Itemization – The Bane of Diablo 3

During my previous Diablo 3 article, I mentioned a bit about the Itemization issues. I didn’t want to go into full detail, because I felt it would be out of place to spend that much time discussing one topic in there, so I decided it would be best to spend a post on it to give it the detail that I feel it deserves.

The Basics

Diablo’s item system is prettymuch your standard random item system for RPGs. Basically what this equates to is that when an item drops the first thing that happens is a roll is made on the server to determine what ‘Item Level’ the item is and another is made to determine what rarity the item is. Most games use a variation on the standard system that was made famous by Diablo 2 – Junk, Magical, Rare, and Unique with an ‘off category’ known as ‘Set Items’. Some games vary the names, but the basic scale is there. After the rarity and ILvL are determined, the game then determines what stats the item will actually have on it – this is done through various ‘affixes’. Affixes are stats or combination of stats that are given a name on the back-end of the game. The easiest way to see these is when looking at magical items.

Magical items typically aren’t named, they’re usually just labeled by the type of item(for example, Greatsword) and the prefix and suffix they roll. This sounds complicated if you’re not used to it so I’ll give an example from Diablo 3.

The above is a magical item with the ‘Raiding’ prefix for 3-4% attack speed and the ‘Of Fortitude’ suffix for 72-81 vitality. Most games use this basic setup, allowing for one prefix to go before the name and one suffix for after it on a basic magical item.

Rare items tend to be the most random, most of the time a ‘rare’ item refers to an item that is basically a magical item with more possible rolls. A magical item can have one prefix and one suffix – so a maximum of two affixes, and a imited number of combinations since traditionally certain stats will only appear as either prefix or suffix. A rare item, on the other hand, can often have 3, 4, 5, or sometimes more affixes and these can be either prefix or suffix. As a result, you could have a rare item with 4 prefixes, or 3 suffixes and 1 prefix. Rare items also have randomly generated names. Since this part gets a bit weird to understand without an example, I’ll create a rare using the Diablo 3 item system below:

This Rare item, named ‘Hyperborean Spark’ by the game’s random name generator, has the same two stats that the magical item above had. It also has 4 more affixes. The prefix ‘Scouting’ for the Magical Item Find, the suffix ‘Of Infinity’ for the Arcane Damage, the suffix ‘Of Striking’ for the chance to Stun, and the suffix ‘Of Ice’ for the chance to freeze. Since the rare item uses a randomly generated name, its affixes are all ‘hidden’ allowing for more of them and for the addition of many more prefixes and suffixes than would make sense on a magical item. And there could be another ‘Hyperborean Spark’ out there that has completely different stats on it, because the name and stats are all randomly generated when the item is dropped by a slain enemy.

Unique items on the other hand tend to be named specifically, have pre-set combinations of affixes with random values, and sometimes one or two random stat slots. Unique items can also have stats that are exclusive to unique items and sometimes even exclusive to that one item.

The Above is a ‘Legendary’ which is Diablo 3’s take on ‘Unique’ items. It is called the Butcher’s Sickle, is an Axe, and will always have Strength, Vitality, +Damage, Damage Converted to Life, and Critical Hit Damage. The numbers will change, but anytime anyone sees the name ‘The Butcher’s Sickle’ it will always have those stats on it. It also has ‘2 Random Magic Properties’ which means it can roll any two random affixes just like a rare to make each one distinct.

Set items are often basically the same as Legendary items, except that they come in groups. One set might have four items in it, and for every one of those items you are using at the same time you get a different special bonus. Set items can often give really extravagent or fun and unique bonuses for set completion. One set in Diablo 2, for example, turned you into an undead sorceror if you used the entire set, giving you access to completely different abilities.

The above is an example of a set in Diablo 3. The name of the item, the damage, and the stats all appear basically the same as a Legendary or Unique, but it also shows that it is a part of the Natalya’s Wrath set, and shows all of the other pieces with any piece currently equipped highlighted in green. Below that it shows you the bonuses you get for using 2 pieces, 3 pieces, or 4 pieces of the set.

This is what nearly every action rpg that is loot oriented has used in some variant or another since then.

Why? And How Does This Relate to Diablo 3’s Success?

The reason why most games use this system is simple: It works. It allows you to create interesting items randomly and keep people hunting for loot and playing for a longer period of time provided a few other factors are met:

  1. Frequency – The loot has to appear in enough frequency that people feel they have a chance of acquiring what they want.
  2. Variance – Loot has to have enough interesting and useful combinations of stats to make people feel like every item is worth looking at.
  3. Enjoyability – The affixes within the game need to be fun and interesting, and the game itself needs to be satisfying.

Most game developers realize these 3 requirements, and have hit them prettymuch on the head. I’ve played and seen dozens of games use systems like this and they almost always work. Dungeon Siege 3, Diablo 2, Torchlight, Titan’s Quest… they all use some variant on this system. Because they manage to meet the 3 requirements, it’s fun, rewarding, and addictive. People have been playing Diablo 2 for 10 years and still do because of it. It’s a pretty simple formula really, hard to screw up unless you really try. And this leads us to Diablo 3… Diablo 3 has screwed it up. They’ve failed to meet any of the 3 requirements.

Yep, Diablo 3 missed on all 3. The droprates in Diablo 3 are low enough that many people played over 100 hours of gametime before they even saw their first Legendary, and there are several people I know who are playing the game and haven’t found a single item they’ve used once they got past about the halfway point in the game. Most people blame this on Blizzard’s greed – trying to force people to use the auction house, of which Blizzard gets a cut. I don’t know, I’m neither willing nor prepared to make an assumption as to what caused this – I just know it’s the case. Item droprates are laughable, partially due to their failure to meet factor #2: Variance.

Most items are so worthless because they’ve built a system where there are really only a handful of affixes that are really worth using, so any item that doesn’t have those specific statistics is literally useless. For example, if a weapon lacks both a +damage and a +%damage modifier, it is rendered useless – not just for your class, build or playstyle – but for ANYONE. That was just one example, these examples can be found all throughout Blizzard’s loot system for Diablo 3, and it’s a huge problem. It leads to a system where a vast majority of what drops isn’t just ‘unideal’ or ‘niche’ – it’s worthless. Most game systems will have some worthless items, but a lot of items that are good for someone else, just not you thus leading to the majority of items you find having some potential somewhere which encourages trading, creation of additional characters, trying new builds, etc.

The biggest problem, above the other two, is the lack of interesting items and satisfying gameplay. I’ve already discussed the satisfying gameplay part in my previous post, but I want to go into the interesting items here. Most of these games feature some really out there effects that just make items fun. The most common way for games to do this is through the concept of an ‘on-hit’/’when-struck’ effect also known as a ‘proc’. These procs are effects that are triggered when you attack or are attacked, often at a fairly low chance with great effect. One fantastic example of this was the Delirium helmet in Diablo 2. It gave you, in addition to several other more basic stats, four proc effects:

1% Chance To Cast Level 50 Delirium* (morph) When Struck
6% Chance To Cast Level 14 Mind Blast When Struck
14% Chance To Cast Level 13 Terror When Struck
11% Chance To Cast Level 18 Confuse On Striking

Delirium turned you into a monster and had some other effects. Mind Blast stunned and damaged enemies. Terror made enemies run in fear. And Confuse caused enemies to attack each other. This helm, while nowhere near the best helm in the game, was the type of item that when you made one you could create an entire build around and have a ton of fun with. On-hit and When-struck effects are the most unique and interesting item affixes you can put in a game. But they’re far from the only type of affix you can add – the problem is that Diablo 3’s affixes are all very boring – not necessarily weak although many are – just… very bland. Very pure number, not much fun. And while these ‘pure number’ affixes are absolutely essential – they don’t lead to things people enjoy finding.

So What Are You Saying?

I’m saying that a game like Diablo 3 is really shooting itself in the foot here. It has basically killed all of the things that most loot-based Action RPGs thrive on. It has removed the fun of finding loot, it has removed the variety of loot, and most importantly it has removed the INTEREST in loot. When you combine that with the fact that the difficulty removes the variety of builds and the fun of creating something wacky and off the wall good; and the fact that the game just doesn’t really give you a satisfying reward for playing… it leads to a game that has little long-term appeal for most fans of loot Action RPGs. That is not to say it sucks, or it’s going to die, or anything else hyperbolic, not at all. It is just stating that they really have taken away the things that really made the genre great. And it’s unfortunate.


Written by: Sean

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