Friday, May 18, 2012

Diablo 3: we are the 99%

So Diablo 3 is out. If you're looking for screenshots and media and other fancy-schmancy malarkey, you can just google it. I'm about to

It's got a lot of good things going for it. It looks great, runs smoothly, has a friendly, accessible inventory and hotkey scheme, and delivers dastardly satisfying combat feedback. When you click, things go boom.

On top of all this is an overwhelming amount of lore, backstory, sidestory, journal padding, and platinum-pantied voice acting surrounded by increasingly verisimilitudinous visual fidelity so much so that if you had a big enough screen, it'd easily take over your waking world. Boom!

But in spite of all this, something is wrong. Terribly wrong. Painstakingly wrong. Scientifically, anthropologically, sociologically, culturally, doing-values-while-having-refinement wrong.

And no, this isn't about the crazy always-online DRM (which isn't that bad, despite its implications being really, really bad), or about the amazing possibility for people to "make a living" off the game with its cash-cash-money-money-bling-yeah auction house. It's the game. The game is wrong.

Most of this has to do with maths. For those of you with a maths background, this next part will be largely redundant and possibly boring, even. But if you really like maths, you'll appreciate it and probably read through anyways, despite knowing the end analysis and agreeing with my conclusion. For you, my maths peeps, support me in this. For the rest of you, MATHS:

Numbers are impossibly fascinating. Let's not even consider continuous values (and all the various arguments about their nonexistence) and pretend life is a quantum matter. The best example of the power of maths is the fundamental charge: that is, the charge of a single electron or proton. This value is and must necessarily be exact to a mind-boggling digital significance: 10 significant figures. Why? It only takes a bit of understanding to grasp, really: a grain of sand can contain nearly 22 quintillion atoms, and each atom may contain a number of electrons or protons. The stability of this grain of sand (that is, the assumption that it does not spontaneously ignite, explode, or otherwise kill you) is dependent upon the interactions between these forces, which are themselves the function of the fundamental charge. Should even a small percentage of these electrons deviate yet an even smaller percentage, this stability would be thrown into question. This is just one power of maths.

The second is on a macro scale. Take the great country of America, a land free of tyranny and oppression by any one individual, but subject to the pressures and proddings of various corporations, relentless advertisements, and debilitating individualism. These corporations live and die on their ability to capitalize on this debilitating individualism, and do so with aggressive marketing practices and price control. It's simple economics.

A product sold for $1 profit can make a profit as long as 99%  of the population purchases it, so advertisers must be aggressive. The other side of the coin shows us a similar product sold for a $1,000 profit, and its concomitant marketing strategy. And the crazy, kooky, Buckaroo-Banzaiesque 5th dimension of this coin is the continuum of strategies that can exist between these two extremes. This is the just another power of maths.

What has this all to do with Diablo 3? What is this deal with the maths, man? Doesn't Diablo 3 have maths?

Yes, buddy. It does. Relax, ok buddy? It's got maths. I'm not saying it doesn't have maths. Relax.

Diablo 2 also had maths. For the most part, these maths were perfunctory: they just kind of sat there and looked cool, telling you some things and maybe making you feel like you were progressing, especially during those times where just smacking guys and watching their health bars dwindle wasn't enough. Mouseing over some of these values also gave you a more discrete understanding of them, like having an Attack Rating of 576 be translated into a "79% chance to hit". These things were cool. Kinda nice. Very discrete and understandable, enjoyable to behold. It was a very stable grain of sand.

Diablo 2 also introduce the leech mechanic. There were items and specific enchants/runes/gems (skulls) that imbued your weapons with the ability to leech health and mana from enemies, keeping you constantly at peak performance as you cut through swath after swath of goatfiends and tree yetis. Leech was never explicitly kept track of.

Soon, players discovered that with enough leech, one could essentially break the game. Having enough leech allowed you to circumvent the use of common healing items and focus on stocking the fancy insta-heal rejuvenation potions, also circumventing the "healing rate" mechanic. This streamlined the combat experience significantly, almost to the point where it was the "best" way to play the game. Leech was king. Diablo 2 was all about leech.

But leech was nebulous. What did it mean that you had 13% leech? Was it simply 13% of each strike converted to mana and health? Was it 13% of the damage inflicted minus any damage absorbed? What about resistances? What about your damage range? Chance to hit? All of these things had to be accounted for to assess the effectiveness of one's leech. All of these things had to be itemized for in order to continue playing the game in the "best" way possible.

In Diablo 2, loot was a means to leech. The biggest goal in Diablo 2 wasn't just the gathering of awesome loot and increasingly rare materials so as to deal huge damage. It was about making your character completely and utterly indestructible via leech. A properly itemized barbarian would never have to touch a potion or wait for mana or run away because all he had to do was hold down a single button, whirlwind/frenzy his way through a patch of enemies, and come out the other side no worse for wear. The only reason to return to town was to sell loot and repair.

As one leveled up, one had to continually balance leech. A properly balanced leech would allow longer and longer progression runs without having to return to town. One wanted more damage to increase overall health leech. One wanted better Attack Rating to ensure that leech would occur regularly. One wanted more skill levels to increase both of these things. This was the dilemma, of course. Prioritizing gear was based on leech. Gear that didn't have leech fell by the wayside. Gear that promoted non-leech-based builds fell by the wayside. Diablo 2 had simply become Diablo: Leech.

It made sense, of course. Balancing leech was such an intoxicating endeavor. It was subtle; it was intuitive and qualitative. It was like solving an ever-shifting riubicks cube of skills, stats, and damage. But it was not the only way to play the game. There was a always a chance that that little grain of sand could explode and kill you.

The preponderance of leech-based combat styles always meant that room was left over for other, more unconventional ones. Ones that worked just as well as leech. Interesting ones. Ones like Mana per Kill Sorceress and Redemption Hammerdin. Ones like Find Item Barb and Trap-asin. These unconventional playstyles were wild and wacky, and awesomely fun to watch in a world full of leech. It also was a testament to player ingenuity and the depth of the system, even if it was only ever 1% of the playstyle.

In Diablo 3, the 1% has disappeared. Diablo 3 has leech built in. Every class, every playstyle, every skill build is built on leech. We've all essentially been forced from day 1 to buy into a $1/99% profit scheme without the option of a 1%/$1,000 lifestyle.

Still, leech doesn't exist anymore. Not as a word. That's because leech has been hijacked by the man, by Blizzard, and has been made a primary function of the system. Leech is no longer King. Leech just Is.

Now the mystery has disappeared. Even the path to balanced leech itemization has disappeared. Everyone has been "brought up to speed". There is no path to be beaten out of the wilderness, and the path itself has been carved out of a canyon with sheer rock walls. There is no exploration. No discovery. No Diablo.

Only Leech.