diablo 4 does not need full character customisation
One of the most highly anticipated features of Diablo 4, due in June 2023, is the character customisation that the newest Diablo game promises. While creating and identifying with characters is important in video games, I don’t think an in-depth character creator is a good fit for the Diablo games. Here’s why.
Diablo 4 is Not Like the Other RPGs
To understand character customisation in the context of Diablo, we must first understand what kind of game it is.
Diablo is described as an “action role-playing game” by many sources, from Wikipedia to Blizzard’s own website. Blizzard calls Diablo 3 “a genre-defining action-RPG set in Sanctuary, a world ravaged by the eternal conflict between angels and demons”.
Anyone who’s played Diablo will tell you that it’s not that simple to define the game. While it has classes, quests and a storyline, Diablo has evolved since its first and most RPG-like iteration in 1997.
Modern Diablo 3 is not an RPG in the same sense as Blizzard’s other offering World of Warcraft. With the game really kicking off after the main story campaign (which some players choose to skip entirely), it’s not even an RPG in the same sense of The Witcher or Mass Effect.
Diablo 3 is part RPG, but mostly, it’s about dungeon-crawling, loot-gathering and item-upgrading. It’s about building the best set of gear, conquering the highest possible rift, and defeating the most powerful mobs.
Unlike games that are more story-focused and rely on cutscenes, dramatic camera angles and facial expressions, Diablo‘s main action occurs in large dungeons or rifts. These areas are full of monsters, where players tend to move quickly and have their screens zoomed all the way out to see as much as possible.
This means that the player character’s details are basically invisible, relegating them secondary to more important effects like combat moves.
Evolution of Character Creation and Customisation in the Diablo Games
In Diablo, you play as a class, like Demon Hunter or Necromancer. Over the years, the class choices have varied, with classes being locked to a default either male or female avatar in the first two games (1997 and 2000). For example, Diablo 2‘s Barbarian, Necromancer, and Paladin are male, while Amazon and Sorceress are female.
Diablo 3, released in 2012, was the first Diablo game to have a choice between male and female avatars for each class.
Diablo Immortal, the 2022 mobile game, went further with a robust character customisation system. This included common tweaks like hair colour, facial markings and skin tone, but also sliders to adjust facial structure on a very granular level.
This was probably in response to Diablo fans constantly voicing desires for a character customisation system, but it was overkill. Meant for mobile devices, Diablo Immortal already suffered from a bloated file size, which took hours to download upon first getting the game.
Diablo 4‘s Character Customisation is Too Complex
From beta screenshots, it looks like Diablo 4‘s character customisation falls between the first three and the highly detailed customiser in Diablo Immortal. For each of the five (rumoured six) classes, choices include:
- 2 genders (male or female)
- 2 body types
- 8 face presets
- 4 face variations
- 30 skin tones
- 12 eye colours
- 11 hairstyles
- 11 facial hairstyles
- 30 hair colours
- 14 makeups
- 33 jewelries
- 21 markings
- 12 marking colours
That’s almost 20 trillion unique combinations, which by quantity sounds incredible. But, the game does not really need all the minute characteristics.
In fact, it’s a little surprising how the gender options are limited to two, given the importance of this today. Additionally, while body type may be limited to two because of animation constraints, it feels like there should be more focus on this aspect in building an up-to-date, 2023 character customiser.
In the case of Diablo 4, the character customiser should focus on the few big, visible things over minor cosmetic choices. For example, just having options for gender, body type and skin tone (with hair, eye and other colour changes being fun bonuses that are easy to include in game assets) would have provided a much more relevant and modern character customiser while still giving players enough freedom.
Class Identities are the Backbone of the Diablo Games
Early Diablo games probably did not have any character customisation due to time, space, technology or budget constraints. These constraints led to the classes becoming identifiable icons and trademarks of the game franchise.
Having iconic classes pairs well with a pared down character customiser that focuses more on a group identity. For example, sharing visible traits with fellow Druids can be useful for recognition in multiplayer and provide a sense of identity when playing different classes.
Diablo 4 Should Focus on Visible Gear Customisations, Not Character Creation
Creating games is a process where tough decisions need to be made, in particular around scope. Including certain features means removing others. For Diablo 4, it would be better to increase customisation in an area more aligned to the focus of gamers: loot and gear.
In Diablo 3, gear like helmets, shields, weapons and armour are the most visible on your character when playing. However, though there are many different items, some of them look similar when worn. A Reddit post by former Blizzard employee provides interesting details about the implementation and appearance of character items in Diablo 3:
Any armor item worn by a hero will have one of 18 appearances in-game. The same armor item will have one of 18 different appearances when worn by a hero of another class.1
Because optimising loot by rerolls is a big part of the game, resources should go to creating more gear and items that are unique and desirable. This far outweighs the importance of detailed character customisation that is lost beneath layers of armour.
Character Customisers are Not Important or Necessary for Every Game
Being able to create and customise your character is important in games. But, like any feature, it should not be a priority in all games. In a game like Diablo, players aren’t usually looking for an in-depth character experience. Diablo‘s story mode is on rails with no player choices that affect the outcome, so building up the individuality of a character based on decisions or morality is not a focus.
Compared to its predecessors, Diablo 4‘s character customiser is in a good spot. It isn’t overwhelming and clunky with the outrageous amount of customisation like Diablo Immortal‘s, but still provides several options that are improvements on the first three games. However, it’s still too complex for a game like Diablo, and focuses on cosmetics that will not be visible in the game.
Discerning What Players Think They Want Versus What Players Really Want
As mentioned above, it’s likely that Diablo Immortal‘s and Diablo 4‘s focus on character customisers comes directly from fans asking for one. However, as a game designer, it’s vital to remember that often, players don’t know what they want. A demand for a feature like better character customisation could mean different things. Without the right playtest questions, it’s hard to say what players were after.
For example, asking “would you like to have more options to create your character?” is very different from asking “what would your ideal player character look like?”. Getting someone to draw their character, or watching them use a prototype, would yield more helpful insights into what players really want.
Perhaps Diablo players wanted more representation beyond the gender binary, or in terms of body type. Or maybe, they were asking for their items, the most visible things about their character, to be more distinct.
Being able to prioritise features based on this feedback is a valuable skill for any game designer. This allows the team to put engineering and art resources towards what will make a game its very best. Where Diablo 4 could have trimmed extraneous character customisation options in favour of new item assets or even an extra rift skin, it should have done.
- Lutsock. “Behind the Gear: How Hero models work.” Reddit, 26 October 2019. Web. 22 April 2023.