Diablo 3 at high levels, the more baffled I am by some of developer Blizzard Entertainment's decisions. An examination of the design of Diablo 3, when combined with the company's public statements on the project, indicate confusion over the goals of Diablo 3, as if there was no conceptual development of Diablo 3 as an overall experience.
Not having been present when decisions were made, I can't speak to the reasons behind Blizzard's choices. But however they were made, those choices have manifested in distinct, negative ways – which should have been easily predicted, yet oddly weren't.
Wait, There's An Endgame?
Earlier this month, a Blizzard community manager made news by publicly admitting that Diablo 3's current "endgame" was unsustainable.
The term "endgame" has become popular with subscription-based massively multiplayer role-playing games, like World Of Warcraft. In that particular genre, the term makes sense. Blizzard doesn't want people to let their World Of Warcraft subscription lapse, so it has more difficult and/or repetitive goals available once the characters hit the level ceiling, usually consisting of raiding or player-versus-player combat. Diablo 3 doesn't have PVP yet, so raiding is the best, albeit inappropriate, comparison. In World of Warcraft, raiding requires larger groups of people (ten or 25, more in the past) than Diablo 3's four.
Raiding is also more tightly constrained in World of Warcraft. You can only kill major raid bosses once per week, only a handful of items drop after each boss, and those potential items are known in advance (unless you're a bleeding edge raid guild). This is a design which is guaranteed to take a certain amount of time. One does not simply walk into Deathwing's boss fight. It requires weeks and months of raiding earlier dungeons, slowly improving your gear.
In Diablo 3, the only constraint is your own time. It's an action-RPG, and this is normal in that genre, whereas it's normal for MMORPGs to have time constraints so that player progression can be controlled. Diablo 3 is fast, with lots of combat and lots of death. World of Warcraft is slow and methodical.
Blizzard already had an effective working model for stretching out the hardest parts of an action-RPG. In Diablo 2, at higher levels, player death incurred major experience point penalties. Between levels 90 and 99, the penalties were so high that only the most dedicated players would succeed at hitting the level cap. And those ridiculous punishments were okay because, well, every player who didn't want to do go through that process had probably seen all the necessary content. Diablo 3 has a lower level cap (60) and uses what I feel are absurd random combinations and counterproductive timers to maintain some level of difficulty.
Why Am I Doing This, Anyway?
Our motivation when playing games can be viewed in two parts: short term (is the moment-to-moment gameplay interesting?) and long term (how is this going to end up?). This isn't an either/or; most games have aspects of both motivators. Diablo 3 succeeds marvelously at the shortest-term level. Its combat is refined, swift, and fun, keeping the game interesting for some time on its own.
But "some time" isn't the goal, as Blizzard seems to want people playing into a longer "endgame." Most RPGs use story in combination with mechanics, but even if you enjoyed Diablo 3's story (and I did not), by the time you hit Inferno Difficulty you'll be on your fourth playthrough, at least. Instead, what Diablo 3 uses is loot. Kill a boss, get some random items, those random items may improve your character. This has worked well for Diablo in the past, alongside other games like Borderlands. But I feel that Diablo 3's auction house system ruins this by making every item in the game potentially available for purchase with in-game gold or real-world cash.
Others have written, and written well, about the demotivating effect of the Auction House: in economic terms, or psychological terms. But the problems again strike me as bizarre because they're utterly predictable.
If you've played World Of Warcraft long enough or on varied enough servers, you know that the various in-game economies can differ based on how mature or progressed a server is. The older or better-developed a server, the higher the equilibrium on prices on the auction house. There's more gold in older worlds. This is a slow process, but it seems consistent, only disrupted when Blizzard releases new content that dramatically alters dynamics. This usually makes items cost more, so higher-level characters have to work harder to buy things. Two other things keep World of Warcraft prices growing at a relatively stable rate: items of the same name have the same statistics (unlike Diablo 3's randomly generated stats), and the existence of mods like "Auctioneer" which allow auction super-users to understand and control the rules of the economy – something Diablo 3 doesn't allow.
Instead, Diablo 3's economy is a chaotic mess, which may be impossible to stabilize. First, there's no mechanic to control the amount of gold within the system. It's easy for a character to make thousands of gold pieces without trying much, just by using "Gold Find" gear. Some, including farmers, were even making multiple millions of gold pieces per hour within a few weeks of release. Second, the terrible user interface for the Auction House plus the random stats on every item combine with the lack of auction software to make stability impossible. I cannot pick up an item and search for how much it should sell for, because everything with its name may be different, and in many cases, it's impossible to search by name.
'Diablo 3 is not World Of Warcraft. We aren't going to be able to pump out tons of new systems and content every couple months.'- Diablo 3 community manager Micah Whipple
This makes searching for items on the Auction House a total crapshoot. Chances are you can find equipment that's a massive improvement on your own for a few thousand gold pieces or less, or there's an inflation of items, and no way to tell how much something should cost. Alternately, a player may get something that they think is really good, and put it up for six, seven, eight figures. There's enough gold in the economy, after all, that it might work. Diablo 3 ends up detaching loot from work with its Auction House, and then it detaches gold from worth by making the Auction House too difficult to use.
The only solution that would come close to fixing these issues would be regular new content. Higher levels, better items, and harder enemies added on a regular basis would fix motivation and difficulty issues. Yet that's something Blizzard's community manager specifically stated wasn't on the table: "But honestly Diablo 3 is not World Of Warcraft. We aren't going to be able to pump out tons of new systems and content every couple months."
I like certain aspects of Diablo 3 a great deal, but I have to shake my head at its "endgame" and economy ideas. It's utterly predictable that without raid constraints, players would see all the content, quickly. It's equally easy to see that without any mechanism to counter inflation or properly search the Auction House, the economy would be chaotic. For the first time in a very long time, I find myself questioning Blizzard's strategic planning. If it's "not World Of Warcraft," then why on earth did Blizzard design Diablo 3's upper-level meta-game as if it were?
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.
The views and opinions in this editorial do not necessarily reflect those of Joystiq.com or its staff.