Colors mean different things to different people, but very specific colors mean the exact same thing to everybody who plays video games. You know the ones: gray, green, blue, purple, and gold. You covet the latter and revile the former. Loot is a universal language at this point, but it wasn’t always. On this week’s Splitscreen, we talk to the people who invented it about where it all came from and why it’s so darn irresistible.
David Brevik and Erich Schaefer were two of the principle designers of Diablo and Diablo II. If anybody knows loot, it’s them. Ash Parrish, Mike Fahey, and I begin this week’s loot-focused episode by grilling them about the process of pioneering loot as we know it today. Where did those colors come from? How did they engineer loot to be so diabolically compulsive to collect? What do they think about how incredibly pervasive—for good and for ill—their system has become?
Then, for our second segment, we fire off our spiciest loot-flavored takes. We all arrive at the conclusion that loot, a system originally created for a finite game, is now trapped in an endless cycle of boom and bust. In the era of forever genres like MMOs and looter shooters, even the shiniest, hardest-won items have an expiration date. So far, no game has figured out a way to overcome the problem that’s not at least a little unsatisfying.
In our last segment, Fahey uses a very bad game called Loot Box Simulator to crack open a couple loot boxes for us. We get a lot of crap. I wish I could tell you it’s not literal, but well, it is.
Get the MP3 here, and check out an excerpt below.
David: I think that, when we set out to make Diablo, it was—not really much of a surprise here—all about the loot. It wasn’t about story or anything like that. A lot of RPGs at the time—the Ultimas and Might and Magics—there was a lot about, you know, you’d make your character and it’d ask you all sorts of questions, and then you’d get this background, and there’d be this big adventure story. All these kinds of things are going on with your character or team of characters, and we just wanted to get right to smashing the skeletons and getting the loot.
So right from the very beginning, the design was “We’re gonna skip all that other stuff and just get straight to killing and looting.” The game was really designed from the get-go to be about loot and about gaining that loot. Only after a little bit of time did we really realize that in a lot of ways, we were basically making a slot machine where every time that you killed a monster, you were pulling that lever. You put your quarter in, and nothing may come out, or you might get your quarter back, or you might get a couple dollars—kind of a mini-jackpot. Or something huge comes out, and you hit the jackpot.
So pulling on that lever or whatever and repeating that process of killing and getting those rewards over and over again was an addictive thing. We could kind of imagine that if we had the same kinds of frequencies as slot machines or other things that are like this, where sometimes you have this hope of getting something great, that really set the pace for how often things were dropping.
Nathan: One of the enduring elements of what you designed throughout the whole industry at this point is the color coding system. The way that you kind of graded items. When in development did that come along? And could you ever have foreseen it becoming this thing that everyone uses now?
Erich: We did differentiate, from the very beginning, between just a normal item and a magic item. And I think that’s when we first did the green text—just giving it its own thing. And I think blue came in a little bit later. I think then we kinda retroactively added the gray for a crummy item, a trash item. We just started iterating on that. It was like “Well, what if we had even better than a blue? What if there was a gold-letter item?” The more of those kinds of things we added, the more people just loved playing. We knew we were on the right track with that kind of stuff.
Another thing was sound. Especially, if you kinda got lucky, a ring would fall on the ground. Rings were fairly rare in Diablo I. Due to our bad old tech and figuring out what we were even doing, it was hard to even see the ring on the ground, but you’d hear it. So the sound became kinda emblematic of “Something cool has dropped. I’ve gotta scour for it.”
Which kind of led to another thing: We had these “identify” scrolls. You would find a green item or a blue item, and then you further had to identify it. That was our way of giving you two slot machine pulls. You’d pull it and be like “Oh, I got a magic item,” and then you’d pull the slot machine again and see what that magic item was. It kind of became a hassle in the long run, and I don’t know if that really survived as much with future games. But that was our thinking back then.
Fahey: Oh, I hated that. I hated it so much. It was like “Why are you giving me this extra step? Just tell me what I got. Why?”
Erich: If we could have added a third step, we would’ve.
David: It’s a little bit like getting a present inside of a present. Double presents!
Nathan: But then, the issue with it is, you have to wait to get your second present. And also, your first present was never really a present.
David: Hmmm, well you know, you get to unwrap it twice. I’m still sticking with that!
Fahey: At least the skeletons didn’t drop a little thing that said, “You’ve got a gift coming,” and then you have to wait, like, a week for it to show up in your mailbox.
Nathan: That would also be a sadder story. Why are you going around killing skeletons who just want to give you presents?
How did you decide on the specific colors of the items, though? Were you just like “I like the color green”?
David: Well, I think the first color we used was blue. Blue, as we all know, is the international color for magic. That’s why the mana ball is blue. So I think blue was the first one, and it was simply because of the fact that we all thought that was the color of magic.
Nathan: What about the others?
David: I think Erich just chose them [laughs].
Erich: Yeah, I’m not sure where green stood out, versus blue. Gold for the uniques was specifically because it looked more important. It looked cooler. Orange, I don’t remember if we used in Diablo or even Diablo II, but I have in the past.
David: It was yellow, I think. For rares. Greens were for sets. Yellows were for rares. Blues were magic items. Gold uniques. In Diablo I, anyway.
Ash: Oh, so it wasn’t tied to, like, epic, rare, legendary, or anything like that? It was just to indicate what kind of item it was, and later it got turned into where we associate those colors with different tiers of quality.
David: It changed in Diablo II. Well, there was a little bit of quality stuff in there because there were normal items and basically broken or trash items. Those were gray. So eventually in Diablo II, it evolved to be more about quality. If it was blue, it’d have one or two affixes. If it was yellow, it’d have three or four, or something like that. It not only indicated rarity and the normal of affixes, but also it was more of a progression, starting in Diablo II.
Ash: And now when you see an orange item pop up anywhere, it’s like “Ooo! Ooo!”
David: They kind of used the same system for World of Warcraft, and then World of Warcraft came in and used our colors—and maybe added a few—but kind of built that tier system as well. So it piggybacked on Diablo II’s color scheme and made its own. Now everybody has their color scheme that’s very similar to WoW’s.
Fahey: It’s obvious why we see the same sort of color scheme in games like Torchlight, because that’s a direct connection. But games like Destiny use the same color scheme. So basically everyone’s ripped you guys off at this point.
Nathan: How does it feel to have impacted an entire generation’s perception of colors? I know that my brain, as soon as I see the color purple or gold or whatever, just lights up. I’m like “Oh shit, yes.”
Erich: It’s cool. I didn’t really think about it other than just loot items, but I like the idea. It’s not loot-related, but also the exclamation above people’s heads to show that they have a quest for you is another thing that went beyond RPGs to all kinds of games. It’s really cool to see those things permeate through the gaming industry after we created them a long time ago. I’ve ripped myself off as much as anyone has ripped us off, so I don’t feel bad at all.
Nathan: Earlier you made the comparison—and it sounds like it was a conscious sort of comparison, when you were making the game—to slot machines. Now we’re in a place where loot has become a sort of hook in a lot of monetization systems, whether that means people get nicer loot when they spend money or cooler-looking loot by way of cosmetics—or even loot boxes. There have been discussions about them almost literally being slot machines, up to and including legislation around whether they should be considered gambling. How do you feel about a system you had a hand in pioneering being employed in that way in the gaming industry—in this way that’s causing some people to say, “Well, it can be used to exploit people”?
Erich: I don’t feel too guilty about it myself. I don’t use those systems myself in games I’ve made. But anything can be exploited for good or evil. I don’t feel like we shouldn’t have unleashed loot upon the world [laughs].
David: I agree with Erich. The way we implement it—our intent wasn’t really to pry money from your wallet. It was more that we liked the addictive feeling of just one more monster, just one more piece of loot. The excitement of finding that stuff and improving your character. That was really what it was about. It wasn’t really about making sure that we’re making as much money as possible—which is definitely the intent for some of these things these days. It continues because it works. This wouldn’t be a problem if people weren’t buying it. So as sad as it is, it wouldn’t exist or happen if it wasn’t effective.
For all that and more, check out the episode. New episodes drop every Friday, and don’t forget to like and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Stitcher. Also, if you feel so inclined, leave a review, and you can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or to suggest a topic. If you want to yell at us directly, you can reach us on Twitter: Ash is @adashtra, Fahey is @UncleFahey, and Nathan is @Vahn16. See you next week!