My girlfriend and I have playedÂ Diablo IIIÂ for what probably amounts to weeks now. It’s been a near-permanent fixture of our spare time since the day it was released. Weâ€™ve dissected everything in the game to an unhealthy level of detail, time and time again. This ‘letter’ (as I choose to call it)Â is an extension of a long-running joke that weâ€™ve shared: that weâ€™d write a letter to Blizzard to help you improve the game.
As with all long-running jokes itâ€™s now gone too far. Itâ€™s not uncommon for us to dictate letters to Blizzard whilst playingÂ Diablo IIIÂ 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 timeâ€™s sake, ways thatÂ Diablo IIIÂ could be improved.
A few days ago we were composing suchÂ a letter to you whilst grinding for Tomes of Jewelcrafting (see next letter for some suggestions on that), whenÂ it suddenly occurred to me that instead of just talking about it, I couldÂ actuallyÂ write you a letter. So I did. And here it is.
Firstly, Iâ€™d like to offer both congratulations and thanks for handling the console and PC versions ofÂ Diablo IIIÂ the way you have. You guys rock. Neither version is the â€œotherâ€ one; you clearly care a lotÂ about both and have never let either suffer for the other. Thatâ€™s a rare thing. I lurk on three differentÂ Diablo IIIÂ forums and Iâ€™m forever surprised and delighted by the lack of segregation that youâ€™ve somehow achieved. Mostly they donâ€™tÂ split PC and Console into sub-forums. Everyone chats together. People donâ€™t even hate each other. I can say â€œIâ€™m playing on consoleâ€ in a thread full of PC players and no-one insults me, or says â€˜lolâ€™. And the console players?Â They donâ€™t even make grumbly threads about how stuck-up and childish the PC players are, because the PC players arenâ€™t being stuck up or childish. I donâ€™t know quite how you did it but itâ€™s bordering on miraculous. So, good job. ForÂ the record, I playÂ Diablo IIIÂ 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 thatâ€™s pretty integral to the whole â€˜no-one hates each otherâ€™ thing IÂ mentioned above. When talk of console versions did surface (note that I am not saying console â€˜portâ€™, I avoid that term out of respect for you), it sounded like you were thinking pretty straight. The job advert which unofficiallyÂ 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 generalâ€, which seemed to be acknowledging areas within Blizzard which were known to be lacking and needed to beÂ addressed. Since then the console versions have been discussed by Blizzard employees in some really encouraging terms. Here are some quotes Iâ€™ve picked out to demonstrate what I mean:
â€œThe core of the console team were all hired specifically ’cause of their console backgrounds.â€ -Joshua Mosqueira, Designer Â “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.â€ – Also Joshua Mosqueira, but this time credited as Game Director. (Either theÂ sitesÂ 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 thinkÂ this articleÂ demonstrates how much finesse and thought goes into creating these two different games. And itâ€™s precisely because itâ€™s so clear you made the best console port you could that Iâ€™m surprised youÂ dropped the ballÂ as much as you did.
Iâ€™m not exactly writing this to criticise; as I said I love the game. I suppose Iâ€™m writing this because itâ€™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 itâ€™s so hard to transfer a game from one gaming medium to another? Is it just impossibly hard?
Hereâ€™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 donâ€™t do crashes on consoles; theyâ€™re not acceptable. I know that PC players donâ€™t feel as though theyâ€™re living the dream unless nothing works properly, but consoles are all about instant, smooth, gratifying experiences. And we canâ€™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; theyâ€™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 360â€™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. Youâ€™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 weâ€™re not sitting at desks, inches away from our monitors. Weâ€™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 IÂ know for a fact is usable and one which I know for a fact isnâ€™t. I donâ€™t have time to do that in the thick of battle. And as for the timer which shows the cooldown? I canâ€™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 itâ€™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 donâ€™t? Is it because you think that console players canâ€™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:Â “We don’t want to simplify the game. We just want to streamline the experience.â€ (Joshua Mosqueira again. He gets around a bit doesnâ€™t he?)
Well, thatâ€™s not streamlining. Thatâ€™s removal of content for seemingly no purpose. The Give Gold screen also falls intoÂ 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 â€˜how should players with no access to a keyboard type in a number?â€™ has been answered time and time again in a number of perfectly usable and sufficient ways. The answer is not â€˜by pure luck, perseverance, and the drive to overcome frustrating hardshipâ€™.
Fourth, I feel slightly patronised by the inexplicable reordering of inventories when junking or unjunking items. This doesnâ€™t happen on PC; I checked. SoÂ 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 doesnâ€™t – it makes it more time-consuming and less smooth.
So thereâ€™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 Iâ€™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. Itâ€™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 peopleâ€¦ [That’s] the whole idea of having to get four people on the same couchÂ playing together.â€ (Josh, you quote-slut. Can I call you Josh?)
Given all that, why does local co-op seem like itâ€™s been given the bum deal in many ways? Letâ€™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. AnotherÂ problem solved.
Until very recently Iâ€™d never played Diablo III as a single player; Iâ€™d only ever seen the local co-op. Imagine my upset to discover that thereâ€™s loads of useful information being dished out which we werenâ€™t receiving. SoÂ thatâ€™sÂ how durability works! The flashing red alarms of death when youâ€™re low on health: super useful. Why doesnâ€™t my corner of the screen flash red when Iâ€™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 isÂ something thatâ€™s kinda silly to say,Â but it’s actuallyÂ a really common problem: we often donâ€™t know where our characters are, who theyâ€™re attacking, or if they are currently attacking anyone at all. This isnâ€™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 theyâ€™re noticeable, you can easily learn the difference between the â€˜punching a demonâ€™ noise and the â€˜punching the airâ€™ noise, and the top bar displays your current target; if thereâ€™s nothing up there, thereâ€™s no current target. Well, in co-op, youâ€™re not centred, your SFX are mixed equally with your partners so both become aÂ homogeneousÂ mulch, and the top bar is fickle and onlyÂ displays info sometimes. Maybe it only displays info when both players are targeting the same enemy? We so rarely know whoâ€™s targeting whatÂ thatÂ itâ€™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 wonâ€™t be overly cluttered.
Now letâ€™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 NorrathÂ and Baldurâ€™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 youâ€™d have done this you wouldnâ€™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 inÂ 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 canâ€™t explain it. Thatâ€™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 thatâ€™s fine – theyâ€™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 companionsÂ can just browse the shop or check up on their gem progress; thereâ€™s always something to distract them. Not so inÂ Diablo III, where only one player can control the screen at once.
Remember when I explained to you how youâ€™re destroying our consoles with your too-frequent crashing? Youâ€™re destroying ourÂ bodies and mindsÂ 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 timeâ€¦ itâ€™s not good for our physical or mental health. And when I want to do a big audit of my character Iâ€™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 weâ€™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 teamâ€™s turn to do their in-town housekeeping. Weâ€™d have to have a second TV and second Xbox ready to play a co-op game that doesnâ€™t exclude all but one player for long periods of time. Bah. Actually, Blizzard: get my boy Josh on the phone. Josh knows where itâ€™s at, heâ€™ll back me up on this.
Itâ€™s not too late. You could still patch it.
Okay, last point now and then Iâ€™ll let you get back to developing that Ultimate Evil edition which Iâ€™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 playerÂ or online play. But in local co-opÂ it sucks. The thing is, no-one caresÂ thatÂ much about movement speed. Itâ€™s a â€˜nice-to-haveâ€™ that you receive by accident but it can be a hindrance more than a boon, and thereâ€™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 otherÂ player theyâ€™re trying to share a screen with. This isÂ 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 playersâ€™ speed stats to keep people together. Itâ€™s not like the player with the high movement speed could actually use it when theyâ€™re heavily restricted by the slower player, so nothing wouldÂ actually be lostÂ by making this change. Faster players would even thank you:Â they can hold down the movement stick without constantly pausing or being yanked back.
Let me tell you somethingÂ 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 weâ€™re pretty comfortable playing on Inferno/Master III right now: enemies provideÂ 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. Thatâ€™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 canâ€™t really play. It takes ages to wear down enemies because we have to periodically stop to regen health or skills. Very anticlimactic.
However thatâ€™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 donâ€™t know about. If so, Iâ€™m fucked. I canâ€™t escape. And if I do escape, Iâ€™m probably going to spawn an invisible wall for my partner in the process, so sheâ€™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. Youâ€™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, whilstÂ 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. Iâ€™ll be buying that sucka on release day, so I guess Iâ€™ll find out soon.
P.S. Iâ€™ll be in touch re: the effectiveness of merchants and how to account for different difficulty levels, how to overcome Microsoftâ€™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, Iâ€™ve got an idea about improving Brighton buses for tourists during the summer season that I think you might be pretty interested in.
5 responses to “Dear Blizzard, re: Console versions etc.”
I was listening to the E3 episode of the Midnight Resistance podcast yesterday and they moved on to talking about Diablo 3. One of them claimed that the console version was basically identical to the PC version.
I was almost tempted to send them this link. ;)
Do you think that any of the UI problems with the console version are down to having to build the game for people with smaller TVs? Or even SDTVs – I guess there will be plenty of people out there who still use them. Poor sods.
I don't think so, as most or all of those problems would be made worse on a smaller/SD TV.
I honestly think they underestimated the difference between console/PC UI, and then either didn't notice, or didn't have the time/money to fix it.
It's hard to imagine Blizzard being short on cash, and their policy re. time has always been "as long as it needs". That leaves the only plausible explanation being a lack of console experience, I guess?
That's what I think too. They don't have that much experience when it comes to console platform. May they need to team up with a company who have massive experience in the said platforms.
Hi John! Always great to see a new name around here.
It's strange to think that Blizzard would not have tried to draw in experience from elsewhere on this point. I guess we'll never really know, though, as they're so notoriously tight-lipped.