Why Diablo 3 is in Trouble, and What It Can Do to Get Out

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Look at any average gamer’s school transcripts from a distance, and then ask them which title is responsible for a dip in their otherwise decent set of grades. That’s the game which showed them this genre of entertainment is worth more than just a few spare moments of boredom, and gave them their first real glimpse into the possibilities of being “addicted” to nothing more than a couple of pixels and some MIDI soundtracks.

The second entry in the Diablo series was ‘the one’ for me, the one that nearly ruined my life, and certainly took a few classes and perfectly good sunny days down with it. I spent hundreds of hours just grinding away on the Hardcore ladder and Softcore magic-find Mephisto runs, hoarding Stones of Jordan as currency and building warped PvP Hammerdins to crush a Bowazon or Sorbceress in nine battles out of ten. It wasn’t perfect by a long stretch of today’s standards, but it still had this quality, this undeniable amount of heart that made it feel like it was there to bring people together and cooperating towards the same clear goal.

Much like a bunch of puppies in a pen, D2 also trademarked a dueling system which could be activated at any point during the average half-year long quest that we had to embark on in order to reach the holy grail of level 99. So as we were running the same boss in the same line for the 127th time, we could get suddenly feel a wind of confidence about a new piece of gear or ability and decide to pounce on a friend whenever the energy in the room got low. For some reason this competitive spirit between us took a long time to die, and much like StarCraft it had a way to keep us playing not only against the world, but close personal acquaintances who were “haXor” for beating us in completely fair fights on the fields of friendly battle.

In D3 though, this spirit never gets a chance to get off the ground, and while we all grinded Inferno at the equal cap of 60, something felt like it had been lost from the laugh riots which would ensue in Diablo 2. In the paragraphs below we’ll tackle several reasons why the magic is gone, and what Blizzard is going to have to do in order to get it back.

Blizzard Couldn’t Stop Gold Farming

We were told it was the chief concern of the developers when they announced that Diablo 3 would be an “online-only” experience. That no form of true single player existed and anyone who wanted to enjoy the title without an internet connection simply wouldn’t have the option or availability to do so, because they wanted to have a method to stop item duping and other hacks in their tracks. It was very matter-of-factly at the time from a relatively unknown lead-developer known as Jay Wilson, and this would only be the beginning of many missteps he would eventually make on behalf of the development team in the months and years to come.

At the time, they claimed this was due to the release of their supposedly “un-breakable” Warden software. Warden would only work, they said, if you were always connected to the service to allow it to translate the different incoming messages the back-end would receive during an average play session, determining what motions were made by a human a few times a night, and which were made by a bot hundreds of times per hour in a constant cycle.

What they didn’t seem to properly account for was the inherent weaknesses of Warden, according to an interview with a well-known farmer on the scene going by the name “Tonto”: “Warden works primarily by scanning your system’s memory for known markers that bots leave accessible in memory. This easily detects bots that are written by people with low-medium skills in memory hooking. The second way Warden works is through a set of queries sent to the specific areas in memory that the bot hooks into. If an invalid response is received then it flags your account for investigation.”

Pictures from inside a Chinese-run mass gold farming warehouse

These money-machines are sophisticated, organized, and extremely coordinated with each other’s actions because they’re in it together to earn much cash in the Real Money Auction House on each account before it gets banned. After this happens they simply buy a new one as a cost of doing business, and the process starts all over again. Every regional economy outside of the Hardcore ladder is bottom-heavy due to the massive influx of Chinese gold farms which are running in hugely-complex operations, many with tens of thousands of accounts collecting currency and items for them 24/7. Tonto continues on to say,”The decent D3 bots (Immortal and DemonBuddy) get around this by either emulating the default responses the game would normally use or if it doesn’t know the response to give it triggers a protocol called “Tripwire” that immediately shuts down all bots using its early-warning system world-wide and transmits the query Warden made back to the developer. Once Tripwire has been triggered it prevents anyone from using the bot until an update is made or the “clear” command is given.”

And because they’ve been able to circumvent Warden at every turn since the release of the beta, active botters are claiming that only a small percentage of their overall profits were hurt by Blizzard’s pre-RMAH swing of their almighty ban hammer. It’s a shame that the system can be abused on such a large scale without Blizzard actually noticing what’s going on, but as long as they get to skim a cool 15% off of every single transaction between players, including the direct sale of gold which is currently priced in its lowest possible bracket at around $1.20-1.50 per million, they don’t seem to be in a hurry to ‘fix’ the economy anytime soon.

Obviously the necessity to always be on a reliable connection was a great move on Blizzard’s part, and has done wonders to eradicate absolutely none of the issues they originally claimed were being targeted.

Players Are Leaving by the Truckload

Although a vast majority of the 6.3 million customers who had purchased valid accounts by launch night weren’t able to login after the originally agreed upon 12AM Pacific Time release, this didn’t stop them from playing a record number of in-game days once they were able get to past the dreaded “Error 37” screen.

With servers around the world only clocking an average of 80% uptime over three months after the initial characters went online, this means that even in places like Oceania which have only been able to play their accounts for about 25% of the same amount the rest of us have enjoyed, the average character sees anywhere from 120-400 hours of action before accounts finally start to fizz out. And disregarding all the issues and hacking problems that have plagued the title since launch, player numbers were still exceptionally strong throughout the months of May and June.

The problem however is as more players reach Inferno mode, they realize there isn’t much inspiration to keep grinding with loot tables so drastically unbalanced in between Acts and difficulty levels. Because Inferno becomes a near-wall around Act II and III, it essentially requires you to use the Auction House to advance any further within a group, and in an unexpected move much of the userbase is simply opting to quit playing altogether, instead of spend any of their hard-earned gold or cash to get to the next level of play.

It has been reported that Diablo 3 now only occupies 13.39% of usage in internet cafes internationally, and if this doesn’t seem like a particularly substantial amount of the crop, take into consideration the game was occupying a massive 39.41% of them when they initially grabbed the top spot. Without a proper endgame, the Diablo series would never capture hearts and minds the way it has for so many years until now.

This data shows the true extent of the tumble that the game’s popularity has taken in just a few weeks.

More opinionated players have put the blame for this trend on one thing and one thing only: the Real Money Auction House. With drop rates and algorithms which are clearly in favor of driving players to the brink of pulling out their wallets, Blizzard took a gamble with the Auction House idea, and with it they haven’t accomplished much more than giving all the World of Warcraft botters a better opportunity than their old market, which after nearly 9 years had become bloated and overstocked with so much gold it was basically worthless by the time Diablo 3 came around.

Right now, I think the core elements the game will need to regain to give it the replayability value of its predecessor are raising the level cap, adding new content, opening PvP, and updating their item archive so the unmotivating affixes we’re currently stuck with on Legendaries and Rares can be made interesting and worth the grind again. Actually provide us with the possibilities for so many builds, the variety of playstyles throughout the community would be different enough in each room it could take multiple hours to run into a member of your fellow class who is built similarly to what you’ve concocted on your own.

Many are considering this whole fiasco the “Cars 2″ of the Pixar lineup, and the first real blemish on a once perfect record of a company we’ve come to know and love for almost the past two decades.

Diablo 3 Will Have to Improve at the Same Pace of D2

None of us ever expected to end up without any dependable friends to play a few rounds of Diablo 3 with, especially only a few months after we all had expectations as high as they were right before launch night. Post “Error-37” mismatch issues, we struggled to stay online the same hours, couldn’t find the motivation to level our characters in unison like the old days, and even trying to get a dedicated voice channel set up for Inferno communication yielded unfortunate and lag-filled setbacks which should have been taken care of with the same option that StarCraft II had when it came out 2 years ago. In multiplayer team-rank you can get in voice and speak with your teammates automatically, and they have the option to easily mute you during any point in the match if you start abusing the privilege.

This massively helpful feature is nowhere to be seen in Diablo 3, despite the 24-months that had passed since StarCraft II was able to include the feature upon its initial beta tests. It ran seamlessly in a lag-free environment without affecting the quality or reaction speed of the client, and considering it does all of that on PC’s with a quarter of the available power, it’s clear the the new team had gotten something very, very wrong. By the time we were playing Inferno we had all fallen into this trap of choosing identical strategies to most other people around us, and this caused for a very unwelcome feeling of depersonalization within its borders to the point where none of us really care about our mains anymore.

Most of the people who used to play don’t these days, and probably won’t log back in until at least the patch when PvP is added and we can all test our gear against each other for whatever mild amount of joy or purpose it injects back into the already flailing user numbers. With a population of real-life and Battle.net friends dwindling rapidly under the veil of “nothing-to-do” syndrome, a noticeable drop in interest has been confirmed by companies responsible for tracking the number of computers tuned to “channel D3” in order to see what kind of impact it’s having on sales both from the shelves, and between the players on the Real Money Auction House where the constant stream of cash is supposed to be picking up the slack.

Investors won’t let the Diablo 3 team off without a few extra hours spent at the office, so they’re moving to improve many of the features that the community has directly been requesting. By taking surveys, responding to questions, and even releasing a letter from the CEO of their company, their general message to the fans essentially boils down to “we know we screwed up, and we’re working as much as we legally can to get the fixes up and running before the next financial quarter”. This has given the team a moderate window of time it might take for D3 to match the upgrade and support pace of its older brother, because as most people remember Diablo 2 wasn’t exactly an immense joy to play before the arrival of the expansion pack; Lord of Destruction.

Whether the argument of “it’s been 10 years, they should have that stuff figured out by now” floods General Chat more than the gold spammers currently do isn’t the issue here, because the real reason we’re all so disappointed is we have such fond and extensive memories of the last entry in the series, that until the right features from LoD return and all our friends have the motivation to sign on again, the barren nature of Battle.net 2.0 will continue to alienate new players while not showing enough content for the veterans to make the effort to stay.

This toxic combo will bleed people until there’s nothing left on the server but dust and echoes, both made by the potentially great game it could have been.

To 1.0.4 and Beyond

If there’s one company that can make a comeback from this far behind though, it’s Blizzard. This is a business which has spent the past 12 years crafting a masterpiece which doesn’t just turn people into junkies, it completely destroys lives on the same level of your average heroin addict. Spend enough time scrolling that site and you’ll read horror stories so similar to drug habits that without the context of “warcraft”(heroin) or “logging in”(tying off), you’d swear they were talking about spending the last cents of their food money for a 15-sack (monthly subscription fee) on the corner.

I never got into WoW like my other friends, and to this day have only succeeded to level a character past 45 on my own before getting bored all over again and quitting the repetitive, mind-numbing grind for gear that never gave me the same kick in the pants that Diablo 2 did. But foregoing my own experience, it seems they’ve got a core group of coders over there who have cracked the success model for getting players interested and keeping their hands on the mouse, especially since releasing the “First 20 Levels Free” mechanic which gives inductees all the time in the World they’ll need to get the hunger implanted deep enough. You can bet the same teams responsible for Blizzard’s profits in the past decade are descending on the corners that were being trusted to do this with Diablo on their own, giving them the necessary insight they have unfortunately lacked up until this point of the process.

It’s so addictive, even an octopus can get hooked.

(I’m not condoning they actively go and try to pander to people for money, but keeping a few more users on the public servers certainly wouldn’t hurt.)

As long as the same company is willing to shift around its forces a bit and change the battle plan on-the-fly, they should be able to use the next patches and major updates to address the most significant issues currently plaguing the endgame and causing the steep dropoff of numbers that even Star Wars the Old Republic could sneer quietly at from their corner of Low Content Boulevard. Taking Mike Morhaime’s recent statement into consideration, it’s clear the top of the heap is doing everything in their power to turn this into a success for the history books, so until a few more months pass you won’t find this reporter calling the death minute, at least not quite yet.

Unlike an okay oil painting, mediocre music album, or emergency patient slowly bleeding out on the operating table, the developers have a chance to go back into the code and re-work as much they need in order to respond to the loudest complaints from the crowd. The very same angry mobs which by this point have started to leave their computers and collect outside the security gates in Irvine, would also be willing to accept a heartfelt apology if they throw in a lot of patchwork to unwrap along with the Hallmark card.

Hopefully one day the early problems of this program will be a distant memory, one we hardly talk about as the economy balances out and 4v4 leaderboards heat up. Today won’t be that day, and neither will tomorrow, but for now we can see their genuine concern is putting them on the right track back to the gold standard we’ve all come to expect.

Chris Stobing

Chris Stobing is technology and video game writer from San Jose. Living in Silicon Valley for almost 25 years has given him a passion for anything with a power button, and when he's not playing Battlefield or Starcraft, you'll find him hitting the slopes in Tahoe, or cooking up a storm for friends.

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