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Diablo III: Why So Many People Hated It

The following essay was initially written for a research paper project at my school.

            Having published some of its most successful franchises including Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft in the last two decades, Blizzard has become one of the most famous game companies in the world. Unfortunately, a game published in 2012, widely criticized shortly after its release, has damaged its reputation: Diablo III. For a long period of time, most comments under new posts on the official sites were criticism towards the game. Players appeared so disappointed by Diablo III that their comments contained absolutely no compliment; even the moderate ones showed some degree of dissatisfaction. Then, the question is: what makes Diablo III such a hated game? Certainly, there were many problems with the game itself: the loots were too randomized, different classes were unbalanced, and there were numerous bugs here and there. Nonetheless, most of these problems exist in many other popular games. In Dungeon and Fighter by Neople, for instance, whenever a new class was introduced, it became the strongest and the most efficient, and would be significantly weakened in later patches. In Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, more glitches existed than possible fixes, but people still loved Skyrim. Therefore, I cannot convince myself that people hated Diablo III just because of the non-essential problems with it, which could be easily fixed. The underlying problem with Diablo III should lie in its problematic MDA design (Hunicke, LeBlanc, & Zubek): Blizzard failed to identify its target consumers and thus could not design the game accordingly to suit these players. In another word, Blizzard assumed a wrong aesthetic experience that they should create for their target players, which lead to a problematic design of Diablo III’s mechanic and dynamic.

            French sociologist Roger Caillois, divided games into four non-exclusive types: Agon, or competition; Alea, or chance; Mimicry, or make-believe; and Ilinx, or vertigo (Caillois, 2006, pp. 131-140). Just like any role-playing game, Diablo III very well satisfied the Mimicry category, creating an imaginary world in which one could “[become] an illusory character” (Caillois, 2006, p. 135). Unfortunately, the Agon factor was mostly missing in the initial release. Online games, in general, contain a lot more competition among players than do single-player games, due to its ability to bring so many players together in one world and to allow the players interact (compete) with each other, which can provoke players to devote more time to beat others and to stay interested in the game. However, back in 2012, the only competitive element of the game was the achievement system, which required not much skills and could more or less be done with devotion of time. As British game researcher Richard Bartle explained in his paper which categorized players into achiever, explorer, socializer, and killer, “achievers are proud of their formal status in the game’s built-in level hierarchy, and how short a time they took to reach it” (Bartle, 2006, p. 762). In another word, if everyone can get the achievements, achievers naturally lose their interest in the game because they cannot feel their superiority over other players – exactly what happened in Diablo III.

            I mentioned before that there were a lot of criticism towards Diablo III after its release. There was one comment that especially caught my attention and it somewhat explains why socializers and killers might hate the game. It said:

            Blizzard really isn’t a good MMORPG game company. Most of its games are strategy games or offline games. The only MMORPG the company has ever made is World of Warcraft, and it had no other experience in designing or developing online games. Even in the case of WOW, it’s successful probably just because it was released many years ago when players weren’t as demanding on this type of games as now. It was just lucky to make it successful. I don’t really understand why Blizzard didn’t just copy the model they used for WOW. That would make the game much more like an MMORPG game.[1]

            While I do not agree with most of the points in this comment, for example a good game doesn’t result from luck or copycat, it has pointed out a very truthful point: Diablo III is a terrible MMORPG game, even today. In fact, I actually doubted whether the developers intended for it to be an MMORPG at all. There were just too many features lacking in Diablo III for killers or socializers to enjoy the game. There used to have no PVP system, so in general players couldn’t kill other players. Although a Brawling system that allowed players to challenge other players in the group was introduced shortly, it made no sense for a killer player. If I were a killer type player (which I’m not), I wouldn’t bother befriending the people I wanted to upset or kill before I kill them. While the Brawling system enabled PVP in Diablo III, it also greatly limited killers to produce massive amount of distress, which is the true enjoyment of killer players (Bartle, 2006, p. 759). As for socializers, the only two socializing methods were to join the chat channels and to play through the game as a group. Neither one was a good way to establish lasting friendship with strangers online, and thus failed to attract socializers.

            Other problems also existed with the play mode of the game that affected the game’s attraction to almost the entire player population. There has been a lot of debates between ludologists and narratologists over whether games serve as interactive entertainment or narrative media. None of those debates is my concern here; instead, my point is, Diablo III did a terrible job at both. For players who enjoy games as interactive entertainment, who love to interact with the world, they were surely disappointed by the few choices they were given in the game. Throughout the four acts of the game, players weren’t given much option as to which side they wanted to stand with, whether they trusted someone, or whether they needed to kill someone. The only choices they had were how to kill the monsters and when to quit the game. Moreover, the linear storyline, which players had to play through four times without variation, just made players tired and frustrated. For example, at the end of Act III, Leah turns into Diablo because her mother Adria betrayed the player and Tyrael. The first time players went through this story, they might feel sad for the girl who accompanied them for a long time or angry towards Adria’s treachery. However, when they went through the same thing second, third, or forth times, they just felt powerless in the world because none of their effort could change the outcome. No matter how fast the player cleared out a dungeon or retrieve the black soulstone, Leah would die no matter what. The lack of impact from players on the world would drive some players crazy, especially those who enjoy interacting with the world or acting on the world.

            The play-through-identical-storyline-several-times mode also proved to be problematic as a narrative media. The effect was not so different from reading through a poorly written book four times in a row. However, Diablo III wouldn’t get narratologists’ approval for many other reasons. Henry Jenkins, Professor of Cinematic Arts, once described in-game narratives as four non-exhausting types: evocative spaces, enacting stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives (Jenkins, 2006, pp. 677-686). In Diablo III, its evocative spaces would refer to the entire environment design, which would give players a sense of gloom and desperation. However, it was also said that the environment in Diablo III was too colorful, contradicting to the overall theme. Enacting stories used with the overall quest system of Diablo III. Players got a quest (conflict), killed monsters on their way towards success, encountered some elite monsters (small climax), finally reached the final boss (climax), and either died (tragedy) or succeeded (denouement). The problem again lay in the lack of player impact on the story, because even if players succeeded in killing the boss, the story would nonetheless be considered a tragedy with the death of Leah, making the presence of players somewhat meaningless. Embedded narratives could refer to both the main storyline (the cut scenes) and randomly spawned incidents. Again, there was no essential problem with the design, bur playing through these stories numerous times could get extremely frustrating and boring. Diablo III’s biggest failure as narrative media would be its lack of emergent narratives. Because everything was actually programmed to be there, and because of the lack of player interaction, there were absolutely no emergent narratives. Thus, generally speaking, Diablo III wouldn’t be approved by narratologists or appeal to players who enjoyed narrative features in game.

            The last failure of Diablo III lay in its difficulty design, which failed to keep players in the flow state. When in flow zone, players should feel “complete and energized focus in an activity, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment” (Chen, 2007, p. 31), and to keep a player in the zone, “the activity must balance the inherent challenge of the activity and the player’s ability to address and overcome it” (Chen, 2007, p. 33). Diablo III’s difficulty design failed at this task completely. The difficulty level of Diablo III almost represented an exponential function, with Normal and Nightmare at the far left of the y-axis, Hell about between -1 and +1, and Inferno getting extremely difficult. As a result, during the first two levels, players might get bored easily and lose their interest in the game. If they managed to stay, they might find Hell just about right for them to enter flow zone. Eventually when they got into Inferno, they would found the game too difficult to proceeds and finally give up[2].

            Luckily, not all of Diablo III’s initial mistakes was in vain; developers and designers seemed to have learned from their mistakes and made changes in the future releases. From my understanding, the designers have chosen achievers and explorers to be their target consumers, and made the game more like a console game that allows multi-player mode rather than an MMO. Paragon 2.0 opens endless opportunities to improve their characters, and the newest ladder mode allows achievers to better compare their characters with others’ for how soon they reach maximum level and how nice their gears or skills are. The team also introduced Act V and bounty modes into the game, which would allow more exploration of new maps and re-playability. Blizzard didn’t totally ignore socializers either. The Clan system gives players an opportunity to build long-time friendship with people with similar interests. In addition, other improvements such as Loot 2.0 and new difficulty design ensure that players get rewarded for their effort properly and stay in the flow zone. Thus, in general, Diablo III has greatly improved since its debut, mostly because the team has finally identified their target players and are now able to create the specific aesthetic experience for those players. Whether Diablo III will someday become a popular and widely acclaimed game is still of question, but now it certainly has a lot more potentials than ever before.


[1] It has been such a long time since I last saw these comments that I just could not remember who said which where. Moreover, I had no intention of writing this paper back then, so I took no time in remembering any of the phrases, making it really hard to search them up. I really apologize for not mentioning the author. If there are any other comments that I quote without citation in this paper, it’s because I can’t find the source.

[2] Of course, I’m talking about an average player here. There are always some hardcore players who managed to solo Inferno 10 in Hardcore more, which I probably would never understand how.  

Bibliography

Bartle, R. (2006). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit Muds. In K. Salen, & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Game Designer Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology (pp. 754-787). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Retrieved October 4, 2014

Caillois, R. (2006). The Classification of Games. In K. Salen, & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Game Designer Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology (pp. 122-155). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Retrieved August 30, 2014

Chen, J. (2007, April). Flow in Games (and Everywhere Else). Communications of the ACM, 50(4), 31-34. Retrieved October 30, 2014

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (n.d.). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. 1-5. Retrieved September 6, 2014

Jenkins, H. (2006). Game Design as Narrative Architecture. In K. Salen, & E. Zimmerman (Eds.), The Game Designer Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology (pp. 670-689). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Retrieved September 20, 2014

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