Game Design Analysis of Diablo II through Level II Octalysis

Diablo II Game Design

(Below is an unedited manuscript snippet of my upcoming book, Actionable Gamification: Beyond Points, Badges, and Leaderboards. Please subscribe to the mailing list on the right to order the book when it becomes available. This post may be removed after a certain period of time). 

A Quick Analysis Diablo II through the 4 Phases

Now that we have a basic understanding of the 4 Experiences Phases, lets see how a game like Diablo II uses the 8 Core Drives within the 4 Phases.

Discovery Phase

Since Diablo is a well-known franchise by Blizzard Entertainment (among many), the Discovery Phase, or why people would want to try out the new game, is fairly straightforward.

One of the key reasons for any sequel to be played is Core Drive 4: Ownership & Possession. If you have committed yourself to many hours of the previous game, you feel like its part of your own and you naturally want to acquire and collect the rest of it. This is similar to naturally wanting to watch new Star Wars movies to complete the story, even though you hear from everyone that it is a huge disappointment.

Another reason is Core Drive 5: Social Influence & Relatedness. When the new Diablo game comes out, even if you wanted to keep your old resolve of not playing Diablo anymore, old gaming buddies will likely get it and push you into playing with them. This of course attaches to Loss & Avoidance (Core Drive 8) when you feel like you are no longer spending time with friends because they have their gaming parties that does not include you.

There’s also a bit of Scarcity & Impatience (Core Drive 6) for those that waited over 10 years to play the next game, as well as Unpredictability & Curiosity (Core Drive 7) for those that want to know how the new game is better or for people who keep hearing about the game.

Onboarding Phase

During the Onboarding Phase in Diablo II, there are the effects of Core Drive 1 (Epic Meaning & Calling) as players feel like they are part of a epic journey to battle demonic demons from hell to save the world. Users sometimes may also experience “Beginner’s Luck” (Game Technique #23) and feel lucky that they stumbled upon an amazing weapon that is usually hard to obtain.

Since the Onboarding stage is all about making users feel accomplished, there are very few buttons that are available at the beginning, with very easy to monsters to kill. Of course, the player quickly levels up and learns new skills while going through the easy challenges. At one point, the user needs to pick between skills that are all effective but have different strength and weaknesses. If you recall, I call these settings of meaningful choices Plant Pickers (Game Technique #11) within Core Drive 3: Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback.

The social aspects may not have kicked in yet, but the game starts to build a sense of Ownership & Possession as you slowly go from almost naked to having armor, boots, gloves, belts, rings, and helmets based on the items you can pick off from enemies.

Core Drive 7: Curiosity & Unpredictability is also present as the plot introduces many themes of mystery and suspense. Who is this “Dark Wanderer,” and why does he set out to the dessert?  Why does the Angel talk to this guy who seems so insignificant in the plot? Players play more in order to find out about the storyline.

The Onboarding Phase generally ends when the user has played through the general game-play and understands all the mechanics of the game. In the case of Diablo II, it is when the first “challenging boss” Blood Raven is defeated. Blizzard understood that that point is the First Major Win-State in the game, where users feel the most accomplished and excited, and as a result designed their free demo to end right at that spot.

Scaffolding Phase

During the Scaffolding Phase of Diablo II, many other Core Drives come in place.

Epic Meaning & Calling is still present, as you get closer and closer to saving the world through defeating the demon Diablo. Development & Accomplishment continues to grow as your character levels up, learns new skills, and becomes stronger and stronger.

At this point, since there are only a limited amount of skills a character can learn and master, now the player is forced to really strategize on which skills work best synergistically and how they can match well with a players’ gear. Players start to read and write strategy guides on how to build a strong character, as well as use spreadsheets to figure out the most optimized way to equip the character, reinforcing strongly on Empowerment of Creativity & Feedback (Core Drive 3).

Ownership & Possession grows too, as characters pick up more epic items that have magical powers and fit well into a character’s skill build. Often times, when a player picks up an amazing item that belongs to another character (for instance, a Barbarian picks up a great Wizard Staff), the player becomes highly motivated to start a new character just so he could utilize that powerful weapon.

Social Influence & Relatedness (Core Drive 5) is strong here too, as players are now completing quests with their friends, and sometimes challenging others to an epic duel. Fitting to Core Drive 5, when you see your friends being much higher leveled than you are, you are strongly motivated to work harder and catch up to them.

The element of Scarcity & Impatient (Core Drive 6) is there too, as the game is constantly dangling things you can’t learn or obtain to your face. You have to be Level 30 to learn an amazing skill. You have to collect more gems in order to combine them into a larger gem. The feeling of “I just need that one more thing” continues throughout the game.

Core Drive 7: Unpredictability & Curiosity is also a major theme in the game. One of Diablo’s biggest innovations is having maps that randomly generate, so even if you have played through this dungeon 20 times, you still never know where that exit, boss, or secret door are at, making it interesting every time you play. The fact that every time you open a chest or kill a monster, a random item will drop out is also highly motivating.

Finally, Core Drive 8: Loss & Avoidance is present in the game, as monsters keep getting harder and the chances of dying increases significantly. At one point, when your character dies, you loss a significant amount of progress and gold, giving users the thrill of fear when facing hard stages.

Endgame Phase

The interesting thing about Diablo II, is that is also has a very strong longevity. Even though the “last boss” Diablo can be beaten in less than 3 months of play, and the rest is just killing the boss over and over again, people continued to play the game for a tremendously long time.

Why is that?

Besides the Plant Picker element (which also makes users create more characters to try out), Leveling up, and social bonding with team members in Scaffolding, users continue to play again and again because of a magnificent three-way combination between Core Drives: Ownership & Possession (Core Drive 4), Scarcity & Impatience (Core Drive 6), and Unpredictability & Curiosity (Core Drive 7).

During the high-levels of Diablo II, there is no more Epic Meaning & Calling involved…after all, you’ve saved the world at least ten dozen times already. You are also not leveling up as quickly…taking three weeks just to level up from 93 to 94.

The reason why players continue to play is because at this point, they are trying to perfect their gear. Whenever Diablo is defeated, there is a very small chance that something good will drop. This is almost like a slot machine, where every time you pull the bar (defeating Diablo), you might win something nice. As a result, players go on “Diablo Runs” multiple times a day, defeating the last boss and repeating on a daily basis.

Sometimes when the boss drops a great “Set Item,” which are items that become even more powerful when geared with other specific Set Items, the player becomes obsessed, doing even more Diablo runs so that hopefully one day he can find those other set items that make his character perfect.

There are obviously many more Core Drives in play that keep a game engaging, but for the scope of this chapter, I mostly wanted you to be familiar with the structure of thinking about an experience in four different phases.

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