28 March 2016

Recently, Blizzard announced a small patch for Diablo 3. What’s in it, you ask? Well, a few balance changes. Most notably, they’ve buffed a lot of legendary gems. Now, if you don’t know much about D3, it’s fine, you don’t don’t even need to have played the game for this. All you need to know is that it’s a game about bashing loot piñatas. What I found interesting wasn’t the changes themselves. Well, it was the changes, but not on the individual gems. What I found particularly interesting was that they were all buffs. You see, their rationale was that some gems were clearly better than others, so they decided to make every single other gem at least as good. When everything is good, things are balanced, right?

It’s not really a bad way to design, but it does raises issues of creep. And it made me think about Diablo 3 as a whole, and how creep has been their modus operandi since they reworked it after the fiasco that was the launch. In fact, the whole process of just endlessly raising everything has been with them well before that. But let’s break things down bit by bit.

Firstly, some definitions. “Creeping”, is when anything develops gradually and steadily. Usually, it’s used in the sense of “power creep”, which is a phenomenon that arises often in games that consistently receive new content. Basically, every additional feature, whether it’s a weapon, an item, a character or an ability, has the risk of being strictly better than the previous one. This is especially prevalent in cases where the content isn’t free, which creates an incentive for the designer to make it stronger than existing things in order to draw sales. Over time, this means increasingly more powerful items will be introduced, thus starting a never ending arms race. However, for the current article, I’ll use it in the more general sense of an endless but slow escalation of anything. In the case of Diablo 3, it’s mostly driven by the desire for the designers to provide an extreme power fantasy to players, which also explains why the whole concept of creep can also be found creeping (heh) its way into the storyline and the art design.

Spectacle creep

Diablo 3’s plot is about a bunch of demons trying to conquer the world, which in turn is part of a gambit by the titular Diablo to grab the power of all great evils for himself. In the end you save both the world of Sanctuary as well as the High Heavens from what the most evil thing in all of creation. To compare, in Diablo 2, you only had to save the world from, like, half the great evils. And then the original game was just one small village with Diablo being the only boss, and even then he wasn’t really established as the most dangerous demon in existence.

So there’s a clear increase in everything: the size of the world, the threat presented by the enemies, the scale of the objectives, etc. And while incrementally raising the stakes is a great way to manage pacing between multiple installements within a series, in the case of Diablo it’s handled quite poorly because it creates a massive schism between the story’s tone as a dark story set in a gothic horror world, and the game’s core design as being built around a self-reinforcing feedback loop created for the aforementioned power fantasy.

Every single character talks to you like it’s the end of the world and we’re all royally fucked, and the villains are introduced as these monsters of epic proportions and tremendous strength… and then it urns out they’re all as well written as Scoody Doo bad guys, and they all go down super fast because of all that sweet loot you’ve been getting. And yet, the authors are trying really hard to set their story as being dark, gruesome and complex. As a result, the plot ends being entirely too self-serious, with none of the implied threats having any real weight behind them. Look, I like dumb pop corn as much as the next human being, but it doesn’t sit well on my stomach if the person selling it tries to tell me it’s anything better than that.

This isn’t helped at all by how most of the backstory is found in books, comics and other supplementary material, which leaves most players without any real context as to what is going on. And for the most part, they don’t really care anyway, because they’re mostly playing this for the loot… and it seems to that the developers agree to some extent. For you see, Diablo 3 list all of Blizzard’s games, is very well supported, with a steady stream of updates. However, most of the content added since the expansion pack was added to its adventure mode, in which players run around the map, completing a series of randomly generated objectives. This is done completely outside of the main plot of the game, which happens in a separate feature called the story mode. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about the plot anymore. After all, Diablo 2 didn’t get any advancement of its storyline after the initial release of Lord of Destruction. But it still goes to show that Diablo will always be a loot-based hack-and-slash first and a story driven adventure second.

Number creep

Speaking of the adventure mode, it is designed so that players can both quickly level a new character up, and also access the endgame content. And Blizzard loves the endgame. In fact, every single addition to the game since the release of the expansion is specifically designed for a level capped character. In fact, the leveling process from 1 to 70 seems to be accelerating with every new update. The way I see it, if Diablo was released today as a brand new game with no historical baggage, it wouldn’t have a leveling system, or experience gains. It would all be about one thing: the loot.

And the loot follows the World of Warcraft school of item design: it’s all about numbers. The items themselves are inconsequential. All that matters is their attributes, and how well their special effects synergize with your preferred playstyle. That is fine in itself, but the issue I have with the whole system is that the game is so mechanically simple, barebones even, that your only options when fighting revolves around: more numbers. More damage, more toughness, more recovery, more everything. As you crank up the difficulty level, the enemies simply get more hit points, more damage, more numbers. Always bigger numbers, and nothing else.

Which means, inevitably, in order to succeed at these levels, you’ll have to go for the equipment that gives you the best possible numbers. And that equipment will, in the overwhelming majority of cases, be six item sets, of which there are four per class, and which also push you towards a specific playstyle. So, in theory, you can play like you want, but in practice I hope it aligns with one of the four realistic builds available to your class. Which means, after all these years, we’re back to the same damn issue Diablo 2 had, where only a handful of strategies per class were reasonably effective on higher difficulties, forcing you into one of the few cookie cutter builds. Want to play a paladin? Well, it’s either hammer, zeal or smite. Want something else? Too bad, the designers didn’t think of you.

I think it’s the issue when everything is tied to items with specific effects: the amount of variety in tactics will inevitably be tied to the amount of effects you can synergize together. If instead every ability was strong in its own right, then you could simply mix and match them according to your needs. But then you wouldn’t need the loot, and the only reason you’re playing is so you can get more loop. Because when you stop to think about it, there’s isn’t much things to do in Diablo 3.

Casual creep

The game is incredibly easy. In fact, it seems to be getting easier with each new season. Again, due to its mechanical simplicity, the only challenge in Diablo 3 is getting high enough numbers to offset the numbers of the enemy. In Dark Souls, you can pull off incredible feats with poor equipment if you have the skills to dodge and parry properly, but in D3 your only options are clicking, and clicking some more. You might think I’m being overly reductive here, but that’s really it: the skill ceiling is incredibly low. And it has to be this simple and easy: it’s a game that requires you to farm loot over and over again, to keep going through the feedback loop, for long periods of time. If the game was even remotely complex, it would incur a cognitive overhead that means you would become tired too quickly. It’s the same reason why Dynasty Warriors can only offer such a limited array of actions to you.

This makes Diablo 3 a very good marathon game, since you can play for hours on end without feeling the least bit tired, which is why our two Extra Life sessions were centered around that game. And while it is very repetitive, in practice the structure of short random quests and dungeons means you’re always working for an objective that is clearly in sight. This is what also makes games such as Minecraft or Ark: Survival Evolved so addictive: you always have an item on your to-do list. And so, each individual turn of the feedback loop is very short, which means you get a dopamine hit very often.

So the game is easy. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say it’s casual. Anybody can pick it up, start clicking, make very good and noticeable progress, and get a feeling of accomplishment out of seeing increasingly higher numbers. And you know what? It’s great. Really great, in fact. I already play a lot of difficult or stressful games, so once in a while it’s great to just sit back, relax and enjoy something that is so undemanding of my brain that I can use it as background noise while I discuss various things with my friends. And really, once you’ve purchased it, it’s pretty much free to play with excellent support from the developer, so I still go back into it whenever a new season rears its ugly head.

If I had to make a micro review, I’d say… it’s good dumb entertainment that can keep you captivated for a long time. But the franchise as a whole is pretty much overrated, and it definitely wouldn’t be the cultural powerhouse it is today if it hadn’t come out more than fifteen years ago, back when most of its target audience were still kids. I have to give credit to Blizzard, though, they made something that stood the test of time, and that will still remain strong for years to come, and I still look forward to whatever comes out of that. But I can still find lots of things wrong with it. And in any case, isn’t that the point? After all, when you find something good, it’s usually because you can easily overlook its flaws. And there’s plenty to overlook in Diablo.

At this point, though, I just think it’s impossible for Blizzard to fix what I think are glaring issues while still keeping intact what makes Diablo 3 a Diablo game. What’s certain, though, is that they really need to do something about their story.

So that’s that. Remember, kids, the only way to play it properly is hardcore seasonal. Otherwise you’re just a casul.