Thursday, June 21, 2012

Diablo 3 Design Flaws (Part 1)

I've spent far too much time playing Diablo 3 since it was released. Blizzard have once again recreated their magic formula to try and addict people to playing a game over and over again in search of "the next great bit of loot" that the Action RPG genre is famous for. The problem is that it's awful. It's addictive, I want to play it, but it suffers from some massive design issues that are truly terrible. I'm going to discuss some of the games issues, in the next few posts, but today I'm going to start with items.

For anyone who played Diablo 2, they remembered traveling Act 1 and getting a set item or maybe even a few. If you were lucky, you might get a unique item with some cool statistics or bonuses you couldn't get elsewhere. Some of these were quite powerful and you might end up using them for quite some time, others were viable if you pursued a particular style of play or tried something a little different to normal. Either way, they added flavour and were something that spiced up the play experience. Players would talk about how they used particular set items or uniques in a fun way. It made the play experience more interesting.

A lower level set item from Diablo 2

In Diablo 3, Set Items and Legendary (equivalent to D2's uniques) items are rare. I'm not talking "rare" as in yellow items which are called "rare", even though you're liable to get at least a couple in your inventory every single run. I'm talking seriously rare. I'm talking you can play for in excess of 100 hours and never see one drop. There's very little chance that a standard player will see even a single set item drop, let alone be able to form a complete set without doing some serious gear grinding. There are also significantly fewer sets around, and the bulk of them are only available on the hardest difficulty level rather than allowing players to find some of these as they level up.

Now, this might all be somewhat acceptable if these items possessed power commensurate to their rarity. The sad truth is that they don't. Even worse is that their power is not even remotely close to justifying their rarity. In virtually all cases, these items will be worse than the rare items that your character is wearing, and even quite possibly worse than blue items your character may have recently acquired. In short, these extremely rare and hard to find items are mostly useless. Yes, Blizzard have said they will improve these items, but the fact they didn't realise how pathetic they were says a lot.

 Legendary items... currently a bit of a waste of time

Presumably this exists as backlash against the perceived problem of World of Warcraft and Diablo 2 whereby unique, set items, crafted items and runewords became the ultimate items for everyone to aim for. Once these items were obtained, there was nothing else for the player to do because they had obtained the optimal loadout for their character.

This arguably indicates Blizzard's ultimate problem and the design flaw of their game, and potentially the entire Action RPG genre. The genre is a grind. It is a grind for the best loot, the biggest numbers. If the biggest numbers have been obtained, then there is no point for players to keep playing. Blizzard have recognising that their Legendary/Set Items are underpowered and working to fix this issue fails to realise the true fault with their design.

The ARPG genre needs to improve. This is Blizzard's chief failure with Diablo 3. They brought this genre to the fore with the original Diablo. They made numerous changes and significant improvements to the formula with Diablo 2. With Diablo 3, they've failed to do much except serve up exactly the same formula as before. New difficulty level? That's okay, just increase the numbers: more damage, more HP! That was okay in 2000. It's been 12 years since then, so it's time to evolve the genre a little. There are indications that they had some vague understanding of this. The concept of not having to rebuild a character because you picked some bad skills is a good one. The abilities they added to bosses to force different strategies helped modify gameplay a little (though their execution was flawed in this regard, they did have the right idea). The problem is that there isn't enough of this approach. By and large, it's simply a "make the numbers bigger" approach... and it's simply not damn good enough.

Implement real difficulty? Naaaaaah. Just make the numbers bigger!

The reason why Diablo 3 ultimately falls short of what it should be is because Blizzard focussed on grinding as the core aspect of the gameplay rather than the action of playing the game itself. The problem is that Diablo 3 is designed with a World of Warcraft (WoW) mindset. Inferno (the highest difficulty level) is designed to be a difficulty that will force players to grind over and over again in order to get gear with high enough numbers that will allow them to reach the "end" of the game. This is much like how many of the quests in World of Warcraft required months and months of communal grinding to obtain the gear necessary to complete them, (until complaints saw those tasks become easier) the optional content/tasks that can only be completed through ongoing commitment, and time or date based challenged and achievements. All these things are designed to keep people subscribed and keep them paying money. It's designed around a collective mindset and an inherent social gameplay design. Diablo 3 has none of these things.

The social aspects of Diablo 3 are minimal. Yes, you can play with your friends, but it's not an inherently social game that requires player cooperation, unlike WoW. Many/most things can be done solo, and it can actually be easier this way. This isn't the case in WoW. Raids are not designed to be run solo. Despite its forced online requirement and the multiplayer aspects of the game, many people still perceive Diablo 3 as a single player experience. Many people want to "take down boss X on their own" because it seems like a rite of passage. Having someone help you would be the "weak" option. When the game first game out, players in a group would see significantly better drop rates of items, which encouraged group play. Now, that bonus appears to have been dropped, and bonuses to magic find are split across a group. So unless someone has a higher magic find percentage than you, you can actually be worse off than if you were by yourself.

"Real players" kill Azmodan solo

Compare this to WoW, which encourages and fosters people to cooperate, because no one can learn all professions, and you can always trade favours with friends or guildmates who have different skills to you. The grind exists as part of a social dynamic that allows you and your friends to cooperatively improve and succeed. The grind is a shared task whereby you and your social group improve together. The lack of the strong social aspect of Diablo 3 is why the grind feels so impersonal, and the Auction House exacerbates this problem. Why? Because your friends probably can't help you. They might be able to find something better than your current gear, but that's not likely to be the case, unless they're more advanced than you. Finding better gear is an extremely challenging task, because quite often the gear required to succeed in an area is not found until you are in that area. Thus getting items from other players often makes the player receiving an item feel like they're getting hand-me-down or otherwise "gifted" something that is an advancement rather than earning it.

Diablo 3 rarely fosters the personal touch of a mutually beneficial exchange whereby two friends can both give each other items that significantly improve each other's characters. Blizzard have failed to understand that exchange is what made the social dynamic of WoW function successfully. Despite the griefers, the rage, the grind, WoW was successful because it got people enjoying a gameplay experience of working together and helping each other. The unfortunate reality is that opportunities to do that in Diablo 3 are very limited. The loot you get while adventuring together with your friends might be better than your current gear, but it typically takes a lot of grinding in order to do so to get the gear you need to progress.

Unfortunately, Diablo 3's design issues don't end there, even though this post has reached its limit. Stay tuned for more comments soon...


  1. Its difficult to find where the design faults end with Diablo 3 and anything good begins. The plot is extremely bad. Its these kinds of plots that you might see in E for Everyone or T for Teen games, not Mature ones.

    The game isn't that difficult except for rare monsters with certain ability combinations (Hell and Inferno only). And they're not even that fun to fight, because it simply goes from pushover status to get raped in 2s while they heal.

    And possibly the worst part of the game is their patcher. It makes Obsidian's and Riot Game's patchers look like masterpieces. Every patch, they've released corrupted files which I've had to fetch from other sources.

    Money for this game is better spent elsewhere like on Heavy Rain (highly recommended for anyone that loves story - even though the gameplay is not very interesting. Watch it on YouTube at the very least.)

  2. You've touched on things that I also found tedious. I intend on making this a three part series, because there is so much ground to cover. I agree that money spent on Diablo 3 would be better off spent elsewhere. You'll likely get your money's worth from the game, but afterwards you will realise how shallow and unsatisfying the game actually is.

  3. If they did simply copy D2 and refresh it, it would have been a better game.

    Instead they declared from the start: "diablo 2 was crappy in all these ways" and from that complete absurdity went on to replace these mechanics with things far worse.

  4. another thing is every one over prices everything in the auction house as well, there are items in there for over 1 billion gold and although it wouldn't be entirely impossible to obtain that much, everything is still way to over priced, i like the fact that something is only worth what you're willing to spend on it but that doesn't mean that people are going to buy a piece of equipment for hundreds of millions just to get a few hundred points of extra damage/health.