The Soapbox: Diablo III's endgame is fundamentally flawed

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Diablo III was arguably the biggest online game release of the year, but its predecessor's decade of consistent popularity left some pretty big shoes to fill. Despite being the most pre-ordered PC game in history and selling more than 6.3 million units in its first week, Diablo III has started to seriously wane in popularity. I've seen over a dozen friends stop playing completely in the last few months, and Xfire's usage stats for D3 have dropped by around 90% since June. Guild Wars 2's timely release accounts for some of the drop, but there's a lot more going on than just competition.

The Diablo III beta showed only the first few levels and part of the game's highly polished first act, and soon after release it became obvious that parts of the game weren't exactly finished. PvP was cut from release, the Auction House was a mess, and Inferno difficulty was a poor excuse for an endgame. Poor itemisation made the carrot on the end of the stick taste sour, and the runaway inflation on top-end items is crying out for some kind of ladder reset mechanic. But there is hope for improvement, with new legendary items, the Paragon level system, and the upcoming Uber boss mechanic taking a few steps in the right direction.

In this opinion piece, I look at some of the fundamental flaws in Diablo III's endgame and suggest a few improvements that would make a world of difference.

The Soapbox side imageCredit where credit is due

Diablo III was clearly not ready for release, but to Blizzard's credit, the game has been updated continuously since launch. Feedback on the difficulty of Inferno's later acts and underused skills and runes has been taken on board, and developers did eventually get the idea that Legendary items should be worth using over rares. Though the game launched with very little long-term replayability beyond an often fruitless magic-find grind, the Paragon system and its Diablo II style levels did breathe new life into the game. I'll give credit where credit is due: Blizzard is really trying to finish the game.

Note that I wrote "finish the game" and not "improve the game," as I firmly believe Diablo III launched long before it was ready. There were entire spells that weren't worth using, only a few viable builds for each class, and serious game-breaking bugs. Demon Hunters were tearing up Inferno right from the start, while Barbarians struggled to tank, ranged Wizards couldn't kite beyond Act 1, Witch Doctors found pet-based builds impossible, and Monks could survive only by stacking attack speed and life on hit. Patch 1.04 fixed the Barbarian and tweaked the other classes, and I hope the other classes will be finished in future updates.

The Soapbox side imageWhy are Legendaries so crap?

Rare items in Diablo II always had the potential to roll incredible stats and be better than any unique item, but for the most part, players farmed for unique and set items. Uniques were manually designed items intended for particular classes or builds, with pre-determined stats that were in some cases always the same and in others rolled in a particular number range. Every Wizardspike or Oculus was valuable because it was guaranteed to be the same, and a well-rolled Griffon's Eye Diadem or 30% Nagelring was worth a lot.

So players were confused to find that most of Diablo III's Legendary items have several completely random stats that fundamentally alter the items and their usability. Certain builds want not just a Skorn but one with lifesteal, and not just any Stone of Jordan will do in any build. One-handed weapons that don't roll a socket are worth significantly less than those that do because a socket is worth up to 600 Life on Hit or 100% bonus crit damage.

Legendary armour that rolls All Resistance or Magic Find might be highly desirable, but it also has to roll a high value for those stats, and there are plenty of worthless stats it could roll instead. Many legendaries still have only a small chance to be worth selling because of the random stats, and that makes the carrot on the end of the stick taste very bitter when you finally catch it.

The Soapbox side imageThe auction house problem

Diablo III's auction house is unique among online games in that it's simultaneously impossible to sell anything and impossible to find anything to buy. We're limited to 10 auction slots and auction durations of 36 hours, a precaution that made sense when six million people were piling into the game but now just serves to severely limit item availability. We can also now search for up to six item properties at the same time, but the limited item availability means it's rare that you'll find a gear upgrade with the appropriate stats.

One of the big problems for magic-finding is that when an item drops, you have no way to know what it's worth unless you have a lot of experience selling. You might drop, sell, or salvage a rare item that's actually worth a few bob, or rush excitedly to the auction house to find your legendary is worth a measly 50k. At best, you can exit your game and compare the stats to items already present on the auction house, but it's not always clear what people are looking for in an item. I'm sure someone out there wants a Stone of Jordan with Cleave or a Wizard helm with a bonus to Ray of Frost, but right now we have no way to know what that's worth.

The Soapbox side imageA new trading system

With the number of auctions listed daily now a fraction of what was supported at launch, Blizzard could easily increase the 36-hour duration limit without the servers collapsing. And why not let us list as many items for sale as we want? Can those six million sales not pay for a few extra servers if the load gets out of control? Imagine if you could list an item for a week or two weeks at a time and set it to decrease in price by 5-10% for every day that it doesn't sell. That's essentially what people do now, and automating it would just be a more amicable solution for both buyer and seller.

I like the idea of a community-wide trading post, but it was a mistake to make it a WoW-style auction house. Instead, Blizzard should have tried to emulate existing Diablo II trading communities. Only very good items are really auctioned on D2 trading forums; most players post lists of their finds to solicit offers on them or post wanted ads for particular item sets they're putting together. It'd be awesome if we could similarly make offers on items below their start bids and buyout prices or put up wanted ads on the auction house that specify the minimum stats we're looking for. Then all we'd need is an in-game window that roughly values an item by showing all of the matching wanted ads that it can be offered on.

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If Xfire's stats are anything to go by, Diablo III play time has dropped by up to 90% since June, but average number of players has dropped by only around 70%. To me, that says a significant number of people are still playing for a few hours a week and trying out new patches to see if anything's been changed for the better. That correlates with the sentiments on forums and the personal stories of my gaming circle, so I'm inclined to believe it's the typical case.

With no subscription fee to pay, people have fewer reservations about dropping the game for weeks or months at a time, and that can be a blessing for Blizzard as it gives developers the chance to fix everything that's wrong with the game. Patch 1.04 was a huge step in the right direction, and the next big update is bringing in a whole new Uber boss mechanic that I will definitely be playing to death, but there are some fundamental problems with D3's item find endgame that need to be addressed.

The rapidly inflating game economy now prices top-end items at hundreds of millions of gold, and since most players have outgrown the average drop, the price of low-end items remains small. Probably the best thing that could be done to improve the sustainability of D3's endgame would be a Diablo II-style ladder with increased difficulty, better loot, and periodic resets. I hope that's the way development is headed because it would be a massive shame if the most pre-ordered PC game in history just faded quietly into the background.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.