Diablo 3 is exactly the kind of game I should hate. Blizzard’s latest dungeon-crawling loot-fest relies on a checklist of design elements that typically drive me screaming into the night:
- Derivative design
We can’t accuse Blizzard of stealing from itself, but Diablo 3 is an essentially conservative game. It iterates on its predecessors in obvious ways - graphics, UI, streamlined path to leveling up, etc. - but in most of the ways that matter, Diablo 3 is a dressed up version of Diablo 2.
- Repetitive play
Click-Loot-Upgrade-Repeat. Diablo 3’s repetitiveness is woven through its design on both micro and macro levels. Everything you do in this game, you do over and over. Coins spill, and you pick them up. Every time. Stimulus. Operanda. Reinforcement. Skinner is grinning.
- Sententious “lore” with no meaningful impact on gameplay.
Diablo 3 throws a few winks at the player, but it doesn’t stray far from threadbare fantasy tropes. For the umpteenth time we must locate soulstones, defeat demon lords, assemble shattered swords - all to defeat Eeeviiil. I’m a narrative-loving player, but even I find myself challenged to pay attention to the arch codswallop this game dispenses.
- Choking feedback loops
When designers talk about gluing players to games, they inevitably reference the Diablo series and its effective feedback loops. Such loops occur when a player takes an action and receives information about that action, which in turn encourages the player to alter his choices or behavior the next time that action is performed. I appreciate the gamey-ness of this system, but Diablo 3’s feedback loops are so embedded into its design that they’re in my face at every turn, and many of them feel only cosmetically significant. I like meaningful choices, but this game taps me on the shoulder with the frequency of a 4-year-old in the toy aisle at Target.
- DRM handcuffs
Developers should not constrain where and when I can play my game. Lots of folks have complained about this, so I won’t rehash the argument here. If I want to play Diablo 3 solo, I shouldn’t be required to login to a developer’s server and maintain that connection throughout my play session…unless the game has a crucial reason for doing so that benefits me. So far, I can’t discern such a reason. A game that requires twitch reflexes should not suffer from lag that prevents me from playing it properly. In other words, it should not make me die.
So... A funny thing happened on my way to hating Diablo 3. It hooked me. Deep. Here I am, an hour into Act II, and the game is playing me as much as I’m playing it, like all the best games do. I play Diablo 3 when I should be doing other things. Like sleeping. I think about it when I should be paying attention to other things. Like driving. Last night I dreamed about my childhood backyard…in isometric view.
Diablo 3 overrides all my misgivings because it’s just so damned much fun. We often decry the game industry’s stubborn unwillingness to evolve, dishing out the same old stuff over and over. Sometimes, however, the same old stuff - and Diablo 3 is unmistakably SOS - hits the mark so squarely and elegantly that it quenches a thirst I forgot I had.
It is retro gaming without the stench of lazy design “retro” too often signifies. Diablo has always been retro (remember Wizardry, folks?), but the series has consistently looked forward too, mechanically and aesthetically. Watch Blizzard’s Christian Lichtner talk about Diablo 3’s art design at this year’s GDC to see how Blizzard’s artists developed a philosophy for the game’s visuals that carefully blended old and new.
The game doles out a skill or special trinket every time you level up. Loot is more varied, the environments are more visually stimulating, and the monsters are more interesting and fun to beat than in Diablo 2. Killing twelve enemies at once with one kick-ass spell never gets old. The music is beautifully evocative, and the character animations make the old Diablo games look, well, very old. If you experience any initial concerns about Diablo 3 being too easy or predictable, hang on until Act II. Trust me, things change.
I drank a bottle of Coca-Cola the other day. Wow. That is some good SOS. I remember now why I used to enjoy it so much. I don't drink soda any more, and I don’t plan to fill my refrigerator with Cokes, but I’m glad it’s still there when I’m thirsty for it.
Not every successful developer operates so conservatively. In my next post, I’ll discuss a game by another AAA studio bent on pushing the design envelope in ways Blizzard can’t or won’t. If Blizzard is the Ronald Reagan of developers, this studio is the industry’s Ted Kennedy. I hope you'll stay tuned.