In many ways Blizzard is a developer built upon iteration - the notion that you implement a feature then endlessly tweak it until it is perfect. What results is the finely honed gameplay, interface and control responsiveness that the company is famous for (as well as the endless release delays that it is infamous for). The danger is that, like anything constantly polished, it will end up smooth and textureless.
Anyone who played World of Warcraft knows just how infuriating iteration can be – abilities suddenly changing overnight, or certain stats being rendered invalid. At times there seemed like there was a war being waged between the developers and players, as Blizzard desperately tried to keep the game balanced in the face of players pushing the boundaries of their abilities.
It can sometimes be a good thing – just ask anyone who raided as a Paladin in the days before blessings became class-wide, or mages who logged on hours before a raid to conjure water three lots at a time. Other times it causes massive issues to people just playing the game as it appeared to be designed. This has involved everything from rogues stacking agility to reach unhittable levels of dodge, melee dps piling on armor penetration gear at the near exclusion of all else, or healing spells having mana costs hiked because the design goals involved using more than a handful of spells.
In many ways this is expected because WoW is a Massively Multiplayer game, one that combines PVE and PVP aspects. But this kind of tweaking and twiddling is already beginning in Diablo III, an inherently singleplayer experience. Over recent days the process of hotfixing has begun rendering certain abilities useless, purely because Blizzard wasn’t happy with the diagnostic data it was receiving.
Not only have some abilities been tweaked, but a couple have been rendered intentionally useless by hotfixes, with promises that they will be properly changed in future patches. One big issue here, and something that also happened with such changes in WoW, is that the ability descriptions in the game client have stayed the same. In order to know that the button you have been pushing for a week has been deliberately broken you need to keep an eye on the Diablo III forums.
If you are a hardcore Diablo player this might seem to be a no brainer, but for the vast majority of the 6.3 million owners of the game it isn’t. That means the button you have been hitting happily since launch not only no longer does what it says on the label, but there is no indication anything has changed until the game is patched (and even then, it involves you paying close attention to patchnotes and re-reading the tooltips).
One hopes that this is just initial tweaking, much like an initial patch that drops a few weeks after the launch of a non-online game. After all, Blizzard has never shied away from making drastic changes to gameplay with major patches for its games. But given Blizzard’s iterative history, we worry this is the beginning of a WoW-like tweaking of abilities, making the game feel like a seesaw where you never quite know what your buttons actually do.
But the big question it raises with us is that, if this is inherently a single/cooperative game, who gives a fuck if an ability is overpowered?! It isn’t as though players aren’t going to be allowed to join a coop game if they don’t have a certain ability, and with Diablo’s supposed flexibility of playstyles and gear choices how does invoking ‘design goals’ and ‘budgets’ actually make much sense anyways?
It takes the lack of modability and other criticisms levelled at the game to a new plane. Not only does the end user no longer have the ability to tinker with the title, but also has no control over playing it the way they want to – or no guarantee that the way they play will be viable in the future.
One can only hope that this is just post-launch tweaking – after all, Blizzard was so careful to hide away most of the game that its beta had but a fraction of the content in it. But if hotfixing and changing abilities in future patches is the long term plan, then what happens once the real money auction house goes live?
Blizzard may well have developed a thick skin, given the general level of angst and vitriol that infects their game forums, but one suspects the combination of constant iteration and a real money auction house opens up a whole new potential for outrage. No longer will it be WoW players screaming ‘Shaman need more buffs!” or Diablo III players complaining about Error 37 but it could potentially be players legitimately pissed that the gear that they dropped real cash on has been rendered invalid because stacking certain stats broke Blizzard’s spreadsheets of expectations.
On the other hand, it is likely that this real money Auction House is also part of the reason Blizzard isn’t letting characters just be awesome. Perceived differences between characters could affect the ability to farm for those high ticket items on Inferno difficulty – but again, in the end does it really matter if those wanting to try and earn some dollars on the Auction house prefer a certain class? You can almost guarantee that these people will happily create a character specifically for the purpose of making money – decking them out in the best magic finding gear they can source and endlessly killing that one pack of mobs that seems to be most financially lucrative. Even then, it still doesn’t affect those just wanting to play the freaking game.
Even worse, we haven’t even seen Player vs Player content be implemented in the game yet. The eventual addition of PVP will inevitably bring with it a whole other set of spreadsheets, and the potential for even more hotfixes.
For all the debate over whether Diablo III is a massively multiplayer game, or a heavily DRMed single player one, it looks like Blizzard has decided to treat it as the former. It just needs to be extra careful that it doesn’t fall into the small trap of endless tweaking and twiddling, which will just frustrate those who just want to have fun killing shit and finding sweet, sweet loot. After all, isn’t that what Diablo is supposed to be all about?