Why is it that so many of my friends who count Diablo 2 amongst their all-time favourite videogames find themselves so disappointed with its sequel?
It is tempting to point into the horrific maelstrom that is public opinion on the internet and claim that Diablo 3 suffers predominantly from an overabundance of rainbows; now, while I do believe said rainbows represent a tangible detail to which some have pointed in an effort to articulate legitimate concerns with the tone of the game world, that is only one piece of the story. The remainder involves the game’s notorious Auction Houses, which are far more interesting to discuss because they reveal something surprising about loot and its design. Diablo 3 commits the cardinal sin of Game Design Idolatry: It is so fixated on the whirring and buzzing of its item generating machine that it loses sight of the aesthetics for which that system was originally designed, and which made Diablo 2 so memorable.
Diablo’s trademark slew of blue, green, orange, yellow and gold artifacts (a veritable rainbow of increasingly-delicious flavours) plays a vital role in forging the deadly Skinner Box for which the game is most famous. Every click is a chance for a kill; every kill is a chance for an item; every item is a chance for an unidentified rare; every unidentified rare is a chance for a massive character upgrade; every massive character upgrade is a chance for more clicks. In this sense the game is, as Jonathan Blow is fond of saying, an elaborate slot machine. And it would seem, at a glance, that adding real money to the equation should only enhance the game loop; the next drop might now be worth 5 actual dollars, a hundred, maybe even a thousand. Yet this time around my friends and I feel no compulsion to keep playing as we did in the past. Are we simply bored of the formula? Has it worn out? Have we outgrown it? I don’t think so. I believe the formula is a false idol; it is not the thing we truly enjoyed about Diablo 2 and is not enough to sustain our interest in the sequel. The formula, when properly mixed, serves merely as a context in which the actual game can occur.
The big oversight in Diablo 3‘s design—that which it lacks—reveals via its absence the surprising truth I mentioned earlier: Randomized loot generators, while theoretically capable of flooding the game world with hundreds of thousands of items, were actually designed never to do so. The idea is not to blast the player with a loot firehose; it is instead to produce a moderate amount of very specific, very personalized loot so that players feel like a small but unique piece of a vast storyworld. Diablo 2 is about finding an “Artisan’s Quilted Armour of the Bear” and using it all the way through the first half of Act II, then leaving it in your stash for hours afterwards because you can’t quite bring yourself to sell the thing. You want the item to be special, to have history; you assume someone owned it before you, and you’d like to think someone might use it after (a friend, perhaps, or a new character). The famous Skinner Box, rather than being a prison, hereby becomes a context for inventing stories around your character and her items; in other words, it facilitates roleplay.
Diablo 3, by contrast, is about going to the Auction House to survey 831 other instances of Artisan’s Quilted Armour of the Bear so you can use a sorting algorithm to see which one hits the very top end of the stat distribution chart, then buy it for less pocket change than you’d spend on a cheeseburger at McDonald’s.
Procedural item generators are best used to make loot feel specific by imposing scarcity, sampling a handful of points from a very large possibility space; this approach is aesthetically complementary (that is to say the opposite) to making loot feel ubiquitous by sampling a whole bunch of points from everywhere at once. Thus where Diablo 2 uses slot machine dynamics to dispense historical and cultural artifacts, Diablo 3 uses them to dispense nickels. Where the former invites us to spend hours upon hours travelling through a virtual world the latter suggests we waste a bunch of time in our own world while promising to repay us (though never in full) using currency. The former is a videogame; the latter is a shady investment.
Here is a rough concept for redesigning items in Diablo to enhance, rather than detract from, the aesthetic of personal histories within games. Suppose every item you use has an experience system attached to it, gaining ‘affinity’ to you as you fight with it. Once you’ve used an item for long enough it gains a new stat and, more importantly, you get to attach a name to it. When you sell or discard the item, it flutters off to a server somewhere on the internet; then, the moment some other player identifies a similar piece of equipment in her own game, your item gets passed from the server down to her. She can see the name you chose for it, as well as the number of players who owned it previously; in time she can add her own name to it and then pass it back to the server for someone else. In this way we seek to add rather than subtract specificity, using the encyclopedic nature of computer environments to build actual histories at which previous Diablo games could only hint. Let items remember the places from which they originate. Let them look increasingly scarred as they become increasingly seasoned. Beat them up a bit, then pass them on. Let the items of your life bring life back to items.
We love the idea of game histories: That which has come before, and that which will come after. We love when game worlds live and evolve. It turns software simulations with random number generators into virtual environments with pasts and futures. It creates culture, and makes games actually feel like things. It is the principle behind Journey’s post-completion multiplayer dynamic and, in particular, its protagonist’s white robe; it is the reason why everybody lost their shit over Jason Rohrer’s Chain World concept at GDC 2011; it is the central conceit underlying games like Minecraft and Brad Muir/Double Fine’s forthcoming Massive Chalice. It’s a powerful idea whose time has come.