THE FALSE CLAIM
The Claim Is: “Diablo 3 lacks character customization”
This virulent strain of misunderstanding and misinformation seems to have worked its way through various corners of the Diablo community and the blog-o-sphere at large. The symptoms of the infection manifest in various forms of frustration-fueled rants, criticisms ignorant of game design, back-handed apologies, and sarcastic compliments.
Why are these claims false?
In the opinion of this writer, these claims are false because these claims are based upon two failings: A lack of adequate understanding of game mechanics, and blind nostalgia.
In the former case many players have engraved in their minds a very distinct set-in-stone understanding of what a proper RPG system should be. These gamers have built for themselves a box outside of which they can no longer think. They are loath to accept a different paradigm of customization because they have wholeheartedly come to believe that their paradigm is the only one that could possibly exist.
In the later case nostalgic players may be willing to accept different game mechanics were this any other game except Diablo. For them the system set forth in Diablo 2 has become the heart and soul of their experience, and any deviation from the original system is automatically perceived as a loss instead of a gain. It doesn’t matter if there was a severe flaw in the original system’s mechanics; fixing it would still be considered a loss. These individuals are also walled up inside a box, albeit one of a different construction.
THE LOSS OF PENALIZATION
One of the most curious arguments used to support the claim that Diablo 3 has lost customization is one that doesn’t actually involve customization at all. It is the basic argument that since characters can change which skills they have active at any given time, the player can therefore no longer create unique characters. This position argues that a measure of “permanency” is needed in order for customization to exist between characters.
I however would argue that any decision which removes barriers in the game system that prevent players from playing their characters the way they wish is actually one that supports customization (since it lets us customize our characters). So let’s analyze the permanency that existed in Diablo 2 and which was removed for Diablo 3.
Locked Skills: In Diablo 2 you were given points to spend on buying skills. Once you bought them, that was it; you were locked into those skills. It became apparent to players during the initial release of Diablo 2 that this had certain disadvantages, mainly because skills at higher levels were generally better or more popular. If you spent all of your points on purchasing higher ranks of your lower level skills, you’d be at a bit of a disadvantage for a while when you finally got access to the high level skills. Players started to save up their points rather than spend them so that they could dump them all into higher level skills once they had leveled high enough, in order to build the most optimized character they could. The way this system was structured, it effectively penalized the player if they didn’t hoard their points, and this hurt customization because players were always focused on the same top tier skills.
Blizzard managed to put a band-aid on the wounds in this system by patching in “passive bonuses” on the various skills. Lower tier skills now gave bonuses to higher tier skills, and this made it more mechanically worthwhile and less penalizing to purchase those lower level skills, but this patch left the system with the same basic problem: there was only one possible set of optimum skills, and creating a character without that spec was, by definition, sub-optimal.
Prerequisites: Additionally, in order to buy higher level tiered skills there were usually prerequisite skills which had to be purchased first. The structure of this system forced players to buy skills regardless of what the player wanted, and that is inherently opposed to customization as it makes the choice for the player.
With the new skill system, players unlock higher level skills simply by leveling up, and are no longer railroaded into having to purchase pre-requisite skills first. This places the power of choice more firmly back in the hands of the Player, and greater choice breeds greater customization.
So why the fuss?
Some folks believe that a lack of a Locked Skill system will mean that there are no differences between characters. They feel that since all characters have access to all the same potential skills that they will essentially be no different from one to the next.
Other folks feel the loss of the Skill-Tree in general is an affront to the game design that made the Diablo series great. It wouldn’t matter if it proved to be mechanically better or worse; to them the simple fact that it’s different automatically means it’s bad.
Blizzard has generally expressed opposing views to these two stances. They feel that a system that focuses on positive encouragement in choosing skills and playstyles is better than one that focuses on penalization. They would argue that playing for 60+ hours, only to decide the build you’ve created isn’t working out for you shouldn’t require an additional 60+ hours of leveling up a new character to try out a different one. Blizzard wants you to repeat content because you enjoy the content, not because you made a mistake in designing your character. They want the emphasis on the playing-of-the-game, not playing-of-the-game’s-mechanics.
WHERE TO FIND THE CUSTOMIZATION
For the stout-hearted critics the following question still begs a more extensive answer to explain why things aren’t terrible without permanency: “If all characters can choose their active skills from all their skills with no significant penalty, then how can we claim that each character is different?”
For me the customization inherent in Diablo 3 comes from at least two sources: Playstyle and Itemization. Playstyle is a form of customization solidly built around the personality and behavior of the player themselves. Itemization is a mechanics-based system whereby the gear you collect for your character will subtly push you to choose one path or the other while not enforcing a debilitating level of permanency.
Playstyle: Each player is unique, and when you have unlimited choice in designing your character, your personality will come through in it. Your character is your own. It’s not your friend’s character. It’s not the character of the player that posted a cookie-cutter build on a wiki-site. It’s yours and how you play it will be particular to your behaviors, and no one else’s.
How folks run around when kiting may differ from one player to the next. What sorts of AoE’s they prefer to use will differ. At what range they like fighting mobs will differ even if they’re using the same ranged skill. How they react to combat situations will differ from others. Whether they recognize that they’re standing in fire (cough) will differ from how other players will react to standing in fire.
Blizzard has taken a huge step with the current system towards getting rid of cookie-cutter builds, and the emphasis on character differences now focuses on the personalities of the players themselves. True customization stems from the player, and when the system places heavier focus on the player’s personality, the quality of customization increases.
Itemization: Some folks will argue that certain fights always demand certain tactics to be used regardless of one’s playstyle. For example, perhaps there is a boss fight that includes a lot of adds that need to be AoE’d down first. The question is, “what is there to prevent two players of the same character class from always choosing the same skill for the same job?”. If we ignore the possibility that players may choose two different AoE skills based solely on each player’s personal preferences and beliefs, we are still left with an obvious answer; Itemization.
Let’s take the aforementioned example of requiring an AoE-style skill to handle adds. Should a Wizard character choose an AoE skill that deals frost damage or should they choose one that deals a similar amount of arcane damage? The skills alone may be fairly balanced, however a character’s gear may include bonuses to one type of damage over the other. A Wizard with lots of bonus damage to arcane will be far more inclined to choose the arcane based AoE, while a Wizard with gear that gives bonuses to frost damage will be far more inclined to choose the AoE with frost damage. Consequently, two Wizard characters with the same skill options are likely to choose two different skills based on their gear.
The nice thing about having a system where gearing plays a role in skill choices is that gear itself does not impose a severe amount of permanency. During the course of the game a player can make the decision to gear themselves based on different criteria to fit their interests. If the players find that they prefer the frost based AoE but are currently geared for bonuses to arcane damage, the option to immediately begin gearing for frost damage is present.
Conjunction: Both Playstyle and Itemization synergize with each other to create a variety of different potential builds for the same situation, further allowing customization to shine through even though there are no locked builds.
Wizard A: Likes Kiting, geared for Arcane Damage
Wizard B: Likes Kiting, geared for Frost Damage
Wizard C: Hates Kiting, geared for Arcane Damage
Wizard D: Hates Kiting, geared for Frost Damage
All four of the above wizards have to choose an AoE strategy for dealing with adds in the same encounter.
Wizard A selects “Arcane Nova”, choosing to kite the adds into a group and then burn them down quickly with a high dps arcane damage spell that deals damage to groups within 20 yards of the impact.
Wizard B selects “Stark Winter”, and like Wizard A will kite them into a group which the Wizard will then pummel with cold damage covering a 22 yard range. The slowing
effect makes up for lower dps, which makes it easier to kite the adds and keep them within the target range.
Wizard C selects “Arcane Hydra”, choosing to summon a Hydra for fifteen seconds which will continuously pelt adds that enter the area with attacks that cause AoE damage to other adds nearby. Instead of kiting the adds, the Wizard only has to dodge them, and can spend the player’s freed up attention on supplementing the Hydra’s damage with the Wizard’s regular primary attack.
Wizard D selects “Frost Hydra” following the same format as Wizard C, allowing the player to focus less on kiting and more on supplementing the Hydra’s attacks.
All four builds are viable for the same encounter, but each player’s playstyle and itemization sways them in four different directions. It could even have gone in more directions depending on how players view the handling of adds or if their gear is loaded with bonus damage to other elements. It is in fact because Blizzard removed the permanency established in Diablo 2 that these players will be able to explore uniquely different playstyles through advanced customization, and at the same time employ different builds for the same encounters.
Permanency supported Cookie-Cutter Builds.
Free Choice supports Player-Driven Build-Diversity.