Thursday, June 28, 2012

Blizzard fails at game design

Did the controversial title make you click through? Good. That was my intention. Before you start hating on me, give me a chance to make my case. I don't really think that Blizzard fails at game design and the title is more tongue-in-cheek than deadly serious. But some of their design decisions do make me scratch my head. It is said that true love has both highs and lows and there's a love-hate relationship between me and Blizzard. There are many occasions in which I cussed them to hell but many more in which I praised them. This little article is meant to question some parts of their game design so bear with me if you will.

With Diablo 3, Blizzard has always maintained that their goal was to encourage a vast number of builds and equipment choices, such that no particular build would shine above all others and no piece of equipment would be mandatory in order to advance through content. It turns out that their plan didn't pan out too well. Here are a few reasons why.

1H vs 2H
Normally it shouldn't really matter which kind of weapon you use. It would come down to personal preference and specific builds which favor one type of weapon or another. Unfortunately, in Inferno it's almost impossible to play as a melee class without a shield. This excludes 2H weapons and makes 1H + shield almost mandatory. To my horror, I heard that even Wizards, Demon Hunters and Witch Doctors are using shields instead of their class-specific off-hands.

I'm sure there are literally tens of players who go against the norm and use 2H weapons but those are the exception. A shield provides too many benefits to give up in favor of slightly more DPS on a 2H weapon: block, armor, life, resistances and other desirable stats.

I would argue that the same thing is valid for 1H vs dual 1H. Though you will get more damage from dual-wielding 1H weapons, the tradeoff might be too big.

Take my Barbarian, for example. Until Act 2 Nightmare he bullied his way through using a variety of weapon setups, including 1H + shield, dual 1H and 2H. But he hit a wall right about that point and I was forced to change both his spec and his equipment to 1H + shield. After that, his problems ended.

Blizzard wanted to stay away from mandatory equipment setups but they failed in this noble endeavor. Unfortunately I don't have a ready solution for this. If I recall correctly (and hopefully I'm not seeing this through rose-colored glasses), Diablo 2 handled this better by offering a much wider build variety, where any combination of gear could be viable. Of course, some were more efficient than others but on the whole you could still finish Hell with a non-mainstream setup.

Strangely, I like D3's DPS system. Translating weapon DPS into skill DPS is very simple and intuitive. But this introduces gremlins into the system. And frankly I don't have any idea how Blizzard will manage to chase those gremlins out.

Crafting is supposed to be something exciting, that players find a lot of fun to engage in, as well as a convenient gold sink. Unfortunately, crafting in Diablo 3 leaves me cold. I leveled my Jewelcrafter to some extent and now I regret it. I was hoping to flip some gems and this worked well for a couple of days until commodity auctions were disabled. After that it became useless. Flipping gems is unprofitable now and crafting gems for myself is... meh, since I can usually buy them cheaper from the AH.

Luckily I didn't level the Blacksmith at all, but if I had, I wouldn't find any use for him. From what I can determine, the Blacksmith is only useful to a small niche of players who have figured out how to take advantage of certain crafted items on the Auction House. That's cool but the vast majority of players doesn't engage in AH warfare.

Then there's the small group of players who don't use the AH for certain reasons, preferring to craft their own gear. Unfortunately, until the late 50s you'll be better off buying very good gear directly off the AH so they are still wasting their time and gold.

Blacksmithing does come in its own at max level, but again, only if you invest a lot of gold in it first, buying rare recipes and expensive mats. Even then, there's no guarantee that you will get good stats on an item.

Personally I just don't want to bother with crafting. It is too unappealing to me but I'm hoping this will improve in future patches. Hah, ironically it almost seems like Diablo 2's gambling system was more appealing to players than Diablo 3's crafting system, despite the fact that results were a lot less predictable.

Crafting mats
Another thing that failed, in my opinion, is the market for crafting mats. The only ones that are worth something on the AH are level 60 ones. In other words, Normal, Nightmare and Hell mats are completely useless. I don't even understand why people choose to salvage their items and then sell the mats on the AH. You are losing money people! On the flip-side, those who know how to exploit this will profit by buying cheap mats, crafting certain niche items and selling them on the AH. Once again, these people are a very small minority.

Even at 60, things aren't rosy. The prices for the 3 types of mats are dysfunctional. Leaving aside the fact that Inferno mats are several orders of magnitude more expensive than their lesser counterparts, Exquisite Essences (magic) are 8-10 times more expensive than Iridescent Tears (rare)! How the hell is that even possible? I find it ridiculous.

Blizzard designed crafting in such a way that the demand for lesser materials is much higher (up to 10 times in fact) than that for rarer materials. How messed up is that? Something needs to be done here: either decrease the drop rate of rare items (something that I would hate), or tweak the number of mats of each type required to craft a recipe.

These are just some of the nits I wish to pick right now. While Blizzard is an awesome company with a lot of top-notch talent, they are still human, and humans make mistakes. They have frustrated me on many occasions with what I perceived as stupid design decisions but their games have also entertained me like nothing else. With Diablo 3 they went through several iterations and radical changes in game systems but unfortunately all is not well in the magic kingdom. But this is nothing that a few major patches and an expansion or two can't fix.

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