Dear Blizzard, re: Console versions etc.

Dear Blizzard,

My girlfriend and I have played Diablo III for what probably amounts to weeks now. It’s been a near-permanent fixture of our spare time since the day it was released. We’ve dissected everything in the game to an unhealthy level of detail, time and time again. This ‘letter’ (as I choose to call it) is an extension of a long-running joke that we’ve shared: that we’d write a letter to Blizzard to help you improve the game.

As with all long-running jokes it’s now gone too far. It’s not uncommon for us to dictate letters to Blizzard whilst playing Diablo III on topics such as voting reform, the arguably unethical practices employed by sportsdirect.com, improvements to the female reproductive system, the failure of the law enforcement system to provide appropriate career paths for detectives, how to make a home delivery barista coffee business financially viable, and every now and again, for old time’s sake, ways that Diablo III could be improved.

A few days ago we were composing such a letter to you whilst grinding for Tomes of Jewelcrafting (see next letter for some suggestions on that), when it suddenly occurred to me that instead of just talking about it, I could actually write you a letter. So I did. And here it is.

Firstly, I’d like to offer both congratulations and thanks for handling the console and PC versions of Diablo III the way you have. You guys rock. Neither version is the “other” one; you clearly care a lot about both and have never let either suffer for the other. That’s a rare thing. I lurk on three different Diablo III forums and I’m forever surprised and delighted by the lack of segregation that you’ve somehow achieved. Mostly they don’t split PC and Console into sub-forums. Everyone chats together. People don’t even hate each other. I can say “I’m playing on console” in a thread full of PC players and no-one insults me, or says ‘lol’. And the console players? They don’t even make grumbly threads about how stuck-up and childish the PC players are, because the PC players aren’t being stuck up or childish. I don’t know quite how you did it but it’s bordering on miraculous. So, good job. For the record, I play Diablo III on the Xbox 360, and I just about love the game to pieces.

It was clear from the start that you were doing things right. Not starting development of the console versions until after the PC version was finished – good move. I think that’s pretty integral to the whole ‘no-one hates each other’ thing I mentioned above. When talk of console versions did surface (note that I am not saying console ‘port’, I avoid that term out of respect for you), it sounded like you were thinking pretty straight. The job advert which unofficially announced your intention to work with the consoles called for a “strong sense of what makes a fun and compelling experience for console titles and games in general”, which seemed to be acknowledging areas within Blizzard which were known to be lacking and needed to be addressed. Since then the console versions have been discussed by Blizzard employees in some really encouraging terms. Here are some quotes I’ve picked out to demonstrate what I mean:

“The core of the console team were all hired specifically ’cause of their console backgrounds.”
-Joshua Mosqueira, Designer
 
“What makes a great PC game, we will make decisions that will steer Diablo that way; what makes a good Diablo console game, we will steer console in that direction.”
– Also Joshua Mosqueira, but this time credited as Game Director. (Either the sites I got the quotes from are too lazy to do research, or the guy got a promotion. Too lazy to find out which.)

More than any individual quote, I think this article demonstrates how much finesse and thought goes into creating these two different games. And it’s precisely because it’s so clear you made the best console port you could that I’m surprised you dropped the ball as much as you did.

I’m not exactly writing this to criticise; as I said I love the game. I suppose I’m writing this because it’s interesting to me that a company with just about as much money as a company could hope to have, who have the benefit of time as much as any games developer does, and who has a motivated, passionate staff with their priorities set in all the right places, still makes a lot of mistakes. Why is it that it’s so hard to transfer a game from one gaming medium to another? Is it just impossibly hard?

Here’s a quick rundown of some example mistakes. Some are minor, some are serious, some are a bit cheeky. But they all matter.

Firstly, crashes. The thing is, we don’t do crashes on consoles; they’re not acceptable. I know that PC players don’t feel as though they’re living the dream unless nothing works properly, but consoles are all about instant, smooth, gratifying experiences. And we can’t troubleshoot these impenetrable boxes – our lives are in your hands, dudes. Crashes frighten us, because the memory of those red rings of death still linger. And consoles are fragile little things; they’re not like PCs, designed to be hard shut-down whenever anyone feels the motivation to do so. Every time you make me hold the 360’s power button until it spins down you might as well be making me chip away at the disk drive with a compass, or remove a random bit of plastic from the disc loader. You’re killing our consoles Blizzard. Think about that.

Secondly, what the fuck is up with the completely unreadable UI for skills? You might as well not bother having those icons on screen. It seems like an obvious point but we’re not sitting at desks, inches away from our monitors. We’re on sofas, a couple of feet from the TV. I can just about tell when a skill is usable, but only if I take the time to compare its mild slightly-grey colouring to one which I know for a fact is usable and one which I know for a fact isn’t. I don’t have time to do that in the thick of battle. And as for the timer which shows the cooldown? I can’t see that unless I get up off the sofa, walk to the TV and thrust my entire face into it.

Solution: Make the cooldown timer two distinctly different colours, and put a glow or shiny ring around the icon when it’s usable. Solves two huge problems in a couple of simple steps.

Third, why do PC players get a detailed run-down of stat effects on their weapons, but we don’t? Is it because you think that console players can’t handle the maths? Let me assure you, everyone who is interested in any Blizzard game on any platform fetishises numbers and detail to a worrying extent. Again, I quote: “We don’t want to simplify the game. We just want to streamline the experience.” (Joshua Mosqueira again. He gets around a bit doesn’t he?)

Well, that’s not streamlining. That’s removal of content for seemingly no purpose. The Give Gold screen also falls into this trap. Oh Blizzard, why? Why the Give Gold screen? Are you worried that console players are too busy and streamlined to type in a number? Keypads are cool. Use a keypad. Or let us scroll each digit up or down. Do you know what? Do anything, just about anything else except what you did. Play some more console games, the question of ‘how should players with no access to a keyboard type in a number?’ has been answered time and time again in a number of perfectly usable and sufficient ways. The answer is not ‘by pure luck, perseverance, and the drive to overcome frustrating hardship’.

Diablo-3-Console-Ad-01

Fourth, I feel slightly patronised by the inexplicable reordering of inventories when junking or unjunking items. This doesn’t happen on PC; I checked. So why would it happen on consoles? It makes no sense. Your items are in an order. Cool: I will go through them one at a time. Therein does the mindless fun of the dungeon crawler lie. But when I interact with one, other things change order, or shoot to the bottom or top of the list. What are you doing? Is this meant to make it easier? It doesn’t – it makes it more time-consuming and less smooth.

So there’s a few little bits for you to mull over – no charge, happy to help.

Where the real meat of my woes lie is in local co-op. In my opinion, local co-op should have been at the top of your priorities, because in having a PC version and a console version on the market you have two very similar products out there. Local co-op is the thing which consoles excel at and PCs fall to pieces over. None of what I’m going to talk about for the rest of this article is true of Diablo III as a single-player console experience or as an online console experience. It’s all problems with local co-op, which is the main reason why a person would choose to purchase Diablo III on a console instead of – or as well as – a PC.

This is something you seem to recognise, given this quote: “Diablo plays best when you’re playing with other people… [That’s] the whole idea of having to get four people on the same couch playing together.” (Josh, you quote-slut. Can I call you Josh?)

Given all that, why does local co-op seem like it’s been given the bum deal in many ways? Let’s start with the simple stuff. Local co-op players get less messaging than everyone else, presumably because otherwise it would be confusing as to which player the message is aimed at. Well, each player has their own corner – put the message in that corner. Another problem solved.

Until very recently I’d never played Diablo III as a single player; I’d only ever seen the local co-op. Imagine my upset to discover that there’s loads of useful information being dished out which we weren’t receiving. So that’s how durability works! The flashing red alarms of death when you’re low on health: super useful. Why doesn’t my corner of the screen flash red when I’m low on health in co-op? Maybe flash the whole screen quickly to let us both know that one of us is in trouble, then just flash in the relevant corner until the player is healed.

There are deeper problems with the local co-op UI. This is something that’s kinda silly to say, but it’s actually a really common problem: we often don’t know where our characters are, who they’re attacking, or if they are currently attacking anyone at all. This isn’t an issue in single player, because the character is always centre-screen so you know where they are, the sounds of your attacks are mixed appropriately in the audio so they’re noticeable, you can easily learn the difference between the ‘punching a demon’ noise and the ‘punching the air’ noise, and the top bar displays your current target; if there’s nothing up there, there’s no current target. Well, in co-op, you’re not centred, your SFX are mixed equally with your partners so both become a homogeneous mulch, and the top bar is fickle and only displays info sometimes. Maybe it only displays info when both players are targeting the same enemy? We so rarely know who’s targeting what that it’s hard to tell.

Solutions to this one: keep the outline visible for all local players at all times, and put the target info in the corner along with the rest of the player-specific UI. Players are constantly looking in their corner for half of the important info in the game anyway, and it won’t be overly cluttered.

Now let’s deal with something much more important than all of that. The first thing you guys should have done before putting fingers on keyboards on this thing is to dig out your PS2s and play Champions of Norrath and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Not just a lunchtime play session to get ideas. You should have embarked on 2-3 group playthroughs of both of those games, as real players do, and as real players of Diablo III are intended to do.

If you’d have done this you wouldn’t have made the mistake with Diablo III that cuts a deep wound into its playability in local co-op. In those games players shared screens whilst in dungeons, as they do in your game, and this is right. However, when they reach a town, it goes split-screen. I was shocked and disappointed when this didn’t happen in Diablo III, and that was before I played it for thousands of hours to understand exactly how bad it was.

The advantages of this are so significant that mere words can’t explain it. That’s why you should have played those games instead of relying on me writing you a letter after the fact. Player 1 can adjust their equipment, manage their inventory, respec skills, visit shops, check progress on challenges, talk to NPCs, trade items, whatever. So can Player 2. In a different order, for longer or shorter amounts of time; it makes no difference. It means that you can do things which are technically boring to everyone else, but that’s fine – they’re busy doing things which are boring to you. And if you want to clear your skills and start again, you can do that. Your companions can just browse the shop or check up on their gem progress; there’s always something to distract them. Not so in Diablo III, where only one player can control the screen at once.

Remember when I explained to you how you’re destroying our consoles with your too-frequent crashing? You’re destroying our bodies and minds with this one. Making more coffee than we actually want, smoking more cigarettes than are needed, blankly looking around the room hoping for the wall to be more interesting this time… it’s not good for our physical or mental health. And when I want to do a big audit of my character I’m too conscious of my co-op partner to do so.

I think we all know that checking out loot is one of the best things about this genre of game. But we’re under social pressure to not check the loot in too much detail too often, because of this unnecessarily restrictive system. I hate it. I hate it the most out of any part of any game that I love. And this is with two players. I can only imagine that with the full roster of four players the game would be borderline unplayable. I could go to work and come back again during my co-op team’s turn to do their in-town housekeeping. We’d have to have a second TV and second Xbox ready to play a co-op game that doesn’t exclude all but one player for long periods of time. Bah. Actually, Blizzard: get my boy Josh on the phone. Josh knows where it’s at, he’ll back me up on this.

Look at his beautiful face

It’s not too late. You could still patch it.

Okay, last point now and then I’ll let you get back to developing that Ultimate Evil edition which I’m awaiting with a sweaty hunger. It relates, yet again, to local co-op being underdeveloped compared to the rest of the game. It starts with movement speed. I understand that movement speed is more valuable for some classes than others and for some playstyles more than others. I see the value of its current implementation for a single player or online play. But in local co-op it sucks. The thing is, no-one cares that much about movement speed. It’s a ‘nice-to-have’ that you receive by accident but it can be a hindrance more than a boon, and there’s no reasonable way to overcome this or switch it off.

What happens is that one player ends up – through chance – being much faster than the other player they’re trying to share a screen with. This is extremely annoying for both players, particularly given your over-aggressive safe areas which erect invisible walls at seemingly random points. You should make movement speed an average of all local players’ speed stats to keep people together. It’s not like the player with the high movement speed could actually use it when they’re heavily restricted by the slower player, so nothing would actually be lost by making this change. Faster players would even thank you: they can hold down the movement stick without constantly pausing or being yanked back.

Let me tell you something Blizzard. I recently accepted a minor DPS loss in order to explicitly lower my movement speed. That is not right. NOT. RIGHT.

Related to the movement speed issue is general navigation and the difficulties imposed by playing on the harder post-game difficulty levels. The thing is that we’re pretty comfortable playing on Inferno/Master III right now: enemies provide the right level of challenge and we have to use strategy and skill to progress, which is the way we like it. But molten, poison, desecrators and lasers often insta-kill us. From full health, in an unavoidable split-second. That’s a shame; it seems a little unbalanced to have the enemies the right level but the extra-obstacles incredibly deadly. Particularly as when you spawn lots of that stuff in a small area, we can’t really play. It takes ages to wear down enemies because we have to periodically stop to regen health or skills. Very anticlimactic.

However that’s just a side-whinge; the main whinge is that in single player these things are much less of a problem because movement is never restricted by anything except gameplay mechanics. I don’t mind being restricted by gameplay mechanics because it’s my job to create a build which can cope with them, then skill myself up to overcome them. In co-op, there might be an invisible wall on one side of me that I don’t know about. If so, I’m fucked. I can’t escape. And if I do escape, I’m probably going to spawn an invisible wall for my partner in the process, so she’s dead instead of me.

Solution: in local co-op, environmental dangers do reduced damage to account for reduced movement options. Plus the edge of the screen should be the actual edge of the screen; fuck your invisible walls.

So there you go. A few ways to make local co-op better.

What you should remember is that in most games we put up with this stuff as normal. You’re victims of your own ambition. Because you put so much good work into making the general console experience awesome, because you shed preconceptions about tradition and embraced new ideas with gusto because they were a better fit for the platform, it feels a shame that all that work went into the two thirds of the game I could just as easily play on PC, whilst the big unique selling point of the console version got a bit left behind. Hopefully some of this stuff is going to be improved in the Ultimate Edition. I’ll be buying that sucka on release day, so I guess I’ll find out soon.

P.S. I’ll be in touch re: the effectiveness of merchants and how to account for different difficulty levels, how to overcome Microsoft’s bullshit account level restrictions for silver accounts playing locally with gold accounts, and seriously we could write a book about how poorly told the story is. Also, I’ve got an idea about improving Brighton buses for tourists during the summer season that I think you might be pretty interested in.

Thanks,
Dylan