It's been over three weeks since the official launch of Diablo III, so Pwyff has decided to look back at what lessons can be learned.
Be sure to check out Blizzard's Patch 1.03 Design Preview to see how they're planning to tackle these issues!
It's been about three weeks now since the official launch of Diablo III, and as players get settled in for the long loot grind that is Inferno, I've decided to take a look back on the various lessons that can be learned from this momentous launch. Now, you might argue that Diablo III isn't quite an MMORPG by most standards but every title that Blizzard puts out can be seen as a cumulative progress report on what they've learned from the past. Furthermore, there is some genuinely valuable information to be gleaned from the launch and development of Diablo III, so let's get to it.
Always-on DRM works only if it works
This has been discussed to tatters, so I'll try not to dwell here: read any Diablo III review worth reading and Blizzard's controversial always-on DRM (Digital Rights Management) will find its way into the conversation. Some have noted that Blizzard has been transparently honest about its plans, arguing that getting angry about D3's always-on DRM is akin to purchasing a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup and then complaining about the peanut butter in your snack. Unfortunately, I believe this is a misinterpretation of the issue. The argument here is that Blizzard has made it a core feature to be persistently connected to the internet and when a core feature of the game does not work on launch day, you can bet the complaints will come.
Still, to focus on the concept of always-on DRM as a core feature rather than an anti-piracy move, Blizzard has done some unique things with that required persistent connection. Being able to jump in and out of a friend's session to assist with a difficult fight or to drop off loot is a seamless experience, and getting that "adventuring with buddies" vibe - the biggest appeal of MMORPGs to me - without the MMORPG setting is impressive. Furthermore, since Blizzard can closely monitor the actions of all its players, a number of potentially devastating economical exploits have been hotfixed within a day or two of their discovery. While this obviously implies that these fixes were implemented as a result of always-on DRM (and not retroactive QA testing), there is still an implicit assurance that Blizzard can closely monitor the Diablo III economy. This brings me to my next point.
A balanced economy requires babysitting
It's interesting to watch what Blizzard prioritizes in its hotfixes and patches, and if the past three weeks were an indication of its priorities, economy - and everything related to economy - is number one. As players discover creative ways to exploit the system for undeserved loot, hotfixes have been deployed almost overnight with zero downtime or patch download requirements. These hotfixes can be placed in contrast to the extra week or two it took to fix unbalanced skills (Monk Quickening, Mage Force Armor) and the leveling shortcuts (killing Azmodan and turning in the quest repeatedly for 80,000+ EXP). Obviously Blizzard's trying to pave the way for its real-money auction house, but the speed with which it's dealt with these exploits is impressive by any standard.
An accessible auction house changes the fundamental Diablo experience
For me, one of the best parts about playing Diablo II was finding an incredible item for a different class, and then heavily debating the merit of playing that class just to take advantage of my luck. Unfortunately, because it is now so easy to offload the gear you can't use on the auction house, the fundamental Diablo experience has been transformed into a game of buying low and selling high. Of course, players could trade and sell items via third-party forums in Diablo II, but now that the process has become so streamlined and accessible, finding endgame gear is less about hunting monsters and more about filtering prices. As to whether this is healthy for the lifespan of Diablo III remains to be seen, but with such a powerful counteragent to Diablo's iconic random loot generator, you can bet things will pan out differently.
Too much hand-holding is a bad thing
A fairly obvious lesson, especially for a dev team as experienced as Blizzard, but it goes to show that anyone can make mistakes. While it's understandable that Blizzard wanted to make Diablo III accessible for all players (especially those who had never played Diablo II), it seems much less thought was put into teaching players to become better. Elective mode - a system that forcefully suggests skill categories for players - might seem like a safeguard against overwhelming players with skill choices, but instead it serves as an unnecessary obstruction in build creativity. Furthermore, since elective mode is toggled on by default (with only a random loading screen tooltip to indicate its existence), many players have entered Nightmare mode (or even Hell mode) completely ignorant of the skill building required to survive in those difficulties.
Blizzard has indicated that it will put in a pop-up that informs players of the pros and cons (mostly cons) of elective mode after they finish Normal difficulty, but I believe that this isn't enough. Many have complained of the incredible spike in difficulty when making the transition to Hell mode (and then to Inferno and to Act 2 Inferno thereafter), but I believe that many complaints could be mitigated if Blizzard had done a better job in teaching its players to be better. Suggesting skills after multiple deaths or indicating skill synergy is not difficult, and it might have helped alleviate the surge in difficulty. This brings me to my last lesson…
Nobody likes melee
This is more of an opinion than a lesson, but boy is it personal. I currently play a level 60 Monk, farming Act 3 and Act 4 of Inferno, but every day I feel like I've picked the wrong class. I duo'd with a Demon Hunter friend throughout my leveling experience, and it was exceptionally fun right up to Act 1 of Inferno, at which point I immediately stopped contributing and started getting carried along as near dead weight. The fact is, melee classes (Barbarians and Monks) in Diablo III are at a significant disadvantage without exceptional levels of gear. I remember trying out all sorts of unique builds for running through Hell mode, and there was a lot of diversity in the way I could approach my problems. In Inferno, however, I was immediately forced to bring at least three defensive abilities, in addition to a few utility abilities where necessary. Demon Hunters, Wizards and Witch Doctors, on the other hand, have far more diversity with regard to the damage-dealing builds they can utilize, and each of them can progress in Inferno mode for a fraction of the equipment requirement.
This isn't really a lesson, but the inherent problem here is that ranged characters can avoid a lot of Diablo III's dangerous monsters by simply staying out of sight - standing on the edge of the screen and firing away. For melee characters, of course, that option isn't available, as if we ever feel the need to contribute, we must put ourselves in danger to do so. Ultimately, Monks and Warriors are saving money to purchase the endgame gear being farmed by Demon Hunters, Wizards and Witch Doctors, all in the hopes of catching up.
In the end, do you think you'll be playing Diablo III for the months (perhaps years) to come? Blizzard certainly needs to be careful when it comes to fine-tuning this behemoth, and nobody even knows if they're on the right track to recreating the balanced, enduring appeal of Diablo II. As for myself, well, I think I'll start leveling a Wizard on the side. Just in case.
Chris "Pwyff" Tom, Editor-in-Chief