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DiabloDec 5, 2019 4:00 pm CT

An early look at itemization in Diablo 4: Affixes and the demise of Ancient Legendaries

Lead Systems Designer David Kim came back with the promised post on Diablo 4‘s itemization, and it does not disappoint. An important caveat which bears repeating, though: literally everything here is early design and could change dramatically during development, so none of it should be taken as gospel. Blizzard wants to show more of their thought process with the community in order to keep folks abreast of what they’re doing, but for good or ill, nothing is guaranteed or promised.

What new devilry awaits?

Overall, this post sets forth a very clear message that Blizzard is not interested in throwing out Diablo 3 entirely for a Diablo 2 remake, as some curmudgeons have suggested. However, they aren’t going to ignore people who preferred D2‘s TTRPG-like roots of a less-solvable gear paradigm. The commitment to choosing the best path for D4, which in the blog’s words involve taking “the best parts of previous games and improv[ing] upon them while introducing elements to make Diablo [4] unique,” is made very clear here.

This shows that there is a third way rather than a binary between the last two games in the series, and that’s the line the development team is trying to walk. Die-hard partisans for one or the other may be disappointed, but Blizzard will come to the conclusion that they feel results in the best game. Given what Kim lays out, they’re starting from a good position.

There are a few points to draw out of the main post, though the whole thing is worth reading.

Is that Legendary really “legendary”?

Legendary-quality gear being the baseline for D3‘s endgame creates a conundrum, since it means that Magic (Blue) and Rare (Yellow) gear are both automatically junk drops, aside from their limited uses in endgame crafting. Ancient Legendaries compound that problem, with additional tiers of automatic upgrades.

In Diablo 4, they solved this problem by just getting rid of Ancient legendaries altogether. Potentially, this plays into making Legendary drops more individually interesting when they take place: with Primals in D3, it’s always exciting when one drops, but Legendaries and set items are more the expectation than anything really surprising in current play. This greatly cuts against the “legendary” quality from a fantasy standpoint. So it stands to reason that making Rare gear more interesting and more customizable via Legendary affix augmentation is a way to reduce how many “legendary” items you’re wearing, to the extent that they feel more momentous when you get them. On the assumption that Primal Legendaries — or a similar late-late-endgame version thereof — is in D4, those moments will be much bigger then they are currently.

One of the other changes Kim mentions is the notion of increasing the number of affixes that can roll on gear in D4. Knowing that skill ranks can be one of these affixes, and with this blog’s reveal of the Angelic/Demonic/Ancestral Power as possible affixes and affix-prerequisites, we now have a scenario where a well-rolled Rare piece of armor might be a much better choice for your current build than the Legendary piece that just dropped. Maybe you don’t have the prerequisites met to unlock all of the affixes on the Legendary piece. Maybe it doesn’t give you the affix totals needed to unlock upgrades you have on other pieces of gear. Or maybe getting Legendary boots with Angelic Power when you’re currently invested heavily on Demonic Power for damage throughput means that stashing those orange boots may be the best move… for now.

It stands to reason that making Rare gear more interesting and more customizable via Legendary affix augmentation is a way to reduce how many “legendary” items you’re wearing, to the extent that they feel more momentous when you get them. On the assumption that Primal Legendaries, or a similar late-late-endgame version thereof, is in D4, those moments will be much more thrilling than they are currently.

If this sounds like it might be getting too complex, the short version is this: that’s kinda the point.

D2 partisans protested that the simplification of stats in D3 — e.g., no one wants Strength except Barbarians and Crusaders — made gear decisions too easy, and Blizzard’s early responses to that weren’t great. A bit of history: shortly after Diablo 3‘s release, there was backlash when Rare items with better itemization than Legendaries were dominating the RMAH. The team quickly changed tack to empower Legendaries so that they were always more powerful than Rares. However, this meant that having all Legendaries was unquestionably better than having any Rares. It was a solved problem. It turns out that solving it actually just made Legendaries less “cool, rare pieces of gear that can change your gameplay” and more “better stats than Rares while working towards my Best in Slot.”

A design that forces players to make the best of what’s dropped sounds like it could be more challenging than having a Best in Slot list. This ultimately channels the “easy to learn, difficult to master” mantra of game design. Exactly how it’s implemented, and how players engage with it, will likely determine whether it’s too challenging. And of course, the subtle touch of the Random Number Generator and what gear it bestows upon players will be something that we’ll get many anecdotal accounts of, but only Blizzard will know whether that power creep proceeds according to plan or not.

Socketing – not just for gems anymore!

The presence of gem sockets on gear in D3 allowed for a moderate amount of customization for key stats when you were looking to maximize returns. In Diablo 4, there will be addition of a yet-unnamed item that allows you apply a Legendary affix to a non-Legendary piece of gear. It’s a bit hard to imagine without getting more details on it, but from the high concept it feels like it might be similar to the present D3 implementation of Ramaladni’s Gift, which lets you add the socket to a weapon. Yeah, you could reroll an affix at the Enchanter to turn it into a socket — or use Kanai’s Cube to reroll the weapon entirely and, y’know, pray — but you could also use Ramaladni’s Cool Box and just slap that socket on there, changing nothing else about the item.

Say you get the item that gives you the Legendary quality of D3‘s Illusory Boots, allowing you to walk through enemies unhindered. You now have several choices:

  • Slap the item on the Rare boots you’re wearing right now, since you haven’t had any Legendary boots with better optimization drop yet AND moving unhindered would really help your squishy Sorceress survive.
  • You’re wearing good Legendary boots already, but you’re wearing Rare pants that you don’t think you’ll replace for a long time, so you can slap the item there instead.
  • Save the item for better gear that is certain to come later.

There are a lot of different ways this can play out, especially since we don’t know if a function like Kanai’s Cube — allowing players to gain the legendary qualities of up to three additional items without the stats — will be in the game at the start, or if this would be in lieu of that. There are a ton of questions to ask about this mechanism:

  • Can you stack multiple Legendary affixes on the same piece of gear?
  • Multiples of the SAME affix?
  • Can you have multiples of the same affix across different pieces of gear? Are there limits to this?
  • Can you even put an affix from a pair of boots on a piece of non-boots gear?

This is the key reason why early design concepts is both exciting but also dangerous: when you’re just whiteboarding ideas, you might not think of all the different possible outcomes right out the gate. When other people look at differently from you and start putting the concept through its paces, that’s when you find out if it’s going to fly or not.

That’s the space we’re presently in with itemization in D4: you’ll have more problems to solve with your gear than you currently do in D3. The best case scenario is that you have a more organic experience of incorporating newly-dropped Legendary items into your existing set-up and adjusting your play accordingly — and hopefully, that guides you towards a space where you have specific objectives for your endless item hunt but don’t consider 90% of the other items that drop to be trash as a consequence.

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