Diablo 3 Beta Review: Your Mouse is F*cked
In early 2011, promoting his over-the-top opus Bulletstorm, Epic Games design director Clifford Bleszinski summed up his design philosophy: “if you’re going to make a shooter, you better make sure that those 30 seconds that you do over and over again are more fun than anything else in the game.”
Repetition is an unavoidable feature of games. Doing things “over and over again” is in fact foundational to the way they work. What is Super Mario Brothers, after all, if not a very long series of leaps? Repeated actions enable us to perfect gaming skills and defeat enemies. Bleszkinski is right: making these actions as fun as possible is the most important task in game design.
Nothing exemplifies this principle better than Diablo, which was released by Blizzard Entertainment in 1996. The game radically compressed Bleszinski’s 30-second window; a discrete bit of gameplay in Diablo lasts no longer than the few frenzied seconds it takes to mouse-click an adversary into submission. This action is repeated literally millions of times.
But despite its short duration and apparent simplicity, the act of attacking a monster with a mouse in Diablo is stupendously, ineffably fun. It’s partly good game design: surrounded by shambling foes, you’re under pressure to kill them all, and fast. It’s partly good animations: big windups and powerful-looking follow-throughs abound.
Most important, though, were the sound effects. By some secret system, Blizzard devised an array of the most satisfying sounds in the business: the strangled screech of of a dying goblin; the clatter of a skeleton’s bones as they fall to the floor defeated.
By the time Diablo II came out in 2000, Blizzard had perfected its formula. The sequel was full of Barbarian warcries, pygmy fetishists screaming as they died, and the soft wuthering of sorcerous teleportation. The game was and is both addictive and repetitive; players clicked their way through the same levels and defeated the same demons, over and over again. They did so because each tiny two-second victory — each capsule of sight and sound — was composed purely of fun.
Last week, Blizzard opened the gates of the Diablo 3 beta, letting a lucky few into their meticulously constructed new world. Shortly after, the ESRB released its rating report on the game, which reads like a object lesson in the value of repetitive satisfaction described above.
Diablo 3 received an “M” rating for “slashing and flesh-impact sounds, screams of pain, and frequent blood-splatter effects; creatures often explode into bloody fragments as multiple enemies are dispatched at once.” In attempting to warn parents about the illicit thrills of Diablo 3, the ESRB accidentally penned an eloquent description of the things that make the game so much fun.
Technological advancement in game design has given Blizzard all sorts of new tools when it comes to two-second increments of monster-slaying satisfaction — hence the above-mentioned “bloody fragments.” Animations and character models are more detailed and sophisticated. Severed limbs and heads fly every which way, propelled by the game’s proprietary physics engine.
New character classes mean new abilities and new sound effects, all calculated to provide repeated pleasure. The Monk is a triumph of simple, action-RPG martial arts, keeping enemies at bay with lightning jabs and limber kicks that sound like Rocky punching a side of beef. The blue arc of a Wizard’s lightning tears through adversaries with a satisfying dry crackle. Using the Witch Doctor’s Zombie Charger ability, which summons a “reckless, suicidal zombie that does 15-21 Poison Damage to any enemy in its way” is like being able to summon an all-pro offensive lineman made of magical poison. The whoop emitted by the Witch Doctor when summoning a Charger just makes you want to cast it even more often than you already are.
Though much care has been taken to establish the game’s repeatable bona fides, Diablo III has also lavished attention on the more linear aspects of the game, like its story. Fleshed out with the help of full voice acting, the tale told by Blizzard’s writers is unlikely to contain much psychological realism, but it does a serviceable job of establishing context and character motivation. Story pickups and lore segments appear sporadically throughout the world to provide more detail. They’re all nicely read aloud, but you wouldn’t want to repeat them, and the game doesn’t make you.