Mar 072012
 

THE FALSE CLAIM

The Claim Is: “Diablo 3 lacks character customization”

This virulent strain of misunderstanding and misinformation seems to have worked its way through various corners of the Diablo community and the blog-o-sphere at large.  The symptoms of the infection manifest in various forms of frustration-fueled rants, criticisms ignorant of game design, back-handed apologies, and sarcastic compliments.

Why are these claims false?
In the opinion of this writer, these claims are false because these claims are based upon two failings: A lack of adequate understanding of game mechanics, and blind nostalgia.

In the former case many players have engraved in their minds a very distinct set-in-stone understanding of what a proper RPG system should be.  These gamers have built for themselves a box outside of which they can no longer think.  They are loath to accept a different paradigm of customization because they have wholeheartedly come to believe that their paradigm is the only one that could possibly exist.

In the later case nostalgic players may be willing to accept different game mechanics were this any other game except Diablo.  For them the system set forth in Diablo 2 has become the heart and soul of their experience, and any deviation from the original system is automatically perceived as a loss instead of a gain.  It doesn’t matter if there was a severe flaw in the original system’s mechanics; fixing it would still be considered a loss.  These individuals are also walled up inside a box, albeit one of a different construction.

THE LOSS OF PENALIZATION

One of the most curious arguments used to support the claim that Diablo 3 has lost customization is one that doesn’t actually involve customization at all.  It is the basic argument that since characters can change which skills they have active at any given time, the player can therefore no longer create unique characters.  This position argues that a measure of “permanency” is needed in order for customization to exist between characters.

I however would argue that any decision which removes barriers in the game system that prevent players from playing their characters the way they wish is actually one that supports customization (since it lets us customize our characters).  So let’s analyze the permanency that existed in Diablo 2 and which was removed for Diablo 3.

Locked Skills:  In Diablo 2 you were given points to spend on buying skills.  Once you bought them, that was it; you were locked into those skills.  It became apparent to players during the initial release of Diablo 2 that this had certain disadvantages, mainly because skills at higher levels were generally better or more popular.  If you spent all of your points on purchasing higher ranks of your lower level skills, you’d be at a bit of a disadvantage for a while when you finally got access to the high level skills.  Players started to save up their points rather than spend them so that they could dump them all into higher level skills once they had leveled high enough, in order to build the most optimized character they could.  The way this system was structured, it effectively penalized the player if they didn’t hoard their points, and this hurt customization because players were always focused on the same top tier skills.

Blizzard managed to put a band-aid on the wounds in this system by patching in “passive bonuses” on the various skills.  Lower tier skills now gave bonuses to higher tier skills, and this made it more mechanically worthwhile and less penalizing to purchase those lower level skills, but this patch left the system with the same basic problem: there was only one possible set of optimum skills, and creating a character without that spec was, by definition, sub-optimal.

Prerequisites:  Additionally, in order to buy higher level tiered skills there were usually prerequisite skills which had to be purchased first.  The structure of this system forced players to buy skills regardless of what the player wanted, and that is inherently opposed to customization as it makes the choice for the player.

With the new skill system, players unlock higher level skills simply by leveling up, and are no longer railroaded into having to purchase pre-requisite skills first.  This places the power of choice more firmly back in the hands of the Player, and greater choice breeds greater customization.

So why the fuss?
Some folks believe that a lack of a Locked Skill system will mean that there are no differences between characters.  They feel that since all characters have access to all the same potential skills that they will essentially be no different from one to the next.

Other folks feel the loss of the Skill-Tree in general is an affront to the game design that made the Diablo series great.  It wouldn’t matter if it proved to be mechanically better or worse; to them the simple fact that it’s different automatically means it’s bad.

Blizzard has generally expressed opposing views to these two stances.  They feel that a system that focuses on positive encouragement in choosing skills and playstyles is better than one that focuses on penalization.  They would argue that playing for 60+ hours, only to decide the build you’ve created isn’t working out for you shouldn’t require an additional 60+ hours of leveling up a new character to try out a different one.  Blizzard wants you to repeat content because you enjoy the content, not because you made a mistake in designing your character.  They want the emphasis on the playing-of-the-game, not playing-of-the-game’s-mechanics.

WHERE TO FIND THE CUSTOMIZATION

For the stout-hearted critics the following question still begs a more extensive answer to explain why things aren’t terrible without permanency:  “If all characters can choose their active skills from all their skills with no significant penalty, then how can we claim that each character is different?”

For me the customization inherent in Diablo 3 comes from at least two sources:  Playstyle and Itemization.  Playstyle is a form of customization solidly built around the personality and behavior of the player themselves.  Itemization is a mechanics-based system whereby the gear you collect for your character will subtly push you to choose one path or the other while not enforcing a debilitating level of permanency.

Playstyle:  Each player is unique, and when you have unlimited choice in designing your character, your personality will come through in it.  Your character is your own.  It’s not your friend’s character.  It’s not the character of the player that posted a cookie-cutter build on a wiki-site.  It’s yours and how you play it will be particular to your behaviors, and no one else’s.

How folks run around when kiting may differ from one player to the next.  What sorts of AoE’s they prefer to use will differ.  At what range they like fighting mobs will differ even if they’re using the same ranged skill.  How they react to combat situations will differ from others.  Whether they recognize that they’re standing in fire (cough) will differ from how other players will react to standing in fire.

Blizzard has taken a huge step with the current system towards getting rid of cookie-cutter builds, and the emphasis on character differences now focuses on the personalities of the players themselves.  True customization stems from the player, and when the system places heavier focus on the player’s personality, the quality of customization increases.

Itemization:  Some folks will argue that certain fights always demand certain tactics to be used regardless of one’s playstyle.  For example, perhaps there is a boss fight that includes a lot of adds that need to be AoE’d down first.  The question is, “what is there to prevent two players of the same character class from always choosing the same skill for the same job?”.  If we ignore the possibility that players may choose two different AoE skills based solely on each player’s personal preferences and beliefs, we are still left with an obvious answer; Itemization.

Let’s take the aforementioned example of requiring an AoE-style skill to handle adds.  Should a Wizard character choose an AoE skill that deals frost damage or should they choose one that deals a similar amount of arcane damage?  The skills alone may be fairly balanced, however a character’s gear may include bonuses to one type of damage over the other.  A Wizard with lots of bonus damage to arcane will be far more inclined to choose the arcane based AoE, while a Wizard with gear that gives bonuses to frost damage will be far more inclined to choose the AoE with frost damage.  Consequently, two Wizard characters with the same skill options are likely to choose two different skills based on their gear.

The nice thing about having a system where gearing plays a role in skill choices is that gear itself does not impose a severe amount of permanency.  During the course of the game a player can make the decision to gear themselves based on different criteria to fit their interests.  If the players find that they prefer the frost based AoE but are currently geared for bonuses to arcane damage, the option to immediately begin gearing for frost damage is present.

Conjunction:  Both Playstyle and Itemization synergize with each other to create a variety of different potential builds for the same situation, further allowing customization to shine through even though there are no locked builds.

Wizard A: Likes Kiting, geared for Arcane Damage
Wizard B: Likes Kiting, geared for Frost Damage
Wizard C: Hates Kiting, geared for Arcane Damage
Wizard D: Hates Kiting, geared for Frost Damage

All four of the above wizards have to choose an AoE strategy for dealing with adds in the same encounter.

Wizard A selects “Arcane Nova”, choosing to kite the adds into a group and then burn them down quickly with a high dps arcane damage spell that deals damage to groups within 20 yards of the impact.

Wizard B selects “Stark Winter”, and like Wizard A will kite them into a group which the Wizard will then pummel with cold damage covering a 22 yard range.  The slowing
effect makes up for lower dps, which makes it easier to kite the adds and keep them within the target range.

Wizard C selects “Arcane Hydra”, choosing to summon a Hydra for fifteen seconds which will continuously pelt adds that enter the area with attacks that cause AoE damage to other adds nearby.  Instead of kiting the adds, the Wizard only has to dodge them, and can spend the player’s freed up attention on supplementing the Hydra’s damage with the Wizard’s regular primary attack.

Wizard D selects “Frost Hydra” following the same format as Wizard C, allowing the player to focus less on kiting and more on supplementing the Hydra’s attacks.

All four builds are viable for the same encounter, but each player’s playstyle and itemization sways them in four different directions.  It could even have gone in more directions depending on how players view the handling of adds or if their gear is loaded with bonus damage to other elements.  It is in fact because Blizzard removed the permanency established in Diablo 2 that these players will be able to explore uniquely different playstyles through advanced customization, and at the same time employ different builds for the same encounters.

Permanency supported Cookie-Cutter Builds.
Free Choice supports Player-Driven Build-Diversity.

Jan 102012
 

The Black Soulstone is a crystal here-to-fore completely unmentioned in all previous lore, is now suddenly a keystone to the events which will take shape in the storyline of Diablo III.  Simply put it is a plot device which Blizzard has written specifically for this game, and likewise have quietly worked it into the backhistory of the world.

Background
When the Horadrim sought out the Three Prime Evils with the intent of capturing them, they were given three Soulstones by the Archangel Tyrael with which to do so.  The three soulstones were shards of ruby, amber, and sapphire taken from the great Worldstone.  Each shard was capable of trapping the essence of a Prime Evil, and in doing so serve as a prison for the demon lord.

A great deal of what happened with these soulstones and how they figure into the plans of the Prime Evils and the tragedies that befell Sanctuary has already been revealed in the prior games and novels.  What has not been overtly discussed until the release of The Book of Cain and the Diablo III teaser cinematics, is how there was a fourth soulstone; a black soulstone.

When the Horadrim hunted the Prime Evils the duty of looking after the soulstones was given to a horadrim mage called Zoltun Kulle.  It was his duty to ensure the soulstones were not lost or damaged, and as an alchemist and transmuter he was the sensible choice for handling such unique artifacts.

Unfortunately the strain of what the Horadrim endured eventually proved too much for Zoltun Kulle.  After the Horadrim had completed their tasks and many had seperated to forge new purposes for the world, Zoltun Kulle obscured himself away.  He entered a state of madness and obsession, the precise cause of which is assumed to have been the trials he endured during the hunt for the three, but no explicit documentation exists to confirm if it was indeed those experiences or some other force that acted upon him.  In his obsession he began gathering together into various vaults beneath the desert collections of forbidden knowledge.  In his obsession, he also sought to recreate the soulstones, and actually succeeded in doing so.

His success was the Black Soulstone, which he believed could be used to capture the spirit of any demon or angel.  The way it is written leads us to believe that as a soulstone, it is far more powerful than the original three.  Sadly, the writings do not detail why he felt compared to create it, or for what ultimate purpose he sought.  We are also unfamiliar at this time as to what materials he used to create it.  Had Zoltun Kulle somehow managed to steal a fourth shard from the great Worldstone, or had he found some other suitable components which duplicated the same effects?

Modern Age
In the Diablo III Black Soulstone cinematic, it is clearly revealed that Leah, Deckard Cain’s “niece”, has somehow come into possession of this soulstone.  Through a vision she has of Azmodan, it is also related that the Lord of Sin desires it; believing it to somehow be the key to his future success.

This leaves us with many questions as we head into Diablo III.  Knowing that the Prime Evils originally valued the soulstones for the ability to corrupt the Worldstone, we have to ponder what value this new soulstone could have since there is no longer a Worldstone to corrupt.  If perhaps Azmodan values it for its power to entrap the spirt of any demon or angel, then which Angel or Demon does he so badly need to entrap, or could it be that this stone has the strength to entrap multiple spirits?  Could the soulstone have an effect on the dormant powers of the Nephalem which the Worldstone had kept muted for so many generations?  Or could there be yet even a third quality or characteristic to this soulstone that provides a third reason why this stone is valuable?

As of this writing we do not know, but it is clear that as we head into Diablo III, we have quite a bit of intrigue and plot to delve through.

Jan 102012
 

Understanding the Worldstone.

The nature of the Worldstone has been puzzling gamers for a decade now, and while Diablo’s Lore is truly quite vast it has not always been very concise. Especially in-game we find ourselves in an almost Mad Libs kind of state as we try to understand the events unfolding around us. This is partly because of information revealed through dialogue that as players we didn’t have time to listen to, or didn’t remember to go back and specifically ask NPCs for.

By and large we understood as players what we were doing. We were chasing the highest ranking lords of Hell across the world in an attempt to destroy them and prevent the legions of Hell from invading the mortal realm, and in Lord of Destruction we understood that it was important that we chase down Baal and stop him from corrupting this “Worldstone” which wasn’t really even mentioned in the first four acts of Diablo II. But why?

~ Diablo I & II
In the first Diablo game we were introduced to the existence of a red crystal which contained the demonic essence of Diablo. The second game provided significantly more elaboration on this “soulstone”, and provided backstory on how the three greatest demons, The Prime Evils, were once cast out of the Burning Hells into the mortal realm, where a band of mortals led by an Angel eventually captured their essences in three Soulstones, which were then hidden away to protect the world.

In Lord of Destruction, it is revealed that much of these events had been orchestrated by The Prime Evils themselves. Their imprisonment within these crystals served to provide them the opportunity to corrupt the crystals, and ostensibly once freed allow them to use the crystals to corrupt a massive artifact known as The WorldStone.

There is very little elaboration within the games themselves as to why this is a big deal, or even what precisely the Worldstone is. Granted, an entire civilization (The Barbarians) have apparently sworn their lives since the dawn of time to protect it, so it must be important. We’re casually informed that the stone supposedly keeps the planes of existence, The Mortal Realm, Heaven, and Hell seperate, and it’s again casually mentioned that the corruption of the Worldstone could allow Hell to invade The Mortal Realm, though how precisely is again not revealed. When the player inevitably fails to foil the plans of the Prime Evils (This is a Diablo game after all), the Archangel Tyrael chooses to destroy the mountain sized crystal to protect us.

Do you see the Catch 22 here?

In our attempt to prevent the Lords of Hell from using the Worldstone to summon an invasion of demons into our world, we have chosen to destroy it and by doing so remove the very barrier that was keeping the demons out.

And so for almost a decade we’ve been left to ponder just how successful or unsuccessful our heroes in Diablo II actually were.

~ The Short Answer
I am however exaggerating a bit. For folks whom have read the Sin War novels or The Book of Cain, more information has been brought about regarding the nature of The Worldstone which in turn has helped to better explain Tyrael’s decision to destroy it at the end of Diablo II.

The Short Answer is: The Worldstone is intimately tied to humanity, and the corruption of The Worldstone meant the Corruption of Humanity itself. When Diablo II refers to the power of The Worldstone allowing Baal to turn the Mortal Realm into Hell itself, they mean that quite literally. The Worldstone has the power to create and reshape worlds with which Baal intended to bring down the barrier between our realm and hell, and even with the death of Baal, the fact that it had been corrupted meant that every living human mortal would eventually have been corrupted as well with Baal’s overiding desire for destruction. Humanity would have changed into a species bent on destruction had Tyrael not destroyed it. That was the plan of The Prime Evil’s all along. Not just to invade our realm, but to change humanity into a new army as well.

Essentially, we have foiled the plans of the Prime Evils, but in doing so we have exposed ourselves none-the-less to invasion from Hell. Yet a longer explanation is still due for why The Worldstone has this power, and how all these events truly came about in the first place. For that, we need to delve deeper into the Lore of The Sin War and The Book of Cain.

~ The Long Answer
In the beginning, there was Anu. Anu was everything, both good and evil. Anu cleansed itself of evil so that it could be pure, but in doing so evil became a seperate entity, a seven headed dragon (I’m sure Anu thought it was a good idea at the time). Anu spent eons fighting the dragon, and eventually both killed each other in a messy way. Their deaths and their corpses created the planes of The High Heavens and The Burning Hells. From Anu’s spine arose the Crystal arch where angels are born, and from the heads of the Dragon arose the Seven Lords of Evil. But most importantly, one of Anu’s eyes remained intact, and this became known as The Worldstone.

The Heavens and Hell are frankly diametrically opposed in their beliefs and nature, and it was simply impossible for any sort of peace to exist between the two just as peace between Anu and the Seven Headed Dragon had been impossible. The war that occured became known as the Endless Conflict (aptly named) and at the center of this war was The Worldstone.

~ Why was the Worldstone important to both sides?
The Worldstone possessed many qualities, most notably the power of creation. Each side could use it to create and reshape planes of existence. Primarily the Angels used it to expand The High Heavens, while Demons used it to reshape and expand The Burning Hells. The war essentially became a game of Capture The Flag, with each side vying for control of The Worldstone.

And then one day it vanished.
This caused a bit of trouble.

Unknown to either side, renegade groups of both angels and demons had banded together, stolen The Worldstone, and created a “Sanctuary” from the war. In this new plane of existence, these renegades intended to retire from the conflict in peace. The Worldstone was not only used to create this new plane of existence, but its power was also used to keep it hidden and separated from both the Heavens and Hells.

This plan was more or less working until humans showed up. Although demons and angels do not mate in the traditional sense, their union none-the-less brought into existence offspring which possessed powers greater than their own. These offspring were known as The Nephalum. The Renegade Angels saw them as abominations which threatened to expose their existence to the Heavens and Hells, and the renegade Demons saw them as a potential weapon that could tip the scales of the war should they choose to return to it.

To prevent the Nephalum from reaching their full potential, the angels “tweaked” The Worldstone, and used it to slowly sap the powers of the Nephalum over many generations until they finally became mortals without powers. This is very important to understand, as this lore not only codifies the reason why Sanctuary is kept separate from the Heavens and Hells by the power of The Worldstone, but also why Mortals are so innately connected to it as well. For almost all of humanity’s history, our existence has been explicitly tied to The Worldstone. It has power over us in a way that most mortals can not mentally comprehend.

Eventually, during the events of The Sin War, The Heavens and Hells came to learn of Sanctuary regardless, and there were of course disputes over the fate of this realm of mortals, with both sides understanding fully the impact these mortals could one day make. After negotiation, both sides agreed to leave the mortal realm alone, but the Prime Evils had very far reaching plans concerning it none-the-less.

~ The Dark Exile
From the get go, The Prime Evils understood that the Worldstone was the key to fully controlling the mortals and their potential nephalum powers. The challenge therefore became a matter of figuring out a way to regain control of the Worldstone and a means to corrupt it in their favor. They caught and corrupted an angel known as Izual, whose knowledge of the Worldstone allowed them to formulate a plan that would use shards of The Worldstone known as Soulstones. The Worldstone itself was far too powerful to be corrupted directly, but by using tiny shards from it to first attune their dark powers it would become possible to corrupt the greater crystal. So the Three Prime Evils hatched a plot that not even the rest of the Burning Hells knew about.

Through their truce with the Heavens, The Three Prime Evils goaded the Lesser Evils into a civil war against them, which they intentionally lost after putting up a convincing fight, and this resulted in their banishment to the Mortal Realm. Izual in turn betrayed Tyrael by informing him that The Prime Evils running rampant on Sanctuary could be trapped using small shards taken from The Worldstone.

Wishing to safeguard humanity, Tyrael removed three shards of ruby, amber, and sapphire from The Worldstone, and entrusted them into the care of specially selected mortals whom would come to be known as The Horadrim, and he charged them with the mission of capturing The Prime Evils. In turn each one was captured and spent hundreds of years attuning themselves to their prisons and corrupting the soulstones.

During the events of Diablo I and II we witness how these Prime Evils finally released themselves, and proceeded with their plan to use the stones to infect The Worldstone. Diablo’s stone would have instilled the terror in humanity needed to bend them to the will of the Demons. Mephisto’s soulstone would have instilled the hatred needed to motivate humanity towards abominable acts. Baal’s soulstone would have instilled all of the destructive urges in humanity needed to carry out atrocities.

Diablo and Mephisto’s stones were destroyed before they could infect The Worldstone, but Baal’s succeeded. For this reason Tyrael chose to destroy The Worldstone.

~ Consequences
Of course, the destruction of The Worldstone is no true resolution unto itself. The Worldstone was afterall providing a barrier between Sanctuary and the Heavens and Hells. It was also sapping mortals of their potential to develop powers greater than those of angels and demons.

The start of Diablo III begins twenty years after the destruction of The Worldstone, and so an entire generation unhindered by The Worldstone has now come to pass. Will the destruction of The Worldstone mean the destruction of our world at the hands of the demons that now have access to it, or will we find salvation by developing the powers needed to fight back the demons?

Presumably the answers to those questions will be found in Diablo III.

Nov 162011
 

The RMAH, for now, is basically Blizzard’s equivalent of Pandora’s Box.  There are many vocal blog/forums posters out there with gut wrenching reactions on the internet to a plethora of evils that they perceive the RMAH will bring into the game and thus ruin it forever, while there are also a variety of counter-point posters whom are holding out for the Hope at the bottom of the Box that this new feature will actually improve the game over flaws that its predecessor possessed.


Now, a word of Disclaimer:  One should understand before going into this article that this is being written prior to any actual data being collected.  Let’s face it, a lot of strong opinions have been floated about the world wide web since the announcement by Blizzard that Diablo 3 would include a Real Money Auction House, and sadly all of those opinions (including those of this article) are forced to rest primarily upon assumptions and no hard evidence.  The game will not be released until 2012, and until it does there’s simply no way to know for sure what kind of Pandora’s box Blizzard has handed us.

 

WHAT IS THE RMAH?

Ok, let’s get what few facts we have straight.  The RMAH (short-hand for Real Money Auction House) is an auction house similar to the one in World of Warcraft, except the currency for trades will be actual real-world currency.  It is realm and country specific, so in the USA expect the auction house to use Dollars, or if you’re in Europe you’ll likely see Euros and possibly whatever national currency your country uses.

BUYING:

If you choose to buy an item on the RMAH, you will need funds in your Battle.net account.  Funds can be added to your Battle.net account presumably through Blizzard’s online store, or they can be added via selling your own items on the RMAH.  Please note that the Battle.net account is not like a bank account.  You will not be able to withdraw funds from it.  Funds in the Battle.net account can only be used for purchases on the RMAH, or on items in the Blizzard store.  In this regard it acts more like an account for “store credit”.  If you win an auction, the funds are taken from your Battle.net account and the item is available for you to pick up through the Auction House interface.

SELLING:

Selling is where things get slightly more complicated.  There are a few “fees” associated with selling on the Auction House that are important to keep in mind.  First off, there’s the Posting Fee.  This is assessed whenever an item is posted to the RMAH, and is spent regardless of whether or not the item sells.  Blizzard calls this a “nominal” flat fee, but there’s been no concrete confirmation of just how much this will actually be once the game is released.  Most folks assume the fee to post will be in the ten-cents to fifty-cents range, with only a few sites predicting costs as high as a dollar.  Honestly, no one will know for sure until Blizzard makes an announcement.  There has been an announcement that Blizzard intends to wave this fee for a limited number of transactions per account each week so that players whom wish to use the RMAH but don’t wish to put any money up front can still do so, albeit in a limited manner.

The next fee is the one that is assessed for successful auctions.  This is also a flat fee, and is only assessed when an auction sells, presumably taken from the proceeds of the auction.  Blizzard likewise has not yet announced how much it will be.

The last fee is a Withdrawal fee, and is only applied when the Seller chooses to have the proceeds of a successful auction deposited into a PayPal account instead of their Battle.net account.  This one is pretty important.  When you place an item up for sale on the RMAH, you have to choose in advance whether or not any proceeds from it will be deposited into your Battle.net account or a separate PayPal account that you have linked to your BNET account.  Remember, any funds deposited into your Battle.net balance can’t be withdrawn to a regular bank account.  Choosing to have an auction’s proceeds deposited into your PayPal account will incur the extra withdrawal fee, but by having the funds in your PayPal account you’ll be able to transfer them to an actual bank account, or use them with a PayPal debit card for real-world purchases.  The exact nature of the withdrawal fee is also not yet announced, but many folks are expecting it will be a percentage based fee.  (PayPal’s usual standard transfer fee is $0.30 + 2.9% of the total, but we don’t yet know if this will be used in conjunction with Blizzard’s transfers)

The actual posting of an item will permit a player to choose a standard minimum bid, as well as list a Buy-Out price if so desired.  They must choose at the time of posting if any proceeds from a successful sale will go to their Battle.net account balance, or if the proceeds will be transferred to their PayPal accounts.

 

FREEMIUM VERSUS… WHATEVER THIS IS.

It’s important to note that what Blizzard is implementing is not the traditionally Freemium Micro-transaction model currently used on hundreds/thousands of online gaming and social-networking sites (as well as a few MMO’s).  The Standard Freemium model is based around a concept of Restriction.  Everyone gets to play for free, but not everyone gets to play everything in the game.  The Freemium model reserves certain aspects of a game, and only makes them available to players willing to pay various fees.  By making some of the game’s content exclusive, the game company effectively encourages player’s to invest extra funds in the game to unlock new features.

For example, Zynga allows players to exchange real currency for special in-game currency in many of their games, usually offering special exclusive items in the process.  This special in-game currency can usually be used to unlock special features or buy limited time exclusive items not normally available to all players.  In City of Heroes which has recently gone to a Freemium model, players may sign up for free accounts and have up to two characters in the game.  If they are willing to purchase a special subscription, they may have more than two characters.  Additionally there are a large number of costume options available for characters, but many costume sets require small purchases to unlock with real money.

In general the Freemium model has been fairly successful for both companies and players.  Folks whom normally wouldn’t be able to afford a subscription to a game like CoH now have the opportunity of playing it, while players whom can afford to spend some cash on a game receive appropriate perks.

 

But is this what Diablo 3 is doing with the RMAH?

No.  At least not yet.

According to Blizzard, they have no intention of selling exclusive items through the RMAH.  Anything and Everything sold on the RMAH will be non-exclusive.  That means that if it exists on the RMAH, then your character technically has a chance of acquiring it through regular gameplay.  The full playable content of D3 will be available to all players at no additional purchase price.

It should be noted however that Blizzard does not fully forsake the Premium model.  After all, Blizzard does offer Collector’s Editions of it’s game, which provide players whom spend a little more on the game some extra perks that other players don’t get.  Additionally, we’ve seen in World of Warcraft that Blizzard is willing to sell Mounts and Pets through their out-of-game Blizzard Store.  Sometimes this is for charity fundraising, but not always.  These mounts and pets aren’t regular drops in the game, so they count as exclusive content purchases under a micro-transaction Freemium model.  As a disclaimer though, these items are primarily cosmetic, having little to no impact on actual game play, and exist in a very fringe sense.  It’d be quite an exaggeration to claim that a game like WoW is Freemium based because almost the entirety of the game is built around a non-Freemium model, unlike Zynga games or other Freemium MMO’s.

The only reason I deem it worth mentioning (aside from preventing commenters pointing it out for me) is because these items didn’t exist for the first few years of WoW, and likely was not a feature any developers intended back when the game first went live.  For this very reason it’s worth pointing out so that when folks see a Blizzard announcement stating they have no current plans to offer exclusive items via the RMAH, you have to remember that Blizzard is still entitled to change its mind.  It’s entirely likely Blizzard will stick to their current statement, but if five years down the road the decision changes, let’s not act surprised.

 

THE CONTROVERSY:

There are a variety of reasons why lots of gamers, even die-hard Blizzard fans are instantly repulsed by the idea of the RMAH, never mind the realization it’s going to exist regardless of their outrage.  Some of the most prominent reasons are:

1.) They believe Blizzard is passively supporting the Gray Market (even trying to cash in on it).

2.) They believe this legitimizes otherwise inhumane practices such as forced labor in China (and elsewhere), and the corrupt overseas companies that have been hacking accounts in WoW.

3.) It provides an unfair in-game advantage to players willing to spend cash on better gear than players whom don’t have a real-world disposable income or wish only to play the game without using the RMAH.

 

BLIZZARD’S REASONS

Blizzard has a few reasons for including the RMAH, and it’s not just to provide themselves a chance to cash in.  In point of fact, we won’t know if Blizzard is even really cashing in until we can see the income figures on their micro-transaction fees as compared to the costs of maintaining the servers on which the RMAH (or the rest of the game for that matter) will be.  Traditionally, Server and Bandwidth costs for a game that supports millions of users is usually astronomical, and by requiring users to always be online without a monthly subscription fee, it will be very interesting to see how the long-term profitability of Diablo evolves.

But that’s a different essay for another time.  Blizzard’s main reasons, as stated by them, for including the RMAH are:

1.) Players are going to engage in real-world currency trades regardless.  There’s a definitive interest generated by those players for this kind of feature.

2.) Providing the RMAH grants players an infinitely safer alternative to 3rd-party gold sellers (many of whom would steal credit/debit card info and hack the real world accounts of players).

3.) Blizzard didn’t state this, but I have no doubt that part of the intention for this feature is to take as large a shot as they can at the 3rd party scammers that have caused them to lose so much financial overhead in customer service complaints related to hacked accounts.

 

THE SCRIMMAGE

So what’s the end result?  Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Who’s crazy?

There really is no right or wrong viewpoint at the moment.  The presence of an RMAH of this nature may put traditional Gold Sellers in a tight pinch since now they could potentially be up against more than a million other independent sellers, all of which are using a significantly easier service for trades.

At the same time we have to wonder if Gold Sellers will simply switch from their hackneyed websites and use the RMAH themselves.  Even though the RMAH is region-locked, it is predicted that it should still be possible for someone in another country to play on another country’s server, and funnel their gold over to an associate’s account in the intended country whereby the associate could then post the trades.

Additionally, Gold Sellers whom wish to utilize the RMAH extensively are faced with all the additional fees that go along with it.  Trying to play the market by posting a hundred auctions will require them to take a hundred posting fee transactions out of a country specific Battle.net account which first needs funds added to it.  Managing transactions between countries in this way could potentially cut into traditional gold seller’s profit margins more than they have before.

But again, until it happens, we don’t really know.

Certainly the lack of support for Mods in D3 will also play a role here.  Many World of Warcraft players play the Auction House game to raise in-game gold, but the most dedicated and arguably successful of these players do so through extensive use of 3rd Party mods that facilitate managing hundreds and thousands of auctions.  That kind of support won’t be present in D3.

Botters may also be in for a rude awakening.  Many bots operate off of a set series of macros/commands, intended to operate within predefined conditions.  They exist already in both D2 and WoW, each with their own flavor.  However D3 is going to be somewhat different from both of those games.  In D2 it was possible to calculate the most efficient paths and speed runs to gear heavy bosses, and in WoW the world is not randomly generated, allowing for very specific commands to be executed based on a full understanding of the conditions the bot would run into.  D3 however isn’t going to have specific “best run” strategies because of how loot will be dropped via random mobs and bosses, and of course the random generation will still have to be taken into account.  I’m sure bots will still exist, but current programmers will have a bit of a learning curve to get over before they can adapt.

Spammers will likely find it more difficult as well.  What’s the point of spamming the chat channels to direct folks to a website when the same items can be purchased just by opening up the Auction House Interface anywhere in the game world?  There could be spammers directing folks to the Auction House to look at specific items, but by and large this will be not really be necessary since hundreds of thousands of players will likely already be scanning the Auction House regardless, and all trades on the RMAH are anonymous anyways.  The only real reason to spam would be if the 3rd party gold seller believes they could convince players that they have better rates on items/gold on their website than what is currently on the Auction House, but this brings up two more issues.  1.) Many players whom might have been willing to do a 3rd party trade may no longer choose to do so now that a safer transaction system is in place.  2.) Even if the player is willing to do a 3rd party trade (and we’ll assume the offered deal is legit just for argument’s sake), the profit margin on that/those good/s may be smaller than it would normally have been, making this strategy less attractive for gold sellers in the long term.

Also, Hardcore Mode Characters won’t have access to the RMAH.  For those that aren’t aware, in the Diablo series a Hardcore Mode character is a character on a special server where characters only live ONCE.  If your character dies, it’s done.  You’re forced to start over.  It’s a highly competitive format, especially in PvP, and Blizzard has chosen it’s only fair to not allow the RMAH on the Hardcore servers.  Since all players have far far far more to lose when a character dies, Blizzard doesn’t want the RMAH to give an advantage to players willing to spend extra money.  However, since there will likely still be players willing to spend extra money on Hardcore mode characters, one can expect this aspect of the game may still fuel a 3rd Party gold selling market.  By how much?  We don’t know yet.

 

COPING

Ok, here’s another big question;  We know the RMAH is going to be in D3 regardless of what we want, so how do we cope if we fall in to that category of gamer that doesn’t feel comfortable about its existence but still want to play Diablo 3 when it comes out?  Obviously this isn’t for folks filled with venomous bile and want to spit acidic ichor at Blizzard over this controversy.  This is just for folks looking to find a way to “all-just-get-along”.  The answer is going to vary, and will probably require us to shift our viewpoints a little bit.  First ask yourself why you don’t feel comfortable about the RMAH.

 

Are you upset by the prospect that other gamers willing to spend money will have an unfair advantage over you?

To address this ask yourself an important question;  Will your gaming in Diablo 3 be focused on PvP on non-Hardcore servers?  If the answer is no, then you probably don’t have too much to worry about.  Diablo 3 is a single player game that can be played with nearly full-multiplayer support.  But remember that outside of arenas, Diablo 3′s multiplayer aspect will primarily be cooperative.  If another player has better gear or more gold than you, then technically that’s a bonus for you as well, since your group will on average be better prepared.

If however you do PvP in arenas, and you don’t do it in Hardcore where the RMAH doesn’t exist, then things will certainly be trickier.  Not necessarily impossible though.  The RMAH will offer an option to players willing to spend money to gear up faster, but regular game play still offers the same level gear drops.  What folks using the RMAH are technically buying is time.  Additionally, the gear you use as you level up will still be sellable on the regular Gold Auction house too.  Gearing up on Diablo 3 has been intentionally designed to be easier by Blizzard than it is on WoW.  If you want to purchase a slight upgrade to a chest piece on the Gold Auction House, you can do so, and then turn around and sell your pre-existing chest piece for almost as much.  This makes the net cost of upgrading your gear considerably less than it is in WoW.  So long story short, yes, the folks using the RMAH may have an advantage over you in non-Hardcore PvP, but probably not as much as you might initially think.

 

Are you worried your guild will expect you to use the RMAH?

If you’re concerned about peer pressure from guild-mates encouraging you to purchase items off the RMAH so as to gear up faster, may I politely suggest you tell them to put their money where their mouth is (ie: buy you the item themselves or shut their mouth)?  No player should be pressuring another player to spend money that they don’t want to spend, and if you’re in a guild that encourages that kind of pressure then you probably should start looking for another guild.  Trust me, the outrage over the RMAH will likely ensure that there will be plenty of guilds composed of players whom wish to play the game purely without any interaction with the RMAH.  Investigate one of those.

After all, the primary point of a Guild is to enrich the game and improve one’s overall enjoyment and entertainment.  If you’re feeling stressed because of your guild, then the guild is failing its purpose.  It’s a bit of tough love, but it’s time to move on to a better group.  :(

Nov 022011
 

Or: How I learned to stop whining and remembered Diablo 2

The Color Controversy over the artistic style of Diablo 3 which began nearly four years ago will probably never truly fade away.  A psychology or sociology professor could probably write up an interesting thesis on human nature by focusing on the internet movement that petitioned Blizzard to abandon its “colorful” artistic style in Diablo 3.

From my observations most folks that have joined this movement have either done so because they’ve perceived a threat to their beloved nostalgia as related to them by others and haven’t done the research themselves, or are simply suffering some sort of fugue that has clouded their memories of Diablo 2 and Lord of Destruction.  Truth is, the Beta we’ve seen is in no way shape or form more colorful than Diablo 2, and anyone whom thinks otherwise is most likely romanticizing their memories of the game.

Oh Xodin, you’re talking crazy!  Diablo 3 has witchdoctors casting spells with bright green effects, and blue cloth-clad wizards, and the countryside around New Tristram is anything but dark, full of green grass and -

Let me stop you right there.
First off, Diablo 2 begins in Westmarch, and the grass there was way greener with more lush countryside than what we’ve seen in the Diablo 3 beta so far.  Even in Diablo 2 we visited the jungle of Kurast which were dark, but still abundantly lush with life, twisted though it may be.  If you think differently then I advise you double check the Saturation settings of your pixels…

Secondly, the spell effects in Diablo 2 were very colorful.  I used to tramp around dungeons with a horde of skeleton mages which not only had hands glowing with bright blue, or neon green, or even electric magenta balls of light, but those same spell effects even colored the environment around them, and that was as a Necromancer, arguably the most dark and death oriented class in the game.  Paladins used to tramp around with glowing golden auras, and don’t even get me started on the Sorceress’ spell effects.

Thirdly, I used to wear cyan colored plate armor.  Many of the gear and item drops in D2 branched out from the traditional shades of metal and leather, especially the Uniques and Set pieces.  What Diablo 3 is specifically bringing us that’s different from Diablo 2 is the opportunity to dye our armors to whatever color scheme we want.  If we want to ensure our Diablo 3 experience is as dark as possible, we can go ahead and dye our armor sets in shades of black, grey, or brown if we want to.  If we want to look like Hello Kitty picked out our gear, well, that option is there too.  Blizzard is putting the choice in your hands, so think twice before getting uppity about the default color scheme of your gear.

Gear Aside, items are still going to have colorful text for their names just like in WoW.  They should keep the old Diablo color scheme for items, and not borrow from WoW!

Ok…  Someone’s forgetting WoW’s roots here.  The Color Scheme for rarity in WoW was directly influenced by the Color Scheme from Diablo 2.  In fact, a lot of things in WoW were developed based on Diablo 2 (sockets anyone?)

For those that have forgotten, the original color scheme for Diablo 2 was as such:
Normal/Trash gear: White
Magical: Blue
Set: Green
Rare: Yellow
Unique/Legendary: Gold

WoW only modified that scheme a little bit.  Set lost it’s distinction and was just absorbed into the other rarities.  The Green color assigned to it became the common magic quality items.  Blue’s became Rare.  Blizzard added in Purple to denote Very Rare (epic) items (this continues the natural progression from Green to Blue, etc) and made Legendaries Orange instead of Gold because there were colossal complaints over how difficult it was to distinguish the Gold text from the White text of normal items.

Essentially people are complaining that Diablo 3 is using the colors Orange and Purple while dropping Yellow.  Frankly this should really be a non-issue.  If you have a problem with the Color Purple, then why aren’t you complaining about the Magenta Potions in the original D2 game?  If you have a problem with the color Orange, then you can stand in line to be assaulted by the forum Trolls that ranted and raved non-stop about accidentally selling Unique items that they thought were trash.

Long story short, the Color Scheme for item rarities is only marginally different from Diablo 2, and over 10 Million Blizzard players are already familiar with it.

Monsters are now more colorful…

Before I even got out of the first two starting zones of Diablo 2 I was fighting off Blue Skinned champion Rogues.  I fought blue skinned pygmies in Kurast.  I killed bright green maggot monsters in their lairs beneath the sands of the desert outside Lut Gholein.  Arcane sorcerors tossed bolts of purplish magic at me, and Andariel filled the basement of the Rogue fortress with bright green clouds of poison.

Want to know what Diablo 3 has?  Diablo 3 has pale corpses climbing up out of the ground.  Within the first three minutes of the game you fend an attack of undead leaving a pile of blood and body parts up to your ankles at the gates of New Tristram.  Inside the Cathedral you fight stitched together corpses incubating grey blood eels which burst from the walking abomination in an explosion of black ichor.

Long story short, Diablo 3′s artistic team isn’t putting any Unicorns in this game, and if they did, the Unicorns would be black steads with blood caked into their fur and human intestines hanging off their alacorns.

Well, uh, the new Resource systems have non-traditional colored globes!

Firelight Orange Fury for Warriors is fully within the fiery shades of orange that both D1 and D2 used in their environments and settings.  Pale white for Spirit for Monks is far from “colorful”.  Blue Mana for Witchdoctors is identical to the last two games Resource.  Demon Hunter is using Red and Blue, also the same colors as the last health and mana globes for the last two games.  Arcane is purple, which is arguably the only resource “color” folks could compain about, but if they didn’t complain about the magenta health/mana potions of D2, then personally I find their argument to look rather foolish.

Ummm, they shouldn’t have so many colorful gems?

Right, cause Diablo 2 was so dark that it was totally lacking in colorful gems…

So, well, uh, IF what you’re saying is true, then why are folks making such a fuss?

If you have something you love, and someone tells you someone else is going to do something bad to it, then you’re automatically going to find yourself on the defensive.  Back in 2008 some folks oddly believed the game to be too “colorful”.  A lot of other folks heard this, and rather than waiting to see if it was really true, or bothering to do a fair and complete comparison, they chose to act on their defensive instincts and hopped on the band wagon.  Afterall, folks have seen the colorful look of WoW, so it was hard to imagine the possibility, even if the evidence at hand didn’t, and still doesn’t support it.

All I can really say is, there are going to be folks that will still rally around this controversy because at this point, complaining makes them feel important, the notion of opposing a company as large as Blizzard gives their Schadenfreud a chance to make them feel better about themselves.

The rest of us are going to go off and hack apart corpses and demons in D3 until our armor is soaked in dark crimson blood.

Ciao!

Nov 012011
 

What kind of game is Diablo 3?

This is a question that gets bandied about forums a lot.  A lot of folks are used to RTS (Real Time Strategy), FPS (First Person Shooter), and MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online).  The Diablo series has never fallen into these categories.  In many regards the game system it is based on (and in many ways defined) predated most of these systems and sadly is not as common in this modern day age of gaming.

Admittedly, you will still find many 3rd Person Hack-n-Slash RPGs, but Diablo is a special brand.  Unfortunately, the last update to the Diablo series was in 2001 with the Lord of Destruction Expansion.  That’s long enough for an original Diablo player to have had a child and put them through the Fifth grade.  In fact, there is an entire generation of gamers out there right now that weren’t around when the original diablo games first came out, and for many of them this classic piece of gaming history may seem alien compared to modern games like “Dragon Age” or even “World of Warcraft”.

But I digress; Enough nostalgia.

The above question is quite large, and rather vague, so let’s break it down into more specific sub-questions.

Is it a First Person or Third Person game?

First off, Diablo is played with an isometric 3rd Person view.  In this regard it’s like many MMOs, in which you view your character from above at an angle.  Except in Diablo the Camera doesn’t follow behind your character.  The camera generally maintains a fixed view point of the environment and action, and only moves when your character moves so as to keep your character in the center of your screen at all times.  This can seem like an odd point to focus on, but it is important.  The view of the battlefield helps define the unique feel of the Diablo series, and as you play through the various dungeons you’ll definitely understand why having such different vantage point from traditional games is important when there are a hundred enemies approaching your position.

You can play online with other people, so why is Diablo not an MMO?

The answer to that lies with the first “M” of “MMO”.  Massively.  Diablo can be played as a Multiplayer game online, but it is not a world setting where hundreds (or thousands) of players will be sharing the same environment.  Instead, if you choose to play with others (either friends or through the Battle.net matching service) you’ll only ever play Multiplayer in a small group.  Four players max for Diablo 3 (for now), or eight players max for Diablo 2.  In this regard playing Diablo 3 multiplayer is more like playing a single Instance in WoW.  Each multiplayer game is specifically created on a server just for you and your friends, and isn’t shared with the overall playerbase as a whole.  So essentially it counts as a Multiplayer Online game, just not a Massively Multiplayer Online game.

If it’s not an MMO, then why do we have to always be logged in to Blizzard’s servers to play?

This is a point of controversy for a lot of folks, but the bottom line is that it all comes down to Security.  Diablo 2 was (and still is) a hot bed for hacks and cheats that came about because players could hack the files stored on their own machines.  This isn’t technically bad if you’re just playing single player on your own computer or personal LAN, but by and large it became an issue that plagued the old Battle.net servers.

In addition, over the last seven years Blizzard has observed a drastic increase in the number of World of Warcraft customer accounts that have been hacked (on the client’s end, not the server end) just so that their gear/items/gold could be stolen, transferred, and sold on an underground market.

With the existence of the Real Money Auction house in this game, the need to create as secure and safe an environment to play in as possible becomes paramount.  People assume Blizzard is doing this to cut down on piracy of the game itself, and to a degree that’s true, but it’s far from their primary reason, and the costs to Blizzard to maintain the servers and bandwidth to run an always-logged-in game is quite substantially high, especially since there will be no monthly fees.

No Monthly fees?  So is Diablo 3 free?

Yes and No.  Obviously there is a fee to purchase the game itself (as well as any possible future expansion), but there are no monthly fees.  You can buy the game and play to your heart’s content without having to pay another penny.

However, there will be a 100% Optional aspect to the game called the RMAH (Real Money Auction House), where players can purchase in-game items sold by other players for real Money.  You don’t have to partake in this feature (there’s an in-game Gold Only Auction House too which you could use instead, or not at all if you want to avoid Auction Houses altogether), but if you do choose to then yes, that part would also cost money.

RMAH?  Does that mean Diablo 3 follows the Freemium model?

Technically no.  The Freemium model operates by providing slimmed down gameplay/features for free, and allows players to spend money to unlock/access restricted and exclusive content.  Social Networking games such as those put out by Zynga might provide players the opportunity to purchase in-game items that players whom play for free can’t access.  City of Heroes limits free players to having only two characters on their servers.

In Diablo 3 there is no exclusive or restricted content.  If you bought the game, then everything in it can be accessed given enough play time.  You don’t have to worry about exclusive items showing up only on the RMAH.  Any item posted on the RMAH does technically have a chance of dropping for you off creatures (or being crafted by you) during regular game play.  So anything you might see on the RMAH you can technically get without having to pay real money.  In fact, any item that exists on the RMAH only does so because it originally dropped for free (or was crafted for free) by another player.

What’s the plot of the game?

If you’re new to the Diablo series, then the plot may seem semi-imposing.

Essentially, the world is beseiged by an imminent invasion from Hell.  The Lords of Hell (Diablo, Baal, and Mephisto) enacted a millenia old plan to open the way for the mortal realm of Sanctuary (where you and humanity lives) to be invaded by Hell.  About twenty years ago their plan reached culmination and despite being defeated by the Heroes of the day, the way for invasion was still cleared.  Except in the time since then, the invasion hasn’t happened.  An entire generation has passed, but recently a shooting star (meteor) raced across the sky and crashed into the abandoned cathedral by the ruins of Tristram (from the first game).  This event has been taken as an omen that the invasion is about to occur, and indeed there are corpses rising from the graves which have begun assaulting people, and various beasts of the land seem to have been tainted with demonic energies, making them larger and more aggresive.

Our characters begin the game investigating these events.  Each class has it’s own reason for doing so, and subsequently it’s own backstory which develops through the game.  Ultimately our characters will face the onslaught of Hell, and hopefully find a means of saving Sanctuary.

Is Diablo gothic or high fantasy?  I heard D3 has rainbows…

Ok, this one is a controversy that has been going on for the last three-four years ever since D3 was announced.  The first two games in the series had very dark artistic themes.  Lots of blood, dark dungeons, corpses, orange firelight, dark earth toned clothes and armor, with stone or leather textures for interface windows.  When D3 was announced people saw lots of blood, dark dungeons, corpses, orange firelight, dark earth toned clothes and armor, with stone or leather textures for interface windows.

Why people suddenly think D3′s artistic renderings are more “colorful” than D2 and LoD I still don’t understand.  Anyone whom played D2 have little excuse for not remembering the green fields of the Western Kingdoms, or the Green Jungles of Kurast, or the bright glowing magenta/blue/green/electric energy flinging mages and skeletons, or the colorful gems, or the bright green poison clouds, or blue skinned Champions… etc…

D3 is no more colorful than it’s immensely popular predecessor.

That being said, it still retains an intensely dark atmosphere.  A pale fog fills the countryside around Tristam in D3 at night.  Walking Corpses explode with dark ichor.  Flickering torchlights are the only source of illumination around the besieged town of New Tristram.  All in all D3 is not a High Fantasy game.  It’s about Hell on Earth (read: Sanctuary) and the artistic theme reflects that.

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