Diablo 4 Script

May 14, 2024

Intro (Farming Large Install Size AAA Games)

I don't envy the developers of Diablo 4, because Diablo has a legacy. The first game is an unassailable masterpiece that not only invented a new kind of action RPG, but remains one of the genre's finest examples. Diablo 2 is one of the best selling games ever, and it exudes fun from every pore. Diablo 3 sucks, so there's room for a redemption arc. I've played the Diablo games to death because I think they're quintessential examples of video games. They have a strong focus on skinner box mechanics, but at their best the Diablo games use it to create a specific mood and tell a story.

Dark Souls convinced my heart that games could be high art, and Diablo 1 finally convinced my head. The item acquisition loop that structures the whole game is inseparable from the horror and darkness that Diablo impresses on players. The series has a reputation as the realest of real games; repetitive, grindy, and entirely focused on systems. Actually playing them and realizing how beautiful these systems can be had a big impact on me. Diablo 4 has some big shoes to fill.

And Blizzard itself has a legacy. For two decades the studio could do no wrong, but nowadays they are doing a lot wrong. Diablo 4 could redeem Blizzard the game studio, even if most of its C-suite belongs in prison. The Diablo series came from Blizzard North, which I'll call by their original name Condor, so it's markedly different from Blizzard's usual aesthetics. They tried to Warcraftify the series with Diablo 3, but Diablo 4 could be something new at a time when Blizzard really needs to do something new.

Well, the game is out so there's no need to speculate, but D4 came with a lot of expectations. At first glance, Diablo 4 is a solid red orb blue orb ARPG with an excellent story, friendly enough for a wide audience but expansive and dark enough to satisfy Diablo fans. It's a pretty deep meditation on everything that went wrong in Diablo 3, and an exercise in re-aligning the games with their original spirit both tonally and mechanically.

{== interview clip==}

However, Blizzard made Diablo Immortal. I don't envy the people who made D4 because the higher-ups know Diablo is fertile ground for recurring revenue, and I think one of Diablo 4's primary goals is to finally get the sticky black oil out of its playerbase. When I played through Diablo 3, I felt like it was built for a microtransaction model that just wasn't there; it has all the fake progression and shiny notifications of a phone game but never actually sends you to the shop.

Diablo 4 has a battle pass and a microtransaction shop. You can make a case that it's not that evil in the grand scheme of things, this isn't the most monetized game of all time. But I think Blizzard and Diablo are a good barometer of the game industry at large, and what I found upon playing D4 up to level 100 was a compelling, well-hidden treadmill that ruins an extremely promising first few hours. It's worth noting this treadmill is so good at its job that despite being the Diablo game I enjoyed least, I played it compulsively up to and beyond level 100, then played three more characters up to level 20.

The core gaming community doesn't like pay to win microtransactions, and this has forced studios to get creative. Lootboxes have come under a lot of legal scrutiny and everybody hates them now, so they're relegated to explicit gacha games. The AAA hivemind has instead fixed on the term 'live service' to describe games like Diablo 4: it promises endless new content every season, and to pay for these updates each season has a new battle pass. In their ideal world you pay full price for the game, then 10 or $25 every few months to get the battle pass.

The cost of acquiring new players is going up, due to data privacy laws, increased competition, and a variety of other factors depending on who you ask [1]. So the new buzzword is player retention [2] [3] [4], keeping people coming back to your game, and this is true in AAA, mobile games, and online gambling [5].

AAA games have astronomical budgets now [6], and the live service model not only builds loyalty and allows for the sale of lucrative battle passes, but lets developers recycle the lion's share of their work for, potentially, years. Blizzard won't come out and say that Diablo 4 is built to sell battle passes, but they will happily call the game a live service [7]. In my mind, these are effectively the same thing, a live service without monetization is just a good game. People still play Diablo 2, but it's not a live service.

Player acquisition happens mainly in the realm of advertising or sign-up bonuses {== 10 million power!! ==}, but retention is a matter of game design. The game itself has to make people come back to it. Live service games make a ridiculous amount of money, and live service progression can be grafted onto a multiplayer shooter, for example, without doing too much damage. Diablo 4 is a systems-heavy action RPG, and the live service surgery has effected the game in a lot of incredibly deep ways. It's a game optimized to get as much time out of you as possible, to the detriment of fun. Both as a Diablo fan and student of monetization systems, I wanted to see how deep Diablo 4 goes. This review is still valid if you want to chalk up D4's problems to incompetence, but I firmly believe that the game's quality was purposely sacrificed in favour of keeping players on its treadmill.

D4 was apparently Blizzard's fastest selling game ever [8], but it petered out quickly and seems to lack the longevity of Counter-Strike or Path of Exile, both of which have grown in popularity since release. Even if Diablo 4 fails I think it's a significant game. When you put game design into the world, other people can copy it, and a Hoyoverse spin on Diablo 4 could really do some damage. Instead of weapon aspects you collect waifus who empower your gear, you can switch them freely like Path of Exile gems. Put Diablo Immortal's crest system in there too, but you get a handful of them with every gacha pull so people don't notice how bad the value proposition is. Please share the filthy lucre if you use this idea.

This video is a snapshot of Diablo 4 from when I played it, the game's loot system is getting revamped in season 4, but most of the changes are just intensifying what is already in the game. I'll be comparing D4 extensively with the other games in the series, not to say that Diablo 4 is bad because it's different but to help explain why D4 makes the changes it does. I don't have any nostalgia for the previous Diablo games, D1 and D2 are just good games.

Title Screen and Shop (Farming Gold)

The game gets right down to business with the title screen. We're notified of several seasonal events, and have the option to browse the shop. There you can find the classic fake currency store and some surprisingly expensive bundles.

I've taken to calling the funny money in these games proxy currencies. They aren't really currencies, they are more a layer of obfuscation over the money you're actually spending. There is no definite value, since the price per coin goes down if you buy more of them. They want you to buy an inconvenient amount as well, items are priced so that you have some platinum left over. Either that money is wasted, or you can top up your balance and get that shiny new horse armour.

The shop borrows from a Fortnite innovation: it only has a few items, but they change every day, so you're on a timer to buy something if it appeals to you. There's no way to know if an item you like will come back or be gone forever.

Nobody who has the time or willpower to carefully consider a purchase will ever spend money on Diablo 4 cosmetics. There is no world where a character skin is "worth" buying, and the panic timer exists to short-circuit that consideration process. The proxy currency helps too, since there is no clear relationship between the price in magic coins and the amount of money you actually have to spend.

All systems like this exist to exploit people at their lowest, who are either bad with money or in such a bleak mood that they think a video game cosmetic will make them feel better. They're a symptom of an atomized, lonely world, because that's the only environment where these shops can turn a profit.

I suspected that Blizzard was analyzing the way people use the shop, because a specific cosmetic that I happened to look at for a long time kept coming back to the shop. As of April 9th, 2024, they are adding personalized discounts based on usage data, so that pretty much confirms my theory [9]. They are called Fortunate Finds, presenting highly targeted sales as a movement of nature or fortune.

This is classic stuff, and it isn't a new thing for Blizzard. They are always trying out new revenue models. World of Warcraft is subscription based. Hearthstone cards are a pay to win lootbox, but people don't seem to mind because there's a picture of a card pack instead of a loot box. I didn't even know they were locking Overwatch 2 characters behind the battle pass, but apparently they did that [11]. Blizzard even tried to extract fees with Diablo 3's real money auction house. I think they should bring it back, but maybe cracking down on grey market item sales by becoming an item selling site is a too on the nose.

The shop is also a preview of Diablo 4's excellent UI design. Everything shimmers and flashes, and buttons give off satisfying booms and clicks when you interact with them. All of the graphics are lavishly detailed, the 'purchase' button is a great example. Chris Tapsell's review in Eurogamer calls Diablo 4 luxurious [10]. I'd say it veers into decadent sometimes but almost everything in D4 screams 'big and expensive.' The world, the graphics, the sound, and the writing are exceptionally high-quality and there's so much of everything that it's hard to get your head around. For the most part, it's also tasteful, an exceedingly rare thing for a AAA game. It feels like old money.

Diablo 3 is similarly shiny, but something I immediately picked up on is that it felt like it was nagging me to interact with it. In Diablo 3, weapons you've picked up but haven't checked the stats for have this bright flare. In Diablo 4 they just shimmer, an effect that's so subdued in comparison they use it for the 'New Lore' prompt in D3. In D3, the health and mana orbs have distractingly fast animations, and skills flash bright white when they recharge. D4 is nice and subdued, it understands that the UI is meant to convey information rather than distract from the gameplay. Again, skill cooldowns just shimmer. It's a bit much, but not compared to D3's flashbang.

Expensive doesn't necessarily mean tasteful, and Diablo 3's abuse of Helvetica and this Papyrus wannabe really leaves it feeling like a half-finished Warcraft mod. Diablo 4 shares a lot with its predecessor, but it has been polished to a mirror sheen. A lot of the same notifications and nags exist, but they're much easier to get used to and quickly become subliminal. Personally, Diablo 3 just feels gross and ugly, if it came out today I'd be scrutinizing all the textures to see if they were AI-generated, that's the vibe it gives off.

{== diablo3_10.mp4 13:30, has items, new lore, level up around 12:42 ==}
{== Diablo 3 Helvetica: diablo3_01.mp4 00:26:23 (NEEDS CENSORING!!) ==}

Opening Impressions (Farming the Tutorial Dungeon)

If we choose to actually play the game for some reason, the class selection screen hearkens back to Diablo 2. I always play a melee class, Barbarian if possible. Character customization was a small part of Diablo 3--you could change the look of your gear with transmogrification and dying--but it's been refined and expanded here. Now they can sell you body paint and hair cuts in addition to cosmetic equipment, but customizable avatars also let players feel ownership of their character without any mechanical consequences. Diablo 4 doesn't have many interesting choices, so these aesthetic ones will have to do.

After choosing a look, we can select a difficulty (I chose the harder one) and whether or not this character will be seasonal. Seasons are Diablo 4's longest gameplay loop, if we make the reasonable guess that people are playing one character per season. Seasons introduce new, limited time content and of course a new battle pass every four months or so. I was looking for the "sticking my head into a cell tower" experience, so I went for a seasonal character.

Diablo 4's prerendered cutscenes are fantastic, they consistently have well-considered compositions and use lots of continuous shots. The opening has a different tone, it's just a trailer from four years ago so it has those weird trailer horns and some corniness like the camera zooming into this pit, but the render quality is very high and it serves to introduce two of the major players: Elias and Lilith. She emerges, half-formed from a flesh curtain. The weirdness of this intro reminded me a little of the hell area in Diablo 1, which used the uncanniness of early 3D graphics to portray a hell that was more alien than biblical.

Cutscenes are inherently a lesser way of telling a story in games. Since they are delineated from gameplay they implicitly tell you that there's no danger and you have no agency. But Diablo has always excelled more at atmosphere than linear storytelling, and at least these cutscenes look good.

The Lilith cutscene is followed by one that establishes the game's actual tone, it's slow and grim. A narrator gives you the bare bones of Diablo's story as your character wanders into Sanctuary and almost freezes to death. A scary wolf comes to your aid and the game gets rolling from there...

...right after this achievement pop-up. This is a mundane example but I think this demonstrates the two games fighting for dominance in Diablo 4; we get this excellent, brooding introduction to the world followed directly by a big, shiny, immersion shattering pop-up. It's like Diablo 4 is trying to be a phone game and a prestige Sony first-party at the same time. These notifications are a constant feature of the game, and you get used to them pretty quickly. One of D4's big innovations is its density of rewards and progression, and there are so many of these notifications, which web designers gave the cutesy name "toasts", that they frequently glitch out and override each other.

There are over 500 challenges in Diablo 4, and you'll complete them at a steady pace up until level 70 or so. When you unlock a battle pass tier, the toast is highlighted in a special colour to remind you that you could buy the battle pass. Free players can only get a quarter of the rewards, but you get a notification for every tier no matter what. By free players of course I mean us misers who bought the game at full price. The battle pass notifications seem like a small thing, but the battle pass takes around 80 hours to finish so it followed me around for my entire playthrough, prodding me to buy it every hour or so. This nudging tactic definitely works, especially for dedicated players, because the value of the battle pass goes up as you make progress. You get every unlocked tier when you buy the pass, so the game creates the impression that you've earned the items.

Beyond the distracting progression stuff, the opening is quite good. It does have the hallmarks of a AAA tutorial: it's basic, too long, and frequently interrupts gameplay, but it constitutes a nice mini-story with its own twist. You walk into a village which, surprise surprise, is terrorized by demons, so you have to complete a tutorial dungeon. This dungeon actually teaches you pretty much everything about Diablo 4's combat. It has melee and ranged mobs, enemies with heavy attacks that stun, exploding barrels, an elite, and of course a boss. Diablo isn't complicated, but it's smart to put a little sampler right at the beginning so new players know what to expect. If the game must have a tutorial, this is a good way to do it.

Back in town, we celebrate our victory but are drugged by the villagers and fed Lilith's blood. This happens in another excellent cutscene, a continuous shot builds tension before this guy--who the manipulative villagers told us was a madman--saves us. At this point, I was pretty excited. Diablo's appeal for me is not the high fantasy of Diablo 3, but the demons emerging from a crack in the earth, that queasy feeling that something insane is lurking in a very mundane place. It felt like Diablo 4 was going to be a game about people, and not a bunch of deep-voiced angels in big armour.

Lilith's blood lets us see more cutscenes, so we're introduced to her properly. She's sort of presented like an ambiguous character. Juxtaposed against this unpleasant priest, she tells the congregation to just have fun and be themselves. This immediately leads to them mutilating the priest, so she is a villain in every way that matters. If the scene communicates anything it's that the religious order in Sanctuary is tenuous, and it doesn't really work for the people who live there.

I'm not a Diablo loremaster but angels and demons are about equally powerful, and the two factions are in an eternal conflict called the Eternal Conflict. Without an all-powerful god presiding over things, the religious orders in the game have pagan characteristics. The fancy cathedral faction worships "the light," embodied in the fallen angel Inarius, and occult practices dominate everywhere else. Druids worship nature, and there are shrines to demons all over the place. We meet some witch doctors later as well. Putting a big organized religion into a pagan ferment is really interesting, because without a claim to the almighty your church is naturally going to fracture and come into conflict with all of these other factions.

The human politics of the game are mostly for flavour, but it's a flavour I enjoy. By most accounts, this is what peasant spirituality was actually like in the middle ages, Christian churches have a long history of stomping out local practices for blasphemy. I'm quite fond of Saint Guinefort, a martyred greyhound whose spirit supposedly healed children.

Human characters are readily sympathetic in a way that angels and demons are not. Tristram in D1 is the best example of this, and even D2 veers too much into the politics of heaven and hell for my taste. The squabbles of perfect beings don't do it for me. In D4 the godly forces tend to work through people, which is a breath of fresh air.

Anyway, following the vision we meet up with the local Horadrim, Lorath, and are set free from the tutorial shortly afterward. If you don't know who the Horadrim are, why are you watching this.

Side Content (Farming Random Events)

At this point, I went right into the side content, and I don't think that's the intended way to play. It created an awful lull in my first playthrough. The open world format is new for the series. The games always have fields to run around in and optional dungeons, but in D4 the world map is not randomly generated and you can access all of it from the start. The world has no inherent structure. I'm describing your standard AAA open world, and when I encounter one of those I immediately want to wander off and see the sights.


Combine this big, open world with a focus on human characters and you have the perfect ground for a ton of sidequests. Diablo 4 has 218 of them [12], and the level of quality is strikingly high. Gameplay-wise, there's nothing revolutionary; go somewhere and kill something or retrieve an item. But the writing is fantastic and abundant, characters build out that religious flavour I was talking about and the side storylines are often memorable.

There's a chain of illegal exorcisms that fleshes out the church of light's political role, and there's one where you help out a half-demon half-merchant, which is just fun. Again, there are over 200 so they turn into a sort of slurry of miseries, but it's a testament to the game's writing that the misery still comes through when you're cynically doing all the quests for points.

The first two Diablo games are light on content and heavy on systems [13], there are few quests so the focus is on gear progression, character progression, and the friction of combat. There aren't many quests in Diablo 2 but you're always working toward completing them, and while the grind is enjoyable, it's a means to a narrative end--you want to beat the last boss on the hardest difficulty. It's not a masterful or complex narrative, but Diablo 2's main quest frames the entire game; it sets up a progression in difficulty and narrative stakes between areas that does not exist in Diablo 4. Since there is so much to do, and it's all available from the start, the main quest becomes one activity among others.

A little off topic, but while scrolling through footage I noticed something interesting about quest chains. When you finish a quest in a chain, the game very smoothly pulls you along to the next one; the new quest appears on the right, then you get the quest complete notification on the left. The game immediately and passively gives you something new to do. This isn't a problem, or even particularly interesting, but it's a definite tendency Diablo 4 has, something to keep in mind.

The sidequests represent a huge mass of content, and completing them rewards you with XP, gold, items, and renown, which progresses another tiered set of rewards. Each of the game's five regions has its own progression, tied to completing sidequests, strongholds, and dungeons; finding Altars of Lilith which offer homeopathic stat boosts; and finding new areas or activating waypoints. Some of the renown tiers give skill points, so they're pretty important, and the Altars of Lilith are worth getting even if the gains are quite small. The grind for renown pulls you into the open world.


So without any direction in mind I started engaging with the game's combat, which is a huge improvement over D3. The changes are mostly aesthetic, but they work wonders. The darker tone and a focus on people give the violence a sense of significance; while moment-to-moment, weapon sounds are bass-boosted and animations have exaggerated wind-ups and sudden snaps, punctuated with trails and a bit of light emission. Satisfaction happens at the moment of impact, and D4's visuals accentuate the motion of swings to help you feel your weapon strikes.

Diablo 3 and 4 have a strong focus on positioning; elemental damage and status effects are often tied to areas on the ground laid down by casters, rather than being inflicted directly. There are also a number of mob enemies with heavy attacks that can stun you, and getting behind bosses is usually a good play. Since there are enemies and items to click on everywhere, walking to where you want is often going to make your character path in an annoying way, so the game includes a dodge button. Your character dashes toward your mouse when you press space.

I imagine dodging was added to Diablo 4 to break up the monotony of skill rotations and resource management, which are hugely streamlined from the previous games. Diablo 2 lets you bind a ton of skills and restores health and mana through potions, so there was more than enough variation in gameplay to keep players' attention, and desperately spamming potions is a major part of the game.

D4 is quite a bit simpler. You press Q to heal, potions drop frequently and your character picks them up automatically. This keeps the focus on the moment-to-moment gameplay, whereas Diablo 2 made you return to town or perform the dangerous maneuver of putting potions on your belt mid-combat. Diablo 3 had an infinite heal on a cooldown, while D4's system kind of brings back the resource management aspect. In practice, potions drop constantly so health management is only a real challenge during bosses, or where there's a one-hit kill risk.

Combat sounds great, and makes kills feel convincingly gory, but D4's sound design is super satisfying in general. It has a lot of sounds cribbed from earlier games, but that's a good thing; all drops have a pleasant jingle and they harmonize well when you open a huge cache of gear, the potion sound is iconic at this point, and I already talked about the interface sounds. There's a surprising number of different sounds attached to drops, these dial up the satisfaction of getting good items and give you a helpful audio cue. My only complaint is that the best sound effect of all time, moving a skull in Diablo 2, does not make a triumphant return.

{== 2024-03-04_12-35-52 some weapon sounds ==}

Diablo 4's enemies spawn with the tried and true pack system; groups or packs of monsters are distributed around each area so there's a natural ebb and flow to combat, you can take a break between fights.

The constitution of these packs is also well considered; there will be some weak enemies that just run toward you, usually a few ranged ones, archers or casters, and one or two larger enemies with high damage or stunning attacks. Every pack is effectively the same, although there are slight differences in pacing until you reach level 70 or so, when you can't help but think of enemies as just DPS.

This is beyond what I can measure, but it feels as though monster level is the only thing that determines difficulty in D4, very much a holdover from Diablo 3. There's nothing like D2's Flayer Jungle, where the enemies are weak but plentiful and you have to slow down a bit or risk getting swarmed [13, p. 81]. Instead you get very small differences between packs. As far as I can tell enemy HP is not randomized in D4 either, while in D2 enemy health is rolled [13, p. 60]. If health is semi-random in D4 it rarely affects the gameplay, probably because the damage numbers get so high later on. All of these choices in Diablo 2 offer momentary surges and dips in difficulty, while the temperature rarely changes in Diablo 4. The combat feels very good, but it never feels like a battle. Either you're strong enough to be here or you're not.

In the endgame, I picked up on the subtler point that enemy packs are designed to draw you further through the open world, or deeper into a dungeon. Especially at higher difficulties, pools of elemental damage are very common, as is the contemptible high damage explosion on death, one of the most annoying mechanics of all time. These force you out of the pack's center of mass, and in all likelihood you are going to dodge deeper into the dungeon.

Enemy designs themselves induce you to go deeper. The Spider Host, for example, explodes into spiders when killed. The explosion does damage, but the spiders all spawn behind the host, which usually means further into the dungeon. It makes sense to dodge deeper to avoid the explosion and kill the spiders quickly. Ranged enemies will flee, again pulling you forward. It's a fine piece of design, just like the quest chain thing I mentioned earlier, but the game's tendency to subtly lead you along becomes malevolent later.

Since I'm talking about it, a lot of attacks in Diablo 4 take away control, and they make the game very frustrating at times. It's supposed to make you focus on positioning, but with a limited number of dodges it often isn't possible to avoid a hard-to-spot fear patch on the ground, a stunning attack, or some other slowing effect. Getting suddenly disconnected from your character feels awful, it breaks the flow, and it's a punishment that takes a relatively long time versus just losing HP. Not to mention, a stun gives you nothing to do.

A few attacks like this are good; getting frozen in Diablo is terrifying since it suspends your ability to heal. Freeze has an obvious build up over time and easily legible feedback: your character slowly turns blue then freezes. A stun or removal of control is arguably the most dangerous state in the game, especially when movement is this important, and in D4 it's just treated like every other attack instead of a strong punishment for mismanaging your very obvious cold buildup. They at least cut down on enemies knocking you back, which D3 had a lot of.

{-- I got some of the information below from a review but the first sentence doesn't appear to be true going by my footage. Packs aren't super discrete in D4 and there are often small ambushes that overlap packs. --}

{--Clearing packs is another point of satisfaction, and they are designed so that the last monster in a group drops the most loot, stacking the intrinsic reward of clearing the enemies on top of the material ones. Packs have a definite size so when you start a special event the larger mass of monsters actually feels special, giving you a reason to engage with this content instead of skipping it and farming packs. Diablo 3 levels lack these dynamics, so even if the combat felt better the game would still be a slog. --}

I should also mention Diablo's famous and infamous item acquisition loop, which is a defining feature of the series. Over the course of many encounters, your inventory will fill up with loot that needs to be sold, stored, or salvaged in town. For reasons I'll discuss later you have to go back to town to change out your equipment, so all the excitement of getting stronger happens there. The old Diablo games have item identification like the classic Roguelikes, so excitement came from returning to town and IDing a pile of new stuff. In D4, all of your gear is going to be touched by the crafting system, whether it be replacing attributes, upgrading, or imprinting legendary aspects. So returning to town is still exciting, but in a new way.

This is a potent loop. It offers a psychological reward in the form of the loot drop itself, then a mechanical one back in town when your characters' stats increase, then another one, directly experienced, when you find yourself killing enemies more quickly or with some new flavour of damage. If there's one trend across Diablo games, its that this loop becomes more and more the focus of the game, rather than a complement to progression through the world. We can't deny that the loot system is a Skinner box: a more-or-less uniform stimulus with a random reward. But it's part of a larger whole, and how this Skinner box is handled is, what it is used for, is the real schism between old and new Diablo.

If you want to learn more about the intricacies of Diablo, Patrick Holleman's Reverse Design book on Diablo 2 is an excellent resource and it was a huge inspiration for this video.

The Plateau (Enemy Scaling)

This is all fine and good, and for the first twenty levels or so I had a lot of fun wandering around and killing stuff. My character was slowly getting stronger; I leveled at a nice pace and consistently found better gear. That never stopped, but around level twenty-five, I noticed that basic enemies were taking much longer to kill. Over the next few hours the game just felt worse and worse. It's like eating candy until you get sick and then continuing to eat candy, nothing changed apparently but it just started feeling horrible to play.

The conflict between prestige game and phone game really starts when you realize that all enemies scale aggressively to your level in Diablo 4. This has a lot of consequences, but two are immediately obvious. Your absolute power increases over time in D4 but your relative power does not. Enemies take just as long or longer to kill as you level up. The game has no innate sense of progression if you take away the notifications.

There is an intense dissonance when you're wailing away on an enemy, fighting for your life, barely making a dent in its health... and that enemy is a basic skeleton you could have crushed two levels ago. The scaling is so intense I almost convinced myself it was some sort of statement: no matter what you do all the bloodshed strengthens your enemies, you're trapped in the Eternal Conflict too and this is just fun enough that you will never stop eating the candy. I think there's a good game idea in there, but that's not what Diablo 4 is doing.

I think the best way to break this scaling down is time to kill; we can't defer to the raw damage numbers because, for most of the game, there is no fixed-level enemy we can compare our damage to. Even if I found one, the lion's share of the game is experienced with scaled enemies. It's also not particularly hard, just time-consuming. I only died twice before level 60, once to some spider boss in a dungeon and once to the final boss. The game doesn't have those short-term surges in difficulty like Diablo 2, it feels extremely flat.

I made a new barbarian, put a single point into Bash, and cleared the tutorial dungeon until it was too difficult. This is not a normal way to play, but it makes the scaling more obvious; in the space of 18 runs, and a few level-ups, the time to clear the same dungeon more than tripled.

The other consequence of the scaling is that immersion is pretty much impossible. A place is defined by its differences from other places; in Diablo 2 areas are closely related to points in the story, they have distinct drop tables for farming, and of course they have distinct enemies and layouts. Everywhere in D4 is more or less the same, and while the main quest obviously happens in the world it doesn't gate access to anything significant.

There is superficial variety between areas but the geometry is pretty much the same everywhere, enemy density is the same everywhere, and most enemy packs feel the same, especially at higher levels. Each of Diablo 2's acts has way more variety, and the way it randomly spawns packs changes the enemy density within areas [13, p. 81]. Diablo is not famous for enemy variety, but it does have a more-or-less linear increase in difficulty as you move through the world. Diablo 4's difficulty increases across time, but it isn't coupled to the space.

So you might pick up some sidequests that tell you this is where druids live and give you some tastefully delivered lore, but then every zone feels exactly the same. The game says one thing and does another. Playing in the open world has a very hypnagogic quality, you can just sort of float around for hours without any fluctuation in the difficulty, and all the areas blend together. Doing it for any length of time put me into a half-asleep daze. The ability to backtrack and fight easy monsters in Diablo 2, or backtrack and see all the dead monsters in Diablo 1 does a lot to make you feel like you're getting stronger, even if D2 and D4 have similar gameplay and average difficulty. You can fight easy monsters in D4 by changing the difficulty, but this is totally distinct from the fiction of the game so it's very different from farming Mephisto to prepare for Baal.

{++ VO S2 ended here ++}

The reason you'll get for why Diablo 4 is designed this way is its multiplayer. You will often see other players in the world and you can make a party with friends. Enemies scale for each player, so encounters should be just as difficult for everyone in the party, whether they are level 20 or 80. I like the hybrid multiplayer a lot, it's fun to just meet people in the world, kill some enemies with them and move on, and bigger events like world bosses are some of my favourite content in the game. Multiplayer was a necessity. To sell cosmetics, players need someone to show off to and Diablo 4 gives them many opportunities to do so.

But I don't buy that the scaling was introduced just for multiplayer, because it totally dominates the game. Instead, I'm contending that the multiplayer is a side benefit, because when I say that "encounters are just as difficult for everybody in the party" that effectively means the time it takes to kill enemies never changes. In an ensemble with a bunch of other systems I'll get to this completely transforms the game for the worse. If you agree with me that Diablo 4 was made with a lot of care--you can see it in the excessive detail of the environments and the fine-tuned combat--then we have to wonder why these tight controls on progression exist.

At face value the scaling is a bizarre design choice but it makes a lot more sense when you look back at it from the endgame. That's true of a lot of Diablo 4's choices; I was extra-critical of the game for the first ten hours because, like I said, I wasn't having any fun. It felt nonsensical, but there's a definite order here.

Character Progression

I also hated the character progression at first. The game assigns your stat points--strength, willpower, dex, and intelligence--for you, and Diablo 4's skill trees seem like a half-assed compromise between the second game's character building and Diablo 3's busy box. The tree is very linear and prescriptive--every skill you unlock has a pre-defined role and you're pushed toward one of a few archetypes for each class. You can put multiple points into skills, but they just boost damage, range, or duration as appropriate.

You're also limited to six skills on your hotbar, which drives players toward min-maxing with one or two synergies. You can't be a jack of all trades. Finally, Blizzard has committed the cardinal sin of making respecs instant and cheap, so there is no sense of commitment in character building. Your character is totally malleable. A full re-spec at level 100 will run you about 13 million gold, which is very cheap in the endgame.

The skill tree unlocks very quickly. Skills are not gated behind other skills, new nodes unlock when you have a certain number of skill points. There are very few viable endgame skills for each class and even the endgame loot is designed to push you toward certain skills. You can tune a barbarian in various ways, but every build I've found has Charge, the pit fighter passives, the imposing presence passive and one or more of its branches, Rallying Cry, and usually Lunging Strike. The other classes suffer from a similar problem; a small pool of skills work in the endgame and everything else sucks.

At first this made me think I was playing Diablo 3 with extra steps. But where every character in D3 feels the same, D4 offers variety between classes. Some of this falls flat, the barbarian's weapon mastery just has more boring damage boosts, but a lot of it changes how you'll approach the game. There may only be one barbarian in Diablo 4, but you'll never mistake a barbarian for a druid.

My other character is a necromancer. Every necromancer can summon skeletons from dead enemies for free, and this immediately differentiates a necro from the other classes. The skills work differently from the barbarian; none of my necromancer's skills have cooldowns, instead I spend a lot of time managing the number of enemy corpses. Corpse explosion is a fun skill, but summoning a skeleton also costs a body. There are lots of changes but the point is that the flow of combat is different from a barb, and I'm focusing on different things.

By the way it's an open question whether summoning necro is even a viable build [14], so you can expect the endgame to strip off a lot of the interesting class characteristics. It is standard for a game like this, but D4 has notably few synergies that are strong enough for the endgame. I made a viable dual-wielding bleed berserker character in Path of Exile just by reading through the skill tree, but in D4 I ended up retooling my build with a guide around level 70 because Frenzy seems to just be worse than Lunging Strike no matter what I do, and Frenzy builds hinge on a unique amulet. If the game had a bigger skill pool I could kind of make up the difference, but with such a small hotbar I can't justify Frenzy plus a mobility skill.

With that said, Diablo 4 is not a watered down Diablo game like 3 was, it's something new. You are meant to work with the limited palette of hotkeys to build a useful skill rotation. If we ignore gear this will push you toward meta builds, but variety exists between classes. It doesn't have the kind of skill tree I'm interested in, it's more of a puzzle than a means of expression. It does work a lot better than Diablo 3's approach and I think it hits the perfect level of complexity for general audiences, which is obviously the goal. I'm not saying general audiences are dumb, but people will naturally bounce off PoE, for example, because it's so intimidating and time-consuming.

With that in mind, cheap re-specs still erode any sense that our actions are impactful, or that our character is a person gaining experience, but re-speccing is a necessity. And trimming the fat from your build is fun. Again, the narrative aspirations rub up against the reality of gameplay.

Even if we accept the skill tree, the ability upgrades and passive skills the game offers are uninspired; you're never going to find some left-field skill that transforms how you play the game, but it's all serviceable. Character building is more about chasing marginal advantages on the enemy scaling. If you die, you're naturally going to tweak your build, which invites you to study the skill tree, and although there are not many skills you do need to get familiar with them to build a character. If you only plan on playing through the campaign you can probably make anything work, which is nice.

Farming My Friends' Cousins (Campaign 1)

When I hit the rut, I kind of knew there was something interesting going on with Diablo 4, so I decided to push through it. There was a lunar new year event going on, which had its own separate, free battle pass that gave XP, gold, and gear for completing specially marked random events. There were effectively two challenges: kill waves of enemies to unlock a shrine, or power up with the shrine and earn lunar XP until the buff expires.

Since I did this so early, the equipment rewards were much better than anything that dropped organically, so I decided to farm the event and it really opened my eyes to the scaling thing. For some reason the lunar shrines would always spawn the same ghost enemies, and they kept taking longer and longer to kill. For all the trouble I got some good items, caught up with the scaling, and decided to finish the campaign.

Diablo 4 has a good story. It's not revolutionary, just cutscenes and dialogue, but the cutscenes are incredibly well made and not too long.

The game has an abundance of continuous shots, and they are a perfect fit. Of course they ground everything, because there are no cuts in real life and the gameplay has a continuous camera, but these shots are also popular in horror movies. They give scenes a dark, often menacing tone which sets D4 apart from D3. The phrase 'continuous shot' usually refers to scenes where the camera also moves, which draws attention to the existence of the camera and its relation to space, in other words it asserts that the scene is "real," even in a video game cutscene.

The game also uses a trick that I love. In normal gameplay there's a fixed camera that centers on the player character, but some areas transition to a more cinematic angle. These are set-pieces, the game never hits these angles during combat, but this shot of Inarius was very memorable.

{-- In the mid-game, when the story missions are fairly mundane, Diablo 4 gets pretty close to D1's tone, although the means of establishing that tone are very different, and there's a lot of talking. --}
{-- ^^ no it doesn't what are you talking about --}

When the story is delivered in-engine it's surprisingly awkward and glitchy, either from some kind of sync problem with the hybrid multiplayer or just incompetence.

You can read D4's Wikipedia page so I'll just go through the interesting stuff.

The first thing to know is that Diablo 4 wants to remind you of the first two games as often as possible. The Tristram theme shows up a couple times, and the structure is very close to Diablo 2. You're chasing somebody imbued with the power of hell, and it leads you through a forest, a desert, a swamp, and finally into Hell itself. So they're really copying Condor's homework.

But a more grounded take on D2 is something I would love to see, and like I've been saying the execution is on point. The chase gives the campaign a bit of urgency, undercut by all the sidequests and distractions. To compensate for this, quite a few quests start with a refresher on the story so far.

Early quests serve as an introduction to the major characters; Neyrelle, whose mother we have to kill after Lilith seduces her; Donan, a retired Horadrim like Lorath; and Mephisto, demon of hatred and Lilith's father, who takes the form of a wolf. They did not resurrect Deckard Cain, thankfully. Lorath, the best character in the series for my money, plays Cain's role, but he has flaws and nuances that make him a lot more likable than the all-knowing sage genius Deckard Cain, iconic as the latter is.

Everything in D4 is just a little more nuanced. In Diablo 2, your character from Diablo 1 is possessed by Diablo the demon, but is trying to contain him. He ends up stumbling across the world resurrecting several ancient evils. They just appear in dungeons and we have to kill them.

{== 2024-02-12_12-49-20 donan's son, 07:46 soulstone TF ==}

In D4, the first few bosses are the main characters' loved ones: Neyrelle's mother, then Donan's son. The recurring boss Elias, Lilith's summoner and right hand man, was Lorath's apprentice. This develops the human characters, of course, and gives the game a sense of history, like these people actually have lives beyond telling Stan what to kill. Although it hurts immersion a bit, it was prudent to have the characters re-explain the story all the time, because there are a lot of names. The main thing in my head when Vigo died, for example, was 'who the hell is Vigo?'. Don't get me wrong, his role in the story is interesting and his relationship with the church makes its morality even fuzzier, but there's a lot to see in Diablo 4. Again, I think they wanted players to either complete the story in one big chunk or just skip the whole thing. This is not a short game.

They did a great job with the main cast, though, and it's mainly a matter of them being present during many of the quests. The writing can be good or bad--it's good--but Diablo is a game about habituation. I get pretty attached to my mercenaries in Diablo 2, and all they really say is "I leveled up" when they level up. Just having a character around helping is more than enough to make players care about them. They even do this with Vigo. It's great.

In Diablo 3, followers talk way too much and have cartoony voices, so whether it's a mercenary or a main cast member I found myself tuning the story out. Diablo 4 has a lot of this walk and talk, but characters are usually helping you solve a problem, or explaining something important to the actual mission. The practicality makes them worth listening to, it shows us how these characters act under duress, which primes us to care about the cutscenes and purely emotional moments.

As we meet these people, they help us out and we find common cause to fight Lilith. This is felt through gameplay, and cutting down your friend's mom or son is very emotionally complex for a Diablo game. For example, the first thing we learn about Donan is that he is pretty idle in his old age, and he loves his kid and wants to protect him. Then, Donan's son sets out with us and we adventure for a bit until Lilith channels a demon through him. We obviously have to slay the demon, and Donan ends up kind of shell shocked. That eventually impedes our mission so we have to resolve the issue with a pretty corny ayahuasca quest. This all happens on the move, with a sense of urgency, it all ties back to our ultimate goal, and these events in the story interact with the gameplay; Donan's son is a boss, for example.

Diablo 4 doesn't have complex party building, and the main cast doesn't follow you like a traditional RPG, but the developers still created a sense of fellowship that is pretty rare in games. It never made me cry or anything, but I was invested in the story, and I felt pulled to keep doing story quests once I started.

Farming Legendary Aspects (Itemization)

Around the middle of the campaign, you're going to start seeing legendary items. I got these early from that lunar new year thing, but relative to the game's total length legendaries start dropping very early.

There's a simple system of item tiers up to this point, from regular gear, to magic, to rare. Each of these tiers has its own colour, and it governs how many magical attributes appear on the piece of equipment. Rare weapons drop more then normal weapons by the end, so don't be fooled by the name.

I'll explain itemization in Diablo 2 as quickly as I can. In Diablo 2, it was likely you'd find a hat that randomly casts chain lightning early in the game, and you could hold onto it just because it's a fun thing to have. This chance to cast chain lightning thing is called an affix, I have been using the word attribute interchangeably. As you move through the game, affixes get better rolls, so higher numbers, and there's a drip feed of brand new ones. Any amulet with item level 40 or higher can roll with chance to cast Hydra, any armour piece with item level 10 or higher can roll with half freeze duration.

Because the affixes are interesting regardless of a good or bad roll on the numbers, loot is exciting and genuinely meaningful from level 1 to level 99. Unique and set items can drop early and you can hold onto them all the way to a second playthrough on Nightmare difficulty. Skills are strong enough to carry you in D2, so items feel more like a means of expression. Throw in the incredible socket system that can turn normal items into powerful runewords, and almost every drop is meaningful in Diablo 2. When I was really into the game I was chasing a 5-socket Dimensional Blade so I could put the Honor runeword on it, and it was a blast. These systems are a joy to interact with.

A lot of people call the game outdated but I think that's cope for Blizzard's lackluster offerings, no ARPG since has been as earth-shaking as Diablo 2, and it remains a ton of fun, although the remake which you should not buy adds a lot of nice quality of life stuff. If they actually deliver on Path of Exile 2 Grinding Gear might strike liquid gold. Nobody else is even close.

Diablo 4 affixes are much less exciting, they usually boost your DPS by some percentage based on the enemy state. There are tons of these states: healthy, injured, overpowered, stunned, fortified, crowd-controlled, bleeding, and probably more. They serve as filler for the rare gear. Inflict extra damage to crowd-controlled enemies, take less damage from bleeding enemies, and so on. Drops are also controlled by your class so many rares will boost one of your skills by a couple points. Because the pool of affixes is smaller and they are incremental by nature--there's no chance to cast chain lightning or half freeze duration--you will never equip anything you're going to keep; by the time you get genuinely good items the game is over.

In a word, the affixes are generic, and this is intentional. Something has to pick up the slack and make gear interesting, otherwise you'll just compare DPS, armor, or elemental resistance and equip the higher number. There's not much character building beyond gear, either.

Legendary items have aspects, special attributes that interact with or augment your character's skills in more significant ways. A lot of the legendary aspects are actually fun to play with, but they are also a tight control on progression. The chance of finding a game-changing rare is effectively zero, and legendaries are a small pool. Diablo 2's approach offers a lot more variety and gives you the chance for a significant power spike.

In season 4 {--, which may be out by the time this video releases, --} rares will be even less interesting, having fewer attributes from a smaller pool, and aspects are going to be even more important.

D3 - Customization and Kunai's Cube

Without character progression or interesting attributes, your character's entire identity has to be articulated through your choice of aspects. You have to build around them, and that is helped by some extensions to the crafting system. Crafting was a minor part of Diablo 2, mostly utility recipes to turn your little gems into big gems and other things like that.

In Diablo 3 the system was greatly expanded, and most weapons, including legendary and set pieces, can be crafted.

Gear can be salvaged or sold in D3, and the former yields some crafting materials. The game also introduced gear customization with dying and transmogrification. You can make your gear look like any legendary you've found. It's a clunky system but lays the groundwork for Diablo 4, where transmogs let you give your character a consistent look. They also tie into the cosmetic microtransactions, of course.

Kunai's Cube offers some endgame crafting recipes, and it lets you take the aspects off of legendary equipment and apply them directly to your character. It's a weird system, a midpoint between gear progression and character building, mediated through D3's Horadric Cube wannabe.

D4 Crafting and Aspects

In Diablo 4, the aspect system is much better, keeping the liquidity of D3 aspects but tying them back to gear. In D4 you can extract an aspect from a legendary item, destroying the item but giving you a free-floating aspect which you can imprint onto a rare of your choice. This consumes the aspect.

The numerical part of an aspect is randomly rolled when it drops, so no two aspects are created equal, but there are relatively few of them so you can choose a set of aspects you like and keep them through the whole game, upgrading as you find a better roll on your existing ones. Rare weapons exist to hold aspects, so it's no surprise that they're boring and generic.

This gives the developers a tremendous amount of control over your build and the pace of play. You're killing tens of thousands of monsters in Diablo, so you're naturally going to get some unlikely rolls, but since attributes are no longer interesting the best you can expect is 18% more damage to undead, rather than 16%.

Roguelikes were a major inspiration for Diablo, the first game was literally about finding a god-tier weapon and steamrolling part of the game, and the designer said as much [13, p. 5]. In Diablo 4, aspects are a small, pre-defined pool and they drop infrequently. You can only have one per gear piece.

The aspects are fun to use, though. I discovered the Charge skill early on, it's ridiculously powerful compared to anything else a barbarian can do. I found an aspect that makes Charge's hitbox much larger, and one that makes enemies killed by a Charge explode. These changes are significant, and they feel great, but there is no room for growth or surprise: once you have a good aspect, it's unlikely that you'll replace it and all you can do is look for a marginally better version. My build was pretty much done before I finished the campaign.

The Codex of Power is a pretty weird feature in the version of D4 I played. It holds certain aspects and you can imprint them indefinitely, but it always gives you the worst roll so it's mostly for getting a build up and running. Any aspect you find in the wild will be better.

In season 4, it's getting a massive boost. The Codex will store the best roll you find on every aspect, and you can imprint it as many times as you want. It's a pretty profound shift away from what I thought people enjoyed in Diablo. Blizzard's preview of the update is pushing this stuff as quality of life, promoting the fact that you won't have to sort through your inventory as much. Item drop rates are decreasing in general, but I have no idea why items dropping is suddenly a problem. Diablo 4 is not complicated enough to need loot filters or anything, and theorizing about gear upgrades is one of the best parts of the game for me, making comparisons and going through my stats and synergies before finally imprinting a new piece of gear and salvaging the old one is fun.

It's like they're trying to breed out randomness even more, season 4 also adds a very generous system to let you add chosen attributes to gear through these things called temper manuals. I don't know what Blizzard thinks they have with D4, but Diablo's combat is not engaging enough to stand on its own, the item loop is more important and they are taking a lot of steps to remove any sense of surprise or fun from itemization in favor of spreadsheets. You can essentially choose what you want, make it immediately, and then just chase incremental gains on the percent damage boosts. Every Diablo game turns into that after a few hundred hours, sure, but I have my doubts that a casual player will enjoy that.

All of these changes place tighter controls on the player's power level at any given time, so they can make the game as long or short as they want. A smaller pool of attributes means they are easier to balance, so fewer crazy combinations. The Codex's incredible new utility will strongly push players to build around aspects. Damage boosts are locked behind upgrades rather than character building, so they can make you farm a crafting material a given number of times before making your equipment better. There will be twelve tiers of upgrades per gear piece in season 4, by the way. Upgrades might make the numbers bigger, but these are just multipliers on all of the game's boring attributes.

Some of the new affixes are promising, but all of the fun stuff is restricted to the tempering system, where it can be tamed and balanced. Actual item drops will be more boring than ever.

Time will tell if it works, but they're really taking the paint thinner to D4 and removing all of its adornments. A similar thing happened with Starfield, a Bethesda game that hard-focused on the wandering around and picking stuff up that everybody said they liked in Bethesda games. We all know how that went.

Farming Favour (Battle Pass & Season Journey)

Unchaining aspects from gear means they can hook into other forms of progression. Some aspects are only available for the current season, and you get them as rewards in the season journey, so I should probably talk about the season journey.

This is a concept that D4 inherited from Diablo 3; a set of objectives, broken into chapters, that players can complete for various rewards over the course of a season. The next tier or chapter is locked behind the previous one, so players have to complete a certain number of goals to get the really good stuff at the end. The seasonal structure comes from Diablo 2's ladder, which is just a recurring race to the XP cap. The only reward is prestige and fun. The pile of extrinsic rewards reflects Blizzard's MMO brain rot and the player retention incentive.

Condor's Diablo was inspired by roguelikes, who took D&D's beating heart with none of the decorations. Blizzard has done a lot of work to hide it since, but Diablo 3 mainlined that pompous, tedious, Tolkien-style fantasy that predominates in tabletop gaming and MMOs. And it came out as slop for nobody. Dungeon crawlers are a distilled form of RPG, and while Diablo 2 is great the first game has a complete self-understanding that turns it into the best 'going to hell' simulator we have. If you scrape out the high fantasy crust and try to mix it back in to this roguelike liquor, you get games like Diablo 3. A bad game with a lot of annoying decorations, made by an MMO company.

The season journey is one of these decorations, and in Diablo 4 it hooks right into the battle pass. It's the first time a purchase has been attached to a game loop like this if we ignore Diablo Immortal. Finishing quests in the season journey rewards favour, which progresses the battle pass. Pretty much everything you do rewards favour, actually, but the battle pass does not unlock easily. There are ninety tiers. They want you to spend a lot of time with this thing, like I said earlier it follows you for your entire playthrough. A guide I read suggests that the pass should take around 80 hours [15], which is a crazy investment to make every four months. Even if you pay for the pass, you need to finish it in the allotted time to get your stuff.

The regular battle pass is $10 per season. But necessity is the mother of invention so you can pay $25 for the accelerated battle pass and play less of the game. It gives you 20 tier skips and some funny money.

Not only does the game remind you of the battle pass every hour or so, you actually have to interact with it to play efficiently. It can't be pay to win, but the free tiers can have a gameplay impact. Sometimes you get the generically named smoldering ashes, which you can use to increase XP gain and drop rates for the length of the season. So that's four auxiliary progression tracks before you even finish the campaign; the lunar new year stuff, renown, the season journey, and the battle pass.

Farming Elias (Campaign 2)

As we travel around the world picking stuff up, upgrading gear, and chasing after Elias and Lilith, we become aware of Lilith's burgeoning cult. Her followers immediately become cannibals who like doing blood sacrifices and summoning freaks from hell, so it seems like she's simply evil.

Lilith's stated goal is to empower humanity against the forces of hell, and she also wants to conquer hell itself. We'll never get a satisfying explanation of what Lilith's world is supposed to look like, and while her motivations aren't muddled she has that villain problem where she just wants to 'take over the world.' It's not clear what her issue is or what is supposed to change.

One of her concrete goals is to have humans give into their base instincts so they abandon the church of light, give her power over sanctuary, and help her conquer hell. This falls flat for me because I don't have the base instinct that makes me kill random people. Your mileage may vary. Various characters, the more important ones, help Lilith for their own reasons. It's weird that they went for the cannibal cult angle when they've gone to such great lengths to communicate that life is horrible for the common people. There's a rational argument for change and ending the eternal conflict. In a more linear game, Lilith's influence could act like an infection, where people are pulled in by her rational pitch and then slowly descend into the cannibalism stuff.

{== 2024-02-11_00-11-46.mp4 19:47 interested party supports lilith ==}
{== put druid lady and witch doctor footage here ==}

In any case, Lilith wants to kill her father Mephisto, which by video game logic means she will gain his power.

Against the background of Lilith trying to get into hell, we find out that Elias has made himself immortal, and make him un-immortal. I got very excited here, because if they were drawing attention to Elias respawning I figured they would have to acknowledge that the player character is also immortal. It would have been great, blurring the line between the fiction of the game and the mechanics. Like Dark Souls. But that didn't happen, so I cut Elias down.

{== 2024-02-14_00-15-05.mp4 we learn Elias is immortal ==}

Once he's taken care of, the fellowship decides that a soulstone will defeat Lilith. These are the ultimate Diablo trinket. They can trap a demon, but they have a long track record of failure. The protagonist from Diablo 1 gets possessed because he stabs himself with Diablo's soulstone, to try containing the demon. Diablo 1 is the closest the series gets to expressing a theme I think is intrinsic to these games, and as later entries shy away from it the soulstone becomes a dumber and dumber idea.

You're journeying into hell, and empowering yourself with weapons and magic you take from demons. You're doing this to protect people, but it has a cost: this demonic power slowly corrupts you and becomes an end in itself--the grind for gear is a big part of Diablo's appeal, at the end of the day. Taking Diablo's soulstone is the apotheosis of this idea: ultimate power and ultimate evil. {== john, you are the demons ==} The protagonist from D1 fails to contain Diablo, and this kicks off the events of the sequel.

There is also the Doppelganger weapon attribute, my favourite one in the series. Doppelganger weapons tend to be very strong, but they literally multiply the forces of hell. Hitting an enemy with a Doppelganger sword has a chance to clone it. It's Diablo contained in one weapon: you kill demons to get gear to kill more demons. And you can play a big chunk of Diablo without noticing the cloning effect, the same way this demonic power slowly incurs on the main character, the same way you can burn a whole day playing Diablo.

If Diablo 4 is a treadmill, Diablo 1 is a nice walk. It has a definitive ending that completely expresses its themes.

Now, the soulstone is another key for another door. Lilith is getting closer to hell and we need to forge a soulstone to trap her. This involves finding an ingredient for the stone and curing Donan's PTSD. The middle of the story drags a bit, Travis Northup's review is right on the money when he says that Lilith is hidden behind a curtain for most of the game while we do errands [16]. This does give her an air of mystery and power, though, and we have lots of time to get acquainted with the main characters.

Inarius is the other creator of sanctuary, an exiled angel who acts as a deity for the church of light. He lurks in the background for most of the game, but when Lilith opens a gate to hell, he comes into conflict with Stan and the gang. There's a prophecy that comes up often in D4, it's shown in an early cutscene and both Elias and Inarius are obsessed with it. Inarius thinks he is fated to kill Lilith, and this will somehow get him back into heaven. If Stan kills her instead, the prophecy won't be fulfilled. We rub the soulstone in his face, so naturally he yoinks it and runs off to hell.

The section leading up to hell is quite bad. You have to escort a group of guards to the gate. They won't advance unless you're standing near them, and the detection is either laggy or the zone is too small so there's a lot of awkward downtime between fighting waves of monsters. This would be OK at a less important point in the story, but the game is clearly trying to build momentum here and this sequence was very underwhelming. It had potential, the idea is that you're crisscrossing your friends' path, opening gates and slaying monsters on the way, but it just doesn't work very well.

Hell is my favourite section of the game. Gameplay-wise, it's more Diablo 4, but the ending centers around this lavish cutscene where Inarius confronts Lilith and gets owned. It's followed by this set piece, the closest thing we get to a coherent thesis statement from Lilith.

I think it's pretty good, you can feel that there are different characters with different interests clashing here, but the things Lilith actually does are still cartoonishly evil, and her plan is vague. There's no solid ground to make a decision about, so it comes off more as confusing than ambiguous. I think the intended impression was that Lilith is hiding something from us, which is fine, but it seems like nobody in the story knows the stakes. The closest we have are our Horadrim buddies, and they seem to think Lilith is a huge threat.

There's a message here about institutions perpetuating themselves, the Horadrim can't end the eternal conflict because their job is to protect people from the battle, but I don't know if that's what the game is trying to say. The product page on Steam is confident that we're doing the right thing, so I guess it's all good.

Lilith's actions are not ambiguous, she spreads misery and death wherever she goes. Her only argument is that Mephisto is gaining power and will do even worse violence to us in the future. Attack ads might lower your opponent's approval, but they won't raise yours, and all Mephisto does throughout D4 is help us.

Neyrelle is pretty confident we can have our cake and eat it too. She suggests trapping Mephisto in the soulstone and exploiting Lilith's secret weakness to physical violence. Of course there's no real choice; Stan has decided that Lilith is the enemy and that she has to be stopped. Due to the battle pass, Diablo 4 can't include a game over so it can't risk you choosing the wrong fate for Sanctuary. In a similar vein, the prophecy mentions that Mephisto will be freed so you can guess what Diablo 4's expansion is going to be.

Lilith is still a compelling character, mostly due to her design and the excellent voice acting. I like her, and isolated from its larger significance I like the dialogue in this section. This part, where Lilith tells us we're trapped in the nightmare forever and the player character is physically slowed down is a bit literal but tries to bring the player's experience into alignment with their character's. I would have loved more moments like this.

Mephisto rescues us from this unproductive conversation, and it's time to kill Lilith. Neyrelle traps Mephisto and flees, while I hit Lilith with a sword 3000 times. My one and only death to Lilith prompted me to tweak my build out of the anemic bleed status, clean up stray stat points, and fully focus on physical damage, especially the charge skill. Diablo 4 doesn't have many bosses like this, but Lilith is probably my favourite. Bosses with huge health bars only have one trick to keep them from being repetitive, namely area of effect damage you have to dodge around, but we encounter Lilith at a point where this hasn't gotten old. The way she destroys the arena is also great for a climax, she feels appropriately powerful and the smaller space makes the AoE damage a bigger threat as the fight goes on. Her second phase is delightfully weird, much like Baal from Diablo 2, or the bizarre 3D environments from D1's hell.


That comprises the first phase of Diablo 4. I've been very critical but I enjoyed it for the most part. There's an abundance of well made story content, and fantastic combat, but some concerning trends in the game's actual systems. There's a tendency in the game to move away from randomness and power swings toward a roughly constant level of difficulty; your numbers go up, but so do enemy numbers. The correspondence between character level and enemy level is one-to-one in most areas, and there are few opportunities to get ahead with gear. I know this might sound like regular Diablo, but it is significantly, noticeably more one-note than Diablo 1 or 2. Average difficulty goes up linearly in all these games, but the line is way too straight in Diablo 4, and since you can't go back and encounter low-level enemies in the world it really impresses on you how static the experience is.

Now that the main quest is finished, we have access to content with very minimal framing. I'll point out once again that this grind we're about to embark on does not exist in Diablo 2. You can play it like that if you want to, but most players are always completing the story; you're grinding toward defeating Baal on Hell difficulty, and once you do that it's fair to say you've completed Diablo 2. Diablo 4 only lets you play the main quest once per character, and you can't farm campaign bosses, so we won't even get a whiff of story from now on.

Farming Ancestral Rares (World Tiers / Gear Progression)


While you don't really get stronger in D4, the feel of playing does change, giving you a stronger illusion of power. On average fights are not going to get faster as the game goes on. All of the increases in attack speed, the flashiness of abilities, and so on, are matched by increased enemy stats and density. You might tear through mobs more often, but the frequency and strength of elite packs goes up as well. This way the game can modulate between easy and hard fights, giving you the odor of increased strength while still controlling your progression.

This is always true to an extent with Diablo, but like I've said it's universal in Diablo 4. Farming lower difficulties is not viable due to the itemization and heavy XP penalties, and every enemy you see at the higher difficulties will be at your level. This is not terribly fun, I've seen lots of people online confused or outright complaining about the scaling, but it is purposeful. The enemy scaling serves the player retention incentive by preventing you from progressing too quickly. Time to kill never goes down, and the chance of a game-changing drop is vanishingly low after the early game. Instead, you make incremental gains by slowly switching out rares and replacing aspects.

Character skills effectively disappear once you set up your build, so equipment becomes a load-bearing progression system in D4. This hurts the early game a lot since it only gets interesting when you start picking up legendaries. Unique items don't drop at all until the higher world tiers. Blizzard seems to have identified this as a problem, and season 4 will have better drops showing up earlier and more often.

World tiers are like the difficulty levels in previous games. In contrast to Diablo 3's 5000 difficulties, D4 only has four. I started on world tier two, while three and four are available after the campaign. These are locked behind capstone dungeons; long dungeons with a hard boss at the end. I will get to why dungeons are tedious in a bit, but the capstone dungeons show another control on progression. In the endgame, there is finally a risk that the player will outscale the enemies, and the game has a tendency to mix extremely powerful mobs in with regular ones. Enemy packs usually have a few mobs with heavy, high-damage attacks, and since dodging is limited you can't always avoid these. As I got into the endgame, I often found myself pulping packs of monsters and then suddenly getting one-shot. This is a bigger problem for a barbarian, who is necessarily fighting up-close.

Any game like this will have a natural ceiling on what you can fight, but it feels very strange to go from untouchable to suddenly dead, it's like every enemy is a glass cannon. In previous games you could get an unlucky elite that would insta-kill every once in a while, but for me it's usually very easy to know if I can handle a given area or not. D4 makes it very difficult to tell how powerful your character is, and this is especially true when the damage on your main skill starts ramping up. My Charge can kill anything, but if I miss or the game decides that I missed then I have no idea if I'll survive or not. This is more true as the game goes on, since enemy density increases with your level and it gets to a point where you can't really process the information on screen. During the campaign everything is slow enough that you can avoid attacks from bigger enemies, but later on their animations will speed up and overlap to the extent that you can't.

The capstone dungeons are some of the only fixed-level content in the game, and filling them with potential one-taps stops players from progressing before they are supposed to. With ranged characters I'm sure clever character building can get you into higher world tiers early, but these dungeons felt like a vigor check to me.

Even if this is just a skill issue, and it very well could be, the alternative is that D4 has no difficulty at all. Encounters lack the smooth ebb and flow of previous Diablo games, so you're either completely comfortable or dead. It comes down to your health pool and DPS alone, potions drop so frequently in world tier 3 and 4 that you can just spam the heal button if you want so there is practically no skill involved beyond the most rudimentary "don't stand in the red circle" positioning. The game is still satisfying in a way, but it's extremely shallow.

There's little reason to progress early, you get a significant XP boost from enemies even a few levels above you, so on tier 1 or 2 you can farm the over-leveled stronghold events to level 50-ish, then easily reach tier 3 and switch to nightmare dungeons for efficient leveling. Again, I'll get to those.

Sacred and Ancestral Items

Reaching tier 3 will clue us into one of the game's new tricks. Diablo 4 doesn't just have regular, magic, rare, and legendary items. The four types also have different tiers: normal, sacred, and ancestral. These are not interesting divisions, they reflect the overall item power which more-or-less translates to how good the attribute rolls will be. They have fancy frames in the inventory, so your first sacred item feels very cool, but it could reflect a one-point increase in item power, which is effectively meaningless. It's a bit silly that white ancestral items even exist, normal items can be useful for crafting in D2, but in Diablo 4 there's no scenario where a regular item is useful after level ten.

Obviously items should get stronger as you level up, but the system is built to give you incremental gains rather than jumps in power. {== "Every monster level above 55 adds 2 item power to both the minimum and maximum possible values." [17] ==} In the latter case, the game's difficulty has to catch up to you, giving a feeling of triumphant, but temporary strength. In Diablo 4 you are always catching up to the game until the very end when there's nothing to do anymore. There is a significant difference between the two experiences. The Diablo 2 style is dynamic, and sees your relative power changing all the time. You'll get a power spike, time to kill will noticeably drop, and then the enemies will gradually catch up to you and become difficult as you progress. Diablo 4 makes sure you're constantly slightly weaker than you want to be. Since monster levels scale to you, and monster level controls the quality of loot, and affixes are largely inconsequential, they've basically guaranteed that your power can only grow incrementally, at a rate that is perfectly matched by your enemies.

Farming Grim Favour (Tree of Whispers / Helltide)

Without any plot driving the endgame, Diablo 4 needs even more content, and there's basically a second game after level 50.

Tree of Whispers

The Tree of Whispers is a minor character in the campaign, it's a tree with a bunch of heads dangling from it. It can tell you anything, in exchange for a head. Elias got the secret of immortality but never paid up, and the tree ends up helping us in exchange for his head.

In the endgame, the Tree once again employs us as a repo man. That facade drops quickly, since the debts we're collecting are somehow repaid by killing 100 mobs and completing dungeons. We can divide whisper quests into point and area objectives; a point objective might be the entrance to a dungeon we need to clear, or a summoning altar we need to use for a mini boss. Area objectives are usually "kill 100 enemies in this region" or "kill 40 specific enemies in this region." Exciting stuff.

Doing missions for the tree rewards you with Grim Favor, between one and five per objective. Once you reach ten, the whisper quests are all locked and you have to go turn in the grim favor for XP, gold, and a cache of items. It puts you into a fixed-length item loop taking five to ten minutes, another tight control on gameplay.

This is a big departure from D2; running a dungeon over and over might take a set amount of time, but it takes intelligence and research to figure out what dungeons to run, or what items you want to farm in the first place. {== I know people just do the cow level over and over but please recognize that you are not a normal D2 player ==} That's what I mean when I say D2 is light on content. It's not telling you what to do so much as giving you a bunch of fun systems and a framing device, i.e. "this is a dungeon", while Diablo 4 constantly tells you what you should be doing and slathers the UI with shimmering checkboxes while you do it. It's a sped up and refined version of Diablo 3's post-campaign grind; D3 has dailies you can complete for a reward, the Tree of whispers gives you new tasks the second you finish the previous set. There's a similar trend with D3's Nephalem Rifts versus D4's Nightmare Dungeons; Rifts have a whole setup process, NMDs take two seconds to get into. {== don't need to explain, just show it. ==}

Obviously games need a balance of compelling systems and content, the two aren't at war, but Diablo 4 loves to tell players what to do, and while there might be a lot of activities at first glance these boil down to open world or dungeon, which are the two distinct gameplay flows. The content is just a text box that tells you how long you're supposed to kill monsters for, or names the key you have to go collect. Framing the gameplay is fine, but the only system of interest is the moment-to-moment combat. The item loop is nominally the reason we keep playing, but the incremental, crafting-oriented itemization sucks the excitement out of loot.

It's a game divided against itself in a pretty obvious way. It fixates on loot as the reason for playing Diablo, which is a coherent idea even if I disagree, but it fails to offer anything interesting in the post-campaign grind. I cannot look at the genuinely great video game we got from level 1 to 50 and then attribute the game design to incompetence. The financial incentives are the only new variable here, and the bare metal of Diablo 4's game design is always trying to slow down and tightly bracket your progression, to the detriment of its actual gameplay experience. I will say the crunchy combat never gets old, and Charge barbarian is truly the class for me, but that's simply not enough.

Not to hammer on this too much, but Diablo 2 has distinct colour palettes, level designs, and drop tables between areas. Maps are randomly generated, and much more variable than D4 dungeons. There's a larger variety of viable gear, so you can craft your build in many different ways and your time investment feels valuable. Runewords, sets, uniques, and even just having good skills can carry you to the endgame.


Helltide is the other major open world activity. It's a timed event, lasting an hour, where a region of the world turns red and slain enemies drop a currency that opens special chests. It's a major source of boss summoning materials, and if you want to kill a lot of volume in the open world it's the thing to do. Helltide is fun a couple times, it gives you a reason to pick up the pace and actively search for fights, but at the end of the day it's more open world D4 content. Season 4 is bringing Helltide to world tiers one and two, where I think it'll serve its proper role as a distraction from the campaign.

Seasonal Stuff

Beating the game also lets you access the seasonal content, and when I played that meant this robotic construct guy started helping me and I unlocked a bunch of new, practically identical dungeons to farm. Season of the Construct tries to do something interesting, but it's fun for about an hour because these new dungeons, called vaults, are basically palette swaps of each other that inflict a different kind of elemental damage. They're built around traps, and that translates to moving awkwardly around fire ropes.

It feels quite lazy. I appreciate the free DPS from my robot buddy, but overall the seasonal content is boring, so it fits right into the rest of endgame D4.

Farming Glyph XP (Paragon Board / Glyphs & NMDs)

After level 50, you no longer earn skill points. Instead, you start receiving points for the paragon board. You get four paragon points per level, so they can slow leveling down while still doling out rewards. The points go into this massive tree of passive bonuses that, once again, help you keep up with enemy scaling. Most of the squares are stat point increases, which will scale your health, resource, and DPS, but you'll also see flat bonuses and percent increases to various class-relevant stats. For a barb there's health, armour, damage, attack speed, and the length of the berserking state, among others. Percentage bonuses are important for scaling a character to level 100; simply getting those skill points and gear will bring up your base stats but percentage boosts pay dividends. Six points of strength isn't much if you have 500 strength, but a 10% bonus is useful from level one to one hundred. {== show Balatro for this? Maybe with the little paragon sidebar still on the screen? ==}

Paragon boards also have empty slots, and you can fill them with glyphs to shape your endgame build. This might shock you but they almost all offer percentage damage boosts [18], there aren't that many, and I got almost all of them without trying a few hours after starting world tier three. These glyphs were another opportunity for fun randomization that they passed up.

When you reach the end of a paragon board, you get a choice of several new ones to attach to the existing one. Each of these has a legendary node which is usually a little more interesting than +5% damage to bleeding enemies. Although a bunch of those are boring too and efficient builds skip most of them, instead maximizing the number of glyph slots.

There's an illusion of choice here but a few more points in dex vs. strength aren't really going to matter, this is just another way to keep up with enemy scaling that might synergize with your build in a fun way once or twice. More than likely the game will feel identical before and after each of your paragon points.

The glyphs offer direct buffs, they boost other nearby squares on the paragon board, and they can be upgraded through yet another XP system. Glyphs are strong enough to break the one-to-one enemy scaling, and make the open world even more trivial in the endgame, so bosses and nightmare dungeons are the only worthwhile content left once you reach world tier four.

Nightmare dungeons are powered up regular dungeons that become available in world tier 3. They are tied to consumable sigils, which drop all the time and can be crafted to get the exact difficulty you want, anywhere from level 54 enemies to level 154 enemies. Using a sigil increases enemy levels for its associated dungeon, makes it more dangerous in various ways, and gives you a limited number of attempts. You can go back to town and heal for free, so in practice this limit links into that one-hit-kill difficulty ceiling. It's a way of telling players they are too weak.

You can complete dungeons before world tier 3, but they are the least enjoyable aspect of the game at that point. D4's dungeons are rigidly structured; they all have at least one round of searching for keys, sometimes two. These can be actual keys, an objective to 'kill all these monsters' or 'kill these specific monsters.' Dungeon layouts are lightly randomized, but the objectives are the same every time. And the layouts are so samey that after running them for ten hours I had to look up whether or not they were randomized.

Since difficulty is so tightly controlled, players will likely choose a nightmare dungeon where they aren't at risk of instant death. This means mobs are even more trivial and high-damage enemies aren't dangerous, so the main bottleneck is your walk speed. The game wants to give you tons of extrinsic rewards and flashy notifications, but it can't let you get too strong by just running the dungeon, so they had to put in all this arbitrary busywork before the dungeon boss.

Then there are the extra challenges that the NMDs add. These are honestly negligible; I have not read a single one of these sigil descriptions and I barely ever die in NMDs, so they don't really change your approach in a meaningful way. The main things you'll notice are the annoyances; there are the blood blisters which explode if you don't destroy them quick enough, and the periodic lightning strikes that force you to stop and wait.

I made measurements throughout my whole playthrough, and the average Nightmare Dungeon I tried to rush took five minutes. My level and the enemy level had almost no impact.

This might not seem like a long time, but we can break it down in terms of glyph XP, because that's the unique reward you get from NMDs. If you complete tier 100 dungeons, which corresponds to level 154 enemies, it takes fifteen runs to fully upgrade one glyph [19]. You will not be able to run tier 100 dungeons early, and tier 50, meaning 30 runs, is more realistic. My build uses seven glyphs, which means an absolute minimum of 105 runs. I spent a ton of time running NMDs below tier 50, so a realistic number is 300 dungeon runs. There are only 34 nightmare dungeons in the game, and the layouts are formulaic [20] to the extent that they get boring after two runs. Taking the average time to finish an NMD, you will spend around 25 hours farming 34 dungeons. The seasonal vaults give better rewards, so if you're being super efficient that's 25 hours farming four dungeons.

Even dungeons feature random events that draw more attention to how repetitive the game is. Because people have data-mined objectively correct places to farm in Diablo 2, I think I underestimated how important it is that players decide for themselves when, where, and how they will get better gear. That game's flow of running past all the enemies, killing a boss, and repeating is exciting. If you're doing it right there's a lot of danger when you're farming dungeons. Most importantly, there's no downtime or arbitrary stoppages. It goes without saying that in a game as grindy as Diablo any stoppage will eventually feel arbitrary, you can only see these word-salad objectives so many times before rolling your eyes.

{== 2024-03-06_14-07-28.mp4 (H) ==}

Diablo 4 is bogged down with objectives, pieces of text that tell you what to do, and they're all tied to a handful of fixed-length events that rarely offer a good reward. So much of D4's content involves timers, which at the generally low level of difficulty means wasting the player's time. If it would just get out of its own way, Diablo 4 could be incredible, and there are flashes of this in the harder nightmare dungeons, but it's clear that the game wants you to progress at a fixed rate, and if progression in the open world is super slow, they can't just make dungeons 100 times faster.

Once again, Diablo 2 does not have this problem because your ultimate goal is to progress through a linear story, and dungeon running is the thing to do if you hit a wall. These are two different modes of play. Diablo 4's endgame comes in open world and dungeon flavours, but it's just a slow grind to max level. The side content was a lot more tolerable when I could take a break by doing the campaign.

Farming NMDs can make your glyphs quite strong, but by the principle of garbage in, garbage out, their effects remain uninteresting and they quickly require hundreds of XP to upgrade. {--A flat percentage boost to all damage does feel better than most of the hyper-specific weapon attributes though.--}


These different pieces of content are different expressions of the same thing: the game's tendency to make you play for as long a time as possible. The experience of playing changes very little over time, and I've said that in several ways so far: the relative difficulty is fixed, there aren't enough aspects, attributes are boring, the aggressive scaling keeps time-to-kill constant. They all result in the same effect: the game feels great moment-to-moment, but it keeps you on the precipice of fun, never letting you reach that god-tier build until the very end.

With access to high level nightmare dungeons and hundreds of paragon points, you can get there, but for virtually the entire game it feels like the fun is just around the corner. Diablo 4 is a particularly extreme form of edging.

I've done a lot of abstract talking about how the game does this, and I did that so we can appreciate how all of this stuff comes together in the concrete experience.

So let's do it. One of these vaults, the seasonal dungeons, got randomly tied to a Tree of Whispers quest, and I also upgraded it into a low-level nightmare dungeon. I decide to travel there in the overworld, keep in mind that the dungeon is not far away from my starting point.

As I leave town we see the genius of the Tree of Whispers' area objectives, because to reach the dungeon we will also progress this "kill 100 monsters" mission by accident. Might as well get off my horse and kill some mobs. In the process, I trigger a local event that spawns even more enemies that contribute to the first mission. I'm rewarded with some Grim Favor for killing 100 monsters, and a chest for the other event. Somebody nearby kills a boss and I get Grim Favor for that too.

The moment I leave town, I'm not just drawn into one piece of content, but several pieces that overlap and mutually progress each other. If you just wander around in Diablo 4, you will hit long strides where you're bouncing from reward to reward, with different events layering on top of each other. The game's just-engaging-enough gameplay mixed with a steady stream of Skinner boxes creates an incredibly potent mixture, and we're not even in the dungeon yet.

I set this dungeon up to combine three forms of progression, and the ending is beyond parody.

I get a paragon notification, a quest complete notification, a go-back-to-the-Tree notification, a season journey notification, a nightmare dungeon complete notification, a "whisper silenced" notification, and three chests full of glowing bullshit that I trashed 100% of. I go back to the Tree of Whispers to receive XP and another cache of useless gear, and then I'm ready to do it all again.

In any game this style of design is worthy of criticism; Diablo 4's loot is so boring that it can't stand on its own so they cover the screen with banner ads that try to trick you into thinking you did something worthwhile. Diablo 2 can get your blood pumping with a little piece of golden text on a sword that drops unceremoniously from Mephisto's corpse.

But it's the run up to the dungeon that's significant. D4's open world is a masterpiece. When I first started playing, I noticed that world events, sidequests, and lunar new year shrines were overlapping a lot, and by the time I caught on to how compelling it is I was nearly level 50. It goes into overdrive after the campaign, and I think this is Diablo 4's real innovation. Dungeons almost feel like slow, boring relics while the open world layers a dizzying array of progression systems and missions on top of each other. A dungeon offers a jackpot, but it is less satisfying than the continuous drip of the open world.

Because the game lacks dynamics or difficulty and gear is generally unexciting it seems like the goal is to create a fixed rhythm of rewards, while the substance of those rewards is less important so long as they let the player keep up with enemy scaling. And of course the player shouldn't be able to get ahead of the scaling either, because that will lower their play time.

If you've seen my video about gambling machines, you might recognize this exact pattern. Something that shocked me about slot machine addicts is that they don't like winning, they like the flow of playing the slots and hitting a jackpot often agitates them. The dungeon with a huge reward at the end is not as fun as the flow, the layers of activity and reward available in the open world. If we abstract both of these to their moment-to-moment gameplay they are practically identical. You're just killing packs of monsters.

In the open world, the old-school quest structure of moving toward one objective at a time is preserved, but you are necessarily going to stumble onto random events on the way. When I was playing this meant I was constantly getting sidetracked, mindlessly following the flow of content for hours at a time without actually finishing the quest. When there's no chance for a good drop, this is no more than an effective distraction. Gameplay isn't purposive, it's just a drip feed of dopamine for its own sake.

Farming Duriel Mats (The Orgy of Blood)

{== Starts at Replay_2024-02-17_14-33-35.mp4 and the subsequent replays ==}

Diablo 4's best moment for me came when I fought my first world boss--these are big, tanky bosses that show up every few hours in the open world. I had just reached world tier 3 and me and a bunch of other players gathered to kill this boss. The design wasn't exciting but there's an innate sense of camaraderie working on this big enemy with a bunch of other people, and it heightened the battle a lot. It felt special, and it's probably the best time I had with D4.

Immediately following the kill, the Helltide event started, also my first; it was an hour-long orgy of violence, and I was in the same instance as everybody who fought the boss so demons were dropping like flies and spraying legendary gear all over the ground. I enjoy delving into things like slot machines and mobile game addiction because there's something fundamental that I don't "get," systems like this usually make me kind of nauseous. But these twenty minutes in the helltide were ecstatic.

More than any individual item drop or dungeon, following a world boss directly with Helltide feels like Diablo 4's thesis statement. It gives you the feel of a Diablo game but ultimately preserves the all-important rhythm of play, in fact intensifying it. Another layer is added, of collecting Abberant Cinders to open bonus chests, while all of the usual world events continue to exist. Unrelated, one of the big innovations in slot machines from the last few decades is integrating bonuses into the reels, so you can intensify the reward without breaking the rhythm.

The natural conclusion here is to call Diablo 4 a slot machine, but it's reductive to just call D4 something that it clearly is not and smugly fold my arms. Predatory mobile game developers have a name for Diablo 4: hybrid-casual. The principle is to layer a lot of progression or secondary mechanics on top of an extremely simple core, and this reflects the increased need for player retention because it gives players a reason to come back even once the sheen of that casual core wears off. This is not the worst way to make a game, but using it to monetize players, rather than simply entertaining them, is a relatively new phenomenon. Mobile games are honest about what they are, but Diablo 4 has to feel like an ARPG and not a match-3 game, because it's targeting Big G 'Gamers'.

The affixes seem like Diablo affixes, but they're totally mundane. Encounters seem like battles, but there is never a risk of death. There seems to be progression but it's just numbers going up, the Cookie Clicker definition of progress.

It took me a long time to see the game for what it is, but when I started doing the Nightmare dungeons and facing high-level enemies that were occasionally difficult to kill, I realized that only now, 45 hours in, was I playing a video game. All of the open world stuff, with the exception of strongholds, is just noise. If you're capable of clicking a mouse and pressing keys one to four, dying is a rare occurrence after level 20 and a generous checkpoint system will pick up the slack. That noise is what the game wants you to engage with--your map will be covered in bright red icons for the Tree of Whispers, regions will be bathed in blood for Helltide. The sidequests, 99% of which are go-here-kill-this dot the map with blue exclamation points and circles. The lunar new year stuff attached a shock of purple to the most mundane shrines.

Killing scaled enemies feels difficult at first, but after you get used to how long it takes and your character has some abilities to occupy your hands, you can just float from reward to reward. Diablo Immortal has a system to upgrade dungeon drop rates in exchange for money, effectively disguising or contextualizing gacha pulls as dungeons. Diablo 4 is not so direct, the only way it can hope to make people buy in without accusations of pay-to-win game design is by keeping players on the treadmill for as long as possible.

Late Late Game

The game has a stitch in its heart, though. Mobile game players, by and large, know what they're getting into. Diablo 4 looks like a real video game, in fact it has an entire Diablo game attached to it. Players expect a meaningful challenge over their whole playtime, they're expecting interesting gear and character building. In other words, they expect a game that wastes your time in service of fun rather than a premium battle pass. Diablo 4 goes to great lengths to hide what it is, but you can't keep the facade up forever, certainly not after hour 100.

Nightmare dungeons feel like a capitulation to those of us that want a video game, and switching from the dopamine river of the open world to NMDs is a big shift. The dungeons aren't good in D4, but they reflect a more familiar and ethical form of Diablo, and they're basically the only thing worth doing after level 70. They are efficient because you get character XP and glyph XP, and they can scale above level 100 so you get better drop rates on gear.

The other activity is farming summonable bosses. Unique gear is the only thing in the game that I can praise without a caveat. Most uniques have interesting, flashy, impactful effects on gameplay. A huge poison nova, damage taken drains mana, your crit damage is doubled. All awesome, although you could find rares this good in the first two games.

Getting some of these is tantamount to finishing the game, so there's a tension with the endless flow of the open world. They resolved it in a truly awful way: the best uniques are impossible to find in normal gameplay, and require you to farm a handful of bosses that, in my experience, are incredibly overpowered until you hit level 100. Summoning bosses requires crafting materials that you also have to farm in the open world, forcing players into the dopamine river at gun point. Duriel, who has the best drops by a mile, forces you to farm materials from two other bosses on world tier 4. One of them can only be summoned with Tree of Whispers rewards, the other can only be summoned with Helltide rewards.

{== Replay_2024-03-07_21-41-24.mp4 Grigoire ==}
{== Replay_2024-03-08_00-18-59.mp4 Vyvanse ==}

These two pre-bosses actually have set levels, both 75, but they come with comical health pools and damage, so I didn't have much success until level 80. Like a lot of D4's content, it switches at some point from impossible to easy but time-consuming. At level 100 I can just face-tank Grigoire's attacks but his health bar ensures the fight takes an annoying amount of time. There are a few other summonable bosses, and they follow the same rules. One or two elemental damage types, a million HP, and a few one-shot attacks that you can avoid if you have enough dodges or move speed.

Since they take so long to kill, these bosses need some kind of dynamics or variety. The only way the developers have tried to make fights interesting is giving the bosses a bunch of high damage area-attacks that you have to avoid by moving or dashing. Their one-trick nature makes bosses very repetitive, and the dodge is extremely unfriendly. The way it behaves is more like a Dark Souls parry than a dodge roll, evading has a counter-intuitive wind-up so you can't just hit dodge at the moment an attack comes out. Latency is also a major problem, and I've lost count of the times I visually dodged attacks but took damage anyway. This was especially a problem for my sorceress character, who is obviously less tanky than a barbarian.

Anyway, season 4 is overhauling unique drop rates, making them more common in general and making uber uniques, the good ones, drop from regular enemies on the higher world tiers [21]. I like this change because killing mobs is essentially pointless at higher levels. I have to wonder if this is in response to players leaving the game or not enjoying the endgame, because there are twenty to thirty hours of aimless gameplay in there after you reach world tier three but before you can fight the endgame bosses.

Diablo 4 will no doubt change with every season, and the upcoming changes feel like the game is coming into its own, really stripping out anything that distracts from the treadmill or gives you a chance to circumvent it. I hope this video will stand the test of time as Diablo 4 becomes more honest about what it is, but I won't complain if they overhaul the game for the better either.

Season 4 looks like a mixed bag. Making affixes stronger is a good impulse, but the tradeoff is that each gear piece has fewer affixes. I get the impression they want to change the game's feel without reconsidering the progression and length. Which is fair enough, it would be a massive pain to fix, but my overriding complaint with D4 is that the endgame is so flat; they're adding lots of content after level 100, but half of the game relative deadzone where you either grind Nightmare Dungeons for thirty hours or do less efficient activities for fifty hours. The game has structural problems that go beyond what a patch can do. All ARPGs eventually have this repetitive, relatively mindless grinding but in D4 it gates most of the game's content.

It doesn't make sense to just copy Diablo 2 here, either. D2's campaign acts each revolved around a single town, unlocked in order. Even though you repeat the story three times, unlocking areas again makes them feel refreshed, and encounters take on a different texture on each difficulty because elite and champion abilities interact with the varied enemy types. Diablo 4 doesn't have any reason for you to keep playing, so the end of the campaign is a mixture of the wheels falling off and a ton of new content getting introduced at the same time.

I genuinely don't know if tastes have changed or if people always enjoyed this low-stakes grind, but it's like the game actively resists being meaningful. I glossed over the campaign ending, but it's nonsense. We don't chase Neyrelle because it would disrespect her wishes. The entire world is at stake here, her feelings aren't that important! We go to the Tree of Whispers because it's an ally, but it's not an ally at all; Lorath sells his life to the thing earlier in the story.

The itemization is nonsense too, it's the only reason we have to keep playing but at the same time we all know there is nothing to discover in the game. Everything is a known quantity, and season 4's focus on crafting is only going to double down on that. I'm curious to see if the game is trading its overall lifespan in exchange for a little boost in player numbers, because people will figure out that good gear is less important than consistently fun drops. That's why random drops are ubiquitous in Diablo-style games while so many of the details are negotiable.

I've said it several times but there's so much passion on display in Diablo 4, they must know that this huge chunk, level 50-100, is the absolute worst part of the game. The rewards are boring, and the content is stale. Purposeful or not, this grind ends around the time you complete the battle pass. The post-campaign grind represents a vacuum of novel content and good rewards. For ten bucks, you can fill that void with cosmetics.

No matter where the game goes, content-wise Diablo 4 is pretty much doomed. Since they have to add hundreds of cosmetics and new seasonal content every few months, there will be a lot of thematic drift into various dumb realms. Season 2 was apparently about vampires, for example. The inevitable steampunk season is not going to help anybody get immersed in the main quest when the members of Steam Powered Giraffe are all running around town.

It's a lot like gambling design; the slot machines on a casino floor cast a wide net by taking recognizable aspects of a culture and turning them into grotesques. You end up with a New Pork City full of cardboard cutouts playing at diversity. If you've noticed all the AAAs glomming onto the lunar new year lately, it's because China has emerged as a major games market. Don't get me wrong, I'm not bothered that East Asian culture is part of games, but Diablo is a low-fantasy game developed by two U.S.-based American teams, the inclusion is about as token as it gets. The event could have had any name attached to it.

Farming Primogems (Conclusions and Tendencies)

The development of mobile game science, and before it the early attempts at lootboxes and microtransactions, are part of a developing consciousness of what game design can do. It's shameful that this knowledge is used to make games more addictive. Studios like Blizzard have re-enacted the plot of Diablo; they delved for knowledge and power, ostensibly to entertain people, and in the end they turned into demons.

I was sort of expecting this whole analysis of D4 to build to a point, but I'm just left feeling kind of tired and sad. I'm entering my third month playing Diablo 4 and every mechanic is the same story: it slows down progress or removes choices. There is a beautiful game in Diablo 4 but in the end it did exactly what it set out to do: it retained me as a player. It wasn't surprising, it didn't change my mind about anything, it didn't make me happy.

Diablo is a fixation for me because mobile game science has really just rediscovered what made it so great [22]. The first two games are pinnacles of design, they are happy to just be excellent, polished video games and only on that basis do they become unforgettable works of fiction. I ran through Diablo 2 Resurrected after I finished playing D4, I was going to use a pre-made Paladin build but I accidentally built around the wrong skill.

And the game didn't stop being fun, it didn't punish me for colouring outside the lines. It gave me an exciting tradeoff where I had low health and good DPS. Vengeance encourages you to play with split damage, which is one of my favourite things to do even though it tends to be weak in RPGs. Every vendor in Diablo 2 has thirty gear pieces that are more fun than anything in Diablo 4, and you'll never buy any of them because the loot that drops from enemies is even better. It's so generous and rich and unpretentious; you play it for 40 hours and every second of it feels like people at the top of their game just putting their entire soul into a project. People will probably still be playing Diablo 2 in the year 3000.

Things like that aren't allowed to exist. Something hellish bubbles under Diablo 4's surface, and every once in a while I would see through the mirage and the game would reveal itself as this great maw, desperate to suck up time and energy. It's difficult to convey in writing how all of Diablo 4's systems come together. Those first few hours really stuck with me, it was physically depressing but I couldn't stop playing it. That feeling comes back just a little bit when I see other players moving around like bugs, picking up loot only they can see.

I don't like being tricked, and Diablo 4 differs from a mobile game because it can't directly monetize players. Instead, we're driven back into the slow grind until another battle pass notification pops up. The season journey was a perfect name for Diablo 3's nascent battle pass. It echoes the UX designer speak "customer journey", referring to a system of tricks and dark patterns to make you buy a toilet on subscription. I complain about Hoyoverse a lot, but they've never tried to fool me into appreciating their gacha mechanics.

Diablo 4 has retention mechanics, everything I looked at serves its incentives, but it still pretends to be a video game. It demanded appraisal by sacrificing the time and effort of talented people to make a ridiculously detailed world and a good story and meaty combat. Then every single system just serves this pointless incrementalism that's not even really fun; the item loop is totally vestigial, it's not as bad as a slot machine but it has reduced Diablo to a "pure" desire machine, insofar as you get nothing out of it. The game takes many queues from gambling design, but not because it's trying to be a slot machine. Gambling design is extremely effective, so it was only a matter of time before game design evolved similar techniques. It's like every species slowly evolving toward being a crab.

It shouldn't surprise me that a live service game would be built around keeping you playing right up until the next season and little else. But this infects every single thing in the game, it's both heinous and completely mundane.

Diablo 4 is a magic trick, a treadmill that looks like a journey. It has cutscenes you watch and dialog you listen to but it doesn't have a story because nothing is allowed to change. The game is 80 hours of metastasis every four months, which renders all of the interesting stuff fake and obligatory.

Every single glowing review I read for D4 describes a fatalistic surrender to the game; in PC Gamer D4 is "slightly scary" in its effectiveness, Polygon invokes the lizard brain, GamesRadar calls it a "destructively compulsive cycle," IGN says it's "diabolically hard to put down". A user review by Selors on Metacritic summed it up best, though. They say the game made them feel "weird and unhappy." I can't put it any better than that.

Addiction is taken for granted with Diablo, but there's a quiet admission in all of these reviews that something about this isn't right. 'Fun' is one of those concepts that makes a lot of intuitive sense until you really start to look at it. A game should be fun, that's fair enough, but because Diablo 4 has microtransactions and, honestly, macrotransactions too, I have to wonder if its fun is in service of something else, especially when a huge number of its systems are geared toward making the game longer and less interesting.

In my last video I said criticism ought to come form a place of love. Well, I'm done loving Diablo and I'm done caring about AAA games. The live service model is probably going to take over. It's unsustainable [23] and as far as I can tell it poisons everything it touches. A widespread collapse of the games industry would be very bad for a lot of people, but everybody is basically in agreement that current budgets and content models won't last. As I read this most of the big studios are announcing thousands of layoffs.

So it's time to go back to beating the drum of indie games, which have been in a perpetual golden age for years. There is always a cool new game to play, and it's never made by a AAA studio. Here are some games I'm excited about. None of these people asked to be in the video so don't bother them if you dislike me.

The people who made Path of Exile were independent, and they've spent over a decade trying to make the Diablo-style ARPG better. {== Grinding Gear Games has been owned by Tencent since 2018, but PoE came out in 2013==} A game is an ensemble, so while PoE or Diablo 2 might have addictively fun mechanics they have to be understood in use. Fun and addictiveness are often conflated in games, but they're not the same thing.

Path of Exile's microtransaction shop has many of the same problems as D4's. But Path of Exile the game revolves around intrinsic rewards--the fun combat and deep character building--its systems are very clearly in service of player choice rather than time-wasting. The game isn't subservient to its own revenue model. Like a lot of these games, it can be mundane moment-to-moment, but so are turn-based RPGs. The endgame mapping system doesn't quite escape being tedious, but it offers tangible progression along with its own massive atlas tree that lets you shape your endgame experience however you want. Which is just a neat idea, much better than Diablo 4's repetitive Nightmare Dungeons.

PoE is also free, its shop is a way to keep the lights on. It has a proxy currency, but the exchange rate is fixed and obvious. It openly calls itself a microtransaction shop, and PoE is clearly aimed at adults. The only issue I have with it is that some items have awkward pricing so you have a few coins left over, which is absolutely scummy but saintly in comparison to D4 or Fortnite. Path of Exile has a similar model to Diablo 4, but you don't actually have to be a piece of shit--Grinding Gear has been honest with its player base and most importantly they've earned their trust by supporting PoE for more than a decade.

Sometimes, a fun game is addictive too, what's important is how that energy is directed. If players are so engaged that they want to play your game for hundreds of hours, you can use that enthusiasm to make an entire world, to draw out themes or stories and deliver them through that compelling gameplay. You can also use it to feed people's addictive tendencies, encourage them to get hooked and then sell them things. The idea of enemies getting stronger the more of them you kill, and explicitly because you're killing them could be incredibly compelling for an RPG, Diablo 4 certainly had a strong emotional impact on me. But it's an RPG that would need an ending. Diablo 4 doesn't exist to explore the themes inherent in its mechanics, or even to explore its own beautifully rendered world. It exists to occupy a little bit of your attention and jangle enough keys to keep you playing.

As developers discover more and more effective game design, it opens the door to more powerful experiences but also stronger means of manipulation. Without a lot of large-scale social changes, the best I can do is try to offer a vaccine for this stuff, and the best developers can do is understand how their games effect players and use that to create intense emotional experiences instead of intense financial strain. The frustrating thing is that some slob can just take a great game, make a cheap copy, and slap a bunch of pseudo-progression and monetization on top of it. In fact, there's one high-profile example you might have heard of.

{== slowly fade out D4 footage ==}


T. Amenabar, "Video games keep getting longer. It's all about time and money.," Washington Post. Accessed: Mar. 09, 2024. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/video-games/2022/03/18/game-length-open-world/
P. Holleman, Reverse design. Diablo II. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press/Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.
https://www.icy-veins.com/d4/guides/summoner-necromancer-build/. The huge warning right at the beginning, and the "IT'S VIABLE! kinda..." in the thumbnail of the embedded video tell you everything you need to know. Discussions abound on Reddit and the forums as well (in March 2024).
https://maxroll.gg/d4/resources/equipment#item-power-scaling-and-breakpoints-header. Archived. While I was looking into archiving this source I noticed the page was updated with a more general description in place of the specifics in the old version. This was likely done in anticipation of season 4, which is changing the way item drops work as players move through world tiers; all WT3 items will be sacred, all WT4 items will be ancestral.