I love Diablo.
Long before WoW, Diablo was the game (Diablo II specifically) that cemented me as a Blizzard fan.
I started with Starcraft, playing it and Brood War for long stretches of time, but that was one game in isolation – Diablo II made it click that this Blizzard company made stuff I liked.
So it really, absolutely irritates the shit out of me that Diablo III is so poorly supported and maintained.
I mean, in a historical sense, it is probably the most supported Diablo game, with one expansion, DLC, and numerous patches – but there is potential for so much more. In the modern Blizzard hierarchy, it is super clear that Diablo is the bastard-stepchild, a fitting role for the one main Blizzard game not made by Blizzard. (Fun side note, younger me thought that Blizzard North was called that because they were based in Canada, not just, y’know, north of Blizzard itself. The more you know!)
Diablo has always felt somewhat outside the Blizzard norm, kind of forging its own path through time. Diablo III was the first installment developed by the regular Blizzard team, rather than the North division, and this process led to lots of intrigue – like many of the folks at Blizzard North going off to make Hellgate: London as a part of Flagship Studios. It’s worth noting that Diablo III went through a lot of turmoil to even happen, from the early attempts by Blizzard North through to a completely retooled experience built by Blizzard’s main studio.
The core of the game was betrayed in Diablo III 1.0. I’ll say, for the record, I was pumped for the game to come out. I had a pre-ordered Collector’s Edition coming on launch day, took it off of work, had downloaded the standard edition thanks to the WoW Annual Pass promotion, and had just become a homeowner and had the house prepared so that I could veg-out and play. I even had my desk adorned with snacks – piles and piles of them!
The core gameplay loop felt familiar – but then Inferno difficulty happened.
The problem with 1.0 was that the real-money auction house existed. On paper, this was a cool concept – a hypothetical way to make money playing Diablo! – but in reality, the gameplay was adjusted poorly for this. Namely, the showers of loot on boss kills became trickles of loot, and this perpetration of voodoo economics (quite literally for Witch Doctors heh) made the game less satisfying. The real-money auction house was no longer just a cool idea – it was a thing that very actively had to tighten the leash on loot drops, making your ability to power up anemic and unsatisfying – unless you spent gold or real money.
This was a problem. For those not playing the AH, you had to effectively grind whatever you could in Inferno Act I, hope for good loot drops, and repeat until you got just enough gear to overcome the obstacles. Diablo in this state was focused on gear progression – the core of the series – but had lost that what made gearing in Diablo fun was the sense of being able to completely overpower most opposition. What Inferno had was a misaligned concept of difficulty, where the enchanted mobs you’d encounter were often the biggest threats to your survival, and the bosses would often serve as raw gear checks.
Diablo was a fun game about running around and smashing up the countryside, while running into a few worthy opponents here and there, or an enemy horde whose raw numbers made victory harder. It was about strategic gameplay and kiting in those challenging moments to allow individual enemies to break off, powerful combos to be put to work, as you whittled down your opponent’s numbers.
This…was not that.
So then Reaper of Souls happened, and hey – Diablo III is fantastic and once-more in alignment with the series pedigree. Loot showers happen when bosses die, AH systems are completely gone, and the game has returned to being Diablo instead of a derivation from that template. All was well.
That…was in 2014. Since then, we’ve had two patches of substance (ie, major tilesets with new explorable map combinations), the Diablo 20th Anniversary event, and one DLC pack adding the Necromancer. There has been no news of a new expansion, no content confirmation outside the Necromancer, and generally the game is lifeless and void.
I love Diablo III, in its current state. It plays well, it feels like old school Diablo, and it is enjoyable to sit down and slay some demons for a few hours. But…it doesn’t feel like a main-play game.
When I played Diablo II, it was for hours a day, for years. The game had this feeling of consistent playability. I can’t quite put my finger on why – maybe it was that 2D isometric maps were easier to tile and randomize than 3D maps (this is a big problem that Hellgate: London from those original Diablo developers had even worse, since it was a third-person view). Maybe the charm was that the difficulties higher up really slapped down your character rather than just ramping up the enemies around you.
But I know one feeling for sure – Blizzard, it feels like, has abandoned this game. In the absense of that inexplicable feeling of constantly wanting to play that Diablo II had, one way to force the issue would be to push harder with more content and updates, but Blizzard has been resistant to doing so. In fact, it seems like the Diablo team has been working on content, but the sad reality is this – the Blizzcon announcement that they would have nothing to show at Blizzcon felt, to me, like the team grappling with reality. They seem to be going through a rough acceptance phase – accepting that the game has been in its current state for a relatively long time now, and changing that is going to require business support rallied behind it.
So why is Blizzard not providing that support? I’ve speculated that it is due largely to the fact that all of Blizzard’s current lineup has eSports support, with the notable exception of Diablo III. This is even something they tried in Diablo III with the PvP arena mode that was briefly worked on, but man, that idea just did not work in Diablo. Diablo has never been a game with balanced classes and PvP support short of duels that are largely decided by gear. What about other monetization strategies? Well, we had one – the RMAH, and it caused the game to go up in flames that could only be extinguished by removing it altogether. And while I am loathe to admit it, adding cosmetic lootboxes, while possible, would require a drastic expansion of the options currently available in game – but could be a good avenue.
But I’d argue that this shouldn’t really be necessary. On sales alone, even with the WoW Annual Pass factored in from launch, the game has done an impressive number of units sold. The console versions have sold well across two generations of hardware. The game is making money, and the prime model of gameplay (online with characters stored on the game servers) isn’t even new – it was arguably the best way to play Diablo II. So while in some regards I am willing to offer Blizzard that maybe the game could be monetized in other ways, I don’t believe that it should be.
Instead, I have to ask – in a generation of Blizzard titles loaded with microtransactions, loot boxes, subscription fees, and eSports – does everything have to be triple-monetizable? Is it enough to argue that for once in 2017, we can stick with what worked in the past – a simple, buy-once model? I think Diablo III, post RoS, is a fantastic game, and with the Rise of the Necromancer DLC, I now have the class I wanted most in the game.
But yet, I log in, and it is the same game. I do the same encounters on random maps, but that randomness still feels vaguely familiar, and I grind out my XP and loot until, a few hours later, I stop.
In 3 months, the game will have been in its 2.0 lifecycle for 4 years. That doesn’t sound like much, but in modern gaming, 4 years is an eternity! Sports games that launched back then are starting to lose online support!
If I had to summarize my point, it would be this – Blizzard, I love Diablo. Diablo made me love you. Diablo III’s lack of support is making me look at you with a cynical eye and heavy heart and say, “maybe I shouldn’t love this company.”