom.

    Additionally, Torchlight II has a modding software available. Perhaps, you could recreate some of those crazy experiences using that. :)



    • Philtron

      Thanks for the compliment.

      That Path of Exile character builder you linked me to was interesting. That skill tree is huge and intimidating, in a good way. Unfortunately I can’t really explore it because it doesn’t work on my iPad for some reason. But thank you for pointing it out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Tom

    I really dislike the way both WoW, new Diablo, and even DND 4E handled things (although you can fix DND yourself! :P ). Their design is meant to provide that pavlovian reward. I want to describe it as “the casual gamer”. And by that, I mean those people who play games not to experience, as the op put it, but to feel rewarded. Its really hard playing a realistic DND set with some people, for instance, because if their character dies due to biting off more than it can chew, or due to failing at some critical moment in skills (slipping off a cliff, whee!), its horrible. Someone, you as DM or Blizz/other companies as game manufacturers, has to put up those bumper lanes for this bowling game.

    I grew up on games like temple of apshai, D&D for intellivision (neither game I ever beat, probably because I was too young), and even WIndows 3.11 games who’s name I can’t remember, yet were so amazing and addictive despite being hard. To me, trying to overcome a challenge and possibly losing is far more gratifying than being constantly pampered in a video game where I can’t lose.

    I still play diablo 1, and the most fun (or frustration if you’re a casual) that you can have is playing a sorcerer, because it is the one class that really forces you to make good decisions with gear, be tight with money, use everything to its fullest (use the free charges in staves over drinking mana pots), and still end up in a completely different place if the RNG gave or withheld certain spells. Not having stone curse or mana shield because it never dropped or sold from the witch, those kinds of situations come to mind. But if you got the rando-teleport spell, or telekinesis to push baddies away, you can still fight. Not nearly as easy, but its possible.

    Diablo one has infinitely more replayability, despite it being a smaller game.

    I wish they’d redo Diablo 1 as a complete clone, simply with higher resolution graphics, and maybe add a little more depth to the dungeons in terms of random generation and layout.

    I’m tired of handholding, spoonfeeding games the current industry churns out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Philtron

      Woah, thank you for the well thought out and detailed reply.

      I totally agree with you that the most fun in Diablo is the Sorcerer. When I was a kid and I played Diablo I HATED the Sorcerer and I thought he was badly designed. When I came back to the game many years later I realized that the Sorcerer is harder to play, but a lot more rewarding and ultimately can become the most powerful character class (which kind of is how being a real sorcerer would be, in my opinion).

      I also am tired of the hand holding and spoon feeding being done by the AAA game industry. Unfortunately, those kind of experiences are more profitable for those companies. Luckily there’s still some well designed games being made by the indie game community.


  3. sweez

    “It detracts from light radius. THAT’S THE ONLY THING IT DOES. It’s completely useless, and yet there it is, in the game, capable of being worn if you really wanted to, adding to the game’s atmosphere if not its gameplay. It’s a waste of ROM and programming, and yet the designers thought that items like this were worth putting in the game, and they were correct.”

    AFAIK, this isn’t 100% correct – reducing light radius had a *function*: it reduced the detection distance for monsters; so with a lower light radius you have trouble seeing around you, but you could also walk much closer to the monsters without them aggroing on you.

    But I could be wrong so someone correct me if I am :D


    • sweez

      Also, the Gotterdamerung helmet had a function too – if I remember correctly, setting all your resistances to 0 enabled you to block spells with your shield, which benefitted some warrior builds :D


      • Philtron

        I’m not too familiar with the inner workings of Diablo’s stat mechanics, so I’ll take your word on the Gotterdamerung. But, I’m not so sure about the lower light radius. As far as I remember, monsters would activate at the same distance no matter what your light radius was. There are only two “functions” I can think of for light radius: 1) there was an enemy type that disappeared at the edge of your light radius (I think) so a wider light radius would mean you see them sooner; 2) on the machines of the time a shorter light radius would mean more frames per second (in line with that, the “z” key in Diablo 1 zoomed in your view on the character, which I think was for the express purpose of increasing your framerate by displaying fewer things on screen).


        • Yanson

          The reducing of monsters aggro distance due to light radius is a fact. Wearing shiny objects attracts more baddies and doesn’t really help you, as you cannot zoom out anyway. Wearing a -40% light radius rings, on the other hand… I mean, on both hands, which gives -80% of light…. Makes you invisible. That’s right, monsters won’t see you in the shadows. You won’t really see anything either, but spells like Infravision or Holy Bolt (for quick flashes, non-harmful to most deeper dwelling monsters) help a lot.

          Why is that helpful? Well, you can take the monsters one by one now. For example, you can take Diablo mano a mano style, with spectators in form of monsters. The fact that Holy Bolt hurts only him in hell makes things look like they were specifically crafted for this ecact purpose.


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