Posts Tagged Blizzard

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls: Same Shitty Storytelling, Different Year

So, last weak the expansion pack for Diablo III came out, “Reaper of Souls”, advertised as being about an angel basically going evil and deciding to kill all humans because humans are evil and suck, and since I’m still a fan of the Diablo series, and genuinely do love the gameplay, I picked it up.

Yes, this was even after remembering my post last year, The True Tragedy of Diablo III, which was largely about how disappointed I was by Diablo III’s storytelling. Not the outline of the story or the themes involved, of course. Frankly, I’d love to see that theme explored more, the sense of continued optimism and eternal persistence in the face of gloom, dread, tragedy and personal mistakes that was woven throughout so much of what passed for Diablo 3’s story.

I played through the new content, and, aside from a few bits that were just on-the-face dumb (the ending is pretty sudden and uninspired, not really resolving the events as much as just stopping), the story continues in Diablo 3’s grand tradition of coming up with interesting story ideas and doing jack shit with them.

Spoiler time, so apologies if you really, genuinely care about what the storylines in the new content are, but here’s what I can remember of the major and minor story elements:

  • Angels in the service of the crazy-and/or-evil Angel of Death, Malthael, descend upon the large city of Westmarch and start killing everything they see, turning the slain humans into Reapers, undead beasties that go around killing more people. The Nephalem hero from Diablo 3 shows up in Westmarch and gets to work stopping it, especially once the hero finds out that the Ebon MacGuffin (I mean, Black Soulstone) from Diablo 3 got stolen by Malthael as well.
  • When the rest of Heaven found out about Malthael going rogue, they had sent another Angel to try to find him and turn him back to the light, however this other Angel grew to agree with Malthael’s cause and joined up with him. And he clearly didn’t go alone, showing that Angelic Purity is hardly universal or reliable.
  • Each of your companions have their stories develop further, be it bringing down the Templar’s corrupted order, finally finding Lyndon’s brother, only too late, or discovering that one of the Enchantress’ sisters betrayed them all, instead of allowing herself to be sacrificed for Eirena’s sake.
  • While Westmarch is being invaded, there’s still politics going on. The city is ruled by stuck-up nobility, many of whom are showing their true colors in the horror. The long-abused underclasses are taking advantage, French Revolution style, but end up killing nobles seeking to help save the city, and even the King is murdered by a rival noble, seeking to put his family back on the throne… all while Angles are coming down and killing everything in sight, in the grandest tradition of idiots refusing to see the big picture.
  • And there’s smaller acts of heroism in there too, be it soldiers fighting and dying to protect civilians from the angelic horde, a random man rescuing a young woman, only to turn out to have been a deserter now bound for the noose, even a sorcerer trying to find a way to save the souls being taken by the Angels, only for the spell to fail with nearly disastrous results.
  • As you finish things in Westmarch, you find out what Malthael’s plan is: To use the Ebon MacGuffin to destroy everything with demonic heritage. While this doesn’t seem bad without context, it is a little bad when you remember that Humanity is the result of an Angel and a Demon’s union… and so Malthael plans to destroy all of humanity to rid existence of the demonic taint.
  • You also find out that the person that can best hunt down Malthael is Adria… the woman that betrayed the good guys in the main campaign of Diablo 3, killed the one of the most benevolent characters in the game and is a woman that the heroes, as well as most of the players, would be oh so happy to tear limb from limb… and so you need to hunt her down, mindful that you need to get the information from her before you kill her.
  • Once Adria’s dealt with, after some ominous words about how Diablo will find a way back, you need to go after Malthael, and are assisted by a very grumpy Angel named Imperius, who knows that Malthael needs to be put down, but can’t bring him to do it himself… so will just give the Heroes a bit of a leg up, even if he won’t stop being a dick about it.
  • And then you find out that, to destroy Malthael, you need to absorb the spirits he had taken of some of your countrymen (the people depending on your class), and thus becoming an embodiment of your class and your people.
  • Of course, you end up fighting Malthael, but during the fight Malthael shatters the Ebon MacGuffin, powering himself up as a result for the One-Winged Angel form (…although he still has two wings). With the killing blow, however, you find out that killing Malthael may have ended up setting Diablo free once again, and the game ends with Tyrael wondering if the Nephalem heroes will ever become corrupted and evil… because they’re certainly powerful enough to take down the Angels.

Sorry for the wall of text above, but that was rather the point: There’s a lot of story elements in Diablo 3. Angels falling and becoming evil, people fighting each other even in the face of a greater threat, small acts of heroism and sacrifice, the chance for revenge versus the need for life saving information, an adversary coming to your aid, growing stronger through spiritual methods and the eventual worry of power corrupting even the most noble souls…

And, like in Diablo 3’s main campaign, they do very, very little with it. Even the bigger elements barely get touched upon. Story elements are shoved to the side whenever possible, even when there’s chances to make them work better. There’s a few points in the game where “You need to go do these things so we can draw the gameplay out some more” shows up, and its little more than transparent excuses for you to go around and kill things.

I know what the reaction is: It’s Diablo. You don’t play it for the story, you play it for the gameplay! Who cares if the story is shit, it’s an action RPG, the story’s just there to drive the action! The problem I have with it is twofold:

1: Shit is shit. The story’s a part of the game, it has cutscenes, cinematics, voice-overs, there’s achievements linked to finding all the conversation stuff in the game. If its in the game, its worth criticizing, and given that they put time and money into the story, why shouldn’t the quality of it be criticized?

2: It’s not an excuse plot. I WISH it was an excuse plot.

Diablo 1 and 2 had wafer-thin stories that were used to string the action along. There were good elements in there, sure, but it wasn’t given a huge amount of focus, outside of the cinematics that did a great job of setting up the next bit of story. The thing is, when you get a thin excuse plot that exists just to drive the action? Its easy to ignore, it doesn’t get in the way and it provides a bit of fun.

Diablo 3, and now the expansion, are not excuse plots. They put money into them, there’s inventive ideas with strong themes involved, ideas designed to build up the world, a real sense that the game is supposed to MEAN something.

The problem is that Blizzard is using the same old strategies in their efforts to ‘tell’ the story. Brief conversations consisting of 3-5 lines, spaced 15-30 minutes apart, depending on the subject. Journals you’ll find lying around the level, which are all too easy to miss in the chaos of battle. A handful of cinematics that are mostly exposition. Occasional sidequests that are meant to ‘enrich’ the world, but are entirely self-contained because the levels are randomly generated, so they can’t be sure which small zones you’re going to stumble across this time.

It all merges together into what can only be described as Homeopathic Storytelling: A small amount of good story and plot in there, but so heavily diluted by the action and refusal to force the players into the story at all. The story so often gets shoved aside for the sake of gameplay that it gets ridiculous after a while, thin excuses for plot cul de sacs popping up here and there that never get brought up again.

Like with the main campaign of Diablo 3, there are elements in the story that are worth exploring, that nearly DEMAND exploring. Because Blizzard fails consistently to do so, the game suffers badly.

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Diablo III and Real Money Trading

Spoiler-free, I hope!

The third game in the fairly legendary Diablo series was released last Tuesday, to much fanfare, an insane amount of sales and a few million jokes about how no one can play the damn thing because all the servers died 37 seconds after release. And while I want to take a hard look at the game’s storytelling at some point down the road, right now the juicy topic is the Real Money Trading aspect of Diablo III that is proving to be fairly controversial, even if it hasn’t been released yet.

The basic story here is that Diablo III, a sequel to a game that basically revolved around loot, will be giving players a way to sell items that they found in-game to other players, either for the in-game currency (Gold) or for real-world money, with Blizzard taking a modest cut of course. The Gold auction house is currently in the game, and is seeing a lot of use, generally being considered the most reliable way to get gear while leveling.

I imagine that Blizzard’s hope for this feature is to provide a modest amount of revenue, primarily to keep the servers running, while also raking in enough after to fund additional development of in-game content (they’re probably going to need it…) and to, of course, bring in a nice profit. The inspiration for this idea was, no doubt, the large amount of underground item selling that existed in Diablo II and is still around in World of Warcraft. As always, if something’s happening underground, there’s usually a good reason behind it, and bringing it above ground can lead to some massive profits.

…obviously, not the perspective to take with EVERYTHING in the black and gray markets, but its nice to see Blizzard taking a shot.

Guinea pigs and all.

How Microtransactions Change a Game

The big elephant in the room is that Blizzard is now trying to make money off of player actions within the game, instead of from box sales or subscriptions. Calling this a massive change may very well be a serious understatement.

With most retail games, you make a game and you sell it. Shocking, I know, but the order is important: The game gets made and (for the most part) finished before its actually sold. As such, you’re really just focused on making the best game possible, maybe with some concessions made to increase the breadth of the game’s appeal. Of course, there’s a lot of things that go into the sales of a game, but the developers really only have to be focused on making the game as good as possible.

Keep in mind, broad strokes here. There are always exceptions, such as sequel baiting that can weaken a plot, or introducing characters and gameplay elements designed to make the game more ‘hip’ or something. DLC can also often fall into this trap, such as the DLC for Assassin’s Creed 2 (…all three Assassin’s Creed 2’s) which had non-critical but still interesting bits of the story left out of the overall game, in order to develop and sell post-release.

But once you start trying to make money off of player actions in-game, entirely voluntary sources of income that don’t add content? Then you run into a sadistic choice: Do you improve the quality of the game, or do you try to improve the potential for revenue?

Always Online

Obviously, the Always Online aspect of Diablo 3 has been… unpopular. The general gist of this is that you must be logged into Battle.Net in order to play Diablo 3. You can play by yourself, of course, and in fact that’s the default option, but you still have to connect to a server and stay online in order to play Diablo 3.

For comparison purposes? Diablo and Diablo II were completely playable offline, but both also were playable online via Battle.Net, and a ton of people did, since you could join up with other players, trade items and take on the legions of hell as a group. The popular reaction by players, possibly because the industry has been rather savaged by poorly implemented DRM, is that Diablo III’s Always Online play is a form of DRM, in order to prevent nasty pirates from stealing the game for free. And, well, there’s something to that argument. After all, its probably impossible to crack Diablo III right now, since the server runs the game for the most part. So, yay for a form of DRM that doesn’t cause pirated copies to have a better version of the game, but boo for its flaws.

But, the real reason? Probably has to do with the online marketplace and the RMT. Extra Credits did a great piece on this: By going all-online, everyone is a potential customer of the auction house, and everyone is also a potential seller.

And all it cost them was the inability for a lot of their players to play the game at launch. Or if they have a server downtime. Or if the player has a finicky internet connection. Or any number of other problems.

And what happens in the future? 15 years after release, I can still play Diablo I on my computer (…well, on A computer. Backwards compatibility from Windows 7 to Windows 95 isn’t perfect). 15 years from now, I’ll probably still be able to play it, even if Battle.net has shut down (again, assuming I have a Windows 95 machine around…). But Diablo III requires the server to be there, and will not be playable, at all, if Activision-Blizzard goes bankrupt, or Diablo III stops being profitable to run.

Simply put, the game is made weaker by forcing everyone to play online. But it will likely increase revenue. And someone, somewhere, felt that was an acceptable trade-off.

Not to say it won’t be a good trade-off for Diablo III. After all, the numbers might be completely right, and a company can’t develop content and pay employees without making money. They can’t keep servers running without money. Money is not evil.

Please repeat that. Money is not evil.

The Little Things

That’s not to say that the Always Online aspect of the game is the only situation where Auction House Revenue was looked at in the design process.

In all honesty? I would wager that, once they decided that the Real Money Auction House was going to be in Diablo III, someone at Blizzard went over every part of the game with a fine tooth comb to make sure that everything in the game either went towards encouraging Auction House use, or at least didn’t contradict it.

Just a few examples…

  • Gold: Gold is much, much harder to get in Diablo III, compared to Diablo II. This is primarily because non-magical items, the bulk of what drops from monsters, is worth a handful of gold. The best sources of gold are now: Killing monsters for dropped gold (which will have a very predictable formula), raiding treasure chests in caves for the gold and magical items within (which will take a lot of effort and time) and selling powerful, rate items on the Gold Auction House.Also, there’s a lot of gold sinks in the game. Diablo II just had armor repairs, which could generally be paid off by killing a handful of enemies, and gambling, where you throw money at a vendor for a random magic item. In Diablo III, the Gold Auction House takes a ‘service charge’ of sorts from items sold, you have to spend gold to increase the size of your stash (a LOT of gold, too), you need to spend gold to upgrade your craftsmen to unlock stronger patterns that they can make (which also require Gold to make), and you can change the color or visibility of your equipped items for a fairly nominal charge, at least in comparison to the 100,000 Gold needed to unlock a new Stash tab.All of that means that you’re not going to get filthy rich in in-game currency very easily. And if it becomes easier to tap yourself out on Gold, popping down 2-3 bucks on an item in the Real Money Auction House? That starts to sound more appealing…Or maybe its just a balance decision in order to prevent the need for alternative currencies, like in Diablo II when the Stone of Jordan became a defacto currency amongst item traders, and it sure is nice for Gold to actually be useful for things…
  • Inferno Difficulty: Diablo II came with three difficulty settings: Normal, Nightmare and Hell. In order to reach Nightmare, your character had to beat the game on Normal, and to reach Hell you had to beat the game on Nightmare. This was generally for the best, as you needed the extra levels and stronger gear in order to beat the higher difficulties. Diablo III adds a fourth difficulty, Inferno, which is intended to be, well, nigh-impossible for most players to beat (Of course, Inferno difficulty was beaten in the first week by a team of dedicated players…).So, what’s the evil part of this? Well, Diablo III is very, very, very, VERY gear based. Obviously, skill is needed too, but the old math still applies: Skill + Gear > Skill. Having a hugely difficult game mode will only entice players more and more to try to beat it at any cost. And if their gear isn’t up to the task, and they can’t suddenly get ‘better’ at the game? Some are going to want to spend money in the Auction House to boost their stats.Or maybe they just wanted to add a super-hard mode, beyond even Hell difficulty, to provide an extra challenge to people once they hit level 60.
  • Arena: This isn’t in the game yet, of course, but… yeah. PvP combat. Diablo II had a bit of this, but it was not a focus of the game at all for the bulk of its players. Diablo III is aiming to make this a major feature, once it gets finished and properly balanced.Ha. Properly balanced.In a game where you can buy powerful items for real-world money.There’s a general rule when it comes to micro-transactions: Don’t sell power. This isn’t as hard a rule as some would like, as it can be very tempting to sell a minor boost in power, but for Diablo III? This is likely the big revenue enhancing feature. A lot of players will be at the level cap of 60, and thus the only way to get more powerful would be with getting better gear.

    Then again? People like PvP, and having stronger support for PvP can only be a good thing for the game as a whole.

The fun thing about all three of the above? All three changes are an outright improvement over Diablo II. Gold was truly worthless in Diablo II. 4 difficulties is definitely a step up from 3, especially since the barometer for true success in Diablo II was getting to level 99, not something so pedestrian as beating the final boss on the hardest difficulty. And PvP was barely supported in Diablo II, generally an afterthought. But that’s not to say that tweaks weren’t made here and there for the sake of improving revenue.

There’s other little things, too…

  • Bosses in Nightmare for me haven’t been dropping Rare items, is that a mechanism to prevent boss farming from being a reliable source of powerful loot?
  • Is the lack of an EXP penalty for Nightmare and Hell (Something that Diablo II had) the result of Blizzard not wanting to punish players too much, so that they feel okay to keep pounding their head against a boss and take the Gold penalties from death, making it harder to use the Gold Auction House?
  • Is the presence of a somewhat accessible level cap at 60 (instead of the nigh-unobtainable level 99 in Diablo II pre-expansion) there to make sure that the potentially VERY profitable Arena is something players will shift their focus to?
  • How much of a focus in playtesting and QA was there to find areas too useful for grinding GP?
  • Did the lack of permanent build customization factor into things, to prevent players from starting from Level 1 repeatedly, and thus prevent there from being a severe drought of high level items being sold on the Auction House?

There’s a streak of paranoia running through all of that, of course, and much of that is probably completely wrong. But some of those questions, particularly the ones relating to farming, were definitely considered by someone at Blizzard. This is what Micro-Transactions can do to a game, it gives you another level of problems to worry about, and sometimes, you want to make a choice for purely financial reasons.

Not all of them are bad, of course. Blizzard is likely going to release content for Diablo III post-release, in order to keep the game feeling fresh. The Arena, for example, is going to be 100% post-release. They might throw in special bonus bosses here and there, unique events on occasion, anything to keep players playing, and the development and production costs of that is going to be paid for from the Auction House.

And I really should be fair here: the best way to encourage in-game purchases by players really IS to have a good game! If you take too many money-based short-cuts, you end up hurting sales because the game isn’t good enough! I have no doubts that Blizzard considered and rejected a lot of ideas that would have increased the attractiveness of the Real Money Auction House, but at the expense of players actually wanting to play the game. I’m loving Diablo III right now, and while I probably won’t spend money in the Real Money Auction House, I definitely understand the appeal of such a system. But its also not worth ignoring the potential player abuse that can go into the development decisions when micro-transactions come into play, and the Always Online “Feature” was almost definitely an example.

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