In the past month the world of Diablo 3 has seen some tectonic shifts. The Auction House closed. Along with it, Blizzard implemented a massive patch, Loot 2.0, which has had enormous consequences for the (virtual) world economy. Oh yeah, and last week they released the new Reaper of Souls expansion that included a new class, a new act, and a new mode of play. If you’re a lapsed Diablo 3 player, like me, you might be inclined to jump back into the game and see what all the hub-bub is about. You’d be a fool to do so. You see, you’ve already got a fool right here at NHS willing to do that. The things I do so that you don’t have to.
I didn’t last long playing Diablo 3. I never even finished the game, which says a lot given the endless hours I sunk into Diablo 2. Officially, the list of its problems was inextricably tied to the real-money Auction House, of which Blizzard got its cut. I never touched it, but as I understand it, the Auction House caused the already grindy experience that is Diablo to increase ten-fold, because worthwhile loot was even harder to come by. It had to be, otherwise there would be no need to buy and sell stuff on the Auction House, and Diablo 3 was built mostly so that the Auction House could exist. That’s fixed now. Unofficially, what’s wrong with Diablo hasn’t changed one bit.
You and me? See, we know the real problem with Diablo isn’t the Auction House. Or at least we know this on an intellectual level. We know Diablo is really an exercise in controlled gratification. This franchise has always been a thinly veiled slot machine merged with a Barbie doll dress-up simulator. Pull the lever and hope to win big prizes. Or in this case, click a lot to slay monsters, marvel at the light-show, and hope for something awesome to drop that you can then equip to your character — something that’ll look faaaabulous! That, my friends, is the Diablo formula and release-day Diablo 3 just wasn’t as potent at it as its predecessor. The Auction House got in the way, so now it’s history and what remains, along with considerable re-balancing of content and difficulty, is much more true to the spirit of Diablo. And that truth is hugely troubling, not because it’s not effective, but because it is.
When Brandon and I recorded JtS #204 I gave a 60-second version of this argument, in which I strongly inferred that I would have no future involvement in this enterprise. I am so completely full of crap. I could have stopped right there, having observed Loot 2.0 for a couple dozen character levels. Instead I left the game for a whole week. Well, almost a week. Then I bought the expansion. Of course I did. And I proceeded to put a good 16 hours into the game over the next four days. Because of course I did. I know what this game is and still I don’t stop because, when it’s working, that is the strength of its formula.
It’s preposterous when you think about it. What am I really getting from this game? There’s no emotional impact of the sort you’d get from a Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons or a Bioware game. When you finish playing those games, through all their gamey elements, you end up feeling something. Or at least that’s the goal, and you know a good game when you play it because it succeeds in that goal and that makes the time you put in worthwhile. You found something that you could take with you, out into the big, scary real world.
What about the intellectual side of it, the side that receives gratification through overcoming challenges? Yes, the intellectual challenge of mixing and matching skills in Diablo 3 is compelling (and far more expertly done than I gave it credit for when Blizzard released the game), but it’s also fleeting. Once you settle into a build you’re pretty much settled into it. It’s not like a strategy game where each new situation tests your mind to think of new ways to overcome a challenge.
No, one monster mob in Diablo 3 is much the same as the next. Sure, you’ll tweak a skill here and there to overcome a mob’s particular strength, but this is not pushing your mind in the vein of a Civ or FTL . These mobs, they all blur together to the point that all you really remember is that you’re clicking, clicking, clicking away because you have to see the next drop. Sure, the last boss you metered into non-existence left you with some crappy bracers that you sold off, but the next one… Mmmmm, yes. The next one will surely drop some Legendary item that will Change Your World.
And once you fall into that trap, that’s when you’re cooked. There’s nothing you’re hoping to accomplish or feel anymore. You’re just hoping for that next hit. That next little twinge of excitement when you make an elite beasty a’splode and see an item drop with burnt orange text around it. And you hope that this helm, this ax, this set of boots will be so much better and badder than the one you have and that it’ll look so much cooler when you equip it. And hey, if it doesn’t look quite as bad-ass as you’d like, you can always dye it a different color. Or now, with the expansion, you can even transmogrify the sucker to look just like the item you had, only with superior stats. It’s time to accessorize, bitches! And if the stats are oh so close, but not quite right for your character, you can even re-roll them. The new Diablo 3 will spare no expense to make sure it’s giving you enough of what you need to keep playing, while hoping you don’t notice how many hours you’ve wasted in the service of precisely nothing.
And it works. Oh god does it work. It’s a marvel. Sure, all these words and my click-baiting title look like a diatribe against Diablo. They’re not, though. Diablo is what it is and it does what it does. It could not anymore be something else than Gone Home be an action-shooter. This post is a diatribe against myself. I’m a fraud. A hypocrite. I laugh at the game’s formula, but I cannot deny it. Diablo 3 asks nothing of me but my time, and it’s time I have, evidently.
So, I’ll spend a breath or six telling you why Diablo stands in opposition to everything I profess to like about gaming and why you shouldn’t play it, but when I go home tonight and my lovely bride-to-be goes to bed, I know where I’ll be. I’ll hate myself just a little for it, but I’ll be there, click, click, clicking away. The visceral thrill of watching my monk engage seven-sided fist, or whatever the hell it’s called, and ripping a mob to pieces is too satisfying. And besides, I’ve managed to ratchet him up to level 50 now and maybe, just maybe, if I can max that dude out I’ll be able to hit the new Torment difficulty levels where my friends are. And then, dear reader, then I can start to play the game for real.
*Originally published at NoHighScores.com; 4/1/2014
*Updated 2/2/2016 (minor text edits)