Welp, that's it. I've done all I can do. In an interview with Diablo III: Reaper of Souls' lead designers, I attempted to comprehend once and for all why they refuse to simply add an *option* to go offline on PC. The auction house will soon be gone, the console version has no such requirement, and I cannot conceive a universe in which the game's community suddenly shatters like a beautiful ice crystal just because its members don't always have to be connected to the internet. And yet, here we are. On the upside, lead designer Kevin Martens and art director Christian Lichtner actually had some rather encouraging things to say about the rest of the game's direction, though our chat was ultimately, sadly cut short.
RPS: You've decided to drop the Auction House, which has made many fans quite happy. However, a lot of damage has already been done - not just to Diablo III's economy, but to your relationship with players.
Martens: I mean, maybe it strained the relationship for a while. The thing is - and this is a Blizzard thing that long predates Diablo III - we're playing and watching the game. We don't just ship a project and move on to the next game. All of them get a lot of work.
There are two things that made getting rid of the auction house make sense. One of them was Loot 2.0 locking down, making sure that finding loot would be so satisfying and fun that no one would even miss the auction house. And the other thing is, we did some experiments binding just the top level of stuff. The Hellfire Ring, the Marquis-level gems, and whatnot. We sort of took some of the power out of the trading economy.
I think what we learned about the auction house is, people used it way more than we thought they would. Trading is a valid way to get items, but we know - and we've decided to put our stake in the ground - that finding a monster and killing it and getting the item is the most fun way to play. Has the most lasting satisfaction.
Now that we've nailed that, we feel comfortable getting rid of the auction house.
RPS: What happens to the economy when you flip the switch? I imagine people are going to go nuts with real money and gold-based sales before then. How do you plan to mitigate potential fallout from that?
Martens: Certain parts of the market will inflate, and others will collapse. The short version is, the expansion adds a lot of new items and item levels. It expands the power of the game, all the classes are being rebalanced, and we're adding new properties to items - even existing items, when new versions drop.
The legendary thing and the new gem tiers pretty much takes care of a lot of that stuff. People can do anything they want. They can corner any market and amass gold or gems or whatever. That will help them a little, but not a lot. It won't give them a huge advantage in the next economy after the 2.0 patch. That economy is full of new things, and all of them require you to play the game in order to obtain them.
And that's what I think was missing from the game. Playing auction houses can be fun - that whole sort of market-cornering aspect can be a cool kind of minigame - but it took away from the core fantasy of what our game is. It's about killing monsters.
The expansion also makes the simple act of killing monsters more fun. It's kind of a whole-package solution. Doubtless, we'll have to do tweaks and whatnot afterward, but I think we're on our way to solving the trading issue.
RPS: Auction house or not, many people also ended up finding Diablo III's endgame to be pretty repetitive. Drab, not-very-well-randomized environments, etc. Sure, it's an endgame focused on item farming, but I think there are plenty of options to alleviate tedium.
Martens: Yeah, we're improving randomization a lot. Adventure Mode is the promise of Diablo randomness working as intended. We had all of these different elements: the randomization system - the engine is very powerful at doing that. It can make random dungeons, put items all around in places, all the loot tables to make random items, etc, etc.
So we had that old-fashioned [structure of] play through the campaign four times in a row with increasing levels. Normal, nightmare, hell, inferno. That made players find different efficient parts of the campaign that they'd just play over and over again. It's part of player psychology, and it's understandable.
I think we had good things and bad things about that, but ultimately we took all the elements from the campaign, we put them all in adventure mode, and we have this mixing and matching system to keep variety fresh. And we just made that the best way to get loot. So variety has also become the most rewarding gameplay experience.
Lichtner: I would also add that, in Reaper of Souls, our exteriors are finally fully randomized. There are no longer patches that are predetermined. So that's even more randomization.
Martens: We've also got Nephalem Rifts, which are pretty small - they take 10-30 mins to play through - and we've realized we can break a lot of our own rules with them. They're constrained, so everything that happens stays within that zone. We can do things we couldn't do in campaigns that'd be easy for people to take advantage of.
We can do things that'd be tedious in a larger setting, but in a smaller one are freaking awesome. Like, one example is the summoner monsters. You've got your skeleton summoners - they laugh at you and they summon skeletons - and in normal gameplay you try to target them first. We also have the zombie mothers, and where they vomit, more zombies rise. We've stuffed a zone with those two alone, and so quickly it starts filling up with zombies and skeletons. To the point where you can barely move. That would be terrible if you had to get across an entire zone.
But for five minutes? You know, using all your movement skills, being a lot more defensive - it's awesome. Same thing with buffs. Like, we can give you a lightning buff that one-shots every monster. You can just run down the hallway and everything dies. It can only last for 15-30 seconds, and it only works in Rifts. It's a little period of arcade awesomeness in an otherwise random dungeon.
And those are just a couple of millions of combinations that could roll. You may never see those. We also play through, find especially neat combinations, save them out, and make sure they can roll again in the future.
RPS: OK, now the big one. The auction house is out, but the online requirement is still in. You've explained that it's all about community and whatnot, but would adding in a simple option to play offline really hurt? I mean, the game's already that way on console, and it's not like your community would just up and disappear. Plus, if they did, I think that'd mean they never enjoyed being online with your game in the first place.
Martens: It's interesting when you're in the moment in gaming culture - when you're playing the game right now - we see its flaws very well. When we look at the long history, it becomes sort of a rosy past. I don't think people necessarily remember how mad they themselves were that they had an offline mode and online mode in Diablo II.
This will probably be controversial for me to say. People will be like, "I wasn't mad!" But I was there at the time, and then I studied this for a living. It sucks when your friend or brother is online and he wants to join this game, but you realize you're an offline character and he's an online character, and there's no way to transfer over because offline characters can be hacked and hex-edited to hell and back, right?
And then we had that split between expansion characters and normal ones as well [in Diablo II]. The community was inherently divided. And that's what it boils down to. Long before any of this happened, we wanted to solve the trading problem. But before we even had the auction house, the always online thing was there.
The game is most fun when you can play with other people. To be ghetto-ed off to the side and not part of the real game, we didn't want that to happen. This is an online game. We want people to play together. All of that predates the auction house. I can see how people would think otherwise, but the auction house was a salve we came up with in the last few months of the project. It was a six-year project.
RPS: Diablo III's been out for a while, though. Don't you think that changes the context a little? It's not like people would be blindsided by this. They'd just have a new option, and so long as you explained the ramifications clearly - "This character won't be able to go online, here is why" - I feel like most people would be OK. Better than them not being able to play the game at all, right?
Martens: Well, we have to remember that a lot of new players are still coming in regularly. You can have a solution that works really well for the most knowledgable people, but you can make it much worse for the people who want to join the community as well. We're adding more community features as well. Clans and groups are coming too. You know, this is the game we made.
RPS: What if people don't want to commit to a community? What if they just want to play the game?
Martens: We didn't make that game. That's the straight-up answer. We did not make that game, and we're not going to turn this game into that game. We have the online mode because we learned a lot over the many, many years that Diablo II was in development.
That was the wrong choice to allow people to play offline, and we still stand by that. And we think Internet access is widespread. If someone has no Internet access, then yeah, Diablo III is not the game for them.
[PR motions that time is up]
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Postscript: It's worth noting that I still had many other questions for Blizzard about its commitment to always online - both in regard Diablo going forward and future games. BlizzCon is, unfortunately, a place where hustle and bustle constantly threaten to overwhelm, and schedules dominate. I don't think I had a single interview that didn't get cut short, so them's the breaks.
Given the opportunity, I would've liked to delve deeper into notions of Blizzard's love/hate affair with Diablo II, the assumption that its audience won't understand one whole new option so why even try to explain it, assumptions in general (Blizzard made quite a few of them here, some of them completely astounding), why it's fairly hypocritical to look at one part of your audience and say, "We will do everything for you because we want this game to reach the widest crowd possible," but turn to another and say, "Nope, go away," and Diablo III's potential for longevity (or lack thereof) in an era far removed from Diablo II's heyday.
This sort of attitude has become pretty much par for the course with Blizzard, though, unfortunately. "You may think you know what you want, but we know better." And sure, game development - good, confident development - requires that mentality to some extent, but there's a breaking point. A time at which it's worth noting the constantly erupting volcano of demand and considering a new approach. Or at least not writing it off in a, frankly, sometimes dismissive fashion.
I'm hoping to follow up with Blizzard, but it can be tricky to get further answers from them.
I should stress that I do like the direction Reaper of Souls is headed in, taken on its own terms. Blizzard seems to have finally remembered why Diablo first ensnared so many with his sultry, lava-encrusted eye slits, and it wasn't economy and trading. New systems for randomization sound interesting and - in some cases - even like legitimate steps forward instead of sweat-soaked retreats into Diablo II territory. Also, groups and clans on the multiplayer side of things sound like solid, if hardly revolutionary ideas. I don't think Reaper of Souls is a world-beater at this point, but it's looking decently OK.
Still though, since the online requirement is here to stay, I can't help but wish Blizzard would try to take advantage of it in more interesting ways. Think Path of Exile's league/race events, which are based on, you know, Diablo II's ladders. On the upside, it seems that Blizzard is at least experimenting with the idea of propping up a few D3 ladders in Reaper of Souls, but they're being pretty cagey about the much-requested feature's chances of making it into the final game. PVP, meanwhile, is still in the works according to Blizzard, but progress doesn't sound particularly promising.
I'm glad Diablo III is improving. I really am. Right now it's still straddling a wobbly fence with conflicting priorities growling on each side, but I'd like to see it eventually become amazing. One way or another. And if it doesn't? Well, it's not like the genre's lacking options.