Blizzard talk loot changes, competitive play, and how they wish they'd started work on clans years ago.
By Alex Walker on February 26, 2014 at 12:46 pm
Reaper of Souls, at first glance, is a curious name. Every Diablo game, expansion or otherwise, has always contained a good deal of reaping souls from either the main character, antagonist, side enemies, allies, random corpses and innocent townsfolk. The player drove a soulstone containing el Diablo himself into their skull at the conclusion of the first game. Baal took control of his own soulstone after Diablo 2, while Adria sacrificed Leah to revive Diablo using the Black Soulstone.
Tampering with souls is a daily activity in Sanctuary, one that Malthael, the former Angel of Wisdom who now doubles as the Angel of Death, is rather proficient in. Convinced that humans are just demons, despite their half-and-half angelic/demon heritage, Malthael’s raising corpses left, right and centre to wipe out humanity and end the battle between demons and angels once and for all… by killing humans.
It makes more sense when you sit down with Kevin Martens and Larra Paolilli, the lead designer and a senior level designer for Reaper of Souls. “His problem with humans was that he knows their history – they’re the product of angels and demons,” Martens says of Malthael. “When Malthael sees a human, all he sees is their demonic side, he sees that 50% demon and he sees how powerful you, the player, have become. If humans can become this powerful, so powerful that they can defeat prime evil, like you did in Diablo 3, something he failed to do for millions of years, he’s scared.”
Martens calls it “exponential genocide”, which is code for Malthael’s form of necromancy, where those slain rise again in the Angel of Death’s service. In a guided tour of the full suite of additions for Reaper of Souls, Martens and Paolilli showed me through all of the expansion’s features, including a full walkthrough of the Crusader and the reasoning behind introducing a third melee class.
“We found that interesting tactical role for him by giving him the mid-range stuff so he can be wailing on things with his flail and shields and at the same time you’re tapping buttons and hitting things at distance,” Martens said. “You have a lot of battlefield control. He’s also great in co-op, he’s got a lot of buffs for other party members too.”
The team later showed me a disgustingly overpowered Barbarian to help illustrate how players might approach end-game builds and gearing in Reaper of Souls. This Barbarian was decked out to maximise the use of his Earthquake and leap, while new skills such as Avalanche can be tweaked for even greater synergy. With the Snowcapped Mountain rune, Martens was able to push enemies into a column before capitalising on their new-found closeness with Seismic Slam.
“We did a passover of all of Diablo 3 abilities as well and have adjusted ones that were underused to be more powerful, in some cases changing entire mechanics such as Arcane Orb,” Martens said. Paolilli added that the team was happy with the balance between skills that require more tactical nous and those that are more suited to casual players. “We think they’re pretty versatile, like Kevin was saying, you can use them without thinking too much about the tactics, but then when you’re at the higher levels and you know what you’re doing you can combine the skills in your build specifically for those needs.”
The original abilities aren’t the only things to receive a passover, thanks to the new Adventure Mode which lets players pick and choose which parts of the campaign they want to replay. Paolilli described it as a “reciprocal new sandbox mode” for the game and one which goes a long way to breaking up much of the end-game monotony with its bounties and Nephalem Rifts.
“And part of that freedom I think is you dictate how you want to play. When you were playing in campaign you kind of have these set points where the game will be saved but in Adventure Mode you can play as long as you want,” she noted. “Those are the two main features of Adventure Mode, bounties and Nephalem Rifts, but you don’t have to do them. You can just farm an area that you like through Acts 1 through 4, but they do give you a bit more of a guided experience if you want to come in, like I said, on your lunch break.”
Martens jumped in, pointing out that the Adventure Mode was also tuned to be the most efficient – mathematically – way of playing Diablo 3 too. “The smartest way to get more gold, loot and experience is to play it in here, which makes a wide variety of things to do – boss fights, events, new event types, wiping out entire zones, farming things – all that happens in a very randomised way so you’re doing things new very frequently and without sacrificing any sort of efficiency.”
Another boon to the game’s efficiency is the revamped loot system, or what’s been called “Loot 2.0”. Martens called it “taking the edges off randomness”, or making drops more meaningful to your particular character. You still have the chance of picking up completely useless gear, of course – “We don’t want to just cut out randomness and make everything for you and everything’s an upgrade all the time because then the game’s not fun either,” he observed – but the chance of doing so is substantially reduced.
After going over what an end-game character’s build might look like – Martens used another disgustingly overpowered Barbarian geared for repeated Earthquakes – I chimed in about secondary bonuses. I’d noticed during the hour long playthroughs posted online that there was a bit of unhappiness about the balance between the utility of something like block versus the usefulness of the dodge you get from dexterity, so I raised the question.
“We did a patch last week to try and bring some of the numbers a little closer together, but we don’t want to balance difference out of the game,” Martens answered. “If we make everything equal on the second to second numbers, then everyone kind of plays the same… we have to make sure the overall survivability and ability to kill monsters is equal. However you get there can be different, as long as they are equal.”
He added that while dodge might be underpowered, Demon Hunters were on par with Crusaders, as an example, in the greater scheme of things. “Having their abilities work differently is really important and we can never lose that. People who are new to balance always do it the wrong way, they always make everything equal, and then everything doesn’t play different enough even the abilities are different.”
Retaining that element of difference is a crucial part of the expansion, as the Blizzard pair showed when talking about the transmogrification and enchanting features. Enchanting’s more impressive, since it has affects gameplay directly and, most importantly, gives you some choice with your items. In short, enchanting lets you re-roll one of the stats on an item for something more useful or relevant. There’s a side-panel which gives you a list of potential rewards, an addition Martens says is “very numbery” for the actuaries among Diablo.
Similarly, transmogrification allows you to customise the appearance of your weaponry. Every item your character picks up is saved and you can alter the look of your weapons to anything you’ve picked up before. It’s not full customisation, although it’s a stark improvement on everyone’s characters looking identical because they’re all decked out with the same gear, but it’s a nice move to at least give your character more of a personal touch.
With that, the tour was finished, which gave me the opportunity to ask about player-vs-player combat, an addition fans have been demanding since release. I was curious: had all the new additions and changes made PvP an impossibility? Martens took issue with the word impossible, but he agreed that PvP’s introduction was a complicated matter.
“We made an extremely wide-ranging PvE game, where we have an incredible variety of skills and powers and certainly Reaper of Souls has added to that. So the approach we were taking before probably isn’t going to work if we wanted it to be balanced and neither did we want to do a mode where everyone plays pre-made characters.”
The lack of PvP hasn’t stopped players from organising themselves into clans, however, and a major patch before Reaper of Souls’ launch will include a long-awaited Groups and Clans feature. Martens admitted that implementing groups and clans wasn’t easy. “They’re not super up to date,” he said.
“It was a lot of work, I wish we had started this years a few years ago, a couple of years before it shipped… our clans are not as fully featured as WoW’s guilds and that’s okay because they’re definitely better than not having clans and this could be a potential place we could build on in the future,“ Martens explained — although he insisted that the module “happened exactly as intended”.
Talk about clans generally involves discussing competitive play and I enquired as to whether ladders or seasons might make an appearance down the road. I was assured that the idea had been floated internally, but neither would give me more any detail.
As my time with Martens and Paolilli came to a close, something in the back of my head involving David Kim and Diablo tweaked from one of the online playthroughs, so I asked whether people outside of the Diablo team had helped in the development of Reaper of Souls. The pair agreed and then Martens explained that outside involvement is actually a requirement within Blizzard.
“We have what we call strike teams, and they’re external people,” Martens said. “So Alex [Afrasiabi, creative director on World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor] was the one who would have these people play every week and give us feedback and he would give us dozens of legendary ideas. He’s reviewed every legendary in the game [while] in the meantime being the creative director on WoW. Every Blizzard game does that, we all have external strike teams, we have to bring new members in and they’re all external expects from a wide variety of viewpoints … it’s been very useful.”
The family environment is live and well at Blizzard, as is the spirit of one of its biggest franchises. Hellfire and Lord of Destruction were both excellent, enjoyable expansions for the series and from what I’ve seen, Reaper of Souls will continue the trend. With the game on track for a smooth launch, a fun new class in the Crusader and a host of sensible additions, Reaper of Souls is looking like the ultimate Diablo 3 experience.