10/4/13

Digital Attachments


XCOM sniper (not Dmitrri)It’s tough to lose a solider. Especially one like Dimitri. A fine sniper, with a good kill record. I had trained him for so long, raised him from a lowly private to sergeant, then to lieutenant. He was equipped with the best gear. His accuracy had improved to a deadly asset. He was a cornerstone to my tactical approach.

He was also an investment in time and materiel. And as such, he was headed for greatness. Captain, maybe major.

Until the aliens got him. That was nasty.

Three of them swarmed his position, flanking his protection and taking him down with close melee attacks while the rest of the squad was busy defending citizens, too far to help.

Not a pretty sight.

The same battle took out Matt, the heavy weapons corporal who blasted whole blocks with his rocket launcher. Matt was caught in the blast of an exploding car outside a mall where the aliens had landed. Damn, I hadn’t counted on that when I moved him up to an overwatch position. But the aliens set the car on fire and that was that.

Our assault got caught in an ambush. We won, eventually, but it was a long fight with every inch bitterly contested. Coming back to base we were a solemn group. Two dead. Not a good thing.

Now the squad looks awfully thin, two down with rookies in their place. Big shoes to fill. And it’s not getting any easier out there, with the aliens ramping up their own technology, and getting tougher and smarter all the time. Winning this war won’t be easy. Matt I could almost afford to lose, being relatively new, but Dmitri was my best sniper.

I need to start training someone, fast. But who?

Of course it’s a game (XCOM: Enemy Unknown to be precise). Playing it this week has made me ponder the nature of attachment, in particular our attachment to characters in games or online. Why does it matter to us when a digital character “dies”? Or how he/she “lives”? How do we get so attached to virtual beings?

After all, it’s not like real life or death. Just a game. But yet…

Losing Dmitri irked me, but it also bothered me on a deeper level. Not simply because I had customized him, changed his suit colours, his facial hair, and imagined a background for him. He was mine. Or me. I’m not sure which. There was an emotional link. Not the easiest thing for a person who values logic and skepticism.

When the aliens gutted Dmitri, I was torn between restarting at the last save-game position and playing the deus ex machina role to save him, or letting the narrative run as it played out. Starting again felt like cheating. Letting him die felt like I had failed him. It. Dmitri wasn’t real, of course. But he/it felt like he was, at times. The narrative won, but not without misgivings.

Continue reading

04/10/13

Narrative and free agency in game design


World of WarcraftAs a former World of Warcraft player, I can attest to how compelling it is to play an immersive, massive, 3D role-playing game. Acting out scenarios in a fantasy world is more involving than merely reading a fantasy novel. You get addicted to being part of the narrative, to swinging the sword instead of just reading about it.

Just as when you’re reading a good novel and can’t stop turning the pages, you keep playing to see how the next chapter/adventure/scenario plays out, especially when you don’t always have to follow the script.

It’s not so much about the gameplay, as much as it is being part of the story. Well-designed games compel you to continue playing through a combination of action, puzzle solving, rewards and group activities.

WOW is an MMO – massive multiplayer online game – set in a fantasy world that draws much of its substance from Tolkein and other fantasy writers. Many of the role-playing games (RPGs) follow the pseudo-Tolkein model, but most follow paths laid out in fantasy literature (i.e. characters and novels by Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft or more modern writers).

WOW is, of course, not the only game that offers that sort of setting, but at eight years old, with about 12 million subscribers, it’s both the largest and longest-lasting of them. It thus becomes the yardstick for measuring any other game in the genre. None of its competitors – Rift, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings,Star Wars, etc. – have a fraction of the players.

RPGs owe their ancestry to a small box set of rules published in 1976, called Dungeons and Dragons. Written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (whose name subsequently disappears from the list of authors in later printings), it essentially created the standards for fantasy role playing that are still in use today.

This is documented in great detail in Jon Peterson’s 700-page tome, Playing at the World (his blog is here). It was reading this book that got me thinking about game design again (and to dig through what few old wargames and rules books I have in the basement…).

In his introduction, Peterson identifies “freedom of agency” as one of the key components, “as much a necessary condition for inclusion in the genre of role-playing games as is role assumption.” The ability to make choices of action, of goal, and behaviour are central to a compelling game. In the Wired interview, linked above, Peterson defends gaming,

“…not as fads or disposable products of pop culture, but instead as a legitimate part of intellectual history, heirs to a tradition that stretches back centuries and involves many great thinkers and innovators.”

Which is similar to what I’ve been writing about for a few decades.* Gaming, at least in the simulation-style games, is not merely a pointless pastime, but rather an intellectual exercise.

Computer games have both redefined entertainment and set the bar for hardware and software development. Games are incredibly demanding of computer resources compared to, say, a spreadsheet. Consider the processing required to keep track of dozens, even hundreds of players who are interacting in 3D space in realtime, plus all of the geography, terrain, in-game trades and purchases, combat, weather and environmental effects. And to keep everyone in the game fully informed of all the events, locations and activities of their characters, pets, party members, resources, movement paths, mail… it’s a stunning amount of work.

Beyond the coding, there are some basic components any game needs to be successful:

  • Clearly defined purpose and goals;
  • Challenge;
  • Identifiable opponents to overcome;
  • Reward for accomplishing goals or overcoming challenges;
  • An understandable and accessible board geography where the game is played;
  • Clear and concise rules.

RPGs add other elements to create that immersive experience, including:

  • Connecting story/narrative;
  • Character choice, advancement and development;
  • Consequences of actions or behaviour;
  • Alternate races (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.);
  • Role assumption (taking on the persona of a character in the story);
  • Free agency (the ability to move and act independent of the script);
  • Believable fantasy, alternate or futuristic world environment;
  • Clear sides with which the races align and which have competing goals.

Computer games have additional components:

  • Good graphics and visual appeal;
  • Good AI (artificial intelligence) and NPCs (non-player characters);
  • Believable environmental interactions, simulated physics and effects;
  • Appropriate sound (and sometimes music);
  • Interactivity with NPCs, environment;
  • Social activity (in MMOs).

Some RPGs (i.e. Fable, Witcher, Fallout 3), have more complex “consequences” built into decision making within their games. Certain choices – such as attacking or stealing from non-player characters (computer-controlled NPCs) or how you answer their questions – affect the way others relate to your character. How well these mimic actual social or personal behaviour is debatable. Mostly they seem to me merely designed to add chrome to role assumption. In some cases, they don’t really affect the game or quests.

Since these are solo games, rather than MMOs, you can usually save your game before you make a choice, then replay it with a different choice if you don’t like an outcome. That tends to dissipate the suspension of belief necessary for immersion.

I don’t include “fun” in any of these lists because fun, like beauty or taste, is subjective. Players will gravitate to the games that provide the highest entertainment value for their own interests and aptitudes. I, for example, never found WOW’s battlegrounds “fun” but always enjoyed questing and exploring (solo and in parties). Others eschew the quests for the PvP combat in the battlegrounds.

Can the storyline absorb the players sufficiently, for long enough to suspend belief, deeply enough to make you care about both the characters and the action? It depends on how well the narrative is scripted. A good storyline has to be crafted as carefully as a good novel and needs to generate a similar emotional response.

Clearly, however, game narrative is very different from a storyline in a book, since choice is a key element in gaming.

Quests can also be seen as ‘micro-narratives.’ In many games, the plot or story is merely a shell that contains numerous micro-stories presented as quests. Sometimes these are dynamic, so that the nature or goals of quest B depends on how or how well you accomplished quest A. However, the shell story needs to be coherent so players don’t simply feel they’re moving from one mini-game to the next for no reason.

A lot of games fall down with thin stories, pointless quests (collect X eyeballs or Y spleens), and predictable A-to-B-to-C plots. And too many depend more on action to move them along rather than plot or participatory narrative (i.e. Diablo III).

Patrick Holleman, on the Game Design forum, writes,

“…the difference between traditional games and videogames is that videogames have a world in which everything about the game, except for controller input, takes place. This world is created, controlled, and sometimes populated by continuous and discrete artificial intelligence. The player is a guest in that world, the central participant in its mechanics. Even still, the world is usually not driven by the player; it is the designer’s world, and should be studied as such.”

Holleman also asks, “…whether or not videogames are similar enough to traditional narratives that we should study them the same way.” In response, he adds,

“To begin, it makes sense to admit that some portions of videogame narratives are exactly like books; the player reads them without interacting except to turn the ‘page’. Some narrative segments in videogames are exactly like movies; the player watches them without doing anything except pausing and unpausing. No decent videogame is entirely like movies or books. A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.”

Interactivity is essential, but is not synonymous with narrative. Ernest Adams, writing in “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers,” said,

“Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power.”

In that same article, Henry Jenkins writes,

“You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity… Most often, when we discuss games as stories, we are referring to games that either enable players to perform or witness narrative events – for example, to grab a lightsabre and dispatch Darth Maul in the case of a Star Wars game. Narrative enters such games on two levels – in terms of broadly defined goals or conflicts and on the level of localized incidents. “

Immersiveness also depends heavily on how much free will the player has, and the ability to write ourselves into the script. In games like Diablo III, the action is very linear and with little flexibility for explore or act outside the proscribed plot and territory. These games have little immersive value (and, at least with D3, little replay value, either). Others, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, combine limited freedom with scripted activities and plots.

Morrowwind, Skyrim and the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 provide a generally freely roam-able world, and in some cases, the ability to attempt quests well beyond your character’s level (some MMOs offer this, as well).**

While few solo RPG games offer such significant free agency, it is the hallmark of most MMOs. Holleman writes,

“World of Warcraft is another game heavily dependent on the depth and persuasiveness of its world; it has the benefit of being an ever-expanding world as well, with content updates and expansion packs. The first time through the game tends to be the best, from a narrative perspective. The structure of the quests (tasks with completion rewards) that guide gameplay are heavy on exploration, but often a bit short on variety, i.e. collect 10 quest items, for the millionth time. What makes these quests and dungeons compelling—at least the first time through the game—is that they are driven by a strong, interesting setting.”

Because RPGs have a character-building ladder system, the reason many players don’t explore the MMO environments more fully is usually that their characters are graded too low to survive in higher-level zones. Some sort of safe passage is sometimes offered (i.e. roads where hostile NPCs don’t patrol), or sometimes swift transportation is available (riding or flying mounts in WOW) to encourage more exploration.

Most MMOs have graduated zones for each race. These offer playable regions challenging for characters within that given range, such as levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. You play your character in a zone until it levels up to be able to enter (and survive in) the next zone. Each zone has level-related quests to fulfill to aid your advancement.***

Completing all available quests is also part of the achievement ladder. Players are encouraged to complete all quests in all zones, regardless of their level. The problem with this system is that, in many MMOs, when your high-level character enters a low-level zone (for example, for another race), the quests are ridiculously easy but yous till want to complete them. On the other hand, quests are designed to get players to explore the entire zone while questing, which increases the sense of immersion.

Where most games have a defined end (in RPGs, usually the defeat of a final boss character), MMOs are often open-ended: they can be played after the characters have reached their highest level, accomplished all available quests and defeated all the boss characters. Usually such activities are social: group raids, battlegrounds and dungeons outside the formal narrative and questing lines (essentially making them into fantasy variants on the FPS-PvP line of gaming). It’s also possible to create new characters and start again from level one, often choosing a different race, type/class (warrior, priest, hunter, etc.,) or even alliance.

As the goal of game design, immersion is difficult to achieve: it depends on the interaction of several factors, as well as the independent activities of players outside the scripted narrative. It’s an interesting challenge that, so far, no single game has managed to meet fully, but it’s always interesting to examine the results.  ****

~~~~~

* I started wargaming in the mid-1970s, bought a computer in 1977, and by around 1980 was writing a regular column on computer games for Moves magazine, as well as writing articles for contemporary programming magazines. I wrote about computers and game design for several magazines in the 1980s including Antic and ST Log, and published a column on technology in Canadian newspapers for a decade from the mid 1990s, which often looked at game developments.

** First-person shooters (FPS) like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor usually combine scripted scenarios with open or semi-open gameplay in a small environment. Very few have a fully open environment (Far Cry, however was one).

*** Level grinding is when you rush through all the available quests solely to get your characters up to a reasonable level of strength to be able to use powers or traits unlocked at higher levels, and then to engage in multiplayer activities like dungeons and raids. It’s common in WOW to see level 60-80 characters doing level 1-10 quests to complete their achievement ladders. For the lower level players, this can be frustrating as you watch a higher-level character blaze through an area, taking quest items or killing quest characters with ease, forcing you to wait for them to respawn. Guild Wars 2 has a different approach. When the player’s level is higher than the zone, that level is reduced in that zone to make repeat and collective quests competitive. A level 35 character, playing in a 1-5 zone, will play at level 3-5. Weapon and armour strengths are decreased accordingly. This is somewhat offset by the character’s accumulated buffs, unlocked skills and so on, so it is easier but still a challenge. This heightens the immersive value of GW2.

**** One of the things in WOW that, for me, detracts from immersion is the cartoonish style of characters and buildings. Games like Rift and GW2 have tried to make the player feel less distanced through more realistic graphics and animation. However, none of them are up to the detail or lifelike characters we see in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. Some licence must be allowed, of course, for fantasy races and characters.

01/13/13

Musings on Game Design


An odd bit of synchronicity. I picked up a few unusual board games* at the discount/remainder store downtown (in the former Shoppers’ Drug Mart building) a couple of weeks back, and was mulling over their instructions, wondering why they seemed such odd and awkward games. In fact, they seemed rather unplayable, more like intellectual exercises in game design. Yet they were beautifully made, and very attractive.

Was it the topic? The manual? The components? What makes for a good game, what makes a bad one? Why have some games lingered on and are still being played – Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, go, Risk, Trivial Pursuit for example – while others seem to come and go? Was it simply that I was no longer conversant with the nature of the board gaming world?

Then I read an article on Science Digest that week called, “The Reason We Lose at Games: Some Games Simply Too Complex for the Human Mind to Understand“. In it, the authors wrote,

“…a University of Manchester physicist has discovered that some games are simply impossible to fully learn, or too complex for the human mind to understand.”

That led me to thoughts about games and game design. I’m a game player, always have been. Ever since my father taught me to play chess, around age 7 or 8. Admittedly I don’t play as much today, and mostly on the computer, but I can still spend a few hours now and then, immersed in a game like Civ V, Tropico 4 or others.

Monster wargameBackground: In the mid-1970s, I owned a small bookstore in Toronto. Among my lines was a rather good selection of chess books. Unfortunately, I was a better chess player than business owner, and I eventually closed my store and sold my stock. The chess books went to Mr. Gameways, a game store on Bloor Street. I got along with its manager so well, that he offered me a job, and for the next couple of years I managed the board game floor. During that time, I got heavily immersed in board games, particularly war games; easily the most challenging, complicated and demanding type of game ever. Eventually I ended up writing for wargaming magazines, reviewing wargames and even playtesting a few (along with several attempts at designing).

Imagine learning a rule book with 12, 24, even 60 pages of densely-packed rules! A board with hundreds, even thousands of pieces, multiple charts and tables, and complex interactions between them. And we learned and played new games at least once a month. Sometimes every week. As the Science Digest article says,

However, when games became more complex and when there are a lot of moves, such as in chess, the board game Go or complex card games, the academics argue that players’ actions become less rational and that it is hard to find optimal strategies.

Wargaming was a small but avid culture that had its heyday in the 1980s. Much like chess, there were clubs where people came to engage in games regularly, often playing a single game against an opponent for four or more hours. Some games took months to complete – I had a small circle of like-minded friends who met weekly to play some of the larger games, usually four to six of us at a time, with maps that spread out to cover an entire dining room table. War in the East (the entire Soviet-German war from 1941-45) and Highway to the Reich (Operation Market Garden) were two of the larger, table-size games I recall. Each session lasted three-six hours; the entire game took months to play through.

Complex? Challenging? Difficult? Yes to all. But captivating, too. They demanded strategic thinking often well beyond the horizon that chess offers. Yet there was still a random element – the roll of the die to determine combat results – that made the games exciting, and always different. Plus there was the virtual-general aspect: commanding anywhere from dozens to hundreds of units, managing logistics, strategy, setting operation goals…

Often the battles were very unequal, which added a different level of challenge. Can you win a battle that was historically lost by your side’s army? Sometimes… that all depended on how the game was designed, and what the victory conditions were. Winning might be, in game terms, losing less horribly than was historical. It might mean holding out longer before inevitable defeat. There’s a good description of a wargame here. The author of that blog notes:

“Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.”

Look at Dunkirk, for a real-life example. As a straightforward wargame based on armies and tanks, the Germans win every time. They had overwhelming superiority in terms of men and weapons, greater mobility and higher morale, better supply lines. But the British “won” by being rescued from an isolated beach and saving a large portion of its army. How can a game designer incorporate the political elements, the indecision, the German High Command’s failure to follow through? That’s one of those thorny game-design problems. How to create a playable game out of an unequal situation. The Science Digest article notes,

Much of traditional game theory, the basis for strategic decision-making, is based on the equilibrium point — players or workers having a deep and perfect knowledge of what they are doing and of what their opponents are doing.

Dr Galla, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Equilibrium is not always the right thing you should look for in a game.”

“In many situations, people do not play equilibrium strategies, instead what they do can look like random or chaotic for a variety of reasons, so it is not always appropriate to base predictions on the equilibrium model.”

In fact, a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be fun, interesting or challenging. Many traditional, strategic board games like chess or go are balanced. Some, from snakes & ladders to backgammon and bridge, introduce randomness to change the balance. But real life is never like that. Many wargames introduced tension and dynamics through historical situations where unequal sides clashed

Napoleon's Last BattlesAnother historical example: Waterloo. While the allies (England and the German states) had, collectively, a larger army, they were initially scattered (especially the English), had longer and more vulnerable supply lines, and were not working together as a cohesive force. The French started with a central position, internal lines, the element of surprise, the morale benefit provided by Napoleon, and more experienced leaders. Which situation offered an advantage? The French need to strike fast and hard; break each Allied army separately before they can join forces. The Allies need to delay the French long enough for the British army to collect itself, then for both to gather at a point where they can defeat the French.

Could Napoleon have won? Potentially, if had been able to defeat the Allies separately, without suffering too many casualties – and had been able to manage his rather independent and unruly generals while maintaining his lines of supply. A good designer can craft a Waterloo game to present all the challenges that were historically present, and craft it so that Napoleon has some chance of winning, without stepping too far from historicity. And make the game fun to play. In fact, replaying Waterloo has long been a popular activity for wargame and miniatures gamers because of the different challenges both sides face, and the see-saw nature of the battle.

Playability versus realism – always the teeter-totter when designing wargames. Some games were classics of good design – the Napoleon’s Last Battles quad (and many of the other quad series games), Barbarossa, and PanzerBlitz come to mind as good examples of balance in both areas. The author of this article raises some interesting points about wargames that I hadn’t considered when I was playing them:

Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.

Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

I really understand his comment on the narrative nature of wargames.

A lot of independent game designers popped up during my wargaming days, creating sometimes remarkable games, sometimes unplayable ones. Occasionally I saw a tendency towards too much data, too many complex rules to try and capture the historical events through in-game strictures – putting realism over playability. That led to complex, difficult games where players read rule books while trying to figure out moves, and often argued over interpretations of even minor rules that could create big effects when used in play.

We also argued continually over interpretation of unit values. Was this tank model really worth two combat points more than that one? Did the designer appropriately take into account the bigger calibre gun or the wider tread? Was this cavalry regiment really better than that one, given the poor showing of its leader on the actual battlefield? Can a company of foot soldiers really travel that far in the time a turn represents? Does this general deserve that high a modifier compared to that one? We all became historians, usually with specialties in certain periods and equipment.

Of course, the way you learn about a game is by buying and playing it. At one point I had a huge collection – hundreds – of wargames. Now I have a mere handful, mostly kept for their nostalgic value. Wargaming led to buying a lot of books on military history and strategy, too, and my house was full of such books for many years. Like the games, only a dozen or so remain on the shelves.

Today, computer games rule the industry. The trend is often the other way: towards higher playability rather than realism. Popular games are too often mere entertainment. Oh, there’s a lot of “realism” in the environment – 3D landscapes, destructible objects, real-world physics with ballistics and gravity – but these define the setting, not the nature of the play. Computer games are often mechanically simple despite their visual impressiveness, especially the first-person shooters. In FPS, it’s all about fast fingers, rather than strategic planning or (just play in any multi-player FPS game online and you’ll find out how little real military tactics are used).

Even many computer simulations try to mask the inherent complexity – the realism – in a simplified interface, insulating the player from having to deal with too much data. You need both, in a reasonable balance to create an immersive experience. SimCity and Civ IV came very close to that balance. I have started to investigate computer wargames again, too – I was disappointed by them in the past, but there are new generations out worth looking at.

Gaming and game design still interests me, and every now and then invokes some almost-forgotten emotions and memories, but not with the same passion that pushed me in my wargaming days. I still believe some types of gaming are good intellectual exercises, are are good for strengthening the brain and teaching strategic thinking. However, I can’t help but look at any game – board or computer with a combination gamer’s and editor’s eyes, even today, and mentally weigh its merits and its design in terms of my own years of experience and play.

Update: the author of those blog posts responded to my email with a link to this post (and others) about what we can learn from wargames:

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

~~~~~

Principato* Principato: a city-building/trading and farming game set in the Renaissance; De Vulgari Eloquentia, a game set in the late Middle Ages about religion, commerce and language; The Golden City, a trading-maze-merchant game, and Skyline 3000, a city-building futuristic game. All were produced by Z-man games. They attracted me because of their subject matter, but, so far, I have not warmed up to any enough to play them. Despite their high build quality, their instructions make them seem opaque and difficult. That might just be the editor within me wanting to rewrite them, however, and I will look more closely at them in the future and maybe even try one or two. Some of them are well reviewed at boardgamegeek,com.

I also got a maze game based on the Dilbert cartoon characters which is much simpler, but is at least playable without much reading or preparation. And, of course, it has Dilbert in it, one of my favourite cartoon characters.

06/9/12

Diablo III: Hype or Gaming Excellence?


Diablo III gameplayThe hype was huge and long. Diablo III was rumored, hinted at, promised, delayed, and even denied for years. Then it was embraced when it finally arrived after more than a decade’s hibernation since the success of Diablo II, released in 2000 (and 16 years since the original, released in 1996). Good technique for raking in the money: the anticipation meant huge sales initially.

The spammers love it, of course, because it provides a wonderful, accessible platform for scams through its live in-game chat system that allows them to post text ads promising in-game gold and experience points in exchange for real money. This sort of scam has plagued World of Warcraft for years. Electronic Arts has not learned much from a that lesson, it seems.

There are reports (see this article from Forbes magazine) that D3 has been hacked and scammers have stripped accounts of gold and items.It may be that EA’s battle.net is being hacked instead, which means all your accounts with it including WOW are vulnerable. If you read some of the game forums you can find these stories in abundance. Even if you use one of their authenticator dongles, you may still be hacked, as this story notes. The threat is not merely losing virtual items in a game account – but that it will let the hackers into your other services, like email accounts, or other online places where you may use the same name, email or password. Like PayPal, online banking or eBay.

EA has denied widespread hacking. Having had my WOW account hacked, I can testify to the stomach-wrenching sensation of logging on and finding all your gold gone, your stash empty and your character naked (except for some politically correct but underwear). There are unconfirmed reports of players being hacked even through they use EA’s authenticator.

I figure I report at least a dozen spammers every time I play the game. Which is, because of their ubiquitous presence, increasingly seldom. It doesn’t appear reporting abuses makes any difference. It’s hard to tell because spammers change their identity almost daily and their usernames are never the same, although the scam sites they tell you about remain the same.

This is Electronic Arts’ fault. You need a constant Internet connection to play the game, even when you’re playing solo. That means the spammers and scammers are there with you, sending message after message after message – often five or six of the same multi-line crap – through the general chat network. No, it doesn’t affect your game, just your perception, as your attention is continually drawn to the part of the screen where their messages appear.

Had EA set up the system so that solo play was local, not linked to the Net, spammers would not be such a huge problem. As it stands, you are deluged with their annoying ads during gameplay. These may not be harmful per se (until you fall for one and go to their phishing site), but they break the immersion, and draw your attention from the game to the bright blue letters of their message on your screen.

Diablo 3Back up a bit. For those of you not familiar with the Diablo franchise, it’s a role playing fantasy game (RPG) with an overhead, third-person orthogonal view. Everything you do – move, fight, trade, repair, talk – you do with the mouse. It’s a clickfest. A typical session is one mouse click after another after another: click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click and then a whole lot more and faster in combat.

Suggestion: buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break. Spend the $100-plus on a good mouse if you like this game.

Like the title suggests, Diablo is about demons, evil, devils, angels and their ilk, although not taken wholesale from Christian mythology. It’s more Hollywood than Biblical in its inspiration. The story line is thin, even simplistic, but sufficient to explain most of the action.

The bad guys are caricatures of evil, but it’s a game, not a novel or even a movie. The differences between D2 and D3 are more in the polish, but nothing that can justify a decade’s effort. The scenery is pretty, gritty and gloomy in turn – all good eye candy, if a bit stereotypical and cliched. Particle physics are good; monsters lose limbs in gory splats, and explode satisfyingly.

Diablo was an original concept in the 90s, and, although cloned by many other games, it was still great fun in 2000. In 2012, D3 doesn’t offer much more or newer than its competitors (like Dragon Age). In fact, following a move seen in WOW, D3 is simplified (dumbed down if you’re a hardcore gamer) from its previous versions: skimpier skill trees, fewer character classes (no more paladins…), fewer combat options. However, this allows players to concentrate more on gameplay and less on micromanaging their characters.

Buy a good gaming mouse if you want to play D3. A Logitech gaming mouse can withstand the constant clicking. Your typical, cheap $20 mouse will break.

It’s not a very deep or challenging game, but rather an entertaining time waster. It’s more beautiful than solitaire and it’s more fulfilling to kill monsters than drop a jack on a queen. But it’s not in the intellectual foreground like chess, go, or even the solitaire mah jong. It’s pretty heavily scripted and the paths you can take and means to fulfill a quest are limited and very linear. Some areas are large open zones you can explore; others are fixed paths you are forced to stay within. Each quest has to be done in order and completed the way the game dictates; it’s not an open-ended system with multiple quest-trees like Skyrim.

Replaying it with different characters, even different classes (wizard, barbarian, witch doctor, etc.) doesn’t change the game. Rather it simply changes some of the tactics and weapons available to the character class. It also changes a few, but not all, lines of dialogue you’ll hear. Along the way, you’ll get a companion to fight beside you. There will eventually be three you can choose from: templar, enchantress and scoundrel. The main difference between them is the tone of their repeated comments during play. You’ll want to play in silence after you’ve heard the same lines a few dozen times in an afternoon.

D3 gameplayStill, wiping out a whole platoon of Orc-like creatures, zombies, or demons does give some satisfaction. More than, say, clearing a screen full of cards. D3 is like Cheezies: addictive in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. You want something more cerebral, play Civ 5. Or Fritz chess.

Diablo III has other issues, not all of them EA’s fault. The scammers apparently broke part of the in-game auction system and forced EA to close down the part that used real money to buy virtual goods (why anyone would do this baffles me, but it’s done in other games like Second Life). The real money auction is offline right now, while EA works on a fix. My suggestion: drop the idea entirely and stick to the virtual gold system. That way no one gets hurt.

Auction prices are another thing that bother me. The auction house system works well in WOW but in D3, it seems like insane gremlins have taken over. Items that can be sold for 200 gold at any in-game merchant are being offered for 10,000, 20,000, even 100,000 and more! I’ve seen some in the millions of gold range. Obviously the sellers suffer from some sort of Midas ailment because these prices are not merely unreasonable, they are stupidly, egregiously high. No thinking adult would put these prices that high. Children must be muddying the auction system. Why isn’t there some sort of cap that limits players to auction prices a mere 100 times the in-game sell price, rather than allow it to be posted at thousands?

Diablo 3Non-player characters are generally as stupid as auctioneers when they fight with you. They can be inept or ineffectual during a battle (why do they have such a hard time killing a single monster that I can dispatch with one hit?). Sometimes they get stuck in rooms or at other points outside the action (poor path-finding programming I suppose). They say inappropriate things (like shouting wildly about a battle success when only one enemy was slain).

Static characters like merchants have a limited, series of lines they repeat every time you visit them (which gets stale within minutes of your first game). The repetition of lines makes players like me avoid all but the essential NPCs after the first hour of play. You must, however, visit merchants often, because your main source of income is selling the weapons and armour you pick up along the way. Since you can’t expand your packsack as in WOW, you can only carry a small number of items. That means frequent trips back to town to sell the crap you’ve collected. You get between 2 and 150 gold for a find, but mostly between 2 and 10. It takes dozens of hours of play to get 100,000 gold this way. So why would you waste it all on on weapon that you might as easily find falling from some chest or dropped by a monster?

Going back and forth between battlefield and town every 10 or so minutes to unload your pack gets old fast.

When you quit and start again, the monsters are back in the areas you just cleared out, respawned so you can kill them again. This is good for dungeon crawlers and grinders who play the same field, ruin or cave over and over to build up experience points and collect loot, although returns diminish as you gain levels. However, the ‘big bosses’ don’t respawn, so you can’t rake in massive loot and XP by killing them again. Too bad. However, on the plus side, most of the dungeons and fields change when you restart, so the geography is somewhat different, if not the result.

Diablo 3 wizardOnce you’ve taken your character through the basic (normal) level of play, you can replay it in harder modes. That means you deal less damage, and monsters are tougher, and loot may even be better, but the game doesn’t change otherwise. It’s just more of the same.

There is a multiplayer mode where up to four people can play in a public game online in co-op mode. Not sure how loot and XP work, but I always like co-op games. Not sure if public games give hackers and scammers any advantages, though, since they can discover your username in co-op mode.

Is it worth $60 (plus taxes and monthly Internet charges)? Without the spammers, I’d say yes, if you want a fast-paced, mindless, time wasting game. No if you’re looking for depth, high replayability, serious challenges or intellectual stimulation. But for basic fun and a month or two of entertainment, it’s not bad, assuming you are willing to risk being hacked and don’t mind taking frequent breaks from the action to report spam. I’d give it five stars if it didn’t require a constant Net connection for solo play, but with it, I’d give it 3.5 out of five.

It took me about 30 hours to finish one character on the basic level, so at $2 an hour, it’s not a great per-hour expense. Figure spending at least twice that time on the game, solo, if you want to try all the character classes. If you’re a fan of online MP games, you will probably play that much in coop mode. Value for the cost is good when weighed solely in playable hours. Throw in the spammers and the threat of hackers, and it’s worth somewhat less.

So to answer the question posed in the headline: it’s a more hype than excellence, but that hasn’t slowed sales. D3 doesn’t set any new standards or break any old ones, but it manages to be sufficiently entertaining nonetheless.