Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Diablo 3 Love/Hate

Diablo 3 is a great game, but I have a love hate relationship with it right now. I love what it is, and I hate what it is trying to be.

I hold this game very near and dear to my heart. I probably dumped a whole summer into the original game. At the time, dungeon crawlers were pretty disposable. Once you ran through them once and got all the loot, you were done; replaying the dungeon was the same thing no matter how many times you played it. Diablo introduced random dungeon layouts and random loot, something that had never been done at that scale and production quality before.

I cut my teeth on an old Net.Hack clone called Mission Thunderbolt back for the Mac. Every playthough was different, and the turn based combat was visceral, literally beating things to death. It was the random element that kept me playing, and I still boot it up once in a while.

At it's core, Diablo is a slot machine; it introduces random intermittent rewards (loot) for a defined input (killing monsters). In order to progress, you must play the game better or get better loot in order to be more effective against harder monsters, which drop better loot. It's the most elegant gear treadmill ever designed. This is why I love the game, you can choose your own level of difficulty and involvement. The harder you push against the game, the harder it pushes back, and it's internal random number generator gives you the rewards your rat brain wants.

This is what made Diablo 1 and Diablo 2 so addicting. The intermittent reward model has been shown to be the most addictive behavior for our brains to keep doing the same task.

The new Diablo model is a little different. Now you not only have your own instance of the random number generator (I'm just going to call it a RRG - a Random Reward Generator) giving you loot, but you have an auction house linking your RRG to everyone elses RRG. This basically neuters the reward system that we have known and loved, and replaces it with a market based reward system.

The reward system in Diablo 3 is also very unforgiving. You have to kill a LOT of monsters to get loot that improves your potency against the game. The random bonuses on loot are poluted with garbage stats (gold pickup radius, health globe bonus), not to mention class specific gear and the fact that most classes want stats on gear that is dramatically different from the other classes. Playing the probability game, a lot of dice rolls need to come up in your favor to get loot with the most effective stats. In essence, the odds are stacked in the house's favor.

This is where the new Diablo breaks down for me. Now you can see the guts of the machine. You can see the beautiful shiny items on the auction house, and how vastly inferior your own gear is. You now have the option of spending your time farming gold to buy the good itemized gear on the AH, or you can drop some real life coin and go that route as well; the third option is jumping on that gear treadmill and playing against the house for gear that has useful itemization (I swear to god the next monk only fist weapon that has +Str and +Int on it, I'm going to go kill some kittens).

Diablo 3 is a pay or play game like League of Legends or any free to play MMO out there. They gave it away for free to the hopelessly addicted WoW people, and sold it to the nostalgic Blizzard gamers that love them so much. I heard an analogy that Blizzard is the Disney of the video game industry, where they just iterate on their previous successes. Blizzard's plan is to make money on the tail of the real money AH, where "game balances" will drive the economy and shift people into different item budgets.

The pay/play model is killing me. This seems to be the way of the future, where monetization gets sneakier and sneakier all the time. Externalizing costs has always been the way to make a profit and make money in business, and it has finally come to video games; to me, this business model finds the stupid people who will pour money into time savers and "cheats" to make their own game experience better. I know this has been around for a while with downloadable content, but I think we are just now seeing the consequences. Smart people play with skill, and stupid people play with their dollars. I think this kind of model will see developers and game designers chasing the time savers and cheaters, instead of the smarter people who can play within the bounds of the game. Games will get stupider and will start to resemble actual slot machines more and more, or even the old arcade games of old.

I'm still playing the game, but only to see how far I can take my hardcore toon. Once he dies, I think I am done. I rolled a WD at launch, and I can only see grind in my future since I have reached inferno. I'll try to hock all my gear on the real money AH and see if I can make a little scratch.

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