May 11, 2012
I loved Diablo. I loved Diablo II. And like many other gamers, I’m eager to get my hands on the long-awaited Diablo III in May.
However! I have some negative thoughts about the prospects of the game. I’ve been annoying my RL and Facebook friends with these dire predictions. Now it’s your turn.
First, a teeny bit of background. The first Diablo was released on the last day of 1996, and was an immediate sensation. Stripping the traditional role-playing game to its bare essentials, sort of like John Carpenter did with horror films with his brilliant Halloween, Diablo was a game-changer. Its randomly-spawning dungeons and rotating quests added immense replayability. Multiplayer was a bit primitive, but still popular.
The gameplay of Diablo was simplicity itself: You clicked your mouse where you wanted to go, and to attack an enemy you either left-clicked on it or right-clicked on it. There were three playable classes: Rogue, Warrior, and Sorcerer.
One of the most pleasing and unusual aspects of the game was Matt Uelmen’s stunningly evocative acoustic guitar score. It was unlike anything we’d heard in a video game before.
Diablo won a raft of awards and is credited for creating a new genre: The mouse-driven, point and click action-RPG. Dozens of games would copy this formula in the years to come.
Three-and-a-half years later, Blizzard followed up with Diablo II, which got even BETTER reviews and sold even more copies than its predecessor. Though it was certainly a larger game, with many more environments, more complex character advancement, and five classes instead of three (Amazon, Barbarian, Necromancer, Paladin and Sorceress), it still maintained the utter simplicity of the first game.
What really gave Diablo II its legs was multiplayer. Blizzard designed the game to be multiplayer, and their Battle.net service made enjoying the game with friends easy and fun. How fun? Twelve years later, plenty of people are STILL playing this game.
Diablo II also had several difficulty levels, including the famous Hardcore mode. In hardcore mode, when your character died, you lost it forever. Yeah. Not for the faint of heart.
SIDEBAR: I have a friend whose team of buddies finally beat Diablo II on hardcore mode in 2011. That’s hardcore, all right! My hat is off to their steely, nerdy dedication.
So after twelve years of waiting, Diablo III is finally upon us. Huzzah! Dancing in the streets!
Not so fast.
Don’t get me wrong. I am confident that Diablo III will sell well and get great reviews. Blizzard will make another pile of money.
SIDEBAR: Everyone’s got a big “but,” Simone. Let's talk about your big “but.”
My dire prediction for Diablo III is that it simply will not have the “legs” that Diablo II had. Why? Three reasons! Read on!
Reason One: Isometric Fatigue
For many years, the top-down-at-a-jaunty-angle, “isometric” view really ruled in Western RPGs. From Fallout toBaldur’s Gate to Divine Divinity and Diablo, the isometric view truly defined the visual format of most popular Western RPGs. But as computer game engines got more powerful and more sophisticated, everything began moving towards 3D, and that triggered the ascendance of the first-person and over-the-shoulder formats that are now standard. While it’s still popular for real-time-strategy games, about the only time you see it now is in a game that’s a completely self-conscious, if not self-proclaimed, Diablo clone (think Deathspank, Torchlight, etc.).
When Bethesda revived the Fallout franchise, first-person and over-the-shoulder presentation had become so standard that they abandoned the series’ traditional isometric view. It was a controversial decision, but they got away with it because they made an incredible game.
Blizzard is taking no such chances with Diablo III. They are sticking with the traditional isometric view.
I wonder if this format may strike some players as old-fashioned and clunky.
Reason Two: Mouse Fatigue
The original Diablo’s stripped-down RPG mechanics were revolutionary for 1996, but the game’s popularity spawned the new genre: The Diablo Clone. There have been MANY of them, some good (Divine Divinity, Torchlight andDeathspank all have their admirers) and many many that were just sort of mediocre. And when you’re playing mediocre game, the simplistic clickfest you engage in to play the game can get tedious, not to mention carpal-tunnel-inducing.
Of course, I’m not expecting Diablo III to be a mediocre game by any means, but it’s just possible that the mouse-driven style of play might also feel a bit long in the tooth to modern gamers. One thing that could mitigate this significantly is if the character progression systems are rich and interesting enough. This was an area of tremendous improvement fromDiablo to Diablo II, so I’m hoping that trend continues.
Reason Three: We Have Good MMORPGs Now
Though dorks like me played Diablo II strictly as a single player game, what gave the game its incredible legs was multiplayer. Millions of players had a great time in games of up to eight players.
Now, of course I realize that eight players does not a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game make, but Diablo II was at least an MORPG. It was still an online, tribal experience.
When Diablo II was released in 2000, the MMORPG was really still in its infancy. The three big players were Ultima Online (launched in 1997), Asheron’s Call (launched in 1999) and the big enchilada, Everquest (also 1999). These were popular games, but their audience was still a niche. None of them had anything close to a million subscribers. The games were criticized for their coarse design, obnoxious death penalties, endless grinding, boss camping, and a host of other problems.
Diablo II, on the other hand, was a stunningly polished, fun game that people never seemed to get tired of playing.
Then, a year after the game was released, the same company that made the Diablo franchise – Blizzard – made a very arrogant announcement at the annual European Computer Trade Show in London. The announcement was, in effect, “We are going to fix the MMORPG genre.”
I remember thinking, “Well, damn, if anyone could fix the MMORPG genre, it would be Blizzard."
Three years later, Blizzard’s World of Warcraft was launched, changing the world of MMORPGs forever. WoW wasbetter than the MMORPGs that came before it, and it gave the genre a new model, meaning that the online role-playing games that came after had a better example to follow than Everquest.
Which means that Diablo III will be dropping into a very different market than its predecessor did twelve years ago. These days there are lots of terrific options for the player who wants to get his massively multiplayer roleplaying on. From World of Warcraft to Rift to Star Wars: The Old Republic to Lord of the Rings Online to Everquest 2, there are many good choices out there.
Which is why I think everyone will play Diablo III for awhile… and then go back to their MMORPG of choice.
All my gamer friends tell me I’m nuts. What do you think?