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Recently came across Toronto-based software engineer Alex Curelea's blog, in which he describes the psychology behind why Diablo III may not be as satisfying as Diablo II was. It was a good read, and very quick too.

In the analysis, he compares Diablo fans to monkeys who are rewarded with flavored juice when they pull a lever after a specific sequence of shapes is displayed on screen. Eventually, the monkeys begin to associate the reward with the sequence of shapes, and the reward center of their brain becomes stimulated when the sequence appears, rather than when the actual reward is given later.

Monkey's brain response to reward
A monkey's brain response shifts from the time of the reward to the time of the event that triggers the reward.

Alex compares this to Diablo players who are rewarded with powerful loot in Diablo II. He explains that the reward items were powerful enough and frequent enough to create this reward habit loop in Diablo II players, but that the presence of an Auction House in Diablo III means that powerful rewards must be given out less frequently and must be less powerful in order to maintain game balance. This creates a cycle of almost flat-lined game enjoyment, punctuated with occasional bouts of frustration that force you to go to the Auction House to beef up your character with better equipment.

Monkey's brain response to reward Monkey's brain response to reward

[LEFT] Diablo II provided fun gameplay that was punctuated with regular rewards. The fun and excitement of those rewards ends up being the memorable highlight.
[RIGHT] Diablo III, instead, provides valleys of frustration to break up otherwise solid gameplay. This leaves players with a negative impression of the game.

Alex surmises that this system creates two types of players:

  • Diablo II players who experience a cycle of frustration rather than a sense of reward, and so dislike Diablo III in comparison to Diablo II.
  • Completely new players who aren't familiar with Diablo II's reward cycle who enjoy Diablo III, play it to completion, then never touch it again and wonder what the big deal was to begin with.
Diablo III box art

My impressions of Diablo III

I never got into Diablo. I played one Diablo II multiplayer session with a group of friends, and that's it. But a friend of mine sent me a trial code, so I tried Diablo III out one evening. I completed the first major boss (which ended the trial), but didn't get far enough into the game proper to get a good sense of how the whole game would play out. Thus, I didn't feel it appropriate to write a full review.

Basically, though, my final impression was that Alex's two possible types of players is a little incomplete. I'd like to add a third type of Diablo III player to his list:

  • Players who have played other modern RPGs such as Skyrim or Demon's Souls / Dark Souls and get bored with Diablo's lack of genuine player engagement, regardless of how they feel about the reward cycle of loot drops.

The whole time I was playing the Diablo III trial, all I could think about was how much the game reminded me of Demon's Souls / Dark Souls in structure and theme, and how much I would rather be playing Dark Souls instead. Both games are single-player RPGs with options for online connectivity. Both games require the player to navigate mostly linear dungeons, kill demons, and collect empowering loot drops (along with a lot of trivial junk that you'll just throw away or sell). Both games end their dungeon-crawls with a fight with a powerful boss requiring a unique and novel strategy in order to defeat. Both games include abilities to cast passive buffs on the character. The games have a lot in common, with the major difference being the control scheme.

The reward system for Dark Souls and Demon's Souls probably mirrors Diablo II pretty closely, so that might explain part of the appeal of those games. The only major difference being that Demon's Souls and Dark Souls offer loot based on the player's progress through the dungeon (most valuable loot is found in the game world), rather than being dropped by enemies. But for me, the fact that those games have an active combat engine that actually requires engagement from the player (rather than just pointing and clicking/holding down the mouse button) makes them a more compelling experience. There's a better sense of control for the player. This leads to the player feeling like deaths are actually the player's fault, due to a lack of proper technique and skill, rather than just the enemy being too strong (or in addition to); and it creates a greater sense of reward when the player's combat skills are the active component to defeating a monster - even the simplest of monsters.

Monkey's brain response to reward Dark Souls - Tomb of the Giants

Your choice is to passively point-and-click and let the character/game do everything for you (Diablo III, left);
or actively hack, slash, parry, riposte, dodge, and counter your way to success (Dark Souls, right).

By playing Dark Souls, I can get pretty much all the same experiences that I get from Diablo, in addition to the satisfaction of actually having to fight the enemies in the game (rather than just pointing at them). Add in the bonus of both cooperative and competitive online play and user-guided weapon upgrades, and Dark Souls is just a much more fun game to play.

Put simply, Diablo III feels old. It feels like it could have been made ten years earlier without any loss of functionality other than less pretty graphics. It feels dated. With companies like Bethesda and FromSoftware bringing RPGs into the modern age of gaming (with varying degrees of success), it seems like Blizzard is stuck in the past. Other than some new online components, Diablo III doesn't have anything in it that feels particularly innovative, or even interesting. At least, not in the trial. Maybe the final game has much more to offer?

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