How to Unruin the Diablo Franchise
Assuming we manage to send the prime evil of Greed back into the abyss
By MARTIN REZNY
I know I’m a bit late to this party, but that means that I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on the BlizzCon fustercluck with the unveiling of Diablo Immortal. As an aspiring game developer who has played all of the Diablo games way more than he should have, and as someone with a journalism degree who’s currently working as a writer and occasional public speaking coach in a multinational IT company, I almost feel qualified to comment. Don’t worry, I’m not out to spread negativity, I’m going to try to help everyone.
The reason I’m writing this now is because I just came across the video about this topic made by Bob from The Escapist, who’s usually spot on with his cultural commentary. In this video, however, he basically concludes that Diablo fans were upset that mom will now be able to play their game too. Yeah, I know, what a way to calm everyone down. But who cares, I guess. In his case, it seemed like an honest mis-take.
The real problem begins with the fact that it seems increasingly as though the people developing Diablo also don’t understand what Diablo the game is about. Which is why I believe that what’s needed is a close look at what Diablo is supposed to be as a gaming experience, if it is to remain itself.
The Announcement from Hell
But let’s start with some context on why typical Diablo players actually felt the way they did, and so strongly, toward that truly infernal presentation. The problem is not, I repeat, is not that there would also be a mobile game that different types of people would like to play. I’m reasonably certain that hardcore Diablo fans like me would be happy to ignore it. The problem was in, well, the presentation. This is me talking as a writer working in IT HR.
First of all, they presented the news like they had no plans to make Diablo 4, like this is what Diablo is going to be now. The first part of this sentiment they did say explicitly during the Q&As. Why would you do that, especially after hyping the announcement as if it was supposed to be the most Diablo Diablo to ever Diablo? You need to know what your audience expects.
Even worse, they presented it in a sleazy tone and using empty phrases that sounded like a proof that what they only care about is making more money. I believe the technical term for the chosen style of speech is “fake as fuck”. You need to communicate with honesty and integrity, as real people.
To add literal insult to metaphorical injury that was also a kind of insult, they were disrespectful to the fans during Q&As (the “don’t you guys have phones, lol” attitude). You need to value your customers, and when you start a fire, you need to at least stop tossing barrels of gasoline into it. Even after the announcement was over, they kept deleting dislikes and negative comments under the Diablo Immortal trailer. Guys, what the fuck? How new are you to the concept of the internet?
But most importantly, it wasn’t just about what was said in that moment. It was another sign of the same mentality that had already led to changes from Diablo II to Diablo III, turning it essentially into another MMORPG. Because that’s what the most money-making model was back then.
It’s all about the essence of what Diablo is as a game. A game that Diablo III arguably already isn’t, or absolutely wasn’t on launch — an atmospheric, horror-themed, single-player, hack-and-slash action RPG, with elements of strategy and adventure.
It’s incredibly important to understand that it’s not so much about “Activision is ruining my childhood” as it is about “Activision is ruining a whole genre”. Games have more objective attributes than films do in terms of what it is that’s enjoyable about them, like game mechanics.
Diablo III was made to be always online, which introduced just enough lag to interfere with the visceral enjoyment of hacking and slashing things and with the hardcore (permadeath) playstyle. The color palette and writing changed toward the standard neutral comic book-like aesthetic and clichéd dialogue, ruining the atmosphere. Leveling system changed to one where one has virtually no choice, reducing greatly the strategic element.
Then the auction house broke the loot system so much that it had to be cancelled. That’s the one thing they did fix because if the loot system becomes pointless, you have no Diablo left. Moving all this to a phone is the last nail into the coffin, eliminating precision controls of combat.
A person who likes what Diablo was has no logical reason to want to play a social mobile version, and if that’s successful enough, then yes, there may be no real Diablo 4. Players like me don’t hate people who like playing other games, we just want to have a game that we like to play as well.
What’s also irritating is the fact that if you look at other Blizzard games, Blizzard is usually excellent at preserving the essence of their games — StarCraft II, for example, is a brilliant sequel, fully embracing the “don’t fix what’s not broken” philosophy. The original StarCraft was recently remastered for HD resolution. What Diablo fans want, completely logically, is exactly that for Diablo. It’s not like that wouldn’t make Activision money. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t make all of the money in the world.
This may be an incorrect perception, but this is being communicated, and it is justifiably infuriating. Not to long-time fans, or to any particular stereotype of a gamer, but to any kind of person who just happens to enjoy the type of game that Diablo was the first example of.
There are other games in the genre now, but I’m sorry to say they’re just not as good. Not even as good as Diablo III, which is why people like me are still playing Diablo III even though it is so frustrating. In terms of music and visual style, Blizzard games like Diablo are high art compared to most competition, no one balances gameplay better, and no one does better expansions and sequels, in my opinion. Blizzard makes great games.
Taking Apart The Devious Torture Device That Is Diablo III
So, why isn’t Diablo a great game anymore? Well, except for all the general reasons that I and many others have already mentioned. Since I haven’t read it analyzed anywhere, I’m going to go now into detail and describe specific frustrating design choices in Diablo III and how they work to undermine the kind of experience that playing Diablo needs to be.
First, hacking and slashing. I have already mentioned the lag issue, but perhaps I wasn’t entirely clear. It’s not only a problem when the game stutters because of a big lag that may even cause your character to die. It’s already too much of a problem when there’s no issue with your internet connection. The issue is the response time between your clicks and hits.
In an offline game, that response time is limited only by how fast your computer can render the frames and how long it takes for your display to refresh after you’ve sent the input. In short, in an offline game, it can be so fast you don’t notice. In online games, however, the lag between input and outcome is usually noticeable, which changes how attacks are visualized.
You can’t emphasize the exact moment when the weapon connects with the target, then the player may notice the lag. That’s why attacks tend to wind up longer and feel like you’re swinging through the target or at it, as if it was incorporeal. As the connection tends to fluctuate, hits can also desynchronize with attacks. That’s not hacking or slashing, that’s waving and paddling. It’s objectively a different thing and it doesn’t feel the same.
What should have helped the feeling of actually causing physical destruction was the introduction of physics of objects breaking apart and foes flying away, so that’s good. But it’s way not enough if the attacks themselves don’t actually feel like connecting, not to mention that the specific implementation of the physics is also flawed. Attacks must land.
What I mean by that is that force should be felt behind every attack, either as stagger or recoil, however slight. In this game, only killing blows really make the foes fly around, which is after combat. A lot of damage in one hit can cause a stagger, but the stagger doesn’t seem to be driven by the physics, it looks like it’s only a default animation. Potential wasted.
But even the weak implementation of physics at least makes some sense in contrast to how the developers have decided to do attack animations. Already, the weapon attacks, even with melee weapons, barely seem to connect, but at least it’s the weapon doing the attack in those cases. Most attacks are not actually channeled through the weapon at all.
For example, as a mage, you can use swords. If you decide to attack using a magic missile, the character swings the sword and thus flings the projectile. Makes sense, right? Virtually no other mage skill works like that. When you attack using various rays, the character sheaths the sword, or even a wand, for every attack, and instead channels the beam through their hands.
Guys, again, what the fuck? The goal here is to allow the player to feel like they’re destroying things using awesome weapons. At the very least, if you’re not going to have the attacks land, connect, or transmit force, the act of attacking should feel kinetic and real. Especially in a game so focused on loot, the lack of animating that loot as doing anything is just baffling. Somehow, I’m also still unable to tell when my character blocks an attack.
Which brings me to the last issue (that I can think of right now) with the attacks. They start at eleven. Basically, you’re never supposed to do a normal attack with any weapon. You’re supposed to use primary attacks that already are basically spells, that generate mana instead of costing it.
It wasn’t that way in Diablo I or II. There, special attacks actually felt special. There was some ingenuity required to manage mana. There was a sense of progression from weaker to more powerful weapons, making them feel more powerful. If one of your starting attacks makes the screen explode and have everyone on it die, or mows rows and rows of enemies like they’re made of paper, then where do you go from there? I’ll look at this issue more closely in connection with difficulty and leveling systems.
So, in summary, in Diablo III, you mostly attack by not using the weapon, which then doesn’t connect with the target or land with force, while hoping that your attacks at least stay synchronized with the foes being hit. Which utterly undermines the point of playing hack-and-slash games — the visceral feeling of satisfaction from causing tangible destruction. I remember when playing Diablo used to be relaxing. Now, it stresses me up.
Second, atmosphere and storytelling. Yes, the writing is clichéd and the voice acting is hammy, but that’s not necessarily a problem in a video game. Direct storytelling is only a part of the equation, anyway. In a game that’s supposed to be infinitely replayable, emergent storytelling should take over on subsequent playthroughs. From this point of view, the greatest design flaw is actually the fact that there’s so much damn talking in Diablo III.
Due to technical limitations, Diablo and Diablo II contained much less dialogue, especially since it was mostly monologue to begin with. Turns out, less is more, sometimes. In Diablo II, it wasn’t that much of a problem to stay a while and listen. I did listen to most monologues on most playthroughs. In fact, that’s how I learned English. Thanks, Blizzard.
This is a problem that Blizzard now has with everything they make, as far as I can tell — they do everything too much. The graphics are exaggerated and overdesigned, the music is too bombastic, and there’s too much stuff going on. Their best, genre-defining works had a sort of minimalism to them, which made them look more real and mature, deeper. There was something left to the imagination. That’s what made their early games legendary. The new stuff is cheapened by higher production values.
In Diablo III, it’s just too much talking, even for me — a voice actor, poet, and Americanophile. I also want to get to playing the game at some point. But the main reason why I can now only play Diablo III for any extended period of time with speech turned off is not so much that the writing is bad, which it is, not even the sheer amount of it, but what the character says EVERY DAMN TIME when he or she kills a bunch of monsters or runs out of mana. One might as well call every character Captain Obvious. I have eyes, too.
At the very least, it would help if it was optional in a way that doesn’t turn off dialogues or monologues. I know this distinction isn’t available in most games, but in the kind of games where infinite replayability is a concern, a detail like this can make a person eventually go insane. It almost seems like the developers haven’t played their game for any length of time.
By the way, there’s a difference between dialogues and monologues. For a hack-and-slash RPG, I believe that the straight-up monologues in the original games were a better choice. Even in Diablo III, by far the best stuff are the books or scrolls with monologues that the player finds while hacking and slashing. It’s the town debates about what to do that are annoying — “What now? You should get the sword! Are you saying I should get the sword? Yes, that is what I’m saying. Okay then, I will get it, I guess.”
The reason why monologues work better in this kind of game is that monologues are a type of poetry, even if they don’t rhyme or use verse. A stylized testimony of a character can do wonders for the atmosphere, in the same way that something like The Raven from Poe puts a person in a certain mood. The mythology of the Diablo universe is potentially deep enough to explore fundamental spiritual and existential questions. It felt like that in the first two Diablo games. In Diablo III, it’s just an encyclopedia.
Which again contributes to the growing insanity, as every text you pick up shows up on the right as a big pop up that you have to click to play, close it, or it takes a long time to disappear on its own. After you’ve heard all of it, it becomes really annoying, and again, it cannot be turned off. Either have it play when I pick up the text (I have already clicked on it, you know), or add it to an encyclopedia that the player can browse through, if or when they want to do that. Either of which is a more normal way to do it.
The character speaking can work, though the near-silent protagonist did help prevent speech fatigue in previous Diablos. But in order to make it work, you must give them interesting, personalized stuff to say. In Diablo III, all of the characters keep saying almost the same stuff. That only works on one playthrough, when again, this kind of game is about replayability. Is it too much to ask for, say, a female wizard and a male barbarian having a different opinion on what’s happening at any given point in the story? It was genuinely better to have them say very little with a lot of flavor.
I know this is “just a game” after all and that I can turn all of this off, but previous Diablo games really felt like they had something to say, something you may want to hear as the player. Besides, where else are romantic poets supposed to get any work, these days? Better writing won’t cost you anything extra, just hire one of the throngs of unemployed philosophy PhDs who have a second job as an unemployed writer. Players who don’t care won’t notice, but for those who do, your game will become a phenomenon.
And if you’re hell-bent on no writing or bad writing, emergent storytelling can also be done effectively through the nature of the game environments. On this level, some levels in Diablo III do work for me, like Desolate Sands. The reason for that is that the music evokes the right atmosphere (of desolation), while the area is full of more or less animated remains of dead creatures and travelers, as well as of multiple kinds of ambush predators and scavengers. Which is certainly not harmed by the monologues detailing the fates of those unfortunate souls who found their ends there.
Compared to that, most locations in Diablo III are random caves, fields, or catacombs filled with random creatures, usually to some extent copied from Diablo II (which had presumably its own, different story) and used several times in a row to extend playtime. This approach was necessary in the previous games due to physical limitations of computers back then. Today, it could be completely fine in this genre, but for a non-story mode.
Fortunately, I think that the developers had realized at some point where the deficiencies in this kind of storytelling were in the original game. The atmosphere has gotten much better in the expansion, as well as in every newly added environment for the adventure mode (as no direct storyline is needed in this type of game to begin with). Too bad that you still kinda need to click through the first largely boring, tonally dubious 20 hours.
Third, game progression. Speaking of playing for hours and hours, Diablo III is currently interesting to play only to get items, which were made interesting in the end. Personally, I don’t think it is a problem that legendary items are not as rare as they used to be, if they now have unique abilities that can be harvested from them and used in combination with different gear. If anything, it brings a bit of the rune word modification-level complexity back, which gives players more of a game to play, while set items are less broken than they were in Diablo II, where they didn’t scale.
The whole adventure mode has actually been a move in the right direction, in my opinion, toward a more emergent type of game. I find seasonal objectives much more motivating to push me to accomplish things in the game than the main storyline ever was. The problem is that there isn’t enough variance between seasons. The new seasonal themes are better than nothing, but barely. It’s literally the least developers could have done. Again, in a game based on replayability, repetition is the poison.
Which brings me to level and skill progression. There is none, it’s an illusion. Item statistics are all that matters, which means that the progression is in finding items with bigger stats, to raise the difficulty, to find even better items, and so on, until you run out of math. Which is why the auction house had to be cancelled, and why players are not allowed to properly control magic find chance anymore. They end the game.
Before you find your first good item, the game simply sucks, as you feel weak. Once you randomly find a good item, you either raise the difficulty of the game to be a normal match to your enemies again, or you get bored by killing everything instantly while you rush to maximum character level. Then the jump in item stats between levels 60 and 70 is so steep that you might as well throw away all lower level items, however “legendary”, basically restarting the game. Notice what you have none of — control.
Control over progression would be done through choosing skills, but everyone gets all of them, always, and in a predetermined order. Way to slice a game in half. What made previous Diablos repeatable was precisely the fact that you could try to develop characters along different pathways. Now it’s just waiting for the ultimate gear to drop, enjoying it for fifteen minutes, and then there’s no game left, or you start over. The only skill involved is in figuring out which combo of weapons and skills is the most overpowered. It’s a good component of a game, but not sufficient.
It would at least be something if different weapons or attack types were differently effective against different types of enemies, like in previous Diablo games. But in Diablo III, this whole big element of the game was cut as well. Which is extremely unfortunate, as it makes all characters feel the same, it makes all enemies feel the same, and it makes all weapons feel the same. I guess that’s why the developers now believe that moving Diablo to phones won’t lead to anything being lost — the all is lost moment is behind us already. This makes Diablo III exactly a third of a game that Diablo II was.
This is all a bummer, but what’s legitimately infuriating to me is that I can’t even start the game over properly on my own terms. I have to wait for when the developers feel like starting a new season. So, if they for example decide to not start a new season before Christmas, but instead in January, then I can twiddle my thumbs during my vacation and then play it at work, I guess. Do you remember when you actually controlled the games you own?
Diablo is a type of game that’s all about replayability, and now no one can actually replay it most of the time. You can play it, but as we’ve established, it’s all about getting loot. Once you have it, I guess you can pretend it’s not sitting in your stash, or throw it on a pile and burn it, but even then, the game won’t let you reset unlocked schematics and artisans or paragon levels, or account-based achievements, ever. You can try really hard to ignore you have all those things, but how stuff feels matters, guys.
I actually considered moving to Asia just to be able to have a truly fresh start. Yes, that’s an insane thought. That’s how maddening this game is.
And don’t get me started on paragon levels, what a way to pretend there’s a progression. The idea of leveling infinitely is not automatically bad in a game of this type, especially if it’s in the form of boosting passive skills, but it has to be more of a choice than “I guess I will run a bit faster now”. It would have to be more of a qualitative perk system, perhaps tied into achievements, which would be great for motivating endless playing and for giving the player a long-term direction in how they play the game.
If, for example, some items were to be located in areas occupied by enemies resistant to various types of attack, a player could work toward being able to specifically deal with them to get there. The closest to that are set dungeons in Diablo III, which are not a bad idea, but the challenge is again tied to a predetermined set of items, which can be given out simply by playing a season. This design philosophy of never letting the player be creative or independent in how they play the game is frankly insulting.
The Prime Evils of Our Day
You could say that nobody is forcing me to play this game, but that’s not entirely true. For reasons beyond my control, I need to play a Diablo-like game every once in a while, so I will. I will be playing the best current Diablo-like game, after considering all of the pros and cons. Diablo III is it right now, as Diablo II is technologically outdated, while no other Diablo clones are good enough. If Diablo II was remastered, I’d be playing that. If Diablo III wasn’t run like a totalitarian state, I wouldn’t mind its other flaws.
With all that said, it’s important to realize that there’s no reason why there can’t be a good contemporary Diablo game that would satisfy everyone. No one would mind having control over skill progression. No one would mind if enemies had resistances or types of attack their limits. No one would mind better writing. Ultimately, it wouldn’t even cost any more money. These are arbitrary design choices made by specific developers, or more specifically, their corporate overlords. There’s a mentality behind them.
Blizzard used to be the prime example of a company of the gamers, by the gamers, for the gamers. They were the heralds of the golden age of the rise of the computer game. StarCraft and Diablo were in a sense cultural milestones. Not appreciated back then, as games were not really seen as culture, but they were culture. A radically new one in the history of the world. A culture that includes ideas of value, politics, and economy. A culture that has its philosophy and even metaphysics. I don’t care if not even the game creators realized it back then, or ever. It had meaning.
These games were a product of creative freedom, of a desire to push boundaries, to explore and discover new vistas of reality. To have fun. Yeah, you need resources to accomplish that, and to that end, you do want for your game to be successful. But it was not about the money. Now it is. That’s an empty, deplorable goal. It ruins the fun, it locks us in the past, it abolishes freedom. It’s a bunch of IP owners holding the culture hostage.
I used to look to the future of games with boundless optimism. Within a span of about a decade throughout the nineties, in the context of game development, each new year was a new dimension added to human experience. We’re nowhere near the end of what’s possible yet, but we have become stuck. There are some interesting indie experiments, but if the big industry players were moving things forward, as they used to, we would advance at light speed. I’m not looking forward to games anymore.
Diablo, at its best, is a kind of meditation about the nature of evil. All you need to do to understand that it is managed in an evil way is to play it. Like when a despair demon holds the archangel of hope hostage, breaking even the spirit of the archangel of justice. Greed and senseless consumption are demons in this game too. It’s all a bit too naive and simplistic in how its depicted, but it’s not wrong. When your design philosophy would deserve to be a villain in your own game, to be continuously banished to the abyss by the players for all the rest of time, perhaps you may want to rethink it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The few years I spent working at Red Hat, “the global leader of open source”, have proven to me that not even big, multinational corporations have to be evil. Google may have something like that in the motto, but it’s not about reciting mantras, it’s about the philosophy you choose to govern your actions. It’s only too bad that the open source model is so difficult to translate properly into games.
At the end of the day, whoever is making games, however big they are, can choose to live, and possibly die, by the philosophy that making great games is the priority. Blizzard was that, and it made them great. As long as they’re not that anymore, the mantle is free for the taking. The one who takes up this mantle will be the one to make the next Diablo. I, for one, can’t wait.
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