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Diablo 3 is Still The Same Old Waste of Time

Diablo 3 Reaper

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.

After the break, no need to thank me…

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 Auction House. 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 axe, 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.

Too Much Junkie Business

Reading through Todd’s great piece last week on his apathy toward video games, I found myself thinking over and over again “I could have written this”. I feel almost exactly the same way he does down the line about where the industry is heading, how it abuses its customers, and how spending time with your kids simply blows away anything you will ever do in a video game. What really struck a chord with me more than anything else though was this- “why on Earth should I make time for the hundred-hour slot-machine slog that is Diablo III?”

Paired with some forums discussion here a couple of weeks ago about freemium games operating on the same business principles as dealing heroin, it struck me that this entire business is based on, thrives on, and encourages addiction- perhaps not clinical addiction, but that kind of nasty consumerist addiction that tends to affect the young and weak-willed more than anyone else. It’s practically predatory, except for the fact that entertainment is voluntary. Video games are a junkie racket, from annual releases of the top franchises to the DLC sales model to buying funny money to speed up building in a freemium game. Gotta catch ‘em all.

You sell- or give- people a product. They use it up. They come back. You sell them something else, but you promise them more. Advantage. Special abilities. Improvement. Power. And everybody’s doing it, do you really want to be the kid at the party that doesn’t have the NEW Call of Duty map pack? Cut out the middlemen like the used sellers, buy direct from the dealers, and keep those marks on the mill.

We’ve always talked about getting “hooked” on games and there’s nothing wrong with digging in and enjoying a great game. I don’t know any game player my age that wasn’t hooked on Civ 2. Everybody’s gotten hooked on Tetris at some point. And yeah, Diablo really is based on the same addictive press a button, get a prize impulse that works on everything from Vegas slots to the claw machine down at Pizza Planet. But the difference in getting hooked in 1997 and getting hooked in 2012 is that you’re not getting hooked on great gameplay in a great product, you’re getting hooked on marketing, sales, and purchases. That new game smell. This year’s is better than last year’s, we promise. You like this game? Well, for $10, we’ll sell you more of it. You want to be better than your friends or some random Joe on the Internet? Well, if you preorder we’ll give you this special gun so you can kill him better.

Buy into this patter and you’re a junkie. Buy into the peer pressure to buy a map pack and you’re a junkie. Preorder a game based on screenshots and “previews” (read: auxillary marketing) and you’re a junkie. Buy in-game currency to unlock widgets and gewgaws and you’re a junkie. Play an MMORPG until you literally die in an Internet café and you’re a junkie. Neglect your children and abuse them when they interrupt your game and you’re a junkie. There’ s a lot of money to be made off junkies.

They even sling their shit to children. They call it Smurfberries.

Thinking back to Todd’s comment about the Diablo III slot machine, why should I give any time- or money- to games and an industry that are based on this junkie-exploiting racket? The answer is that I shouldn’t, and the resolution is that I won’t. It’s why I would rather play a four year old JRPG like Tales of Vesperia right now over the AAA releases or something like Diablo III this week. It won’t treat me like it expects me to be a crack whore.

When you get older and things like family, career, and Real Life start to chip away at your game time, it becomes more precious. But more than that, you start to realize that you don’t HAVE to play games, you don’t have to be constantly worried about what the new release is and what the new screenshots are and what’s going to be in the DLC. You don’t have to be obsessed with the next level or next pieces of loot Because you come to realize that you have so many great things in life to choose from on which to spend your time and money. Games are a luxury pastime. But when you’re a junkie- whether it’s on drugs or video games- you get that addict tunnelvision and all that matters is the accommodating soma of play. You either tranquilize yourself and act like anything you do in or around a video game matters in the scope of your life. Or video games are your cocaine power-trip, complete with paranoid delusions that Activision is out to get you.

The scary thing is, that when you’re hooked on what they’re selling, they are because they need you. It’s codependent. They’re as hooked on you as you are on them. Yeah, you can buy whatever you want and make whatever choices you want, but junkies need enablers. Preorder that $60 game that you know full well will be $20 in three months and you’re enabling them.

This business is dependent on the junkie “must play games” mentality to stay afloat, and as we head into a console generation that will be defined by freemium, pay-as-you-go games and business models that favor repeated purchases over selling quality, lasting products, it’s going to get worse. So tap the needle and tourniquet up your arm for an injection of DLC, come back next week and buy some more. You absolutely NEED to see these gameplay trailers, don’t you? Peddle your ass to these companies so that you can build that field faster. Set the precendent. Be their whore. As for me, I ain’t waiting for the man anymore. I love video games too much to participate in the junkie business that’s destroying its joy.

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.

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?

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.

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.