I will always remember the day I discovered Whimsydale in Diablo 3. It was my birthday, and I was playing as a necromancer. I’d enjoyed Diablo 3 up until then, but finding Whimsydale was the moment that entrenched Diablo 3 into my gaming repertoire for good. It turned Diablo 3 from a good game into a great game in my book, and made me think about the importance of whimsy in game design.
Diablo 3‘s story features the player hero fighting off the demons that have invaded Sanctuary. Its world is dark and creepy, featuring gothic elements like cathedrals, enemies that explode and splatter blood everywhere, and a fair share of bosses that run the gamut from skeleton king to corrupt angel.
But at its heart, Diablo 3 is a game about grinding. The story ends, and that’s where the game really begins – trying to max out gear, rerolling loot for the best stats, and creating increasingly more powerful builds as you ascend through the difficulties (the highest being the aptly named Torment 13) against an uncapped difficulty of monsters. It’s not for everyone, but as a completionist player who gets addicted to grinding very quickly, this game was made for me.
A grind is a grind, however, and that gets boring. Diablo 3, therefore, needed to continue giving the player moments of discovery and excitement to provide peaks in the interest curve, filling the purpose that boss battles did in the story. An example of this is the inclusion of treasure goblins, which sometimes spawn randomly and drop more loot than regular enemies. Going further, these treasure goblins sometimes leave behind a portal when they are killed.
Whimsydale is discovered when a rainbow goblin is killed and leaves behind a rainbow portal to a land of bouncing happy clouds, rainbows, teddy bears and unicorns. The drop rate is much higher than that of the game, giving the player lots of gold, gems and legendary items.
The thing is, Whimsydale looks nothing like the rest of Diablo 3. It’s this brightly coloured, happy land where the enemies are flowers, unicorns and teddy bears, some of which retain the randomly generated names of enemies in the game’s other environments, things like “Despair of the Darkness”. When they are killed, their bodies explode into a mess of cartoonish blood, which is hilarious and satisfying at the same time.
In Whimsydale, the mini map looks like a child’s drawing on lined notebook paper. And, the music is distorted, as if you’ve found your way into a parallel universe where everything is familiar but not quite right.
Lessons from Diablo 3‘s Whimsydale: Tips for Including Whimsy in Game Design
1. Go big or go home
This is the genius of Whimsydale. It provides a welcome break from the grind on all fronts because it’s a direct contrast to the world of Diablo 3. This stark opposition is a great technique to depart from the sameness of endless Rifts and completing bounties, and the developers exaggerate the differences for a bigger impact, even increasing the loot drops in a later patch to make sure you feel rewarded. The sudden shift in aesthetics and pacing serve to invigorate the flat interest curve that results from the grind.
2. Give whimsy away for free
The other great thing about Whimsydale is that it’s accessible. The precursor to Whimsydale, Whimsyshire, required a recipe, legendary materials and a complicated crafting process, all of which is easier to look up online than to try and figure out on your own. This is frustrating because of how similar it is to the premise of Diablo 3 – grind to find legendary materials that drop at a very low rate, and then look up a build online to accomplish your goals.
Whimsyshire, therefore, did not give players the satisfaction of the later implemented Whimsydale. Making whimsy accessible and random made it a surprise, an accidental discovery that makes the player feel special rather than deserving for having had to work for it, and this was a smart design decision. Players don’t have to “unlock” this special level; it is given to them when they are not expecting it, and that makes it feel all the more exciting.
The interesting part is that this special feeling lingers even after discovering Whimsydale for the first time. The sense of discovery I had felt upon finding the first rainbow portal became this joy of finding a way back to something special, reliving a memory, like finding a secret portal in your backyard to Disneyland when you were ten. A few weeks later, I found myself just as excited to find another rainbow goblin, feeling lucky and as if I was in on some incredible secret. Now that’s a sign of great game design.
3. Introduce many different kinds of whimsy
Whimsydale is just one example of Diablo 3‘s wit. There are different levels you can stumble upon just by playing, without having to look online and follow a guide, ones that are full of chickens, or populated by halberd-wielding cows. Diablo 3‘s extended life since its release in 2012 has seen one expansion, a new class, and then the ongoing seasons where players try to best their scores and replay the game with additional grindiness to get cosmetic rewards.
While this appeals to the grind-loving Diablo 3 players, the developers need to better balance this with the introduction of new forms of whimsy, strange new experiences that players can stumble upon while doing the same thing six years later than the original release.
“Sanctuary holds ancient secrets, and not all of them have been unearthed.”
– Diablo 3 loading screen
Whimsy is something lacking in the new content released with the seasons of Diablo 3, and it’s easy to see why, because it’s something you wouldn’t think about missing when it isn’t there. Rather than in-game events or more seasonal achievements, I would like to see new secret areas that have just been developed popping up, breathing new life into an old player community and making the game feel fresh.
4. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself
Blizzard is know for its sense of humour and interaction with its fan community. The original land of rainbows of Diablo 3, Whimsyshire, sprung out of an “art controversy” amongst Diablo fans who thought that the concept art for the third installation in the series was too cartoonish and colourful for what they wanted to be a gritty, gothic game. There’s even a whole wiki page outlining fan arguments, comparisons to World of Warcraft, and Blizzard’s reaction.
Inside jokes and fan homages are a great way to inject some whimsy into a game. Blizzard has done this across its franchises, making fans feel special for being in the know.
Whimsy runs deep behind the sombre environments of Diablo 3, and that’s where the game shines. It makes grinding feel bearable, and successfully extends the game’s longevity. The game developers have done a great job of establishing the world first, and then not being shy of playing with player expectations.
Of all the reasons to love Diablo 3 – and there are many – Whimsydale, and whimsy in general, is the one I stand by the most. Whimsy is the reason to keep on playing.