Diablo III, The Ultimate Pavlovian Mechanism


I was a little hesitant to pick up Diablo III for my console – I’d played the first two games on a PC, and I had trouble seeing how some of the finer points of using skills would transfer over – but it turned out to be loads of fun.  Great interface, good pace, really fun skill progression/modification/customization.

Of course I was aware of the slightly insane logic of games like this: fight monsters that drop items that make your character more powerful, so you can fight harder monsters that drop better items that make your character even more powerful, so you can… fight harder monsters.  I’m sure there’s a word for it.  Pretty much any inventory-based RPG has this mechanic working to some extent.  And it’s certainly not a problem on its own – after all, with games like this, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

But the more I played Diablo III, the more I was slightly disturbed at how incredibly slick it all felt.  From the visible experience bar (just a liiiiiitle further) and the way your character lights up when you make a Paragon level, to the aesthetically pleasing orange column of light and special, unique sound that plays when a legendary item drops, the more I played, the more I felt like the game was playing me.

There are a few routes we could go when talking about this – because, indeed, the whole game is one big Pavlovian mechanism, but let’s take one aspect and really pick it apart:

Legendary items


Admit it, Diablo III players – this screenshot gave you a half-chub.

Once your character has reached the max level of 70 (starting from scratch, something that takes a week of casual playing, maybe 2-3 days if you put in a good chunk of time), the entire focus on the game is about finding legendary items.

Legendary items can drop from any monster you kill, any chest you open, any barrel you happen to kick over.  Even on the highest difficulties, the actual chance of one dropping is miniscule.

Most of them are just slightly-better versions of rare items, which drop like candy, but some of them alter your skills in drastic ways and can literally change the game for you.

Normal items appear on the ground, like this:


Plain text of varying color, and the item sits on the ground, moderately highlighted.

When a legendary item drops, it looks like this:


The item glows, and a narrow, orange light pierces the sky.  And a sound plays.

The visual/audio cue is like Pavlov’s bell, and your brain going OOOOOOOO SHINY is the dog salivating, in case I haven’t beat the comparison into the ground yet.  Because when you hear that sound and see that light, you get a little burst of pleasure, even if the majority of the time the item turns out to be useless.

What makes the system truly diabolical (hah!) is the controlled randomness of it.  The best item in the game could literally be around the corner.  All you have to do is walk 2 steps and smash that insignificant little barrel, and your character could go from barely scraping by in Torment 1 to crushing Torment 4.

And on the other end, if you go too long without actually finding a legendary, the game starts a “pity timer,” and every minute you have an increasing chance to get one until it approaches 100%.

It’s perfect.  If you’re on a hot streak, you might get 3 in 15 minutes.  If you’re on a cold streak, you know one is coming.  When you get one, it will almost certainly not be a great one.  But every time you kill a demon it’s a new roll of the dice.


This isn’t anything particularly groundbreaking.  Diablo III has simply perfected something games have been doing for years.  And there’s nothing wrong with a system like this.  I’m playing the game, it’s fun, even if it’s blatantly giving me my cheese.  I still like the cheese.

But I have to wonder if making the rewards this seamless and transparent have kind of killed the magic a bit.  I remember playing EverQuest and learning the ropes, being, I don’t know, level 30 and still figuring out how to play, and the endgame content was fantastically powerful monsters that it took 50 max-level characters working together to kill, and that’s only if everyone played basically perfect for over 25 minutes, and that didn’t even resemble what I was doing.  It was a mystery.  It was huge and seemed almost unattainable.  And the feeling I got in Diablo III was – “Ok, I get how this works.”  Fighting a horde of zombies at level 45 on Normal feels pretty much like fighting a horde of zombies at level 70 with 200 paragon points on Torment 4.  Since everything scales, it’s not harder to imagine what the end end game looks like: it looks like what I’m doing now, only faster.  More efficient.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a game designed like this.  I really did have fun with it.  But it won’t be hard to put down when it stops being less fun, because games without mystery and magic don’t really have a place in your heart.

Similar Posts


  1. I keep going back and forth on this one. I’ve never played Diablo although I’m a massive RPG fan, but I keep reading articles like this that make it sound really unappealing. Destiny does the same thing, but that’s actually what everybody seems to hate about it so a game that’s built around the lamest thing about Destiny doesn’t sound too appealing. I may give it a shot sometime when my playlist clears up and it’s on sale, but I’m pretty much immune to the Pavlovian reflex when it comes to enjoying games. I see the randomness of loot as a problem with games, not an incentive.

  2. On this article. It’s like saying, Heroine is not bad, or actually sugar. Eat sugar, eat wheat, everything is fine, if you know how to pace yourself.

    Majority of people are immature, they need to be taught, thats why laws are invented. Currently Diablo3 WOW are just money making mechanisms. Be Ware !

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.