It’s not often that a paper like the Times delves into gaming, so it came as a bit of a pleasant surprise when I discovered this article, published yesterday, from game enthusiast Seth Schiesel. He’d had to distinct pleasure of navigating through Blizzard’s well fortified California labyrinth to get an hour long play session of Diablo III. The article, in true Times fashion, is less about the game itself and more about the psychology of the player. Schiesel assures us, however, that the hour which he spent playing was perhaps the fastest hour of his life, certainly a promising sign.
His main focus is split between analysis of the appeal of the game and the intricacies of constructing a virtual economy. He discusses the gameplay using the metaphor of a slot machine. You perform a series of simple actions (clicking) for randomized, rarely unique rewards and loot. These repetitive actions induce pleasing visual and auditory stimulae in the form of colorful spells and sound effects, which mirror the lights and graphics pasted on slot machines. I think it’s a highly appropriate analogy save for one factor. It ignores the competitive element of character building.
A slot machine does not have a progression. You sit and attempt to reap the rewards of repeated level pulls, but you are not constructing a virtual representation of your effort. A Diablo character often involves a heavy dose of ego investment. You are thrown into a world of epic perils, and you want to create a superior method by which you can overcome and dominate such a world. The game is, in essence, a puzzle. Your skill trees, fed by leveling, and your equipment, fed by this random reward system, serve as the tools by which you solve it. Transforming a bland shell of a level 1 class into a cleverly built unstoppable wrecking machine that’s the envy of your friends and random players alike is perhaps the most delicious carrot that any game developer could hope to tie to the end of a stick.
Aside from that, the article’s take on the trade system is interesting. I definitely recommend giving it a read.
Now if only the folks at Blizzard had been good enough to leak a release date… Alas, we remain in the dark. I’d give it a solid six months after they start up the beta. Given that they haven’t even announced THAT yet, I think we’ll be waiting until at least 2012. Perhaps it will coincide with the supposed end of the Mayan calendar… It would be rather appropriate, no?