Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo 3 just went through a number of changes in preparation with their Reaper of Souls expansion. Even if you don’t plan on buying the expansion, these changes still apply to the original game, but that’s not what’s important. What I find much more interesting is the reasons behind these changes, and what it can teach about Game Design. If you have any interest in creating your own games, or working in a game design role, then you’ll want to pay attention to the changes that show up in popular franchises and why the developers made those changes.

Let’s start with some of the smaller changes: Ones that are less likely to be covered in the game news press, but really reveal some interesting game design decisions. You can attribute these changes to “polish” which doesn’t significantly change a game, but can definitely influence how you perceive the game.

Health Globes now have animations when walked over.

This is a change that I’ve paid a little too much attention to: I love it. Before, when your character walked over a health globe, it simply disappeared and your health was restored. At most, you could call it a bit of a “pop”. However, now, when you walk over the globes, they’ll gravitate towards your character, splitting into several directions and paths if you’ve got followers or allies nearby. So why does this change matter? Well, for one, it clarifies who those health globes are affecting. It’s not only you that’s getting healed, it’s also traveling over to the barbarian that’s wailing on the boss and taking quite a bit of damage. It’s also so much more satisfying seeing this globe getting pulled around to all the different characters affected by it. Again, this is a small change, but it adds a bit more satisfaction when running over those health globes scattered around the enemies you’ve just taken down.

Followers and Other NPCs Have Additional Conversations

If you haven’t played in a long time, this change could easily be passed over, but you might realize it after a few hours of play. All the characters have gained a little more backstory, a little more personality, and they’re less likely to prattle on about the same old topic you’ve heard a hundred times already. They haven’t added nearly enough conversations to eliminate the repetitiveness, but if you play a variety of different classes, and occasionally switch between the followers, then this change can add quite a bit of new dialogue. Not only can you hear a new comment from the Templar about the Enchantress, but depending on which class you’re playing, and which gender, you’ll hear a new response from your character. So why would Blizzard developers take the time to add these options? Well for one: replayability, Creating two of every class (one for each gender) will now open up a variety of different dialogue within the game. This was already built into Diablo 3 from when it launched (each character class and gender had their own voice-overs during cut-scenes), so rather than being completely innovative, this is just expanding on what they’ve already started. However, this also creates a lot more personality and lore, both for your character and your followers. Their interactions shape how you may view each of those characters.

Not all of the changes were so subtle though. This latest patch also brought quite a few significant changes to the game as well.

Game Difficulty is Now Much Easier to Control

Players could always control the difficulty settings in their game, but it’s now much easier, and much less hidden within game option menus. I’m not talking about just talking about choosing between Normal, Nightmare and Hell Difficulties, which mainly depended on your level. No, hidden within the gameplay options was something that allowed you to turn on monster difficulty, which only opened up another menu on your game selection screen to increase monster power, from 1-10. It was intended for only the players that had stepped up their game enough, and spent enough time online reading about the options so that they could find it. That system is gone, in favor of a system that lets players play any act they want, automatically adjusted to their level and how hard they want monster encounters to be. You can have a challenge within the first 15 minutes of starting a new character, where before you had to grind all the way up to max level to really face a tough challenge. This fundamentally changes how players encounter the game for the first time, and how they progress once they’ve become familiar with the controls. Along with the next change, the game can now provides a much smoother transition from

Loot is Less Randomized, and Much Stronger Than Before

This change goes much further than just giving players more custom loot (You Demon Hunter will rarely ever see loot with intelligence drop) and giving them more rare/legendary items. Though this may be the immediate effect, you will find that the entire flow and difficulty of the game is now more controllable. If you want to play through the game on easy-mode, you’re welcome to stick with the game’s default Normal difficulty and keep all these crazy gear upgrades. If you want a challenge though, you can crank up the difficulty. Now, normally turning the difficulty up would be exceptionally hard on those people who just happened to be unlucky with their loot rolls (the random loot dropped when a player takes down a monster or boss). This steady flow of loot allows you to try out the next difficulty as soon you feel confident enough to try the next setting. In some cases, you can tweak the game difficulty relatively quickly and easily (Hit the Esc button and either increase or decrease the difficulty to the next or previous setting, but this option is locked afterwards prevent abuse or constant difficult switching). There’s incentive to bump up that difficulty though, as each difficulty also comes with an experience and gold boost. This all ties into getting players to always feel challenged, specifically when they welcome that challenge. A move like this can increase player engagement, focus the gameplay on monster fighting and exploring, and allow the game to cater to several types of playstyles (new players, experienced players, players that play regularly and those that just want to jump into the game after a break). The difficulty and improved loot drops work together to make this change.

What other game design decisions could have led to these changes? Whether it’s a new Call of Duty game, Mario, or an indie breakthrough, it’s important to consider all the factors that contributed to a game’s success. Did the game mechanics all work towards creating a unified experience? How did the narrative interact with the gameplay? How was it promoted in the press and by the company itself? All of these factors play into our experience and how we remember a game. Sometimes it’s the smaller changes and a bit of polish that really left us with a good experience. Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve picked up from the games you’ve played recently.