Do you remember when people used to excitedly compare eBay to a game? The way you’d strategise your bids, nipping in at the very last moment to snatch a win. How you’d dither over a low starting price, always fearful of an undervalued final price but anxious to attract attention. You’d even get a score at the end of a successful transaction, and it all took place on your screen.
Diablo III took the comparisons literally, fusing to its core of ‘kill monsters, get loot’ an Auction House. You’d amass a bag of loot that was useless to you and you’d sell the best on a free market, either for in-game gold or actual real money, to gear up your characters and face the game’s most testing challenges. It was a game on top of a game! You got to kill monsters, collect loot, AND play the markets.
What a damned mistake it was. Not that it came as any surprise. From the Auction House’s announcement players were sceptical, fearing it marked cynical game balancing that would force players to spend real money to progress deep into its highest level play. Maybe that was the case, but the problem was actually far worse. The Auction House made Diablo III boring.
I never quite understood exactly why, though, until this week with Diablo III’s rebirth. It also shows why thinking eBay is a game completely missed the point of what made Diablo good.
So what’s the update all about? Aside from preparing the ground for Diablo III’s first expansion, Reaper Of Souls, it performs three main acts. It strips out the Auction House entirely. It increases the numbers of great loot drops and piles on the monsters. And it removes the set progression of difficulty levels in favour of letting you choose them at any time.
In real terms, it means that after about 30 minutes play I collected two legendary-rated items after having found the same number over the course of 50-odd hours of play in the original game. I had shoulder armour that had a chance of shooting out a 360 degree fan of blades when I got hit, and a pair of shoes that left a trail of fire. A friend with whom I was adventuring found himself a stave that magically summoned three cows to fight for him and a ring that conjured a friendly treasure goblin to follow him around.
Minute on minute I was getting a rare items which would push up my damage rating and ‘toughness’, a new conflation of health and armour stats, up by 20, 30, 40 per cent at a time. The new power was intoxicating, the game a slot machine of constant reward, and as I started to mow through mobs, I simply pushed up the difficulty and saw the XP and gold I was earning soar.
Of course it wouldn’t last. The loot kept dropping but it couldn’t keep topping the gear I was already wearing. I started to worry. Could it all simply be a trap laid by Blizzard to tune my dopamine back into Diablo III’s virtuoso audio-visual landscape of splatching blood and showers of light? It felt like it could return to the stodgy plodding of the original release, in which reward was delayed and disconnected from its source. The strike of a Barbarian’s hammer rarely resulted in immediate improvement. It instead meant a trip back to town, worrying over starting prices and starting an execrable wait for purchases before I could pore for ages over inexhaustible lists of potential purchases in which the legendary stuff was still always out of reach. Besides, it’s simply less satisfying to pay for an awesome pair of gloves that someone else found, rather than winning it yourself for punching an epic zombie mob out of its skeleton.
So playing a market while trying to scythe through monsters was just not fun. And no, happily Diablo III 2.0 doesn’t stray back into that general morass. Here’s the moral of the tale: by stripping out anything that obstructs Diablo’s baseline philosophy of the game: ‘kill monsters, get loot’, Diablo III 2.0 is so incredibly better.
Though the loot soon became less clearly powerful, it remains more interesting, offering far more reason to puzzle over losing a stat here in order to gain a stat there. It makes me switch around my skills to take advantage of and explore far more subtle windfalls: bonuses to specific talents, more pronounced strengths and weaknesses.
And the variety of those legendary items: the bow that had a 25% chance of making a clucking sound when fired was honestly difficult to set aside in favour of my flaming number that lets me chuck out infinite Elemental Arrows. And it’s immediate. Without the Auction House getting in the way, managing loot doesn’t break the flow of play, while comparing between a small number of items in your bag rather than those in a huge list is just that much more fulfilling.
Diablo III 2.0 is about excess in the service of focus. It piles on the trinkets, but they keep giving interesting choices (we just need to remember Meier here) that influence the way you’ll play. The surprising thing is that it achieves this by removing a whole chunk of the game and turning the rest up to 11. Who’d have thought less game could play so much better?