I have devoted more time to each of the games in the Diablo franchise than I have likely spent on courses in college. From between the years 2000 until 2009, I easily spent hundreds of hours of my life playing Diablo 2. Sometimes there would be multiple month long gaps or even year long gaps before returning to the game, but something about it always pulled me back. When Diablo 3 was released in 2012, I fully expected a return to these prolonged streaks of obsession...but that's not what happened. I played the game for a few weeks, got to Hell difficulty, then stopped. Occasionally I would return to the game for short periods after hearing about major patches and expansions that promised significant changes, but after a week or two I would drop it again. Something just didn't feel the same as the good old days of Diablo 2.
What was it? Maybe I had changed, grown older, finally outgrown those “childish” video games of my youth that my parents always chided me about. While that's certainly true, I'm no longer the same person I was in high school and early college, I don't think it's quite that simple. I certainly have more obligations and time constraints as an adult than I did back in those days. But I still love games, and Diablo just didn't feel like the same game any more. The surface level of the game seemed familiar, the interface and cinematics were highly polished, the controls responsive and intuitive. But at a deeper level, the things that I loved about Diablo 2 were gone.
As I have spent more time reflecting on it, I am forced to conclude that there are fundamental design decisions in Diablo 3's mechanics, art, and sound design that will prevent it from ever being as great of a game as Diablo 2 in my estimation. I suspect that most of these stem from the shortcomings of the team initially responsible for these decisions at Blizzard, who were fresh off the success of World of Warcraft and lacked the depth of design experience that the now defunct team at Blizzard North had in creating action RPGs. But I don't want to spend a great deal of time pointing fingers (*cough* Jay Wilson) and just get into the problems as I see them, and perhaps what could be done to correct them in the future...if Blizzard actually has any desire in doing so. Which they likely don't since Diablo 3 is an outrageously successful game in a financial sense, and I'm a lone crazy person on the internet. But, I do like to keep hope alive anyway.
Come on Blizzard, you know you want to hire me to work on Diablo 4!
Atmosphere and Aesthetics
Diablo 3 is a beautifully crafted game in every sense. It's like the Star Wars of the video gaming world in terms of the painstaking effort that has obviously been poured into every aspect of its sound design, user interface, graphics, and cut-scenes. However, despite the obvious budget and level of craftsmanship apparent in all of these, I feel that in comparison to its predecessor the atmosphere built by all of these elements is less compelling. This is largely due to the dissonance between these elements and the self-espoused theme of the franchise, which is Medieval Gothic Horror. Diablo 3 feels much more like a generic fantasy setting than its prequels, which I believe is due to an excess of influence from World of Warcraft.
You know what wasn't in Diablo 1 and 2? This kind of crap.
While some WoW fans may be okay or even encouraging of these changes to the Diablo franchise, I have always felt that there has been and always should be a distinct stylistic difference between Warcraft and Diablo. The creepy atmosphere, gore, and tension was a big part of what sucked me in to Diablo 1 and 2 to begin with. The lack of these in Diablo 3 has left me feeling more like I accidentally bought the latest expansion for WoW, and someone mistakenly left the name “Diablo” on the game box.
One of the greatest contributions to a game's tone is its music. The music can enhance emotions in the player that make a game much more immersive, and I think that the soundtracks for Diablo 1 and 2 are very successful at this. The soundtracks for both games have a very sparse, echoing tone that mixes with ambient sound effects in the game. This enhances the sense of isolation and fear as the player descends into a dungeon, unsure of what monster is about to pop out and attack from around the next corner. The soundtrack in Diablo 1 was perhaps even more successful at this than Diablo 2, but there are certainly songs in Diablo 2 that stick with me and successfully reinforced its atmosphere.
Actually now that I think about it, watching the Transformers films did feel a lot like being in hell...
In contrast, Diablo 3's full, swelling orchestral soundtrack has all the emotional subtlety of a Michael Bay film. This is one of the greatest disparities to me between Diablo 3 and its theoretical horror genre. If the composor's aim was to inspire fear and establish tension in the player, they failed completely. The only emotion inspired in me after having listened to the game's un-memorable music for 10 hours of gameplay was annoyance, before I turned it off once and for all.
However, I don't want to just dismiss the game's music out of hand by just saying “it sucks” without any real reflection. I think there are a variety of reasons for why the music turned out as it did, and that probably most of the people involved earnestly wanted to do a good job. One significant factor I think is the impetus to make games more like film, as game budgets become larger and larger and expectations rise. So the logic goes, if films are the highest measure of fidelity, shouldn't games try to imitate them in as many ways as possible to attain a higher level of quality themselves?
An easy (or uncritically lazy) way that a large number of game studios are doing this, in my opinion, is to make their soundtracks just as lush and orchestral as big budget movies. But obviously games aren't movies, and nor should they try to be. A game's soundtrack is much more successful when it is tied to the player's current actions in the game, rather than trying to cram the “plot” of the game down the player's throat in audio form. What Diablo 3's soundtrack is telling me most of the time is “EVERYTHING THAT IS HAPPENING IS EPIC AND YOU SHOULD BE AMP'D JUST BEING HERE!!!”...to which the increasingly old and grumpy curmudgeon in me says “No it's not, sit down and shut up and let me process what's going on for myself.”
Sound effects in Diablo 1 and 2 were far more important than many people gave them credit for. Hearing a zombie groaning in the distance, or demons scampering about just out of your light radius did a lot to ratchet up the tension as you descended closer to Diablo's lair in hell. The quantity of sound effects was far fewer than in Diablo 3, and everything that you hit, or dropped on the ground had a distinctive sound of its own that was immediately recognizable. I'm pretty sure that anyone who played either of those games would, in a relatively short amount of time, be able to pass an audio recognition test where they are blindfolded and asked to describe what's happening in the game solely based on the audio cues alone.
In contrast, Diablo 3 hyper-actively piles so many sound effects on top of one another due to the frenetic action of the gameplay that it quickly becomes difficult to discern what is happening solely based on the audio cues alone. For example, if you performed the same audio recognition test using a Greater Rift run very few players would be able to determine what exactly is happening. With the exception perhaps of unique and set item drops, which have a very loud and distinctive overriding audio cue. I believe this is quite intentional though...but I will touch on this point more later on.
A Blizzard audio engineer hard at work collecting sound foley for Diablo 3.
Color Choice A.K.A. Where's the Grimdark?
The differences in visual style between Diablo 3 and the earlier games are perhaps the most easily recognizable aesthetic discontinuity to most players. The developers of the game themselves even acknowledged this difference, making light of it with the inclusion of the secret “Whimseyshire” area which is full of rainbows and green fields, and populated with unicorns and teddy bears. In response to complaints about the art direction, the developers stated “We feel that color actually helps to create a lot of highlights in the game so that there is contrast.” To me, the issue is less that there IS color in the game, than in how it is used. I think a lot of people missed the point on this one, latching onto the “vividness” of the color saturation rather than the use of value differences to create contrast.
If only they had hired this person as the art director for Diablo 3.
In Diablo 1 and 2, there were plenty of vivid colors used in the environments and player effects. However, most of the time these would not reveal themselves until you had crept close enough to them in the darkness for the colors to pop out. Which is of course the main difference between these games and Diablo 3, you are walking around in the dark most of the time with a limited light radius. When something would become fully illuminated, it would be shocking to see it for the first time, or could be a cause of alarm if it were a fireball being hurled at you from offscreen. Conversely, the environments in Diablo 3 are almost always fully visible with ambient light. This completely destroys any horror movie-like tension, because there is hardly any reason to be afraid if you see the monsters walking at you from the corner of the screen fully visible. Like any truly great horror movie, Diablo 1 and 2 were successful more because of the things you couldn't see, rather than the things that you actually could.
To be fair, I also think that Diablo 3 as a whole is a bit too colorful and the particle effects that occur from nearly every attack are too vivid and frequent. For a while I tried out a graphics filter mod in Diablo 3 to darken and sharpen the image output, which did help to mitigate some of these issues. I think that the developers for the Reaper of Souls expansion purposefully shifted the art direction for that game as well, to make it appear more Gothic to address the art controversy in the base game. These issues with the color saturation and cartoony WoW-esque character design are relative side issues in my opinion however.
The main issue, as I touched upon when discussing sound effects, is that everything in Diablo 3 is far too frenetic and fast-paced in comparison to the previous Diablo games. There is such a constant barrage of enemies, explosions, lightning, sound effects, and other audiovisual noise that there is absolutely no chance of inspiring the dread of the unknown in the player. It's like buying a ticket to see the movie Alien, and then when you go into the theater there is a rave happening instead. So what the hell happened?
Scared yet? I know I am.
Well, what I think happened is that the developers took a look at the success of their now flagship product, World of Warcraft, and asked themselves how they could transfer as many lessons as they could from a pay-per-month game to a theoretical one-time-cost game like Diablo 3. And their conclusions were: make everything happen as fast as possible to keep people playing, make absolutely everything about grinding for loot as much as possible, and make things more vivid and distinct in order to potentially pull in some players from their other games as well and cross-pollinate. This is the only logical conclusion in my opinion, since the game is not about Horror whatsoever, and perhaps only superficially Gothic.
Combat is another example where, superficially, Diablo 3 resembles its predecessors. But once you start digging into it the differences become more obvious. Recently I replayed Diablo 1 and was surprised to find that the combat was more methodical and slow paced than I recalled. For most characters (with the exception of higher level mages) you typically do not want to engage more than three to four monsters at a time, at the risk of becoming swarmed. Each step forward required careful thought, and running carelessly into the depths of hell was a good way to get your character killed in short order.
Diablo 2 was definitely larger scale than this, but each move you made required careful consideration or you could quickly end up in a bad situation. For example, as a higher level werewolf Druid, you might be fine running around through the Stony Field in Act 1, but if you ran too recklessly through the Durance of Hate in Act 3 you might risk exploding some Stygian Dolls directly in your face and taking mortal damage. Each class had their own strengths and weaknesses, and even “brawler” melee characters could have certain vulnerabilities.
Diablo 3 is far less about this careful, methodical style of play and more about barreling head-first as rapidly as you can into a huge swarm of enemies and popping the correct skills in the right order at the right time. I first noticed this when I would start evaluating situations less in terms of the exact composition of monster types I was facing, and more in terms of how many enemies there are in total, how quickly I was generally grinding down their HP bars, and how fast the DPS I was taking seemed to be. Things were happening far too rapidly for the kind of careful evaluation I was used to in Diablo 1 and 2, and there were often far too many enemies for me to easily think about what exactly I was fighting (especially in Greater Rifts). To me, this is far less engaging than the gameplay of Diablo 1 and 2, and in the most extreme cases essentially degenerates into me pressing mouse buttons in the same sequence repeatedly until green and gold items appear on my screen.
Early mockup of a Greater Rift run in Blizzard's design document.
This problem is compounded by the lack of actual variety in the monsters in Diablo 3. While there is an illusion of variety in the monsters (as in there are technically different monster types who have unique models, attack animations, hit points, DPSs, and abilities) these differences don't actually tend to add up to much in the end. Due to the sheer quantity of monsters usually thrown at the player, most differences tend to boil down to: is it a small monster with a small amount of HP and DPS that travels in large packs, is a bigger monster who will do more damage and take longer to kill, or is it a REALLY big monster who has a big telegraphed attack who will take the longest to kill? If you look at any given area in the game, you can usually throw any monster into one of these three categories. As a result, the whole game feels like you are just playing in the same area but everything has been re-skinned to look like a different thematic environment.
In contrast, take a couple of monsters from Diablo 1 which could DRASTICALLY alter your play style if they happened to be randomly generated in your game. One is the Black Plague zombie, who have the unique ability in the game that they will permanently lower your maximum HP on each successful hit. Another is the Illusion Weaver, who has the ability to go completely invisible until they attack, appearing right next to the player. Both of these monsters would force players to drastically alter their play style, such as avoiding all melee combat against Black Plague zombies, or being extremely wary of pulling aggressive monsters in undiscovered areas lest you find yourself completely surrounded by Illusion Weavers.
Fuck these zombies.
Diablo 2 had monster type variety as well, as noted by the previous Stygian Doll example. But it also added damage type resistance variety, which would force players to approach certain areas more strategically to account for those as well. For example, in higher difficulties entire classes of monsters could aquire the Physical Immunity attribute, which means that any melee character who is completely based around dealing that damage type will have to either completely avoid those monsters or have a backup weapon or skill that can deal an alternative type of damage in order to kill them.
In Diablo 3, monsters do not have damage type resistances of any sort and this greatly contributes to the homogeneity of the monsters that I mentioned. The only truly distinguishing feature amongst monsters in the game are the random abilities assigned to unique monsters and boss packs which are actually challenging. These include attributes such as “Arcane Enchanted”, which spawns rotating “rave lasers” all over the screen that deal arcane magic damage to the players. This is one of the few times in the game where resistances come into play whatsoever, and as a result player resistances still matter a great deal. But since these random abilities can appear on any boss pack regardless of monster type, it doesn't do much to address the homogeneity of the monsters you face as a whole. Instead, you just try to block out the other audiovisual noise enough to notice what abilities the boss packs have when you run into them, and react accordingly.
Strategy Vs. Tactics
As a result of the lack of monster variety in Diablo 3, combat in the game tends to be less about strategy, and more about tactics. To clarify, what I mean by strategy are the types of high level decisions I talked about before such as choosing to engage a particular type of monster or not, or to equip a different type of weapon to deal damage to an otherwise immune monster before entering an area where they are abundant. Tactics are more immediate, spur of the moment, situational decisions such as “I'm losing tons of hit points right now so I need to run away” being a simple example. Due to this emphasis on tactics, Diablo 3 tends to be more of a twitch-based, “flow state” game than previous iterations in the franchise. While I certainly can and do enjoy those types of games, it's not the sole type of experience I wanted from a Diablo game, and ends up making me feel like I just paid $60 for an overblown mobile game like Flappy Bird than a deeply engaging action RPG.
A high level Diablo 3 speed runner goes for a world record in Torment XIII.
I think this emphasis on tactics may have been intentional as well, as it gives the impression that the game is more “skill based” than it actually is and thus would appeal more to the “pro gamer” community who would see it as a challenge to climb the leader boards when a new ladder season starts. But in reality, dodging Waller and Arcane Enchanted boss packs only requires so much skill, and much more of the survivability of any character is derived from their level and item loadout than actual player performance.
Choosing how your character develops and what your ultimate character build would be was the strongest part of Diablo 2, and also the part of Diablo 3 where I felt the most ripped off. In Diablo 2, every time you leveled up you would be given 5 attribute points and 1 skill point to allocate as you saw fit. All the choices that you made were final (ignoring later patches of the game that allowed re-allocation) and as a result you had to decide very carefully. In contrast, Diablo 3 auto-allocates all of your attribute points each level, and there are no skill points whatsoever as all skills and skill runes will be available to you once your character reaches the requisite level. To me, this feels like going bowling with the gutter guards out. You might win, but you'll still feel like a fraud.
An archival photo of former game director Jay Wilson, during the midst of pre-production on Diablo 3.
This hand-holding of the player also has the effect of limiting potential character builds in Diablo 3. For example, imagine you wanted to make a burly female sorceress whose highest stat is Strength because she wants to enchant her weapons and then hit things really hard in the face with them. In Diablo 3, this is not possible because it pigeonholes every character based on their class and says “sorry you Sorceress, Intelligence is your Primary Attribute and therefore it is always going to get 3 points and your other attributes get 1”. Despite this, the auto-allocation is a moot point in Diablo 3 anyway because of the Primary Attribute nonsense. For reference, every class has one of three attributes (Strength, Dexterity, or Intelligence) automatically chosen as a Primary Attribute, which is the main factor in determining how much damage they deal in combat. Therefore, even if you had the option to manually allocate your stats it would be foolish to neglect your Primary Attribute since it is the only way to deal a reasonable amount of damage.
Diablo 2's attribute system functions in a much more reasonable and intuitive way. No single attribute is solely responsible for governing your combat damage (although for melee characters Strength can certainly help, and for ranged characters Dexterity contributes some damage as well). Instead, your damage is determined mostly by a combination of either your weapon and a skill boost if physically attacking, or an inherent damage based on the spell level if casting spells that deal damage. Since damage and attributes are only loosely coupled, this allows players to create a far larger variety of interesting builds and strategies that can play against type (such as a Paladin who uses a bow to deal damage instead of a sword). While not all (or even most) of these builds may be viable, it was nice to have the option, and added a lot of replay value in subsequent playthroughs to see what sorts of crazy builds you might be able to pull off if you tried something different.
Character skill choice is another area in Diablo 3 where I feel like the lack of a “gutter ball” effect ultimately hurts the game rather than helps it. Since any skill is available at any time to all players of the same class, there is absolutely no reason to not simply go online and copy the most successful builds other players have found immediately, instead of exploring options for yourself and choosing something that works for you. Personally as a player, my experience would be to use the most damaging skill I could that was currently available to me at any given time. When a new skill or rune would become available, I would briefly try it out, and if I wasn't satisfied with the effect I would return to my previous skill and continue using it until something better came along. This meant that I likely missed out on some good skill choices based upon new items that became available to me in combination with old skills that I had dismissed as “useless”. So rather than encouraging exploration, Diablo 3 actually discourages it because it never forces the player to commit to a particular path of development.
This woman is either suffering relationship problems, or trying to decide how to respec her Barbarian.
Since Diablo 2 would lock you in to a particular build, you would need to commit to something thematically interesting ahead of time to see if it would work out and discover all the advantages and disadvantages of that build. For example, you could choose to play an Amazon who used Javelins and only attacked with Cold damage type skills just to see how that played out. Sure, there were plenty of clearly bad builds you could do in Diablo 2, such as a Poison Dagger Necromancer, but if every character is a winner then how do you distinguish actual achievement? To quote Terence Fletcher from the movie Whiplash, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
"Then you DO know the difference between a safe or trapped Cow Level!"
Besides, every unsuccessful character build always gave me motivation to start over and try something different. Then when that character succeeded, I would feel even more amazing. The more “challenging” character builds could also become a self-imposed difficulty that some players would impose on themselves, lending even more replayability to the game. For instance, you could try to play a Hardcore Poison Dagger Necromancer to Hell Difficulty just to see how far you can make it.
Skills Part 2 - The Quickening (Cooldowns)
A final note on skills is the fact that Blizzard has over-used and abused cooldowns on skills in Diablo 3. Nearly every skill seems to have a cooldown, and many are even several minutes long. In addition to the fact that waiting for cooldowns is not fun whatsoever, this excessive use of them smacks of laziness in game design (notice a recurring theme?). I believe the intended effect of the cooldowns is to give Blizzard yet another tool to easily mediate the rate of DPS that players can inflict, which is the name of the game now that grinding is the only thing to actually do in the game. It also contributes to the effect of all the classes feeling the same, since they tend to have one quick attack skill that generates resource, one resource-using skill with a relatively short cooldown, and one "amazing" skill with an extremely long cooldown.
All of this lack of choice in attributes and skills also causes equipment choice in Diablo 3 to be drastically less interesting. Since you don't have a choice in which attributes you want to increase, and your Primary Attribute and your weapon damage entirely governs your ultimate damage output, your choices in equipment selection for your character build become quite limited. Fundamentally, you just want to choose items that give a big boost to your Primary Attribute, and a weapons whose DPS is as high as possible. A few other “choices” are also desirable, such as resistances to problematic damage types such as Arcane and Fire, but eventually you will want nearly all your items to give a big boost to all your resistances as well, and probably also some straight-out Damage Reduction on top of that.
Ultimately, the only interesting choices you get to make are what type of damage you want to deal, and what special extra skills you get from certain unique items. For example, if your Barbarian gets a sword that gives a damage boost to fire attacks, it would be wise to use a skill rune that causes you to deal fire damage in order to take advantage of the additional damage. If you want to play the best possible character that you can (and why wouldn't you because Diablo 3 gives you no other reasons to play), then this ultimately means that for each class there are probably only 2-3 viable configurations among unique and set items to give you the best possible outcome, and thus only 2-3 “good” builds.
Conversely, since there were so many potential builds you could do with a character in Diablo 2, your preferred choice of equipment for a character could be drastically different even between characters of the same class. This also made the itemization system in Diablo 2 far more interesting because you would have more reasons to want a greater variety of items.
To quote the Diablo Wiki, “Itemization is the process of creating items, applying appropriate modifiers to them, getting their damage ranges balanced, and so forth.” This subsystem of the game mechanics has also been the most controversial in Diablo 3's history, and in order to understand what is presently wrong with it I think it's worthwhile taking a look at this history in some detail.
The Auction House
The biggest feature related to itemization that is no longer in the game is the Auction House, which ironically was also one of the most touted new features in Diablo 3. Ever since the days of Diablo 2, people have traded in game currency (in the form of Stone of Jordan rings) or real world money in online item exchanges in order to obtain rare and powerful pieces of equipment. Taking a look at this, and likely thinking “hey we'd like to get a cut of that action”, Blizzard announced that Diablo 3 would come with an Auction House system built into the game for purchasing items from other players in the game. This system would also use either in-game or real world currency (there was a separate one for this purpose called the Real Money Auction House, or RMAH).
It's easy to see why Blizzard wanted to bring this thrilling action to the franchise.
In very short order after release of the game, players found the Auction House system to be disastrous for itemization in the game. A big draw of every Diablo game has been discovering rare items drops as they play, and anticipating the next rare to drop. The Auction House system completely negated this, since the early itemization in the game made rare drops incredibly hard to find, and unique items were always inferior to the best randomly generated yellow items (unique items had preset stats and modifiers, and the “rare” type yellow text items were completely random). With the introduction of the Auction House, there was no reason to actually try to find good items as something far better than anything you could find would always be available for purchase on the Auction House. This essentially turned Diablo 3 into a “pay to win” game, and many players quit the game forever, or until a major patch was released to address the complete failure of the Auction House system.
The solutions to these problems were twofold: first, the Auction House system was entirely removed from the game, and second the itemization system in Diablo 3 was completely revamped. The changes to the itemization were the most exciting part for myself, and were called the Loot 2.0 system. The Loot 2.0 changes were myriad, but included things such as: smart drops where all item drops that a character would receive were guaranteed to roll the corresponding Primary Attribute for that character's class, Legendary and Set items which were guaranteed to have better possible stats than Rare items, and increased drop rates across the board for all rare items.
These changes to the itemization, while definitely improvements, were just spackle on top of a fundamentally flawed system in my eyes however. Items were now guaranteed to always roll a character's Primary Attribute, but while this made the items more useful in the existing skill and attribute system this requirement imposed a limitation on how interesting any particular item drop could be. This itemization system biased character builds even further towards the absolute pursuit of a Primary Attribute, rather than reforming the basic system to allow for more diverse options. Additionally, the primacy of Unique and Set items also set the stage for even more limited character builds, since the “best” of these non-random items would always be the ones that had the highest Primary Attribute bonus and fit cleanly into existing cookie cutter character builds. The increased drop rate was indisputably a good move in my opinion, but it does tend to lead to the situation of ignoring “garbage” Unique and Set items entirely based purely on item type instead of bothering to pick up potentially game changing Rare items as was the case in the previous itemization system.
Whoever did this repair is definitely ready for their first job as a game designer.
I think there are several reasons that the itemization system was merely amended rather than fundamentally reformed however. The first reason is that any fundamental change would have required additional changes to the attribute and skill systems for characters as well, which while not only requiring additional work may have sparked a chain reaction of game design modifications to nearly every other system in the game, essentially forcing a full “reboot” of the game from square one. I suspect that the executives at Blizzard were probably not comfortable with that choice for an already released game. The second reason is that by keeping the simplified attribute and skill systems, and damage-governing Primary Attribute system, the game would be easier to balance over the long term. Essentially, all Blizzard would have to do to ensure that the classes, skills, and items were balanced would be to tweak their effect on a single focal point, the Primary Attribute. They may have even taken note of the history of Diablo 2, where various classes and items would rise and fall through patch iterations as players discovered which ones were the most “imbalanced” in that particular release. By reducing the number of variables in the system, Blizzard makes this an easier equation for them to solve.
It would also have the added benefit of appearing more “newb” friendly as well, since players who might decide to try the game after the disastrous Auction House system was removed wouldn't have to navigate intimidating screens for the manual allocation of stats and skill points. But while all of these reasons maybe sound good from Blizzard's perspective, or good in the short term for players in terms of attracting a larger audience, I feel that it had a negative effect on the long term depth and replayability of the game. Essentially what Blizzard has done is reduced the game to an endless loot grind through Greater Rifts, and laid bare the snake-eating-its-own-tail nature of the game: you do rift runs to get better items to do the next rift run to get better items to...
To me, the most appealing aspects of Diablo 2 were not these endless grinding loops of loot runs, although there was definitely plenty of that as well. Building new and interesting characters, surviving insane challenges in Hardcore mode (or not and having an interesting story to tell about it), griefing other players, finding some way to exploit the system via botting, or other forms of emergent gameplay were the heart of the experience, and what I remember the best from those days. But I will cover those in a bit more detail later on.
Runes and Runeword Items
A final thing I want to mention regarding items are runes and runewords from Diablo 2. I believe these have been deliberately excluded from Diablo 3, as they would complicate the Loot 2.0 itemization system that Blizzard has instituted. Runes were like gems, in that they could be placed in socketed items for a bonus. However, if you inserted the right combination of runes into an item with the right number of sockets it would result in a Runeword item, with a completely new and unique set of bonuses separate from the individually inserted runes. This was a fantastic way to gear up a character without having to loot grind for specific Set and Unique items which were difficult to obtain. It was relatively easy to farm up good runes by doing runs on the Countess in Act I, or other areas where specific runes were likely to drop. What I liked about this is that you could bring some variety into the item farming you were doing, instead of participating in endless Baal or Mephisto runs. I even created entire character builds that were designed specifically to do Countess runs for this purpose. I thought it was worth mentioning as this is the type of thing that Blizzard could do to bring some variety to the grinding in the game.
From a player's standpoint, leveling is the biggest incentive for collecting higher quality items in any Diablo game. Anyone who has played a Diablo game will fondly recount a time when a really amazing item increased their character's killing power and allowed them to push through the “loot wall” and start killing even more difficult monsters for large experience rewards. Reaching higher levels is perhaps the biggest carrot on a stick that Blizzard has used to keep players addicted. At the same time, Blizzard also uses increasing levels of game difficulty in order to keep the game challenging for players. The ways in which both of these have been used in Diablo 3 are far less interesting and fun than in Diablo 2 in my opinion.
A preview of BlizzCon 2017!
All of the Diablo games have instituted a maximum character level, that being level 50 in Diablo 1, level 99 in Diablo 2, and level 70 in Diablo 3. In Diablo 3, they extended this with a new concept: Paragon levels. Paragon levels are additional levels that you can start earning experience towards after hitting the maximum character level of 70. These Paragon levels allow you to manually boost certain statistics on your character in a manner far more similar to attribute allocations in Diablo 2. Another key difference is that Paragon levels are shared amongst all the characters you have created on your account, allowing new characters to be much more powerful out of the gate. Additionally, an important difference between regular levels and Paragon levels is that they have no maximum level cap.
The Paragon levels are kind of a mixed bag in my opinion. While I like that the manual allocations allow you to customize your characters to some degree once you start earning Paragon levels, I don't like the feeling that I'm not actually making my character unique until level 70. The persistence of Paragon levels across your account also makes regular character levels feel like they don't really matter, and grinding out Paragon levels are the only ones that really “count”. An aspect of this level sharing across characters that I do like is that it allows you start a new character with a leg up, which can be a big moral boost when starting a new character yet again after having already played another to high level. I think that a similar kind of effect with fewer of the drawbacks that I mentioned could be achieved by other means, such as a “remort” system (a term cribbed from MUD games). Remorting is when you allow players who have already achieved max level to restart as a new character class, with some added bonus that would not normally be available to a “fresh” character. With a remort, the game could prevent normal leveling from feeling “fake”, as well as the feeling that you haven't really started building your character until much later on.
Paragon levels also exist as a carrot on an infinitely long stick to keep players going on the grind, long past the time the player has meaningfully developed their character in any way. The max character levels of Diablo I and II, while difficult to reach, were attainable and served as a reasonable completion goal for a character. Without this end goal, leveling in Diablo 3 is a treadmill without meaning or purpose. I believe it is intentionally set up this way by the developers to distract from the fact that ultimately, the game has nothing else to offer and there is little replay value aside from seeing the available skills in the other classes and the class-specific set and unique items.
Diablo 2 presented the player with three levels of difficulty: Normal, Nightmare, and Hell. After completing the campaign on one difficulty, the next level of difficulty would be unlocked and the player would replay the campaign on the increased difficulty. Diablo 3 completely breaks this format, and instead of three levels of difficulty there are 17 level of difficulty: Normal, Hard, Expert, Master, and Torment 1 to 13. Not only that, the difficulty setting is selectable on the fly while playing. Both systems present increased monster difficulty, as well as better experience and item drops as rewards as the difficulty setting is increased. However this on-the-fly selectability, and over-abundance of difficulty levels cheapens the sense of accomplishment you would have from completing each level of difficulty in Diablo 2, and makes them feel more like speed settings on a treadmill than meaningful levels of accomplishment.
The only difference between this photo and Diablo 3 is that I'm pretty sure these old people are having more fun than I did.
Again I think this plays into the developers' simple (and boring) plan for the endgame of Diablo 3: just keep increasing the size of the numbers. If players start to complain that the game has become too “easy”, they have a simple solution: add another level of Torment with a bigger number after it. In comparison, Diablo 2's end game felt more like a branching trail in the woods: there was no single endgame, but just a series of different accomplishments you could go for: reach maximum level, beat Hell difficulty, or defeat all the bosses in Uber Tristram. Any additional grinding or characters that you wished to play were completely optional, and if you did decide to play another character of the same class you had plenty of reasons to do so because of the huge variety of possible builds. Diablo 3's endgame is more like a logarithmic curve: you'll still technically be making progress, but you won't feel like you're getting anywhere.
One thing I can never argue against in Diablo 3 is the idea that the game is not balanced. Shortly after release this was certainly not true, the game was extremely punishing at the highest difficulties for some classes and far too easy for others. This was exemplified by the Wizard class, whose skill selections for certain builds were incredibly broken. However in the present iteration of the game I think it is much more difficult to argue that some classes are overwhelmingly powerful and other are unusably bad. Diablo 2 went through similar ups and downs through the years, and a gradual evolution towards balance seems to be the natural trend for all long-lived games.
Fun Vs. Not Fun
But is too much balance a bad thing? I think the answer to that question may depend on the particular game you're talking about. In a symmetric game like chess, I think absolute balance, or near absolute balance between the white and black armies is a requirement for the game to function at all. It would be ludicrous for the white army to start out with with a queen but for the black army to not have one at all, for example. However for an asymmetric game like an action RPG, I think too much balance actually can be a bad thing. Essentially this is what Blizzard has tried to do with Diablo 3 by over-simplifying character progression and over-relying the whole system on the Primary Attributes. By reducing the game's complexity, they have tried to turn an asymmetric game into a symmetric game. This leads to character classes who feel like they have had all their interesting sharp corners rounded down, swords replaced with nerf bats, and then released to go play safely on the playground where they can stay out of trouble. In essence, the “character” classes in Diablo 3 are missing exactly that, any unique character of their own. The sharp differences in the durability, damage capability, and the attack patterns of each class in Diablo 2 were exactly what kept the game fresh and interesting for me every time I started over with a new character.
Thinking back on Diablo 2, a lot of my fondest memories also came from all the times I had to deal with clearly imbalanced and unfair game mechanics and still pull out a win somehow. For instance, was it fair when I discovered that most of the monsters in the Maggot Lair were Physical Immune in Hell Difficulty, and my Werewolf Druid was incapable of killing them? Maybe not, but it did force me to get creative and start trying to find ways to deal with it. Imbalance in games reminds me a bit of this quote from the Pkunk in Star Control 2: “Wouldn't you know it, get too perfect and you wrap right around to evil. That is why we Pkunk strive to be perfect but always do little bad and annoying things to keep from ending up like the Ilwrath.”
Seriously though, I learned most of my life lessons from this crazy bird.
Speaking of bad and annoying things, I am actually going to argue that hacking ended up being a good thing for Diablo 2 as well. Since Diablo 3 is now an internet prison with its “Warden” cheat-detection system, almost none of the hacks that were possible in Diablo 2 are present in Diablo 3. While this is good for “pro gamers” and people who want to compare themselves against everyone else on a level playing field, I think it's bad for the creativity and emergent gameplay of the game. To me, it has always been silly to want to compare yourself to and take pride in achieving a “high level” or amassing better gear than other people in a fictional online game. Especially in one where your level of achievement is purely a function of how much time and money you have spent on the game, rather than actual skill. So while cheating may have hurt those people who wished to participate in these activities, I didn't see it as that big of a loss.
Indisputably, hacking far extended the replay value of Diablo 2 for me. Without Mousepad's Maphack, I would have given up on the game years before I eventually did. Being able to use it to skip ahead on the “find the non-dead end” quests (like the fake Tombs in Act 2) that pop up far too many times kept the game faster paced and let me skip to the content I found most interesting at will. Once I had played as many characters to max level as my heart desired, botting for items once again extended the lifetime of the game for me so that I could actually see the rarest items in the game and try them out. Creating good botting and pickup scripts even became a kind of game unto itself, extending the variety of gameplay options beyond anything I would have imagined on my own. Even the casually annoying hacks that were implemented against me like TPPK (Town Portal Player Killing) hackers kept Baal runs interesting, since I had to stay on my toes and be alert for hostile players with little notice. People who are strictly against hacking no matter what are a lot like those lame D.A.R.E. kids in middle school who were against drugs: if they had actually tried it they probably wouldn't say that, and they're probably just saying that because their parents told them to in the first place.
I don't know about you, but I wouldn't trust a lion to tell me jack shit.
Despite its numerous flaws, I still don't think Diablo 3 is actually a bad game. In all honesty, I spent somewhere around 100 hours playing various characters in the game and enjoyed nearly all of that time. It was far more time than I typically devote to most games in recent years, and if it was an outright awful game I would not have spent so much time playing it. I may even return to it at some point to check out new additions to it, such as the promised return of the Necromancer class and the redux of Diablo 1 in the engine. But in comparison to the amount of time I spent playing Diablo 2, my brief stint in Diablo 3 is almost nothing. That is what is the most frustrating part about it to me, I've had better and I know it, and if they had just delivered on even a good measure of the things I liked about Diablo 2 I would have stuck around longer.
So agree or disagree, I hope that by reading this you have at least come to understand a different point of view on the game, and maybe even agreed with or learned a thing or two along the way. As for me, it helped clarify a lot of things that I had felt about the game, and why exactly Diablo 3 just didn't feel like Diablo to me any more. Now that I have picked my bone with the game, thanks for reading.
- Logan Kelly on 1/7/2017.