Here’s another possible explanation for players’ almost-across-the-board dissatisfaction with Diablo 3: even though the game boasts randomly generated content, very little changes from playthrough to playthrough. Diablo 3 is incredibly small, and not just because the campaign is short—though it is pretty short, and honestly, making us manually skip each unchanging line of ham-handed dialogue is downright perverse.
But no, no, the problem is deeper than that.
When a game asks you to play through the same mode multiple times, there is an expectation that each play session will be different. To some degree, this occurs naturally in multiplayer games, given the unpredictability of human allies or opponents. But it requires some design work in anything with narrative or level progression. Some games offer multiple paths through their worlds (à la Super Mario World), while others offer branching narratives (à la anything by Bioware or Bethesda). Randomly generated content is another means of achieving difference within a repeating framework, and it has the notable advantage of being able to do so infinitely.
My go-to example of that technique is The Binding of Isaac, a game that is in many ways more expansive than Diablo 3 despite being sold for one twelfth the price, and despite having been made, in Flash, by two guys.
Playing through Isaac’s sequence of events takes about an hour. Each of those hours is unique because the power-ups, consumable items, stat boosts, dungeon maps, enemy buffs, boss buffs, and so on are all randomized. It’s not just that it’s different each time, but also that the differences are substantive and meaningful. You have to play the (sometimes wildly unfair) hand you’re dealt. You have to learn what each item does, and whether its benefits are worth its drawbacks given your current build. You have to look at the map and notice patterns, hoping to guess where the boss room might be or which wall is bombable.
Compare that with the random generation in Diablo 3. The game’s dungeon layouts are randomized, but where Isaac‘s maps snap together discrete, functional, carefully designed rooms, Diablo 3 just sort of splatters some jagged shape onto your screen and hides whatever you’re looking for in one of that shape’s many corners. The random map elements serve one purpose and one purpose only: they ensure that you’ll have to wander around for a while before finishing your current quest.
Items in Diablo 3 get random “magical properties,” but you’ll see most of them within the first few hours of play, and then the numbers just climb higher and higher with no fundamental changes to your attack patterns, movement, or class— whereas very item in Isaac significantly changes your character’s stats and/or demands a different approach in combat.
Both games give semi-random powers to monsters, but Isaac does the same with bosses—and far more importantly, the bosses are themselves randomly selected from a fairly deep pool. Why Diablo 3 doesn’t do this, I have no idea. It makes sense that the last fight is always Diablo himself, I suppose, but why the hell does Act One always end with The Butcher, and why does The Butcher do the same stuff every single time I fight him?
You could say, because of the story, but seriously, playing Diablo 3 for its story is like reading a pulp paperback for its font. And re-reading it. And then re-reading it again. And again. Always for the font, mind you.
Besides which, Isaac does fine without much of a plot. Let’s not let that pass. The more of a game’s story is told through gameplay, rather than between gameplay, the more effective it’s generally going to be. In game narrative, less really can be more. Dark Souls, for example, may have a better plot than most games—but just as importantly, it also has less plot than most games, and that’s a huge part of why it works.
Diablo 3 is laterally small. It’s not that there aren’t enough levels, but that the levels don’t leverage the game’s randomness to create novel variations. Think of it this way: when Diablo 3 gets its first inevitable expansion pack, what will the main event of that pack probably be? Bigger, flashier, tougher end-game content, right?
The Binding of Isaac’s first expansion pack, Wrath of the Lamb, resists that temptation almost entirely. It does not tack on an extra, final chapter. Instead, it introduces alternate versions of the existing chapters, each with new enemies, items, and bosses.
In fairness, Blizzard did something similar with World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. But the low-level stuff didn’t get touched until, what, six years after the game’s initial release? It seems to be an accepted fact that the first 10 hours of any Diablo 3 character’s life will be grindy, mindless drudgery, and WoW’s timetable doesn’t bode well for a change on that front.
The framework is there. Diablo 3 is beyond-compulsive to play. Now more things need to happen while I play it.