The what of Diablo-likes??
Ok, so bear with me here. A Diablo game is composed of three basic parts: the combat, the skills and the loot. Everything else is set-dressing and enhances (or diminishes) those three parts. I’ve already gone over how Diablo 3’s combat is almost pitch-perfect and hasn’t been matched yet in the genre (sorry Lost Ark), the skill system is problematic in most games in the genre so we’ll skip that, which leaves us to focus on the real problem of (current) Diablo 3 instead – the itemization.
We all want the best gear. We all want to be optimal. We all want to push the hardest difficulties and feel powerful and awesome. That’s what the game is about – power fantasy, killing demons, getting powerful rewards to kill more demons with etc. The problem arises when obtaining and using that best optimal gear becomes more important than everything else. When it becomes more important than fun. Think about that for a second. Something in a GAME you’re playing is more important than having fun with said game. When you look at it from an outside perspective, it’s a ludicrous statement. You play games to have fun, why on earth would you instead have less fun just so you can get better items and be more optimal? It makes no sense. And yet it’s what I’d wager happens to most players. It’s absolutely what happens to me every time I come back to the game. It certainly happens to anyone that goes “hardcore” (no, not the game mode) in these types of games. Now, obviously for that contingent of players that goes hard at the actual leaderboards and only wants to push themselves to ever higher Greater Rifts, THAT’S the fun in the game, but I feel pretty certain there are builds they’d rather play if they could push with those.
So the paradox here is that the point playing the game is to get better gear, but getting the better gear can make the game less fun at high levels of gear optimization, as it forces you into specific builds.
In Diablo 3, it goes a little something like this: you get the set that buffs you with infinity-gillion% damage and it’s really fun to play, whether it’s from the seasonal journey or from farming it the regular way. Then you play it some more and more and it gets less fun, as every repetitive activity does. Now if the set you have isn’t the MOST optimal one you get to farm for the next one and when you get it, the loop repeats. But it only repeats once. Now you’re stuck with this optimal set, and, ok, you can now search for the ancillary pieces of the build, the few legendaries and cube items that complement the set. Usually though, these don’t add much to the build in terms of gameplay, they just make that way of playing more powerful. This is the end of the loop in terms of gameplay gains, unfortunately, as you’re now farming for small percentage upgrades, that perfect roll with the maxed affixes that give you that +137 Strength or 1.5% crit chance that will push you to that next GR level (don’t even get me started on Greater Rifts and their litany of issues). Now, don’t get me wrong, this issue isn’t related to just Diablo 3, it’s a problem in all loot-based games. The better ones manage to distract you from the issue and possibly downplay the need for being optimal.
For Diablo 3 specifically, the issue really only appeared after Reaper of Souls, because that’s when the excellent new legendary system was introduced. This is one of the best additions in an expansion I’ve seen to any game I’ve ever played, as it took the potential of ARPGs and put it into overdrive. Until then we had stat sticks for items and that was fine, that was the way it’s always been, with the very occasional legendary that actually had an ability (ah, Maximus, you were ahead of your time), or sets that gave you just more of the same stats. But with RoS, every single slot you had was now an option for deep customization of your gameplay style. Sure, not all legendaries had gameplay changing abilities, but they all added something to your build, at the very least visually. I’d say that initial Reaper of Souls period was the absolute best in terms of itemization and build diversity (although I’m sure there were plenty of optimal and “must-have” builds even then), because legendaries were pretty scarce so you had to make do with what you had and create builds based on that.
Then came the enemy. The sets system in Diablo 3 is just bad, there’s no way around that. It takes the loop and just speeds it up infinitely. When the change to sets to make them actually viable was first announced, I was thrilled. Permanent Call of the Ancients with a 6 set for Barb? Sign me up! I didn’t even think of the fact that that was 6 slots immediately gone, with additional ones having to bend to the now Ancients focused build. The deathblow came when sets became infinitely powerful with the various nonsensical +28193463184327423% buffs and legendaries weren’t buffed alongside them.
The bonus is now 75,000%.
Now look, obviously a lot of this isn’t the developer’s fault. The team is ridiculously small and was getting smaller ever since RoS, so tweaking % numbers is an easy way to make it seem as if something is being added. I get that, that’s fine, you do what you can with what you have. But it’s not just Diablo 3 that has this issue. The more power vs. more fun is an eternal struggle in the whole genre. The glaring thing with D3 isn’t that its itemization is bad, it’s that it has SO much potential with all of these legendary powers that’s being squandered.
Is this even a solvable issue though? Yes and no, unfortunately. The basic loop I mention above will always be there, there will always be an optimal build, no matter how hard developers try to avoid it. However, there are things that make it either last longer, make it a more smooth loop or make it less noticeable. There are plenty of potential solutions, too many to write up here, but the below are the ones I feel are most relevant (and easy to explain).
The easiest way to resolve the issue is to simply not care. Take whichever combination of items you enjoy playing, head to the difficulty those items allow you to play and have fun! I’m sure plenty of people do this already, but I’ve tried many times and everyone I know has as well – we never keep at it. We always end up defaulting back to the “good” builds.
Items HAVE TO be hard to get. Of course everyone wants to get to play with the big toys and it’s not actually fair that only people that spend insane amounts of hours in a game get to use the most powerful items. But, once you remove rarity as an issue, other than small % upgrades, the system collapses in on itself. Once the powerful builds become easily available to all, those are the ones that will be used. By all. They are supposed to be the goal, the carrot that keeps you playing and farming and enjoying the gameplay.
Now of course the reason things are as they are in D3 at the moment is because it’s a 7 year old game and the hardcore players (again, not the game mode) have already had all the powerful items, so it’s completely ok for more casual players to get them too, but I’m talking in general here. Making tiers of power (not tier sets, mind you) as incremental goals is the way to go. So casual players get to play with powerful things, but they know there’s more out there. Getting one full complement of gear from a single tier allows you to start going for the next one and so on. Just to clarify, by tier I don’t mean the same items with bigger stats, but you take your legendary pool and see which are more or less powerful and sort them that way. This is already a thing, as you can always find tier lists for items in any game, ranking them by their power. The problem there is that you can skip huge parts of that if you get lucky with a drop. So, if you get a really good top tier item, that’s it for that slot, you just completely ignored the other options available there. There are so many fun and interesting legendary combinations in D3 that are simply ignored because they aren’t powerful enough.
Content helps out a lot, as doing various different things to obtain gear keeps it feeling fun. Specific game modes or dungeons can completely revitalize a game. For example, if you came across a dungeon with really good rewards, but weren’t allowed to use any of your top items, that would make you instantly have to change your build and playstyle, play with what you have available and adapt. Balancing said dungeon would be a nightmare, but it would be doable. Even separating the loot pool into different game modes is an option, so certain content is only accessible with the “worse” loot. It still rewards you with desirable items, but in order to get a chance at it you have to make sub-optimal builds with items that are weak. There are many different ways to do this and use content to liven up the itemization game, force players out of their comfort zone and get them thinking.
While most of the above is only applicable to a new game I’ve found a solution that works for me in Diablo 3 specifically. It’s still a tough sell to some of my more hardcore-minded friends who physically can’t have fun unless they’re pushing the absolute highest GR possible, but I’ll force/threaten convince them of this new way eventually. So what is it? Well it includes a bit of patience, unfortunately, but basically you make your own tiers and see how far you can get with them. If I stumble upon Ancients for my old reliable Cyclone + every single passive legendary possible that deals damage to everything around you Monk build I’m going to play it until it’s no longer fun and try to see what GR level is the maximum I can get with it. Basically that Cyclone set is my own endgame. But here’s the thing – I can have MANY endgames this way. Whenever I stumble upon an interesting combination of legendaries that might work well together, I’m going to try them out (or keep them in the stash because I need one or more additional legendaries to make it work) and if it’s a fun build, then bam, I have another endgame goal for myself – take THAT build to it’s maximum potential and gather items for it.
I’m actually going to make a spreadsheet for this purpose (yes, it’s a bit much, but I have to keep myself away from those damned optimal builds somehow), charting what builds make it how far and how I can improve them.
All of this might seem like a lot of work and mental discipline for just one game when there’s so much else to play, but it’s worth it for me. Diablo 3 has many flaws and issues, but at its core, it’s still the best in the genre and if I have to put in a little effort on my end to get it fresh again I’m absolutely willing to do that. Having tried literally every alternative out there in the genre for significant amounts of time, I keep coming back to D3 and there has to be a reason for it. That’s not to say the other games are bad, but they’re just not what I’m looking for – perhaps I truly am a gameplay snob.
The real name of the game
Creativity. Creativity and build diversity are the one and only solution in the end. Everything else I wrote about is just trying to emphasize that one aspect. If a game’s items spark your imagination, make you think “OMG, if I just combine these 2 legendaries, and add this third one in, and then another and another, it’ll be amazing. I can’t wait to get them and try it out!”, that’s it, the game has you. Discovering new ways to play and creating them by yourself is what makes these games fun in the long term. As good as the gameplay can be and as good as the individual items are, they all have a pretty short expiration date. Finding new builds that change the way you play extends that to the extremes. There’s nothing better to me than finding an item or items for a different class that immediately has me thinking I HAVE to try this class out now, look at how great this item is! Then, every once in a while, hop on to your optimally built destruction monster and stomp some crazy high GRs and Torments for some catharsis, just for good measure.
In closing, obviously you should play EXACTLY the way that you want to, and if pushing the high GRs and using the absolutely best gear that is available in a season is what’s fun for you, then that’s great, I’m actually envious of you! If using the same build all the time is what makes the game fun for you who am I to tell you different! This was just about my personal issues with the game and genre, and potential solutions to it. If you found any of this useful (or at all comprehensible), great! Let me know what you think of the whole thing above, from the paradox to the potential solutions and if I missed something in my reasoning. A big part of why I wrote this article (and hope to write more) is to see what other current Diablo 3 players think after 7 years, and to potentially be able to tell Blizzard what we want from Diablo 4, as they seem to not really have a firm idea themselves.
*Header image by PeterPrime.
Why optimal builds hurt the game (for me) and how we can move away from them.