Focused feedback: Character and endgame progression

This post is a direct feedback to “System Design in Diablo IV (Part I) - Endgame Progression System”. For TLDR read the last two sentences.

I want to point out that the term “endgame progression system” has twofold meaning. It could mean a few things:

  1. Endgame-progression system: In-game system that has the goal to aid the character in his progression through the endgame.
  2. Endgame progression-system: In-game system that is unlocked once the actual endgame is reached by the player.
  3. Endgame-progression-system: In-game system that has the goal to aid the character in his progression through the endgame and is unlocked once the actual endgame is reached by the player.

If we take D3’s paragon system as an example and relate it to the above we can see that it complies only with the first definition. Paragon is simply a character progression system that occurs right after you hit level 70, but its design with the possibility of gaining unlimited power makes it very useful for the endgame. And when you hit level 70 in D3 you are far away from what is considered the actual endgame - pushing GRs with optimal gear for top LB positions.

Here comes the need to define the term “endgame” since a casual D3 player could say that it takes him weeks to reach level 70 and the paragon farming after that is endgame for him. Would this casual player be correct then?

The answer is - “No”. He won’t be right since the term “endgame” has an objective meaning depending on the game’s structure. A casual player could attribute the term “endgame” to whatever other activity he considers an endgame for himself, but this would be taken in a vacuum and won’t be objectively correct.


1. What is endgame then?

A proper endgame in an aRPG should constitute a player’s abilities test a few have mastered. This test can be in the form of PvE, PvP or PvPvE, but the following two principles should always apply:

  • It should be very hard to master
  • The reward should be unique and not accessible in other areas throughout the game

The above related to D2 for example would render the Ubers and the PvP an endgame. Grinding Baal runs in D2 by the above definition is not an endgame, but it would be if Ubers and PvP hadn’t existed simply because there wouldn’t be any other meaningful activity besides this (reaching level 99) and the magic find runs for acquiring gear. In that case (no Ubers/PvP) a casual player would be correct by saying “Endgame baby!” and alt-tabing while the unknown hammer-brother kills the Baal adds on Hell, but this wouldn’t be a properly designed endgame since it doesn’t comply with the above two principles.


2. Do we need any character progression system at all?

One could very well imagine an aRPG game without any levels, attributes and skill points, and it would be a valid design as long as the itemization in the game is complex enough to serve for enough character identity. This simply means that the character progression system main goal should be strengthening the character identity.

Related to D3 this shows the most major flaw in the paragon system - there is too much of that “mainstat” stat, and basically nothing else besides it and vitality post P800. One could say the paragon system in D3 is an epitome for a bad character progression system.

The more we want to strengthen the character identity the more complex character progression systems are needed.


3. Why we need strong character identity?

Simply because this is an aRPG game. The role-playing aspect is stronger when there are more options to build your character in a unique way. This is part of what everyone considers fun in these type of games - going through the world and being recognized for what you do and what you’ve done in the past - all of this contributes to one’s character identity.

If I have to give an example of perfectly designed RPG regarding character identity that would be Fallout 2 with its SPECIAL system (attributes), Karma system (good/bad deeds), Reputation (acceptance of town folks), skill progression, itemization and companions. All of these systems are interlinked to a degree and each multiplies the number of possible character identities with each of the others - for example highly intelligent, bad, Vault city destroyer, specialized in melee weapons, using knifes and taking only dogs as companions - this is a single combination of these systems constituting one character.

Fallout 2 is a single-player tactical RPG however and that much character identity in a multiplayer action RPG wouldn’t be something usual, because these are less story driven than the classic RPGs with the prime goal to deliver interesting gameplay and engaging real-time combat. That is why too many systems strengthening the character identity in aRPGs could take away from the “action” part if not properly implemented.


4. Do we need multiple character progression systems?

This depends on what type of player base we are targeting.

In Diablo there are usually the following groups of players:

  1. New/inexperienced - newcomers to the game that have no idea what an aRPG is
  2. Casual - not very adept with the game and playing rarely
  3. Regular - playing most of the days during the week
  4. Competitive - enjoy comparing their skill to others
  5. Dedicated - playing non-stop and aiming to collect everything

The current leveling system to 40 is very good for the first two groups of players. The Talent system is good for all groups, but the dedicated players would surely want something more besides these two systems in order their characters to feel more special and be easily recognized by the other players, because of their time investment in the game. Related to D3 - when witnessing a 10k paragon player in-game everyone immediately knows he is not a single child in the family kappa.

Joke aside, dedicated players need an adequate character progression system - something besides the item hunt to motivate them play the game non-stop. And because these type of players are usually not competitive (in that case they would just compete and forget about the character progression), once they acquire every possible item there is nothing left for them to do in the game.

So, the logical conclusion is that an infinite character progression system is needed, but does this have to be an endgame-progression system?


5. Progression systems: character vs endgame

Some of you reading this may already suspect where I am going with my vision of this topic - character power should not be infinite, character identity should.

The reason for the above statement is pretty simple - if you have infinite power in any game available through time investment the players lose the ability to properly measure their skill to others aka all game-related skill goes into a vacuum. D3’s paragon system and its interference with LBs is the perfect example of this - one wouldn’t be able to objectively measure the skill of the players even if all other conditions besides the paragon are the same. And when you take the proper measurement of skill (the meaningful competition itself) away from the game by isolating the skill in a vacuum, you create a game for kids, not for grown people.

Is Diablo 4 a game for kids? I leave to you the answer to this question.

An endgame-progression system in a non-kids game would be valid only when the received character power from it is finite. If some players then aren’t happy that they can not progress through the endgame successfully as other, I’d point them to some game for kids in which they can succeed in everything if they invest enough time or have enough brothers. But I really hope Diablo 4 is not that type of a game.

To sum-up my point: I am for finite account-wide endgame-progression system and infinite character progression system.


6. Infinite character progression systems

These should not be account wide obviously. The deeds and doings of a single character in one’s squad should have nothing to do with other characters in a role-playing game besides the shared stash (in a multiplayer aRPG I would make an exception for an account-wide endgame progression system, because account-wide is more useful for the grouping). The journey each character goes through in the world should strictly reflect only in his identity - story choices, specific monsters killed, skills used, number of deaths etc…

A good infinite character progression system for the dedicated players would be such that allows them to look in a unique way. For example you farmed a specific dragon 1k times and used all of these 1k scales to craft a spectacular armor transmog - now everyone that sees the transmog in the open world stops you and asks you where you get it from and after you explain them they accept you as a dedicated player. Even the whales can not buy the transmog from the MTX shop and are jealous, because they won’t be able to invest so much time to get it.

Another aspect of such system could be special titles acquired from very rare to achieve deeds or chain of deeds related to in-game events for which a superb dedication is required.

The skill progression system could also reflect in the character identity - don’t cap the rank on the skills, but only stop the power from them at certain rank. This way the dedicated players would have a lot more ranks on the skills they regularly use and this could be reflected visually.

With such infinite character progression systems it would be extremely easy to spot a dedicated player in the world - he would look and fight in ways one haven’t seen before. One could say he is a character that went through everything in the game.

Another type of character progression that could be added is character aging - just as a cosmetic tuning - the more one plays with his character, the more aged he would be able to make him look.

Making dedicated players acquire special stuff for their hideouts would also contribute to their identity in the world.

There are surely many more ways that could serve for interesting infinite character progression systems for the dedicated players. And not only for them of course. A lot of regular players would do the above stuff when they find it cool.


7. Finite endgame progression system

As I wrote, making it account-wide makes more sense for the grouping when power is involved. I would love to see such system not directly focused on power gain, but on additional min/maxing of our currently possessed powers.

What I mean by the above is that while pure power gain from such system might be useful to a little degree - until we can freely switch between all builds, after that it becomes useless. And that is the point where the system has to transform into a min/maxing one.

Related to D3 that would mean paragon up to P800 is okay, but after that it should be something like an advanced PoE’s Pantheon system, which forces us to sacrifice something in order to receive something else. An example related to Diablo 4 would be an option to sacrifice 10000 points of defense to gain 5000 points of attack and vice versa. The player then could switch between these options in order to tune his build even more for the specific Key dungeons he is targeting.

Such potential finite endgame progression system could consist of 20 min/max options the player has to first unlock and select after that for each character if he wishes.

The leveling to 40, skill and talent system, paragon-like pre-P800 system and a min/max finite endgame progression system would be more than enough to aid the player in the endgame and allow him to progress deeper.

Beyond that, an infinite way of progression should be designed only for one’s character identity in the world (without any power gain) as discussed in the previous chapter.

Thank you for reading,