There were two summers in my mid to late teens that I distinctly remember what I did, day in and day out.
The first of these summers, I killed Diablo endlessly.
The second summer, I killed Baal endlessly.
That was it. Sure, I could go into detail about the characters I made and the journey TO these endgame bosses that I farmed like cattle (cow level joke here), but ultimately, I spent the majority of my time fighting my way to the bosses, killing them, looking for loot, and then starting over. The plot didn’t really matter to me, or my friends, but it existed as a means to an end. It was the definition of a skinner box, and we were perfectly content with it.
Occasionally I’d PVP but that honestly was nothing more than a way to e-peen and hope to god that you weren’t going to fight a hacker. I largely avoided bartering for better items because I wanted to do it all on my own. Truth be told, I don’t think I ever saw many rare items, and I played Diablo 2 from release until about 2011. I saw set items and some interesting loot pieces, but I had several characters in the 90’s by the time I was finished.
The funny thing about Diablo 2 was the game really did not have that many “viable” builds, but that sure didn’t stop you from trying some absurd combination in order to progress. As an uninformed teen, I often would do ridiculous things with my characters and then have them hit a wall somewhere between nightmare and hell mode, but I didn’t mind.
If you had told me back in high school that this infatuation of mine would be still be held in the highest regard, that it would be used as leverage in ANY argument as to why another action RPG sucks, or that people would still refer to it as the best game in its genre of all time, I would have laughed at you and continued slaughtering demons on my Windows 98 computer.
The ARPG I’ve spent the second most time on is Diablo 3. I played it steadily for several months before taking an extended break from the game, at which time I decided to go back and play older titles in the genre. I enjoyed each one I played, but whenever I’d go online to look for information on them, I’d instead find endless tirades from players wanting the game to be more “Diablo like”.
This article was originally going to be about Titans Quest, Sacred 2, Torchlight 2, Path of Exile and Dungeon Siege. I wanted to analyze the design decisions of each game and compare/contrast what would make a great Action RPG, but I know where this would go. I’ve seen what’s happened before when other writers tried their hand at avoiding the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to point out the obvious.
Developers of future ARPG’s need to remember three lessons about what makes a good Action RPG and then move on.
The lessons are as follows
Lesson 1: Do not take ANY element of character customization away from us. You may know better, but we could honestly give a shit less.
In other words, if we want to make a warrior that maxes out his magic and uses a bow as his primary weapon, then let us. If we want a mage that stacks vitality and goes around using swords, why not? Do not assume that we want the most ideal character at max level. Let us make mistakes. Let us be experimental and quite frankly, fuck up. Do you want to know why fans LOVE Path of Exile? Because the game specializes in letting you design your class however the hell you want to. If we hit a wall in the process, then we shrug and start over. Action RPG’s are NOT MMO’s. We don’t want a perfect character to be waiting for us at level cap, we want OUR character to be waiting for us.
Lesson 2: Endless (but rewarding) Grind or Get Out
We play these games to grind. We want to grind, it’s kind of what we do. Do not lessen this grind, do not cheapen this grind, and give us the means to perform this grind. Make loot interesting, make high level characters feel high level, and give us the challenges that we spent days striving for. Lock us in an endless random dungeon and throw away the key to our social lives. We’ll be happier for it. Make it hard, but not impossible to get the best gear for our character, but also give us options in what the “best” gear for us is. We want interesting effects on our armor, not just max stats and resistances. We want weapons that we can choose from without having to make sure that the DPS on it is the absolute highest we can find. I’d rather wield a flaming bow that fires meteors than a regular bow any day, even if that flaming bow is 200 dps lower than its counterpart.
Lesson 3: Do not ever force the consumer to do something, even if its in their best interests.
Half of the people complaining about the online connection needed for Diablo 3 were frauds.
There, I said it. I had to. But you know what? I don’t blame them for it. Whenever you impose a rule or restriction on the consumer for the sake of DRM or “integrity”, then you are going to have a whole lot of unhappy people who have access to very loud microphones (their keyboards). There should have been an offline option for Diablo 3. No access to the auction house then? Fine. Do not punish legitimate customers because you are afraid of losing sales, because it frankly isn’t worth it. As it stands the game is one of the best selling titles on the PC, but it would have sold just as well regardless of the online requirement, and even if it didn’t, was it really worth the negative publicity? Even if they release a great expansion that improves the game exponentially will some fans already be soured by their experience of patch days and not being able to play because their internet is out?
So how do I know they were frauds? Where’s the “Rage” over Path of Exile’s always online connection? Did everyone just suddenly get Google Fiber in the last year? No, of course not, but the game is also free, and so the requirement does not feel forced.
A lot has changed since my 16 year old self spent evening after evening killing Baal, but I’m not entirely sure that the genre has evolved much , and more to the point, I don’t think many people want it to. Unlike other genres, action RPG’s are rooted in repetition, and maybe even tradition. Had Diablo 3 been a re-skinned version of the second game, it likely would have been hailed a massive success. I give Blizzard credit for trying something new, but at the same time, you don’t need to re-invent the wheel, especially when you invented it in the first place.
I once asked my friend why he still plays Diablo 2. His favorite character is the Necromancer, and his build requires little effort from him other than watching his minions slaughter the armies of hell and then walking up to loot the spoils of war. He’s probably made a half dozen Necro‘s since the game released (at least), and each time the end result is the same. He’s turned making the character into a science over the years.
His answer to me? “Because it’s fun”
He’s not wrong. It really is.