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Why Do We Play Diablo?

I’m angry. I have many reasons to be angry at the moment, but this anger is leveled directly at me. I’m playing Diablo 3 quite a bit — less than some (my NHS friends list is filled with people who have finished the first playthrough) and more than others (basically Todd). I just beat the third major boss of the game with some help from veteran NHS reader nicthaninja and his wily Witch Doctor. I’m sitting at level 29 with my Demon Hunter Ms. Tessbacher and can see the end of the campaign in sight. For the record, I hate how the game doesn’t allow for spaces between names. Silly.

I’m not a die-hard Diablo fan. I played the first one, like everyone else my age when it came out. I was fresh out of college in late December of ’96 when it was released and I played that damn game on our PC lab’s LAN on the OSU campus to the point of exhaustion. Still, I never finished the game. We’d all get to a certain level and want to play a new character type.

I played Diablo 2 sparingly. I remember reaching an area with little dudes who shot blow darts at you. I got annoyed and quit and never played it again. This was the summer of 2000; my wife was pregnant, I just just lost my job at Computer Games Magazine and was trying to live the life as a freelancer (not advised), working for the magazine as well as GameSpy and anyone else who would have me. Finishing Diablo 2, when I wasn’t assigned to review it, was not high on my ‘gotta do’ list. I was reviewing every sports game imaginable and building the reputation as someone who hated games.

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So here we are with Diablo 3, a game that I was never pumped about like others around these parts and yet I bought it a day before it was to be released. It was an impulse buy, really. It always seemed odd that I never finished a Diablo game…even though this fits my track record with these types of games — I rarely kill (or see) that last boss in a hack and slash rpg.

So I’m playing a little every day, still not quite sure if I’m technically having fun or not. Oh I’m playing, though. In fact I’d like to be playing right now as I type this. I’m so close to the end (I think). But why do I want to get back to playing? It’s a question I can’t answer with any level of certainty.

There is something inside the design of that game, and games like it from Sacred to Fate to Torchlight to Din’s Curse, that latch onto the addictive center of the brain and won’t let go. When I am not playing, I find it more and more difficult to reason with myself as to why I want to play. On Normal, it’s a fairly easy game. Sure I’ve died some, but there’s very little penalty and I am back in the fray in seconds. I love the new skill system now that I am a higher level, but in the end I’m pressing the mouse button. A lot. Killing waves of monsters in the same way over and over and over again. Somersault, knife fling, multishot. Repeat.

So what is it?

Is it the level grind? The dog treat joy of earning a new skill?

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Is it the gear? Just seeing your avatar in all its glory decked out in your shiny new helmet?

I found myself asking these questions during my two year World of WarCraft addiction when I finally asked myself one day, “Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t reach an answer and I have not played WarCraft in years — and have zero desire to do so again. Diablo, on the other hand, is different. I’m still asking that question and coming up with the same vacant answer and yet the minute I am done writing this I’m going to go back to killing demons.

There has to be a reason why games like Diablo instill this drive, this need to play. “Because it’s fun” isn’t an answer, either. It never is. I can tell you why I played the Witcher 2 twice or why I played Baldur’s Gate five times start to finish. Or why I played Dark Souls to the point of absurdity. I can give you specific, detailed reasons why I loved those games.


Diablo takes all of the skill that I have as a game critic, and I’d like to think after 16 years there is some skill there, and smacks me across the face and sticks its fingers in my eyes and tells me to piss off and just keep with the clicking. I cannot reason with Diablo 3. Every ounce of my critical eye tells me this game is mindless tripe whose only redeeming feature is that of the dangling carrot. It’s an online only game that is designed around playing by yourself. It’s been hacked. It had a terrible launch filled with instability issues.

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And yet it defies my own feelings about it. Because I am still playing, and have every intention of running through another time with a new character build.

Diablo 3 absolutely fascinates me.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

30 thoughts to “Why Do We Play Diablo?”

  1. “So I’m playing a little every day, still not quite sure if I’m technically having fun or not. Oh I’m playing, though.”

    This sums up my feelings exactly, especially by omitting the subsequent lines about wishing I was playing right now. I don’t think I could feel less engaged: the game play seems devoid of decision or consequence, the story is inert, and the only reason I would ever suspect these things get better over time is because Tom Chick says so.

    The best thing Diablo III has going for it at this stage is that it’s autonomic enough to provide background noise for the day’s humdrumery. Where was I the night of the eighteenth? Oh, hold on, Officer, let me just finish killing the Skeleton King…and, done.

  2. “I found myself asking these questions during my two year World of WarCraft addiction when I finally asked myself one day, “Why am I doing this?” I couldn’t reach an answer and I have not played WarCraft in years — and have zero desire to do so again. Diablo, on the other hand, is different.”

    Typical addict. “Meth is different. I’m in control.”

    I jest. But still, never been a huge Diablo/Torchlight fan. All the mindless clicking never really latched its claws into me.

  3. Is it possible that you keep playing D3 because there’s no mirror?

    That is, when you play WoW, you see everyone else doing the same Pavlovian tasks for the same sets of shinies. You eventually recognize that everyone else is in a hamster wheel, and thereby conclude you’re in one, too.

    But when you’re wheelin’ by yourself, that never becomes obvious. You’re only comparing your progress to yourself. The reflection that creates the “wtf am I doing?” moment never actually occurs in the open.

    And I don’t say that to judge. My group plays Mansions of Madness every other weekend or so, and there are only ten scenarios. I’m playing the crap out of Torchlight. In the end, every game is about the obstacle you don’t have to overcome, but try anyway.

  4. There’s two things at work.

    One is the Vegas slots thing. You play to see what you get. It’s the same thing as opening booster packs of CCGs. It makes no sense to do something like dump money into a machine that spins reels and MAY give you money back or to buy a pack of cards where you don’t know what you’re actually buying. Nor does it make sense to play a game where the only real mechanics are clicking on monsters until they dispense loot or money with skills and upgrades that modify the rate at which you get to the point where they dispense said loot or money.

    Second- and this will cause dissent- is that Diablo is a casual game despite all the numbers and hardcore trappings. Sure, there’s some other mechanics like crowd control, range versus melee, class differences, and so forth but ultimately it’s a completely simple, single mechanic game. And these kinds of games- like Tetris or Angry Birds- are addictive. Add in instant feedback (that loot/money again, plus the satisfying “pop” sound and shower of money/items when you kill something), and it’s a game that tricks you into thinking it’s an RPG…when it’s really just a sort of shell game.

    I’m not playing III, so this is all based on I and II. But I’m SURE the game is radically different in almost every way from the decade-old Diablo II and represents a massive leap forward , at least more different than Call of Duty ’11 was from Call of Duty ’10. I mean, they’ve had all this time to completely innovate Diablo so surely they did. Right? Somebody? Anybody?

    1. You didn’t hear? They revolutionized the genre by getting rid of loot. Gone. In fact, when you fire up Diablo III it takes you directly to Cow Clicker. Why make pretty graphics when someone else already re-made your game in a simpler form. 😉

    2. Agree with Barnes 100%.

      1. You never know what that next boss mob is going to drop, especially as you level up. It could be a rusty dagger, or it could be a Windforce. And if you get crap, there is probably another mini boss on the next level down…

      2. It is the ONLY pc game my wife has ever played with me for longer than an hour. Anybody can play and feel like a bad ass. There is no learning the maps, because they change every time. Even somebody who has played through 30 times is still just pushing away the fog like everybody else. You can’t even gimp your character in D3, you can always re-spec.

      I am looking forward to the PVP in a small way though. Just for some sort of competitive side.

    3. The “Vegas slot thing” is my best answer for Bill’s question. In return for the smallest input, maybe one click per second, you get an incredible amount of feedback and validation. Numbers go up, explosions get bigger, your character is plated over with metal, etc.

      The real “innovation” in Diablo 3 is that Blizzard removed anything and everything that could impede the flow from stimulus to response. No stats to keep track of, a linear skill progression that essentially stops once an optimal state is achieved, a loot chase that is more depth than breadth of choice, and so on. I find it vile and have been enjoying the less calculated design of Torchlight 2 a lot more, but I understand the hooks and where they can be secure in my heart just like anyone else’s.

    4. Number 2, definitely number 2. At least for D2.

      A review I remember at the time said, ‘it’s like eating candy, it feels good while you’re doing it, but it leaves you unfulfilled after you stop.’ I remember that line over a decade later because I thought it summed up D2 so well.

      It got it’s hooks in me deep enough that I impulse bought my own copy, and immediately suffered the only case of buyer’s remorse I’ve ever had over a computer game.

      These days, I have two sources of the ‘casual’ itch. I’ve played a heck of a lot of mediocre games in genres I don’t care about on Kongregate, and I have a MMO subscription. The former is a revolving door of seeing just what this new game does, the latter is because I’m in a friends and family guild, and it’s a great way of being able to meet and chat with people I want more of in my life but I just don’t see that often.

  5. “It was am impulse buy, really. It always seeme3d odd that”

    Two minor errors there, sir.

    I was asking myself the same question the other day. Am I having fun when I play Diablo? The answer I came up with then was no. So, I went and played some Path of Exile and then the Torchlight 2 beta and determined that I wasn’t having fun with those either.

    I slept on it and fired up the T2 beta the next day and enjoyed my time with it (cleaner looking, moves faster, etc.). The day after that I came back to Diablo III and lo and behold I was having fun. Not in the loot, not in killing things, certainly not because of the story, but because of the environments and the sound. Those were the things that were making it interesting to me. Okay, there’s also the loot (which trickles out a little to slow and obvious for my tastes).

    Will I finish it? That’s to be seen. I hope to as I’m playing solo right now and want to do a second playthrough on a harder difficulty with someone else. I also want to see the rest of the cutscenes because Blizzard sure does make some pretty cutscenes. They tell one hell of a stupid story though.

    1. Weird that you see those typos, they were fixed within minutes of me posting that. RSS feed maybe?

      1. Sweet philly cheese steak, can we get an editor in here? IS THERE AN EDITOR IN THE HOUSE? The Freeballin’ detector is going haywire!

  6. If you really want to know why you keep playing, I suggest you go to penny arcade and watch extra credits episode 18: the skinner box (season 1). It explains the hooks diablo gets into you pretty well. The show gave me a lot of insight into game design.

    P.S. This just gave me the idea that it would be really awesome to get those guys into the podcast, if they find the time to join you.

  7. You’ve played more than me, Villa, and Barmes. Combined. So there’s that.

    Good answers above. I do think it’s identical to WoW but with much quicker feedback with less predictable rewards. If Warcraft had a casino, it would play a lot like Diablo.

    Enjoy it for what it is. Click fest with some moderately interesting cinematics and solid music.

  8. I play to play with you. But really the three following reasons are why I play. 1). I play cause I can hold my child and play (thanks razer naga). 2). I play to figure out how else to play, even in one class I have multiple playstyles. 3). loot of course. The game is a polished loot pinata before I played with you I was running a boss to try and get a recipe, because I wanted it so I could get another part of it later. And really that’s the final hook in me.

  9. D3 is just Farmville for “hardcore’ gamers, particularly with the open market were you can spend real money on things to get past a boss you just can’t kill by yourself. Don’t get me wrong I’m exactly the person who the series was made for and put hundreds of hours into D2. Of course now I’m middle aged and have just a little bit more self-control and after playing the free weekend last month and seeing all the server problems then I said, ‘nope.’ Of course only having a 13” laptop to play it on worked into that equation also.

    I also have plenty of other games to play on the Xbox, so I’m good. One other thing I’ve been wondering about since finishing ME3 over the weekend has been most likely everyone who gave a 3 score to ME3 are now giving 9 to Diablo and I just don’t understand.

  10. You play for the dopamine! It’s science!

    Every explosion of shiny loot squirts out a little bit of chemical feel-good into your brain that says you just did something good.

  11. I play with the hopes and dreams that one day, maybe I’ll get an invite from TheAbner. . .

    In all seriousness, I skipped 1 and 2. I hated the game at first, but once I could actually have a various array of skills, the game got kinda fun. I don’t enjoy the game solo much, if at all. I do enjoy that I can do some dungeon running with my friends. I also think the allusion Barnes made earlier to a CCG’s booster pack is pretty spot-on as well. Kill a boss, get better gear. Didn’t get something you want? Sell it, go to AH, get better gear. I think it’s combination (speaking for myself, of course) social experience and constant character evolution. I’m also intrigued by the finality of the game’s Hardcore mode. I haven’t quite reached that point just yet, though.

  12. I play Diablo Titan Quest Torchlight because, “Click click click click click…OOOOOO SHINY! Clickclickclickclickclickclickclick”

  13. It is because it’s easy. Outwardly you may be saying there is choice, skill – but the rewards and time you put in are along the lines of a fancy cookie trail.

    Want something slightly more entertaining than tv and want to feel like you’re doing something when you’re zoning out and tired? Play Diablo. Diablo and Call of Duty hearken to the lowest common denominator of, “put a litte time in and you can be great”. the get-rich quick scheme emboldened by penny stocks. Hey, I can just put a few pennies, or dollars, wait, why not 100 or 1,000? After a while you look back and say “What the hell was I doing?” I spent 3,000 hours researching and came out slightly negative… the whole thing was a waste of time.

    1. “Diablo and Call of Duty hearken to the lowest common denominator of, “put a litte time in and you can be great”.”

      Hmm. You may be right about Diablo. But I’ve put at least a hundred hours into Call of Duty over the years and I still suck at it.

    1. Excellent article bill and it throws out a question that i think you could equate to almost all videogames.

      I agree w/ Matt in that Diablo just fosters addiction. Games of its kind are really like a drug.

      I’m not buying.

  14. I’m playing it because I like the setting, Loved D1, thought D2 was okay, really enjoying D3 though. Atmosphere is good, the story is good, the hidden jokes are great.

    I’m enjoying it mostly I think because of the challenge. Just beat normal hardcore after removing myself from reading anything about it (leveled a monk to 10 and then went straight to HC) because I wanted that feeling of fresh challenge and the unknown. Was probably some of the most enjoyable gaming I’ve done in years.

    I’m planning on going normal mode now though to play with some friends and get to that inferno mode, cause I want the challenge. I’ll prob finish up Nightmare on HC (if I don’t die) within a week or two and try to hit level 60 for the chiev.

  15. I thought the Vegas analogy was a great point; we as people definitely have a strange addiction to “chance”, no matter how bad the odds. I also think that we (maybe as gamers) are also addicted to the social interaction and perhaps the sharing of (potential) good fortune.

    I think it might be interesting to sit in on Dev meetings and listen to team members break down what keeps gamers “coming back”. Now everyone go watch The Wire.

  16. I don’t want to make this too long of a post, but it’s interesting for me because Torchlight didn’t hold my attention at all past beating the final boss and unlocking the infinite dungeon. I literally went, like, 2 levels down in it, got bored and never played the game again. On the other hand, I built tons of characters to run quickly through normal and then attempt to beat nightmare and hell difficulty in D2. I’m expecting to get at least one character through nightmare (and possibly hell) in D3 before I move on with it as well.

    The big difference, for me, was that after beating Torchlight, going through the infinite dungeon and finding new items wasn’t sufficient reward for me to continue caring. But, playing through the same game with harder and harder enemies is. I think it also helps that the Diablo games tend to increase the difficulty non-linearly, so things suddenly get harder and my interest gets piqued again.

    Of course, the item lottery helps a lot too. But, less so with the AH (which I will probably never use, except maybe for training pages and maybe selling legendary items, if I ever get one to drop).

    Playing with groups has also been extremely fun. The lack of in-game voice chat is too bad (my friends and I just use google talk), but playing with friends like this makes the lottery much, much more meaningful and the extremely casual level of teamwork necessary is nice for hanging out (of course, I’m kind of hoping that deep into nightmare and hell, the necessary levels of teamwork increase dramatically).

    Anyways, for me, the fun is only somewhat related to the item drop lottery and is much more closer tied to the mechanics of crowd control with an extremely powerful arsenal at your disposal.

  17. Appreciate all of the comments. Diablo fell today on normal and I think that may have been the closure I needed to move on.

  18. I was rattling pleased to locate this site on bing,
    just what I was seeking for : D also bookmarked .

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