Last August we held a Diablo III press tour, and it was with a small group of fansites that I first revealed significant changes were still in store for the rune system. Since then, we've been hard at work on the rune and skill systems, and today we'd like to share details on the changes you'll see in Beta patch 13. We're confident that these changes will make Diablo III a better game, and to help illustrate why, I'll start with a high-level explanation of our goals for these systems as well as the feedback we were responding to in making these changes.
I'll start with the skill system. Our high-level goal with this system has always been to give players a great degree of power to customize their characters. We believe we accomplished that early on by abolishing skill trees and moving toward an open-ended system where skills, rune variants, and passives are chosen at-will by the player in a flexible customization system.
That goal and the system have been great successes, but the amount of customization we have available doesn't mean anything if it's not useful in combat situations. Combat depth is another one of our goals; Diablo III is designed to be a modern action game, built on the mantra of "easy to learn, difficult to master." What that means for the player is picking a set of skills and abilities that work together, and then executing them in ways that lead to success: the wholesale slaughter of the demonic invasion. With that combat-depth goal in mind, we've been internally categorizing the skills since the inception of the system. Many of you could probably identify what these categories were if we asked, and some players have even mapped out what they are fairly accurately.
For every class we essentially created three common types of abilities, and then a handful of class-specific ability types. All classes have skills that fit into categories we call Primary Attack, Secondary Attack, and Defensive. Primary Attack skills are frequently used abilities that typically generate resources. Secondary Attacks are more powerful attacks that are limited in use through resource cost or cooldown. Defensive abilities are used to escape or control the flow of combat. Beyond that, classes have unique categories, like armor spells for the wizard or mantras for the monk. We used this methodology to help us design the classes and their skills, but we weren't exposing this to the player despite the fact that these categories would give the player, like they did our own team, a better understanding of how the classes work.
One of our other goals is to ensure our game controls and interfaces are easy to use so that players spend their time trying to master game mechanics rather than fighting an interface. Giving players complete freedom to choose "anything" with no direction as to how our systems are intended to work was a failure in our design. There was also a detached relationship between the bottom-bar UI and the skill system. We have six skill slots, and six spots to put skills, but the two interfaces didn't really interact, and stocking abilities in your interface felt awkward.
To fix these issues, we focused on two core changes: (1) exposing the skill design intent by categorizing the skills and (2) linking skill selection directly to the bottom-bar UI to make assigning skills a clearer process. When viewing the skill screen, you'll be presented with your six skill selection slots; each of these correspond directly to your bottom bar, and each will provide a specific list of skills from which to choose. By providing a clear-cut guide on how to best maximize your build potential, we hope to cover that "easy to learn" half of the mantra.
You may already be fuming because you're a "difficult to master" type of person, but before you run to the forums, we have you covered. In the Gameplay options, we've added an 'Elective Mode' for the skill system. With this checkbox ticked you'll be able to place any skill in any skill slot, as freely as you could before. The Elective Mode option is available at any time with no requirements or need to unlock it. We hope the new, more guided interface will give you an in-game heads up as to the intent of each skill — and maybe even be the way you play through the game in Normal — but if you eventually have a build that simply can't be accomplished the way we've laid things out, you're free to pop on Elective Mode and take the skills you want.
(This screenshot depicts an 'Elective Mode' build made entirely of Primary and Secondary skills. Note that the skill slot names do not accurately reflect from which category a skill is selected in Elective Mode.)
While the skill system is largely unchanged save for some UI improvements and the helpful new (but optional) skill categories, we've been working to make some rather intense changes to the runestone system. Before we get too far, it's probably best to clarify our terms: First, they're now called skill runes, and they're called skill runes because they're no longer a physical item, but built directly into the skill system. Let's back up, though, and go through some of the problems we were encountering and how this final design is intended to resolve those issues.
Our goal with the rune system has always been to provide additional character customization by allowing players to augment or completely alter their skills in new and significant ways. Originally, we tied this in to the itemization system because it felt like a good fit, as Diablo is all about the item drops. But with around 120 base skills, that meant there were around 600 rune variants; on top of that, each variant had five quality levels each, meaning ultimately there would be something like 3,000 different runes in the game… and we knew we were heading toward a problem.
Diablo is certainly about the items, but later in the game, having to juggle all of those various runes was not only un-fun, it was a serious and tedious inventory problem. We went through a number of different iterations, some of which we fully implemented and tested, to try to solve these fundamental issues while still keeping the customization intact. Ultimately we developed, implemented, and have been playing and testing a new system which we're confident hits all of the desired mechanics and solves all of the related issues - and that's what I'm going to talk about today and what you'll see in Beta patch 13.
With the new skill rune system, you'll be unlocking new skills as you level up just like you always have… but in addition you'll also be unlocking skill runes. Now, when you open the skill window, you'll choose which skills you want in which slots, the skill rune variants you'd like, and your passives. All of this is done directly through the UI, and all of the options from the skill, skill rune, and passive systems are unlocked through character leveling progression, leading to a cleaner overall integration of these systems. Just as we set different skills to unlock at specific levels, skill rune choices unlock at different levels as well.
Another thing we strive for in our games is "concentrated coolness," and while rune quality levels made sense when we were attempting to itemize them throughout the game, they make far less sense as runes are unlocked through the UI. We didn't want to get back into a situation where you're clicking a button to pump points into skills. It's far more concentrated (and cool) when your rune choices have a single and powerful benefit to your skill choice. The new skill rune system does not have ranks, and we've instead made each around the equivalent to what the rank 4 or 5 rune was previously. One click, you make your rune choice, and you get an explosive benefit to that skill. That feels a lot cooler.
Runes have been by far the biggest design hurdle we've had in the game, and as you know we've been continually iterating on them. We fully expect that some of you will be disappointed that runes won't be part of the itemization system. Internally, it took us a long time to let go of that notion too and stop trying to force them into being items, and instead embrace the intent of the system. Integrating runes with the skill system directly gave us a bunch of great benefits, and even without runes we're launching with more item types than Diablo II had. We knew we were making the right choice by letting go of runes as items and focusing on the core objective of the system: to customize your skills in awesome ways.
Before I wrap up, I did want to cover that one of the added benefits of the new system is that you'll be unlocking something every level all the way up to the level cap (60). Now, with each level you'll unlock at least one new skill or rune, and in most cases you'll be unlocking three or four. The most immediately exciting part of that system is that skill runes begin unlocking at level 6, which means that players in the beta test will finally be able to play around with some rune variants.
Phew. Well, there you have it — the new skill and rune systems! We strongly believe that these changes are going to make for a better Diablo III, and we're looking forward to you trying it out in patch 13, which should be live any minute now (if it isn't already). As always, we'd love to hear your feedback on your experiences with these changes. To help center the conversation on these changes to a single location, we're going to lock comments on this blog and encourage you to post in a thread we're specifically making to discuss this: Skill and Rune Changes Discussion.
Thanks for reading.
Jay Wilson is Game Director for Diablo III and won first place in the team's chili cook-off competition. Recipe available upon request.