[D3] Diablo III is a well-made mistake
I feel uneasy about Diablo III. As many other bloggers have pointed out, it's a well-crafted game, bearing the trademark Blizzard polish, and offering a very slick and engrossing experience. Still, there's something inherently wrong about the game which is rooted in its most basic concept, in addition to a series of design faults. I can play the game without caring much about either, due to the addictive nature of its gameplay, but once I step out, I feel its incoherence weighing bluntly on me.
Let's start with the little things. Some design mishaps that hurt the social web that Blizzard has most fervently spurred for its game (by word of mouth, I would say).
My father and I have been unable to cooperate effectively almost since we started playing. Having different gaming paces, I was usually ahead of him as he levelled multiple alts. At some point we were able to group with our mains on equal terms -extremely important if you don't want to ruin the other person's experience by overpowering him-, but we quickly found out that we were much more efficient on our own. That was due to two factors: first, as a Demon Hunter, most of my abilities are tuned for solo play, and I cannot share anything valuable with the group apart from my own survavility (which is one of the highest). My dad, as a Witch Doctor, could not contribute with much either. Both our classes are designed without group play in mind, unlike the Monk with its healing, the Wizard with its high dps, and the Barbarian with its tanking capabilities. As a matter of fact, those 3 classes were the ones that Method selected for its presumed world first kill of Diablo on Inferno. So, as it stands, in order to group effectively without hindering your partner's progress and actually being more effective than solo, you must be highly synchronized in talents and even in classes. I am not as knowledgeable in D3 as to be able to determine if X class is actually solo or group material, I can only speak from my limited experience of my class (DH) and what I've seen from other classes in group play.
Another experience that serves to prove my point. Some days ago, a friend (Wizard) and I (DH) were running our solo games, both being at the same stage of the quest chain (late act I Inferno). He was whispering to me how hard it had become for him with the latest nerf to his armor, and I told him to come join me, as I was not having that much trouble. He told me that if he left his game, he would lose his Nephalem Valor buff (a buff that you start receiving at level 60. For each elite mob pack you kill, a stack is added to it, and your magic and gold find increase). He is one of this hardcore MMO players who like min-maxing his playstyle, and for him it was intolerable that Blizzard felt the need to penalise him for playing the game as they had marketed it ("play with your friends seamlessly" "hop into your friends' game just with one click"). Perhaps for some other people it is not such a big deal (I forfeited my 5-stacked buff to help a friend with one elite in Hell difficulty), but it makes the otherwise accessible parties rather awkward when you're at top level.
Actually, at top level everything changes (quite as in MMOs). Up to late Hell-beginning of Inferno, you could arrange a party of 2-4 people and deal with the mobs in whichever way you fancied, not having to concern with what others could provide to your playstyle. If a friend is roughly your same level, you could pair up with her, perhaps making the game progress slower, but still without hampering her too much. At the endgame, you rather sigh in relief when your friend leaves, as those pesky elites are much more manageable on your own. I will always remember with sadness the attempts we did at Butcher Inferno my Wizard friend, a Barbarian friend of his, and me. The Barbarian could withstand his melee hits no problem, but The Butcher had doubled his life pool and was one-shotting us ranged dps. After several wipes, we had to ask the Barbarian to leave, and let us try on our own. We downed him at the first try. As I said in the beginning, there is something inherently wrong with a design that gives rise to such situations.
Why is it that way? I could only fathom that Blizzard did it that way to prevent people from rushing through Inferno in a "perfect" group. They have to safeguard the loot of the endgame content, making it accessible only to a few extremely well-geared players. If you can game the, uh, game, and surmount the gear barrier with a finely tuned group, the grind at the earlier levels of Inferno would be unnecessary and people would be able to play without the AH. In order to keep their fragile system in check, they have made group play impractical and awkward, only viable for the elite. Yes, I could join a friend's game at Inferno and still progress, but it is self-evident that we could do better on our own.
Another thing that irks me is that Blizzard felt the necessity to erect a gear barrier at Act II Inferno. I like my games being about skill. You could argue that MMOs are about gear, but not to such an extent and not so bluntly; they require individual knowledge and familiarity with the class, and strategy and raid cooperation. In Diablo III, the difference between my killing a pack without dying or not is not how quick I respond or how well I kite, it's the amount of DPS I'm able to put before I run out of cds. Nonetheless, I understand the idea behind the gear barrier - to make players farm early content and prevent them from reaching the endgame too fast, while forcing them to play the AH to buy gear (which in turn you can only buy if you've been lucky with the drops and got something worth selling). Many bloggers have also been worried about the use of the AH as cheating. As most of us come from an MMO environment in which +4 spirit from the Campfire is an invaluable buff, it is inconceivable not to min-max every other (multiplayer) game. Because it is not a singleplayer game from the moment you add your first friend on Battlenet. If you join a friend's party and fall behind on DPS, hampering his game, you can either leave and continue solo, or go to the AH and become a valuable asset (and get invited to the raids?). Stubborn tackled this problem from another perspective.
Blizzard could not do a singleplayer game as most people were demanding. They rely on the factors that drive us to min-max, to care about our equipment and play at our finest. Of all the issues I've commented, none of them are a design overlook whose improvement/redesign would make the game better (for Blizzard). They had many years to consider how to best mine money from their users, and Diablo III in its entirety is what they came up with. From Blizzard's perspective, the gear barrier is there so you are forced to buy to continue; the barrier to grouping in Inferno is built so you cannot be too effective at higher levels, and are forced to grind on your own and buy loot; the enforced multiplayer exists solely to apply peer-pressure to your gearing up, so you need to resort to the AH to play with them.
What I feel that is most wrong about Diablo 3 is the game concept itself. Tobold has made a very accurate analysis this time, trying to abstract himself from the subjectivity with which we regard Blizzard's games. As it is a Diablo game, we have to cherish certain features that we would abhor in others. Didn't we fight against repetitive content in Wrath of the Lich King? Didn't we progress beyond the artificial rewards of earlier games towards the persistent world model, with many more paths and options for the players? What sense does a game like Diablo III make, a game that is a remake of a very ancient concept that we abandoned for greener pastures? I am aware that there are people (me included) that like simple lootfests from time to time. But having tasted the variety that MMOs have to offer these days, I could no longer run 30 Mephistos a day. Neither 30 Butchers, no matter how slick the gameplay is. There has to be a point behind the grind, be it new content, joining your friends, whatever it is.
Blizzard knew there had to be a point for it, and they designed the RMAH. More on this later :)