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Breaking Up With Blizzard

By (June 1, 2012) One Comment

Diablo III

Blizzard Entertainment, 2012

Hey Blizzard.

Look, we need to talk.

I know it’s been a while. Last time we saw each other, it was back in 2010 when Starcraft II had just been released. I had already gotten a sneak peak at PAX, where I learned that I still fared as poorly in your multiplayer as I had in the previous game. The original Starcraft was still a multiplayer staple of high school local area networks (LANs) – had been for over a decade – but I never really honed my skills in the AV lab with the other dark-shirted geeks. I spent more time in the library, trying to wrap my head around Paradise Lost. I was – still am – a narrative nerd, so for me the true charm of Starcraft came from the intricacy of the world you built for me, and the tripartite structure of its campaign, which replaced the either/or mutual exclusion of ‘picking sides’ (who will win, Orcs or Humans?) with a progressive story in which every mission had its place in the plot’s unfolding.

And that hasn’t changed. Admittedly, it’s two years later, and we’re still waiting on the second installment of the Starcraft II campaign, but this isn’t the first time I’ve waited for you, and by no means the longest. I can accept this – like Nintendo’s savant cum oracle Miyamoto-san says, a delayed game is eventually good, while a bad game is bad forever. It isn’t really fair to compare, either – the original Starcraft came out all the way back in 1998. We’ve all grown a lot since then. Some things had to change. That didn’t mean things had to change between us.

Sure, the AV dweebs may have felt betrayed when you cut out LAN play in favor of region specific servers under your control, which is why that faction of fans bombed SCII’s Amazon reviews with single-star ratings. But I wasn’t in it for the multiplayer; anything with gameplay in which ‘mouse-clicks per second’ becomes a statistical value crucial to success falls well outside my comfort zone. I get it, things are different in South Korea, and I could hardly fault you for your incredible success over there, where professional Starcraft players have sponsors and contracts and hysterical fans.

We also had that World of Warcraft thing going for a while, but work got in the way; I’m sure you didn’t miss me too much, though, not with over ten million subscribers. Still, you know and I know that our history goes back a lot further than WoW. I started playing your cataclysmically successful massive multiplayer game out of loyalty to Warcraft II, whose Tolkein-esque maps and level-editor invited me to weave my own stories in your world. No game, no game developer, had ever been so open with me. I haven’t forgotten that.

I’m writing because, well, as everyone knows, you just came out with Diablo III. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, and I’m not the only one. Mine weren’t the only heady teenaged days with nights spent unwisely clicking myself towards a repetitive stress injury with Diablo II and its expansion, Lord of Destruction. Heck, I’d even ground my way through the original Diablo, which shocked and fascinated my adolescent self with its grisly depiction of a Hell made of blood and bone. It was light on plot, certainly, but heavy on lore and its gothic atmosphere was unbeatable, something straight out of Melmoth the Wanderer or The Castle of Otranto. The sequel was, if anything, even lighter on story, but in terms of sheer mayhem Diablo II achieved what was, at that time, the pinnacle of hack-and-slash RPG gameplay.

Hack and slash – maybe not the most sophisticated of pleasures, fashioning a character expressly to enjoy their destructive capacities, but you understood that sometimes, that’s all I wanted. ‘Role playing’ as such was never really central to the Diablo experience – characters were noteworthy for their appearance and attitude, and for the visually distinct ruination they rained down upon the endless streams of demonic enemies: paladins sheath themselves in a holy aura and smite their foes, necromancers can raise undead minions to fight for them, and barbarians tend to use massive weapons to – what else? – hack and slash. Within each class there was room to customize, characterize, to make one’s character distinct: my sorceress focused on channeling powerful bolts of lightning, while another player’s might concentrate on calling bolts of ice from the sky. One character’s chosen suite of skills might be more effective than another – not every ‘build’ was equal – but as long as I played at a sane difficulty level (sticking to Normal or even Nightmare difficulty, and steering clear of well-named Hell) the satisfaction of destruction was pretty much guaranteed.

You promised that the new game would give us all that and more – and I had no reason to disbelieve you. When it came to Starcraft, with its delicate balancing of asymmetrical playstyles in a competitive environment, the question could be raised: how do you follow up – let alone top – what numerous gaming journalists have dubbed ‘the best game, ever? Diablo is a different beast, however. How hard could it be to serve up the same tasty dish, simple fare that it was?

How delicious it was, when it was fresh. The first two Diablos had the perfect combination of fast-paced arcade-style combat and fantasy roleplaying. My character would make the long trek across a land afflicted by demonic darkness, navigating often labyrinthine terrain and brave hordes of enemies that would pour across bridges and out of hidden enclaves. Diverse enemies formed swarms, creating dangerous synergies with one another: some acted as shock troops while others hung back to provide fire support, while still others could summon new enemies, or raise slain enemies from the dead to fight once more. The challenge was significant, but if a character was well designed and a player sufficiently devious, the armies of evil could be laid waste. One could even chase them back into their underground lairs, uncovering the stockpiles of treasure they had hidden – gold and jewels and magical arms and armor. All very necessary, since in the end one always had to descend into Hell itself and face down the titular villain: Diablo, the Lord of Terror. It was a formula the first game inaugurated and the second seemed very nearly to perfect. And all the gameplay videos suggested Diablo III would deliver it all, and all over again – better than ever.

We had faith in you. I, like so many other loyalists, paid a hefty chunk of change – $59.99 before tax – to pre-order the game. I spent another five hours waiting for the game to download, well into the wee hours, and once it was done I turned in trusting that, when I awoke, the game would be ready. I know I was ready, Blizzard! More than ready to take the demon by the horns. My money was already down. Commitment between customer and developer doesn’t get much more real than that.

But Diablo III didn’t get off to a good start, did it? Fan vengeance tanked the reviews just as with Starcraft II, and for a not-unrelated reason. When I, like so many others, tried to log on to the game that morning, I found myself confronted with the now-infamous ‘Error 37’. Meaning what? The game’s host servers were offline for emergency maintenance. It was deja vu, Blizzard – it reminded me of our tempestuous days in World of Warcraft when the multiplayer got so massive that the universe of Azeroth had to be reinforced with additional digital levies in order to withstand the flood of players. I got pretty steamed about it at the time, but of course I forgave you, Blizzard. I could no more blame your buckling under all that attention than I could blame the countless other players whose attention caused you to buckle in the first place; I was one of them, after all.

So the Error 37 experience was nothing new for us, in and of itself. The funny thing was, I wasn’t trying to play a multiplayer game! Sometime-misanthrope that I am, I was only interested in traversing the seven gigs of content I have stored on my personal computer, in playing the sole savior of humanity. I wanted a single player experience, just as I’d had with Diablos I and II. I wanted some us time, Blizzard. I hoped in vain. What I realized that morning, along with so many other gamers, was that there was no single player Diablo III, not as such.

Which we should have known all along, since you did tell us: the Diablo III we received was always intended to be server-based. As with WoW, the game ‘happens’ not on a player’s computer, but on one of your servers. This makes perfect sense when it comes to multiplayer games, since it gives each player a more or less equal connection to the session or ‘instance’ of the game they’re sharing; it helps to avoid the messiness that comes with having one player in each instance act as ‘host’ for the game. You cut out the shuffle, the danger of an unreliable host player dropping and forcing a lag-inducing shift to a new host. But that means single player instances become just that, an instance with just a single player in it, still and only on your servers, on your end of things. It’s like you want everything to be on your terms. Of course you have all sorts of excellent reasons for doing this, too – a server-side game pre-empts piracy, reduces the frequency of cheating, and allows (we hope) for the seamless introduction of new content without all the hassle of buying expansions. This sounded sensible enough at the time, if maybe a little hurtful – I’ve never once pirated one of your games, Blizzard! But I know that not all your admirers have my quality of character (not to mention a university research budget).

It wasn’t until early evening that you were finally ready for company, and in the meantime disappointment had fostered resentment, which bred more resentment in turn. Soon everything about the game was bad, wrong, nay, evil. The new leveling system destroyed the last remnant of RPG, it was claimed – now every wizard at any given level was exactly the same as any other wizard at that level, an erasure of that last bit of distinctness, the personal touch that made my character – my experience with the game, with you – special. This was only the beginning, came the steadily rising outcry, of more such anti-consumer moves. Oh Blizzard, the things they’ve been saying about you. How your soul had been lost to Vivendi when you were merged with Activision back in 2008. How the parts of you I loved were cashed in when you cashed out. How, after World of Warcraft, all that really mattered to you was your bottom line. How you had become, after all, just another developer using hype to prop up a hollow game. And after a while, I started to believe them.

Is it true, Blizzard? Have you changed? I was worried, I admit, and my worries began with World of Warcraft. That was when I started to feel less… special to you, when I started to figure out that maybe you didn’t have my best interests in mind. Maybe it was that book I read, about the poor man who nearly lost his life to that game. Not to mention the young woman whose dorm room my spouse-to-be took when she returned early from being abroad; at the time were were just happy for the vacancy, but that was only because the previous occupant’s parents had to come and pry their daughter from her computer screen. She had to take a leave of absence from Harvard because she had stopped going to classes, stopping going out at all. She stayed in her room day in and day out, playing World of Warcraft.

Do I sound jealous? I’m not. This has never been about exclusivity or intensity. But I am worried. Because while I have it in my heart to understand why you switched to DRM, it’s true that server-only access is not the only similarity World of Warcraft and Diablo III share. The comparison between the incentive system used by slot machines and the addictive power of WoW is so striking as to be undeniable; on a behavioral level, there is no real difference between what drives a WoW addict, a slot machine junkie, and a rat frantically pushing a switch in hopes of a random pellet drop.

Am I saying you make me feel like a rat, Blizzard? I might not be ready to go that far, but others seem to think so. I’ve already heard the new Diablo called a ‘clicking machine’, which is a conditioned rat’s toy if ever there were one. The addition of item crafting – which allows players to break down magical items they don’t want or can’t use into raw materials which can then be reconstituted – and an auction house – in which crafting blueprints and rare materials can be sold by players to other players – may add complexity, but this only makes the Diablo III more rather than less like WoW, which was the first of your games to include just those things: crafting and an auction house. And if the convergence continues, if you continue to consolidate control and refine gameplay towards recurrent rather than genuinely rewarding play… well, I don’t know if we can ever go back to the way things were.

Which wounds me because at first I thought it would be like old times. You certainly went out of your way to suggest as much. Act I of Diablo III placed my wizard (voiced by my all-time favorite vocal talent, Grey Delisle) in New Tristram, right next to Old Tristram, where the original Diablo was set. The first two big bad enemy ‘bosses’ I had to face – the Skeleton King and the demonic Butcher – were pulled directly from the first game. Act II’s setting was the same as that in Diablo II, the harsh deserts of the Borderlands. Act III takes place on the ramparts near Mount Arreat, also familiar ground.

That said, it’s my fond hope you chose to skip the nightmarish jungles of Kurast that darkened my Diablo II experience. It was there that I first found myself playing without pleasure – playing, and still playing, and not stopping myself from playing, all while distinctly aware that I was no longer enjoying myself. It was there that I found myself agreeing, perhaps, that there was something dubious and addictive about that game.

But that was the experience of Diablo II and, now that I think back to it, this style of gameplay – the ‘clicking machine’ – didn’t begin with WoW. Diablo III is like old times, just like old times, may even be better than old times, but at its heart it isn’t all that different from its predecessor – nor does it have to be. And it isn’t that Diablo is becoming more like WoW; rather, the gameplay style that went on to such great success in WoW was first innovated in Diablo! Everything from the practice of ‘grinding’ bosses for rare drops, to ‘speccing’ your character according to one of three skill trees, all the way down to the random magical item generation engine – all of this was first seen in Diablo II and later ported to WoW. And why not? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

So I take it back, Blizzard. You haven’t changed. But I have.

That doesn’t mean things are over between us. We can still have fun. I’m too nostalgic to miss out on the occasional trip down memory lane. But I need time to see other developers, who’ve matured a little more, who can offer me something you can’t, or don’t want to. And that’s fine. I wouldn’t dare ask so much of you, just for my sake. Just please, don’t take it personally.

It’s not you. It’s me.

Your friend,

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.