Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3: When a Game Isn’t a Game
So there’s a couple of games out there that seem to be pretty popular: Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3. You may have heard of them; in fact you probably have. In further fact, you are probably nauseous with the sound of the bleating of both games’ fan bases attempting to drown the other out in a tidal wave of nerd fury powerful enough to fuel a thousand white-hot angry suns.
I’ve read journalists complain about comparisons between the two games but considering how anticipated both of them were, especially in D3’s case, and what a backlash Blizzard has experienced for some of its design decisions, it seems silly to not expect comparisons. In fact this article was originally going to be an essay of comparisons, because when you sit the games side-by-side, the differences in design are subtle but complex. As I played Torchlight 2 more and more, however, it occurred to me that something deeper was going on here: the differences in design of two games that on the surface looked and played exactly the same aren’t nearly as profound as the decisions behind those designs. Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 aren’t just similar-yet-different takes on the same genre – they’re metaphors for two mutually exclusive ideas about how games should be designed at all.
There is an oft-repeated meme about Blizzard’s modus operandi – “You play the way Blizzard want you to play.” It’s been said so many times that it’s become cliché, and it’s often quoted out of context, wielded any time someone wants to express general discontent with Blizzard. On a basic level though, it’s true: Blizzard has retained very tight control over its games at least since the release of World of Warcraft, and their name is almost synonymous with poor community interaction; suggestions are often ignored, and requests for information are often met with days of silence – which one might expect from any company whose community is as bug fuck insane as Blizzard’s.
Blizzard’s disregard for player interaction is evident in their game design. The company famously hired psychologists during the development of WoW to help design addictive systems that would manipulate the player into paying for a game months after he would have otherwise put it down. Manipulation of the player was built into the game’s foundation, and today we use the term “Skinner Box” whenever we don’t want to dignify Diablo 3 by saying its name. Blizzard’s games aren’t interested in interacting with the player – they’re waiting for the right opportunity to mug him and steal his lunch money.
Diablo 3 operates on the same principles. Blizzard had a lot of reasons for making Diablo 3 always-online, but the one that’s relevant here is that they can retain much tighter control over their game if they can watch what their players are doing at all times. While it’s not all sinister, I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t realize that Blizzard uses that data to manipulate the game; the drop rates, the balance, the easy or difficulty of the gameplay. It’s indicative that there is no mod support and never will be. This is Blizzard’s game, Blizzard’s rules, and if you don’t like it don’t play.
I don’t want to give Blizzard too much credit here – they didn’t invent this antagonistic “us-versus-them” model of game design – they just perfected it. The idea that the player (I refuse to use the word “customer” here) is the enemy and that the game has to “trick” him in some way has become rigor de jour in triple-A games development. Player manipulation is an ethos of design, and it’s not an accident that it has become popular parallel to the more-and-more desperate attempts of companies to protect their “intellectual property.” If a development company (or publisher, eh, EH?) sees the game as “theirs” then things like cheating, modding, or daring to play the game off the safely proscribed rails is insulting at best and dangerous at worst.
The closed-system mode of design is directly at odds with a so-old-it’s-new-again approach to games, where player agency is valued not just for entertainment or respect, but because it’s what a game should be. Skyrim’s PC sales numbers were a nuclear bomb over the industry. Here’s a game that launched with no multiplayer and full mod support, and, despite valid complaints about the world feeling static and unaccepting of the player, sold millions of copies. Meanwhile, Minecraft isn’t a game so much about moving blocks around as it is about breaking the game itself into a million pieces and reconstructing it exactly how the player wants. Minecraft isn’t just one game – it’s all of them.
Torchlight 2 sets up camp in this trench and lobs its own mortars; the game takes what most people accept as an inherently manipulative design and blows the doors wide open. With full mod support, LAN play and console commands, Runic Games spent the last three and a half years perfecting a game and then practically begs its players to smash it to bits. Player interaction isn’t something to be avoided or stonewalled in Torchlight 2 – it’s encouraged and celebrated. This is gaming for gaming’s sake – not to watch numbers climb or to get an item that someone says is worth two hundred and fifty dollars on the RMAH, but because we as gamers enjoy tinkering with the pieces.
Understand that these opposing zeitgeists are about much more than profit margins or intellectual property or even “what a studio is trying to accomplish” with a game: it’s about what a game actually is. Video games are the first type of participatory art widely accepted by a mainstream audience, and if the element of audience participation is removed, then on some level a video game fails to do what it’s supposed to do – it’s not a video game anymore, but something else, an undesirable bastard mutant of a movie and a choose-your-own-adventure book maybe, but not something I’m interested in experiencing as a gamer.
Of course, I’m willing to entertain the human element as well. Video games, like all participatory art, are uniquely challenging for the artist because when creating something there’s an innate sense of ownership of that thing, something that participatory art forbids almost categorically. Jay “Fuck That Loser” Wilson may have personal failings, but over the last few months of reading dev journals and notes to the community, watching interviews and reading reviews, I’ve come to believe that Wilson actually loves Diablo 3 a great deal. How could he not? He spent years of his life pouring sweat and blood into this beautiful thing, this automata box that we sometimes call a video game. He spent a good portion of his life perfecting it, going over each line and each detail until he was satisfied. If he gets defensive about Diablo, or has a personal problem with players modding his game, that’s because he’s human. After all, as Robert Yang writes, what is modding except “a design document for a better game?”
Similarly, how brave must Travis Baldtree, Max Schaefer and the rest of the developers at Runic Games be to cut their creation loose, like a child leaving home or a ship going out to sea? There was just as much effort and talent (if not time) spent creating Torchlight 2; how hard must it have been, on some level, to know that the thing that you loved and shared with the world is going to be completely repurposed, smashed to a million unrecognizable pieces, and built back up again in someone else’s image?
But that’s the point. That’s what makes video games exciting. It’s what makes them, period. Diablo 3 is a game that’s unwilling to have its own existence vilified, while Torchlight 2 embraces the inevitably with enthusiasm and grace. Diablo 3 is a game that forgets that it can’t exist without players; Torchlight welcomes the idea that the act of game creation is collaborative, and recognizes and loves its players for what they are – the fingers that make the pieces move.