Let’s wind the clocks back to May 15th, 2012. That’s the day Diablo III was originally released for the PC. If you’re a fan of PC gaming — heck, if you’re a fan of gaming at all — you were probably aware of the game’s release. Diablo II is one of the most beloved titles in PC gaming history and after ten long years, the sequel was finally upon us. And then the unthinkable happened…the game was really bad.
Let’s talk for a second about how and why Diablo III was terrible, because it wasn’t bad in the traditional way that games are could be bad. It didn’t have horrible controls, bad graphics or bad sound. The gameplay was solid and satisfying. For the first several hours that you played Diablo III it felt great. Where the game went wrong though was in the overall design of exactly what Diablo III was. The Diablo franchise has always been about loot. You kill monsters, take their items, and if the items are better you use them. Rinse. Repeat. The satisfaction of a game like Diablo II came from the grind, essentially. People played for hours looking for that one item that would make them way more powerful. When they finally got the item there was this massive sense of accomplishment and happiness. So while Diablo III played like a Diablo game, it didn’t feel like a Diablo game.
The Loot System Was Flawed.
Let’s start with the incredibly flawed loot system. Here’s how it works. Whenever a monster dies, it has have a chance to drop items, with the chance getting smaller depending on rarity. A typical monster has a high chance to drop an uncommon item, a lower chance to drop a rare item, and a very minute chance to drop a legendary item. Assuming you played Diablo III a fair bit, you’d occasionally get lucky and a monster will drop a legendary item, but when that happens, you now have to fight against another set of odds. Diablo III had five classes, each wanting different types of items. So when you finally get a legendary, you have to pray to the gods that its something useful to you. The minute chance for a legendary item to drop combined with the high chance that the item wouldn’t be useful to your class makes it nigh impossible to find anything good. Enter the auction house.
The Auction House: Facepalm Level Of Stupid.
First, a quick run-down of the Diablo III auction house… So you got a legendary item but it wasn’t useful to you. Big surprise, right? Well, never fear, the auction house (AH) is here. You take that legendary hunk of junk and you post it on the AH for some obscene amount of gold. Someone out there playing a different class wants the item so they buy it. You use your profits to buy the item you did want.
If the loot system was a flawed idea, then the auction house was a terrible idea of epic proportions. In terms of practical use, here’s what happened. Players horded gold in order to buy the best items in the game. They did this one of three (equally boring) ways. They could buy the gold with real money (not fun at all). They could play the game endlessly, ignoring item drops and focusing only on collecting as much gold as possible (boring, but at least you’re playing the game), or they could play the auction house like a stock market (what is this Wall St.?). One way or another, players would gather as much gold as possible and then simply buy the best items that were available for their character. This had the (INCREDIBLY OBVIOUS) effect of destroying the ACTUAL GAMEPLAY. There was very little reason to actually play the game itself, unless you were grinding for gold. There was no reason to challenge yourself. You simply gathered gold, spent the gold, and got better gear. The net effect here was that even when you had this fantastic gear the game felt boring and pointless because now it was easy, and you had gotten all the cool items so there was no reason to play the game. A catch-22 if ever there was one.
Somehow they turned it around.
I’m not sure how two systems with such negative synergy got into the original release to begin with, but the loot system and the auction house had effectively destroyed Diablo III. There was a massive outcry of faithful Diablo fans ready to burn the entire development team at the stake. It was a screw up of truly epic proportions. But in what turned out to be one of Blizzard’s most humbling moments also turned out to be one of their best. First, the designers acknowledged their mistake. A step in the right direction. Then they introduced “Loot 2.0”; a new loot drop system wherein monsters had about an 85% chance to drop items that were relevant to the character being played. This one change made the game more interesting by leaps and bounds. A game that had become nothing but a gold grind immediately become fun again. Items you might actually want started to appear, and they were useful! You would kill a monster and actually use the loot they dropped. A revolutionary concept to be sure, but it worked. But Blizzard wasn’t done yet. In their grand finale they announced that the auction house would be shut down and the feature completely removed from the game. Items you wanted now had to be earned by actually playing the game. If you wanted that legendary helmet, you had to go out into the world of Sanctuary and earn it.
A frown turned upside down.
As all of this happened, Blizzard also released an expansion to Diablo III called Reaper of Souls. The expansion featured a new class to play, a new story, tons of new items, and some new game modes that added some much needed replayability. The timing of this release and the changes made to the overall game were no accident. Blizzard recognized their mistakes and fixed them, but they also found a way to capitalize on that. Since the release of Reaper of Souls Diablo III has continued to gain positive press. Releases on the Xbox One and PS4 have helped a wider audience discover the game, and the developers continue to crank out patches for the PC version that add new features, keeping the game fresh on that platform as well.
So what’s the lesson?
Somewhere I can see Chris rolling his eyes because I’ve, once again, written a pro-Blizzard piece. The thing is, I hope this doesn’t come across strictly as some type of Blizzard fan-boy fluff piece. When Diablo III first came out, the company had clearly messed up big time. In addition to the loot problems, there were a lot of day one server issues, tons of backlash as to why a single player game required an always-on internet connection, impossibly difficult group play, etc… The list of Diablo III related gripes seemed to go on forever. And somehow, against all odds, they managed to turn the product around into something people actually enjoy and are talking about. I bring all of this up because I want to believe that someone like Bungie can do the same thing with Destiny; that DICE can do the same thing with the Battlefield franchise. The lesson here isn’t that Blizzard is so much better than other developers. Obviously the original release of Diablo III proves that they can make bad decisions. The lesson is simply that other developers should look at Blizzard as the example of how to properly fix a huge mistake. If more developers did this then more of these games with poor launch receptions could manage to be the products that their budgets and development times suggested they could be. Personally, I really want to see Destiny do well. I want it to be a franchise that I’m excited to get in on. I’m just hoping that Bungie can handle a misstep as well as Blizzard did and present us with a compelling product in the future. If anyone can do it, I believe that Bungie can.