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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.

The Slippery Slope of Diablo’s DRM

Diablo 3's DRM model means it belongs more to Blizzard or your ISP than you - are you happy with this model for all digital media

There’s been no shortage of pixels expended on Diablo III over the past couple of weeks. Reviews have mostly been very positive, some critics have talked about its worryingly addictive qualities in the face of what ought to seem like relatively weak play and a lot of gamers got very angry over their inability to play right after launch due to server overload. Some people have made light of this and, in fairness, entitlement-rage in gamers is never a pretty sight. But to me, this is indeed an occasion for rage. Serious rage. Just not over entitlement.

The fury unleashed by the initial unavailability of the game was a consequence of its DRM model, which requires players to be online all the time even when playing solo. However, that DRM has other consequences that don’t seem to have been widely considered. It means that if your broadband provider has a blip, as is not uncommon, the game boots you out and you may loose progress. If there’s a broadband outage, you can’t play. If, like me, you’re fond of taking a laptop on road trips or flights to help keep yourself entertained, then Diablo 3 as the source of that entertainment is not an option. The product which you’ve paid good money for is not really yours at all – your access to it hangs on the whim of a number of outside agencies who at any time may fail to live up to the service you expect, or pull the plug entirely. There are advantages too, of course, such as the ease with which you can join multi-player games and cloud storage for your characters, but Blizzard could easily have given you these benefits of always-online as an option, providing a get-out clause for people who want to play on the move. They didn’t.

This is a new and extremely dangerous precedent. Think about it for a moment: by accepting that this is a valid model for the publisher of a video game to thwart pirates, you are effectively condoning similar action by the purveyor of any digital content. You’re telling the people making the next generation of games consoles that you don’t mind if you can only play a game on it – any game at all – when it’s online. How about if you couldn’t watch the DVDs you own without an internet connection? How about if you couldn’t play the MP3s you own, or read the e-books you’ve bought, without an internet connection? Does that suddenly seem so fair and reasonable as it does with a video game?

If you think I’m overstating the issues, then perhaps you should know that copyright people are very happy to leverage child pornography in order to get governments and legislators to do what they want. That’s the kind of people you’re dealing with here, and to think they aren’t looking at the widespread acceptable of the Diablo III DRM model and not twitching with delight, or that that it’s not being stored as ammunition for use in the debate over denying access to used games, is naive. If you’re a Diablo III owner, I suggest you at least stop and think about the wider ramifications of what you’re signing up to before you next play the game, otherwise the unfortunate consequences could be with you sooner than you think.

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.

Jumping the Shark Podcast #124

No High Scores Podcast Logo

This week on Jumping the Shark, the gang gathers round a fire to talk with Dirk Knemeyer of Conquistador Games about his first professionally published board game, Road to Enlightenment. As has been mentioned several times, Bill and Dirk are good friends and Bill’s been involved in the playtesting of this one for some time now, giving it his big honking seal of approval. After that, it’s all Diablo 3 and our preliminary thoughts on the new systems in play – what works, what doesn’t (like the servers), etc. Joins us once again for the show that never ends – well, at least not for an hour or so.

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(The embedded feed is after the break.)