(photo credit: Chimneys — Casa Milà — Gaudi by Shaun Dunmall)
Most of you
who occupy the same hobby space as me would have heard about the recent release of Diablo III: the third game in a wildly successful franchise for game company Blizzard which contributed to their current state of eminence in the gaming world. In fact, even if you aren’t a gamer you’ve probably heard about it, as the lead-up to the release was so widespread in the media that some very interesting marketing campaigns were created by those seeking to ease the suffering of those affected by its launch. Most of these were responding to the ability of the previous iteration, Diablo II and its expansion Diablo II: Lord of Destruction, to steal away nerdy boys everywhere for periods of time not seen since the Civilisation series. And it was expected that Diablo III would be no different. Gamers have waited patiently as Blizzard announced delay after delay, resulting in a development cycle that reportedly goes back to 2001, although the first real announcement came in 2008 at Blizzard’s Worldwide Invitational in Paris. This, I think anyone can agree, is a bloody long time for a game to be in development. And we’ve all seen what can happen when a game takes that long to be released. Unfortunately for Blizzard, it seems that Diablo III has suffered the same fate as the cigar-chewing, misogynistic protagonist of that other game franchise. Except in the case of Blizzard it’s not bad gameplay specifically, but a bad game playing experience that colours my interaction with the game.
If you’ve never played a Diablo game, let me paint a quick picture for you. The game is played from the perspective of a camera maybe 20 or 30 feet above the player character, whom you guide with a mouse around various sprawling areas replete with monsters for you to click on to attack. When these monsters die, they drop loot: standard RPG fare with gold and items being the primary currency. The loot is randomised, as are the area layouts, and the monsters. You work your way through four Acts, each with a different tileset of surroundings and monsters, before confronting the title beasty in an epic battle between good and evil. The addiction to these games comes through the endless quest for better loot. Since loot is randomised, and there are different rarities of items, there’s that pokey-style compulsion to discover what might drop* out the next time you split a cult fanatic’s head open with a broadsword.
To an outside observer, there isn’t much to enjoy about watching someone play a Diablo game. There are monsters on the screen, they get killed, the player picks up some text off the ground, and they move on to the next screen full of baddies. The storyline of the game is not only badly constructed and full of holes, but the actual method of storytelling is disastrously bad, requiring you to stop the flow of the game, return to town, and receive some poorly voice-acted dialogue that essentially just gives you the next cardinal point to go hacking and slashing towards. The CGI sequences of angels and demons going ballistic at each other are pretty to watch, very pretty to watch, but do nothing to draw you into the game. I think the ultimate example of how bad the storytelling in this game is comes from the fact that fully two main characters die, one of whom has been present in the games since the first iteration, and I didn’t feel a damn thing. Not a twinge! Now, I’d love to put that down to the fact that I’m a heartless monster who has no feeling, but unfortunately I’m a pretty big baby when it comes to emotional scenes in movies, books, even podcasts! For my heartstrings to not feel even a murmur when a kindly old gentleman who accompanied me on my fantastical journeys 12 years ago is struck down, means that there’s something seriously wrong with the treatment of the story.
But okay, okay, let’s make a concession towards Blizzard here. They know their target market. They know that the kind of people who religiously play Diablo aren’t even going to listen to the storylines the first time around, so feverishly will they be mashing the Escape key in order to make it to the next Act. So we’ll forgive them a farce of a storyline and focus on the actual gameplay. After all, in the 12 years since D2 came out, they must have managed some major improvements to the game mechanics, right?
Well, sort of and no.
The ‘sort of’ comes from the fact that D3 plays with a lot less of the somewhat arbitrary limitations on player classes that there were previously. This includes the ability to re-spec** your character at any time; identification of rare items and teleportation back to town now only require a single, non-item-dependent click; some monsters use attacks that force you away from just mindlessly mashing your ‘do big damage now’ spell; and…
Oh. That’s about it. This is where the ‘no’ comes into play. The gameplay really does limp over the line that separates sequel from previous. And there are very few actual improvements to the game that was launched over a decade ago. There are ‘Events’ that you can trigger during maps at random times, but all they really ask you to do is kill things in a slightly different way than normal. Most of the skills available to players are almost exactly the same, or play no different, to skills they used in D2. The graphics are updated, but not to any mind blowing extent. In fact, one complaint amongst players has been that there used to be more different character models for when players are using different armour/weapons. And the thing is, when a game so hyped, and so deserving of an innovative sequel is released with such a resounding thud, it begs the question of what the hell they were doing in all that time?
I can answer that question with an immediate, “Not building a server for Australian players, that’s what they were doing.” To sidestep for a moment, the lag issues for Australian players are absolutely horrible. Actually, to sidestep again, I should mention that the game itself, played through on the first difficulty is ridiculously easy. I don’t mean easy as in ‘I’ve played way too many games in my life so I can beat this one maybe a few hours before someone else’ easy. I mean easy as in ‘I could have made it through the entire game using only my left mouse button***’ easy. And the thing is, you have to finish each difficulty in its entirety to unlock each successive one; resulting in the need to complete the whole game four times to be able to say you’ve beaten it at its hardest. Four times! I didn’t even finish Chrono Trigger four times, and it’s the best game ever made. And you’re asking me to drudge my way through the same gameplay in the same environments with the same enemies doing the same attacks four times? It’s ludicrous. Especially when, by all accounts, the hardest difficulty is impossibly hard, requiring the kind of chances of loot pickup that would make even a casino feel a bit guilty (remember this, it’s kind of important later). To sidestep back to that comment about Australian servers, I should note that the only time my character died during my time playing the game was when lag kicked in and I was forced to wait patiently for the few seconds it took for the data to catch up from the Blizzard servers (in North America) to send my computer the bits and bytes that would result in the huge, condescending lettering filling the screen and letting me know I died. And here, finally, we come to the importance of being online.
One of the most decried features of D3 is its requirement that you be connected to the Internet in order to play it. This means that even when I am playing single player (as in by myself, without any intention of letting another player join my game) I am required by Blizzard to be connected to their servers. As a result of this, any action I make is sent whistling down the series of tubes that is the ‘net, arriving at Blizzard’s HQ where their software says ‘Cool, he’s not cheating’, performs the action on the monsters on the screen, then sends it back to me. It’s roughly a 250 millisecond round-trip, and it’s a hell of an unreliable one. But! says Blizzard, it’s for the safety of the players. And I can see their point in this. After all, cheaters kill online games. People who hack in unimaginably powerful items, or go around killing other players without themselves being able to be killed are generally the sort of people you want to keep out of your system. But, and this is a very important but, I cannot see the point in enforcing this kind of digital rights management to the detriment of legitimate players. Literally every click I make is accompanied by a 250ms gap. This may not seem like much, but it is enough to be noticeable and it gets very old, very quick. Especially when that 250ms can vary up to around 10 seconds, or worse, to an extent where Blizzard’s servers drop you and poof! just like that, you’ve lost all the progress on the quest you were taking. It is frustrating to an epic degree to have to repeat a level in a video game due to circumstances outside of your control. And with a game like D3, where it’s not like there’s good dialogue or some clever gameplay elements to help you back through that part that you have to redo, it’s an even greater piss off.
Now here’s where, in a normal essay, I’d have to think really hard about an overarching reason why all of this happened to a game that so many expected to be great. Why is the storyline so needless? Why is the gameplay so similar to the previous games in its comparison to pokeys and the addiction psychology of random chance and reward? Why is the first playthrough difficulty so easy, while the final playthrough difficulty is apparently so frustratingly hard that it requires a dependence on item drops, not skill, to make it through? I would have to think really hard, but finally, Blizzard have made something easy for me. They’ve already provided a plausible reason for all these flaws, and it’s called the Real Money Auction House. The Real Money Auction House (RMAH) is a devilishly clever little bit of design that is plugged straight into the D3 interface. It allows players to buy and sell virtual items they find in the game world for real cash. Of which Blizzard takes a cut.
I don’t want to sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist (although I fear that’s going to happen regardless) but if I wanted to design a game that a) maximised the uptake of players willing to pay real money get the best items in-game, as well as b) encourage those playing the game to keep playing it over and over again to generate those items to be sold, and c) keep hackers from spawning items and ruining an economy…well, how would I design that game?
I don’t think I could do a better job than what Blizzard have done.
*’Drop’ is, perhaps, the wrong word to use here, as they fling upwards in a hilarious, unphysical arc reminiscent of bad guys dying in Spaghetti Western movies, to land on the blood-soaked ground and reveal their rarity/item type. As a side note, I believe it’s this fling millisecond-long pause between killing and receiving the reward that contributes to the sense of anticipation and therefore to the sense of just-one-more kill.
**Re-specialise: Player characters in D3 have a pool of skills that they can use six from at any one time. This means that different players that have the same character class (there are only 5: Barbarian, Wizard, Witch Doctor, Demon Hunter, and Monk) can have vastly different skill sets selected.
***Actually, there’s no disclaimer here. It’s that fucking easy.