Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Diablo 3 Design Flaws (Part 3)

If the my previous posts about items and general design issues with Diablo 3, herein lie the final nails into the coffin of Diablo 3's credentials as well designed game.

Inferno difficulty, which is the hardest difficulty in Diablo 3, showcases the sheer laziness and lack of consideration on Blizzard's behalf when it comes to gameplay.  As can be seen in this video, Blizzard's approach to difficulty is one of the worst possibilities: Just increase the numbers.

Jump to 38 seconds in: "We doubled it."

If your difficulty is such that designers can simply "double it" in order to increase the difficulty, then you need to hire new designers. Also, if you think that your test team is half as good as your playerbase, then you probably need to hire better testers. There is absolutely no excuse for this type of laziness. It is indefensible.

Nor is there a justification for taking skills and dramatically reducing their effectiveness, even doubly so when there is no indication this has occurred. On Inferno difficulty, life steal operates at 20% efficiency. i.e. A weapon with 3% lifesteal per hit will drop to 0.6% per hit on Inferno. However, there is no indication that this occurs, so it is up to the player to realise (and calculate) this based on observation. Despite this being grossly misleading for the player, it raises serious questions about the competency of the design team. If a skill must suddenly be rebalanced by such a huge amount upon changing to the highest difficulty level, then this indicates a gross imbalance in the difficulty balance before or after this change. A well designed skill and power curve should not require such colossal changes, particularly in a single hit.

The real issue here is that Blizzard and Diablo 3 are both suffering from an ingrained and systemic case of duplication. There is virtually no inspiration and practically nothing original in the concepts that have been put forward in the game. Arguably the special abilities of the boss monsters/elites are somewhat new, but these really don't add a whole lot of depth to the gameplay in most cases. Teleporting and vortex monsters simply making it frustrating for characters attempting to maintain distances, and abilities like jailer and waller often constraint and/or stop movement entirely, which is one of the few tactics at the disposal of players given the extremely small usable skill set that players have available to them.

Let's just add more stuff, shall we?

The above monster can trap with walls so you can't run away, make you lose control and your hero run away when it hits you (although you'll get trapped because of the aforementioned walls), throw grenades that do lots of damage if you happen to get away (which will be guaranteed to hit you if your hero is uncontrollably running away), and has minions that you can't hurt but can also throw grenades and make you run away scared. The "good" news is that this isn't the hardest combination of enemy abilities you'll face.

Instead of coming up with new ways to increase the difficulty of the game and actually let or make player develop new strategies, they just tack more of the existing modifiers that players have already seen onto those enemies. This is the most arbitrary and simplistic way of increasing difficulty, and can lead to some combinations that for all intents and purposes, are effectively unbeatable. Certain skill combinations effectively lead to certain, unavoidable death for virtually all characters.

In a recent patch, Blizzard reduced the benefits of running Act III (particularly on Hell difficulty, which comes before Inferno), because "too many people were farming it". This is exactly the wrong approach. Instead of making such areas less appealing, they should instead be focusing on how to make other areas MORE appealing. Why aren't people trying to go through Act IV? Is it perhaps because it is ridiculously short in comparison to the other acts? I'd suggest so. Why aren't people playing Act I Inferno instead? Probably because the difficulty curve takes a massive jump that most players can't cope with, forcing them to farm in Hell difficulty, leaving them with the undesirable option of Act IV or going to Act III. I know which one I want to pick.

More spiders please

Act 4 is annoying because of the tactics employed by several of the bosses. As a ranged character, the two major demons before Diablo, Rakanoth and Izual, feature the ability to deal massive, unblockable damage from a distance that is liable to kill or seriously wound the character. For a start, this is awful design, but what's worse is that Diablo himself can actually turn out easier by compasion. Even more galling here is that Diablo does hardly anything significantly different from his incarnation in Diablo 2. Given at the end of the game he has absorbed the essences of all the other major demons, the fact that he has virtually no new tricks up his sleeve is pathetic. This is in fact representative of the real problem with Diablo 3.

Diablo 3's biggest crime is that it is little more than a reproduction of Diablo 2. Act 1 is a similar to Act 1 from Diablo 2 - dark forests, caves, a monastery, Tristram. Act 2 is roughly the same as Diablo 2 - another desert city, parading through its sewers and palace, and an ancient mage stronghold. Act 3 is mostly a reproduction of Diablo 2's Act 5, or the Lord of Destruction expansion - with a army battle, a frozen wasteland and caves, and a descent into a hell. Act 4 is heaven corrupted, which is again similar to Act 4 from Diablo 2. There is nothing new in the level aesthetics for a game that has been in development for years. Taking inspiration and referencing previous titles in the series is fine, but copying them wholesale is nothing short of insulting.

Copying your own expansion pack is really the best you could come up with?

Diablo 3 effectively just revisits old locations rather than providing something genuinely new to players. Its locales are the same, the majority of its monsters are the same and even behave in almost exactly the same way as they did before. Act 1 and Act 3 even occur in previously visited places. Is the world of Sanctuary created for Diablo so small and uninteresting that the game can't explore new places and characters? The question this raises is what is actually new in Diablo 3? Unfortunately, the only honest answer is "very little". A lack of originality and new ideas can be seen all throughout the game. Whether from the characters classes, loot structure, the items and bonuses on them, the monsters and areas that just feel like copies of previous games, everything demonstrates a complete lack of originality. Effectively, Diablo 3 has more or less just copied all of its idea from Diablo 2. For a company like Blizzard, this is appalling. It has millions of dollars in its coffers, and has spent years working on this game, yet all it can come up with is something that feels like a twelve year old game with a new coat of paint.

I got my money's worth out of Diablo 3, but it's left a bitter taste in my mouth. There's no real depth to the game, and it offers nothing more than a continuous grind to try and roll a lucky number on the item generation slot machine. The simplistic and inequitable gameplay from enemy abilities and lack of any meaningful strategies makes the Diablo 3 experience shallow and repetitive after a while, and presents very little for players after they've reached the maximum level in the game. As a game focussed purely on grind, there is no clear desirable goal to reach for players, merely the lure of "better" items at some point should they be persistent enough. This is the most crude and base player objective in a game: repeat what you're doing so you can repeat it again but more easily. Blizzard should be able to do better, and so should players. I'm glad I experienced Diablo 3, but only because it provided me more lessons on how bad game design. That said, I'm disappointed that I was one of the people who contributed to the game being a success. It doesn't deserve to be.

If you're thinking about buying Diablo 3, do yourself a favour and don't. Go back and play Diablo 2 again, or maybe Torchlight, or wait for Torchlight 2. You'll get similar gameplay and you won't be supporting a major publisher producing stale, self-derivative work. Games and gamers deserve better.

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