Blizzard has three primary franchises; Warcraft (including World of Warcraft, its expansions, and the older Warcraft Real Time Strategy series), Starcraft (Starcraft in 1998 and Starcraft II in 2010), and Diablo (Diablo, Diablo II in 2000, and Diablo III in 2012). All things considered, Blizzard has contributed massively to the advancement and relevance of several genres, from Starcraft and the Warcraft series’ influence on Real Time Strategy games to creating a standard for the modern MMO with World of Warcraft. Diablo II is often regarded as the prototypical dungeon crawler, and has imitators to this day. Looking back, it’s hard to say Blizzard’s games haven’t innovated all throughout the 2000’s. However, with a new decade and a new generation of games, Blizzard has made perhaps its first real mistake.
In 2010, Starcraft II was released, marking a new generation of Blizzard games that bring their classic franchises to the modern era. This was their first release since 2004 that wasn’t an expansion to World of Warcraft, and it came with high expectations. The original Starcraft had become a staple of competitive gaming in the growing world of e-Sports, but it also supported the addition of custom content in the form of maps made with its StarEdit program. They had to satisfy the competitive community, the casual gaming community, and the community gathered around this custom content, and there was certainly room to advance gaming in all directions.
In 2012, Blizzard released Diablo III, the anticipated sequel to 2000’s Diablo II that fans had over-eagerly waited the better part of a decade for. Diablo II had been a highly innovative game for its time with regards to persistent worlds, social gaming, and the ability to create lasting value for players. Consequently, it had earned its share of fans, many of whom would still be playing it years after its release, having cleared the content multiple times but still finding motivation to play through with new goals. Its popularity was such that the illegal sale of in-game items by players, some of whom were “playing” exclusively to earn these items and then sell them, was a serious problem which would continue into modern games in various forms. With how anticipated the sequel was, Blizzard had the opportunity to address the problems with the game’s formula, bring the franchise into a new era of technical capability, and perhaps advance gaming itself in some new and unexpected way.
I want to talk about these two games because they have a lot in common, but their impact on where gaming is going and what they contribute is so drastically different. Both are Blizzard titles and sequels to classic games which innovated greatly in their genre. Starcraft was the platform that competitive gaming became huge on, and Diablo II was a landmark in persistent environments and social gaming. Both were eschewed sequels for nearly a decade (understandably so, with the manpower required to keep World of Warcraft running and growing) and were so highly anticipated that Blizzard could probably have made a profit with much less effort than they put forth. Both are well-made technically (Diablo II launch troubles discounted, I hear they’re doing much better in that regard now) and present distinct visual styles. So what’s fundamentally different?
The answer is that Diablo III is not relevant anymore with regards to advancing gaming. I say that it’s not relevant anymore, and even though it was released only a few months ago, I still believe this to be true. The initial reaction was generally positive, but after a little time, there is a growing negativity around the game (see here its score of 88 in an official review, but an abysmal 3.8 out of 10 for submitted user score). Fans of the series begged for Diablo III for years, many of them wanting “Diablo II but better”, basically more of the same. But as the years passed, so too did the context of gaming in general. If Diablo III had come out in 2004 or even 2005, it may have been relevant for a time, but in 2012 it has failed to grasp the popularity and appeal of its predecessor.
This is not to say that Diablo III, in a vacuum, is a poor game. It provided well rounded dungeon crawler action and arguably as much tactical depth as Diablo II, with the benefit of newer generation graphics. It retains many of the things that made the series popular, such as character progression in both special abilities and randomly acquired equipment, and tried some new things, such as the in-game Auction House where players could acquire items with either gold acquired in-game or real world money (with a small transaction fee). Many might call Diablo III streamlined, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case… “Diablo II but better” was not enough.
Diablo II’s most important achievements were in pioneering persistent environments and character progression. It was great at the time because the idea that and your friends could play together with your own custom, persistent characters in the same world was still novel and somewhat unexplored in 2000. Everquest, an early MMO, came out in 1999, but the field was still fresh to explore and make accessible to as many people as easily as possible. Aside from its value as the prototypical dungeon crawler, Diablo II had lasting value with its online community.
However, things changed drastically in 2004 when World of Warcraft came out. In a few short years it became one of the most popular games ever and set the standard for MMO games. What WoW principally presented was the same thing that Diablo II did on a much grander scale; a persistent world where you could play with your friends. In a way, WoW continued the lasting idea that Diablo II started on, and to this day with its latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, continues to refine it.
So when Diablo III was released in 2012, it was already irrelevant. I’ll admit that it basically is “Diablo II but better”, and that’s why it brings nothing new to gaming in this era. There was no grand or novel innovation in Diablo III, it presented basically a refined version of the hack and slash gameplay of the original with technically improved graphics and multiplayer support. You can still play with your friends and advance your characters, acquiring new levels of power and items. However, this is nothing new and groundbreaking. World of Warcraft did it before and better, and many poor reviews of Diablo III cite similarities to WoW, and perhaps rightly so.
This is in stark contrast to Starcraft II. Like Diablo III, it improved on the core mechanics of its predecessor. The Real Time Strategy gameplay was refined and updated to use 3-d graphics. Where it differs from Diablo III is that it still had room to grow in other, more progressive directions. The custom content community was important to the original Starcraft, and Blizzard has expanded its integrated support for this community with Starcraft II. Custom maps can now be submitted to and searched for in the game itself through the Arcade, and their Galaxy Editor allows unprecedented freedom in customizing gameplay in these maps. Blizzard itself is contributing its own creations through this service. They offer the option to search out popular maps, replay your favorites, and even a “Fun or Not” option, where you are given a map at random and get to rate it afterwards. Supporting this sort of service is a very productive direction for the lasting appeal of games, and I hope this level of community support is a precedent that sticks in the future.
Despite Diablo III’s commonalities with Starcraft II, it failed to bring something new to gaming in general. I think that it was probably doomed to fail this way, so long as such a heavy emphasis was kept on retaining what made Diablo II great. Those things may have made Diablo II as important as it was, but that was in 2000. In the post-WoW era of 2012, having “Diablo II but better” is really not enough for anything but the sense of nostalgia. Where Diablo III failed, however, Starcraft II advanced the idea of supporting custom content community in addition to retaining and enhancing what made the original popular. I have to wonder if Diablo III could have been drastically different, and what kind of innovations Blizzard might have attempted with it if they didn’t focus so heavily on an outdated core idea. As it is, I have to hope that Blizzard takes more inspiration from their work and innovations in Starcraft II going forward, and we might see yet another relevant title from them in the future.