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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.)