Of Diablo 3 (D3), many things can be said. The game is fun, especially with friends. The production value is pretty decent and the game is gorgeous to behold. The character classes all have something different to offer the player, and the hot-swappable skill-system is just as interesting and fun as it was in Guild Wars. Hardcore mode is thrilling, and nothing else feels quite like seeing your hero perma-dead due to negligence or flat-out greed. [Let's not discuss the narrative or all the pointless lines of voiced dialog, which sounded great but said nothing at all.] What D3 doesn’t do, however, is respect or trust the player.
These qualities, taken for granted it now seems, are missing thanks to core design choices that went into the final product of D3. The most egregious error is the default Normal mode, which should be an insult to anyone who even has just a basic familiarity of video games, let alone actual gamers. The instances where the player is actually trusted with real challenges to overcome can be counted on the fingers illustrated on a Left 4 Dead poster. The absolute worst part is that Normal mode cannot be skipped – the only feasible way to do so is to be run through by higher-level characters or to hit up the in-game, ever-present auction house to twink your budding character with the best gear gold (soon real money!) can buy. Keep this last point in mind.
Even when Diablo 2 was released, game AI and design were nowhere near the level of sophistication that gamers currently enjoy. As such, Diablo games having countless hordes of stupid enemies who hit hard is logical, and doing little more than left and right-clicking mouse buttons was about on par with control for other contemporary games. It’s 2012 now and even 5 or 6 years ago game design progressed to the point that a game controlling exactly like it’s 12 year-old predecessor with both player-characters and enemies alike restricted to solely to fighting, casting, or fleeing is dated, restricting, and really raises questions about what the hell Blizzard was actually working on over the course of D3‘s development.
While playing through D3 this WSJ interview, with Blizzard’s Jay Wilson & Christian Lichtner, game director & art director of Diablo 3 respectively, was nagging:
Jay: Well when you ask [Diablo fans] about game challenge, they remember what it was like in hell difficulty. They don’t remember what it was like in normal difficulty. They remember something that [sic] visually darker than it ever was. They remember a variety and depth of monsters that was never there.
Christian: You are competing with people’s memories. And each person’s individual recollections, where they were ten years ago when they played it, that’s tough!
To Blizzard it seems, these players with their faulty memories don’t know what they really want, and D3 will do its damnedest to set those memories right even if the fiction would have made for a much more interesting, fun, intelligent, and challenging game.
The point can be made that this is Diablo, people don’t really want challenging or different game-play; they want the loot so that they can kill shit faster to get more loot! There is certainly a player-base that this sentiment holds true for, and even they should feel slighted by D3, which has loot itemization running contrary to the spirit of getting more and getting stronger. The auction house mentioned earlier is a key component in the calculations for what can drop for a player, effectively nerfing their self-reliance to a point that the treadmill will otherwise test even the most committed loot-aholic. With no means to alter or customize stat-points on a character except through the gear they are wearing, this makes farming for gold and shopping on the auction house a necessity to progress through the parts of the game that actually provide any real challenge. If the player has hit a brick wall and the auction house is down for whatever reason, they can just wait or farm more gold; all the skill and prowess in Heaven and Earth cannot ultimately defeat the math backing the denizens of Hell.
When asked, Blizzard claimed that nobody on their QA team could get through the most challenging difficulty level, and then as players rapidly finished the content shortly after release Blizzard promptly nerfed skills being used. It would be too easy to accuse Blizzard of having an unimaginative QA department, so let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and just assume that there was no auction house available to the internal testers.
So now that the fundamental auction house is so integral to the fun of D3, it’s really interesting that Blizzard not only plans to allow loot to be sold for real money, but even fully-leveled characters as well. One of the good arguments that has been used in fan discussions about the buying and selling of MMO characters is that, just because somebody can buy a character, it doesn’t mean they will be able to play them well; there’s logic in the idea that time spent leveling a character gives the player a sense of intimacy with all the tools at their disposal. Blizzard’s skill system and lack of skill-point allocation bypasses the issue completely, and maybe $30 is worth not having to run that boring Normal mode content again.
In effect, Blizzard is creating two classes of players: players who buy and sell high-level loot & characters, and those who do not. Are you going to be a box sale to Blizzard +15% of every real-money auction you participate in, or just a box sale refusing to acknowledge the obvious while wasting server resources? If a player is not in the former group how does Blizzard really respect them as players of their game? What systems in place within D3 respect their time, energy, and devotion to the series?
It is impossible now to look at what Blizzard has done, and failed to do, with the Diablo series without bringing to mind an action-RPG (aRPG) from 2011 known as Dark Souls. Dark Souls, and From Software, feel like they recognize that the people who played Diablo 2 12 years ago have, like the gaming industry, actually matured. Some people may say that Diablo 3 and Dark Souls are apples and oranges, but Dark Souls scratches the original Diablo itch better than any other post-Diablo title or clone aRPG that comes to mind; if Blizzard actually made an update to the games that their fans remember, it would have looked more like Dark Souls and not been the excuse to just poke holes in a game that an auction house and an always-online requirement are designed to perfectly fill. Loot lust, randomized level generation, and an isometric perspective prove to be non-essential to a grim, dungeon crawling experience that raises feelings of dread at just what exactly may be lurking in the dark ahead.
Dark Souls has embraced modernization beyond the scope of exploitative monetization. With features like positional combat, collision detection and blocking with a shield, parrying, and repositing against quality enemies rather than bulk-quantity enemies, Dark Souls really makes the Diablo series look like a game designed for babies. The default mode for Dark Souls is challenging but far from impossible for anyone who is willing to take some risk and views mistakes as learning opportunities. The excuses that Blizzard makes for the online-requirement being so quintessential for the game experience of Diablo 3 are laughable compared to the subtle, optionally-connected, asynchronous world of Dark Souls that so brilliantly mixes cooperative and competitive game-play while still not compromising the integrity of an experience that is supposed to make the player feel alone in the dark. Despite the instances of mistranslation and broken English, the narrative of Dark Souls that eschews the good/evil dichotomy for a conflict between consistency & change is masterful poetry not fit for the room containing the Crayolas used in the writing of D3. Dark Souls players are also expected to be responsible for allocating stat-points and learning spells on their own; if they make a mistake they can continue leveling at the cost of being able to participate in a soft-capped PvP community. Any gear found in Dark Souls can also be equipped, but they may have a negative effect on mobility or efficiency depending on allocated stats. In other words Dark Souls trusts players to just play a challenging yet fun game; Dark Souls through its design choices respects its players.
Diablo 3 is on track to be one of the greatest selling videogames of all time. It’s a shame Blizzard didn’t trust the Diablo fans with what could have been one of the greatest videogames of all time, and respect the players enough to give it to them. Hopefully people will give the PC port of Dark Souls a fair shake.