Hyperbole – or why Diablo 3 is the most dissapointed I’ve ever been in a game.

Let me say right off the bat that I almost certainly got my moneys worth from this game. I paid $100 (Collector’s edition you know), and I certainly got more enjoyment than I’ve gotten for other things I’ve paid $100 for, but it doesn’t change my overall opinion.

So let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Two months ago today Diablo 3 was released, and in looking back over these two months now, I’ve never been more disappointed in a video game. I may even go so far as to say it has essentially killed PC gaming for me.

Before that, a few stats! I work as a game developer, so I have a lot of friends/associates that are in the industry as well. A very large number of them were stoked about Diablo 3 as I was, and they were on my RealID list. In addition, I’ve played World of Warcraft since launch, and have quite a few folks from there on my list as well. Those first few days after launch my friend list was completely full of folks playing. It wasn’t uncommon to see 20+ people on at any given time.

I just logged on a minute ago and looked at all my friends. It tells me the last time they’ve been on, and aside from a single outlier, not a single friend of mine had been on in 18 days. I had 2 friends who were last on 18 days ago, the vast majority of folks were last on 30-45+ days ago, which means they only lasted 2-4 weeks in the game. Do I have enough data to form any valid statistical conclusions out of this? Of course not, but the fact that the first two weeks the game was out, i had approximately 95% of my friends list playing the game, and these last two weeks I’ve had only about ~3% of my friends list even *log on* (who knows what they did in that time) is damning for a game Blizzard has stated they wanted to last for “years”.

Why has the game been so disappointing though? What prompted such a bold statement to begin with? It’s a combination of things. I won’t even get into launch day problems because they’ve been re-hashed over and over again, but it’s an indicative outcome of their mindset (if you ask me).

There is no way the sheer number of people waiting to play at launch was a surprise, after all they stated themselves that it was the game with the largest number of pre-orders ever. They’ve been running the most successful MMO for years now, they new what it would take to have a successful launch. It would have been expensive though. They would have had to stand up enough servers to handle the launch rush and then had a ton of excess servers doing nothing a couple days later when everyone had settled into their normal playtimes and habits.

Do i understand that? sure. That doesn’t change the fact that they looked at the situation and decided having a large group of their customers having a horrible (and essentially non-functioning) experience was an acceptable byproduct to save some money. Completely inexcusable and the Blizzard I remember from the past would have never made that choice.

Of course, this is all because the game requires a connection to Battle.net to do anything, always online. This is done for the sake of the auction houses (which I’ll get to shortly), but you can’t even *access* the auction houses in game! I mean, really? The vast majority of the game is spent staring at the AH UI which is horrible to begin with. You could have just as much fun playing multiplayer Excel.

I’m no stranger to making a call on whether a particular nasty bug can be shipped or not. It’s an unfortunate necessity when doing any software development, and games are no exception. I’ve shipped games with bugs in them, we all have. Most times these bugs are found very late. Yet some of the bugs in Diablo I wonder how they could have been found late, and how they could have decided it was ok to ship with them.

For example, once you’ve reached maximum level, you get a stacking buff called Nephalem Valor. The “expected” game play needs you to have that buff maxed out at all times. You can lose the buff by leaving the game or changing skills. However, that’s not even true. Let’s say for example, you accidently drag one of your abilities off the toolbar for a moment (not hard to do in a game that requires frantic clicking).  Instantly you lose all your stacks, even if you drop the ability right back where it was. So naturally they have a “lock toolbar” command yes? I mean, World of Warcraft had one seven years ago. Nope, not only do they not have one, they said they would try to add one in a few patches.. ie, months down the line. I mean.. seriously, what? It takes months to add a single boolean variable option which they’ve already *half* implemented? Come on now, seriously?

of course, you don’t even need to do that. You can go to your skill list in the UI and look around, check out some other skills, but ultimately go back to the same skill set you had. You better make sure you click cancel there though, otherwise, if you click OK, you lose your stacks then too.. Even if you DIDN’T CHANGE anything. I mean, come on?

Doesn’t get any better either. What if your internet had a hiccup and you got disconnected for 2 seconds? All your stacks gone. Oh, if loot had dropped and you were about to pick it up when that happened you lost the loot too.

I said a few seconds ago that the stacks of the valor buff were the “expected” way to play, and I gather this because anything that was *not* playing in this way, they’ve nerfed to the ground. Want to kill a enemy with a lot of magic find? Oh, well we’ve made it so those enemies ignore magic find. Want to break vases for gold? Well they drop nothing now. Want to clear a dungeon that’s pretty hard and then collect stuff from the chests? Oh, well chests now ignore magic find too.

The entire *point* of Diablo was farming items, and Blizzard has continually nerfed every ability folks had to farm items somewhat quickly. Why? To “promote a stable economy” or something, but who the hell cares? This is supposed to be an action RPG, I want to play, and get powerful. I want to do this without being forced into the auction house.

Before i get to the auction house though, I just want to reiterate that I sincerely believe someone(s) at Blizzard has lost their way. They’re treating Diablo like it was an MMO which it wasn’t. They’ve continually sacrificed the fun to make something “balanced” (again, who cares?). They’ve continually punished *real* players to try and stop the “bots” from “ruining the economy”, which is ridiculous and has failed anyway. The economy is already ruined, and it has been since the game launched. After all their fixes, has it gotten better? No, prices continue to rise, gold continues losing its value.

The items themselves aren’t even that interesting like they were before. There were items in Diablo 2 that let me use other classes abilities! Now all I get is some +int or whatever other stat I’m going for. On Inferno difficulty you’re essentially forced into 1 or 2 builds for your class to have a chance (so much for build diversity), and the *entire* gameplay is based around gear. Getting 1 shot by an enemy you never saw is not skill. Getting a bit of gear so you can maybe survive that one shot isn’t skill. Kiting an enemy to kill them is skill, but hey, they decided if you couldn’t kill them quick enough, they enrage and insta-kill you. So the little skill you could use is laughed at and you’re told once again “no, get better gear”. Oh, and they *punish* you by dramatically increasing the repair cost of the items if you happen to die. As mentioned, you *will* die, because you will be one shot from something off screen you never saw. Or a huge lag spike (always online remember) will kill you. I feel sorry for those folks playing hardcore. The entirety of Inferno is predicated on you finding better gear.

Will you find this better gear while playing though (even after the “increase in drop rates” – which doesn’t even come close to counteracting the nerfs they put in place)? Possibly, anyone can get lucky, but almost certainly not. You have to get extremely lucky three times in order to get a good item. First, you have to have an appropriate level item drop. Then that item needs to have rolled the right stats for you. After that, the item needs to have rolled into the high ranges of those stats. All of it is possible to happen, but the odds are dramatically stacked against you.

So what do you do? You have to go to auction house, and it doesn’t take long to realize how terrible that is. You can either pay an extraordinary amount of gold for an upgrade, or if you’ve been unlucky and not found anyting to sell (so you don’t have much gold to use because you spent it all on repairs), you can spend real money on upgrades. Everything in the game seems tailored to encouraging you to go to the auction house to get gear. Fun has been sacrificed all over to get you to go there.

Myself personally; any upgrade I could get will cost me millions of gold I don’t have. I will never *ever* purchase anything from the real money auction house because I won’t be giving Blizzard anymore money. So my choices are to bang my head into the desk while I farm the same areas over and over again, never getting anything remotely useful to anyone and never having any sense of progression, spend real money to get said progression, or stop playing. It’s not a hard choice at all.

In Diablo 2 I almost always felt some sense of progression. In Diablo 3 once I hit the level cap (which was extremely easy to do), it basically stopped.

I’m tired of writing so I’m going to wrap this up, and I didn’t even get to some of the other problems Blizzard has caused, such as the “Hey, you paid for the game, but you can’t play it for 3 days” (even if it was a “mistake”, how could you *ever* release that), or the huge nerf of IAS (improved attack speed) items. Imagine the guy who paid $200 in real money for an item to log in the next day and find the items power was cut in half. Yeah, that’s real fair.

To finish with the hyperbole I started with, Blizzard has completely and utterly failed me as a gamer with this offering and their reputation has been soiled tremendously in my eyes. So much so, that I won’t be picking up Mists of Panderia, nor probably any other game they make in the forseeable future. I used to respect that they made games that were fun above all else, but they’ve lost that in my eyes. Ruining the fun of a game to increase it’s profit is a losing strategy, and the Blizzard I remember from 15 years ago would have never been so naive to believe the opposite.

I have every Blizzard game made in the last 15+ years. If there was a collector’s edition of the game, I have that as well. They were the definition of what I considered a great video game company. It saddens me immensely that I’m now saying that in the past tense. Given the only PC games I’ve *really* played over the last 5+ years have been Blizzard games, Diablo has effectively killed PC gaming for me as well.

I suppose it’s inevitable..

I would like to preface this post with the following disclaimer; I am not on the XNA team, nor have I been on the XNA team in almost two years. Do not mistake anything below for an “insider scoop” of anything because I do not know what their current plans are, nor do I know what their future plans are. Everything below relates to XNA version 1.0, and there are still folks who worked on later versions over in that organization. With that out of the way, I shall continue!

Shawn Hargreaves announced the other day he was leaving to move over to the Windows Phone team after six years working on XNA. I’m sure this isn’t a surprise to anyone who keeps even a rudimentary pulse on the XNA scene is subscribed to Shawn’s blog and has read it. However, for me it was a little bit bittersweet.

As the title of this post implies, I suppose it is inevitable. After all, as Shawn points out, he was working on XNA for over six years, and that’s a very long time to be doing one thing. However, with Shawn’s departure, from my recollection everyone that busted their asses to get the first version of XNA out the door has moved on from that team (not entirely true; there is still one person left in that organization who was there at the start of the XNA project, but he’s been on a different role now for quite a while).

The team that started XNA wasn’t very large to begin with, and we weren’t all “publicly popular” (such as Shawn, Kluch and myself), but the small group of us that were there from the start had a huge unknown challenge in front of us, not even sure if it would really work. We had a completely unrealistic release schedule (you want us done before the end of this year? right), were writing everything from scratch, and we had exactly zero customers.

I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished with that first release, and it was probably one of my favorite times at Microsoft. We almost felt like a bit of a startup within the company, and we were successful beyond our original ideas. By version two we had the concept of an “App Store” before Apple did (not to take anything away from Apple, there store is obviously more successful than XBLIG), and people were making money.

As often happens though, time goes on, new people are hired, other people leave. Inevitable. While I was there, we always prided ourselves on our ability to make good hires, so I’m sure the people that remain are top-notch, but it is still somewhat sad for me to look back and realize that everyone that made version one of XNA what it was has now moved on to other adventures in their career. I will always look back at those times fondly. Working with that group of people was a pleasure.

As for what line of code of mine that is executed the most, I can’t say actually since I had a hand in almost ever piece of the xna runtime. It’s impossible to run an XNA game without using some of my code, even now with me gone for a few years. In the runtime itself, it’s probably the graphics device creation still (even though that was changed in v4).. By now it could be the predicated tiling work or even the intro “XBLIG screen” that you see before every game. We should have collected metrics on this kind of stuff!

Writing games and writing platforms..

Much like my love of fiction books, I have been a gamer for basically as long as I’ve been able to be. I have no idea where it started, but the first time I really I remember playing games was at a pizza place back in Saint Louis called Pantera’s. I played all kinds of games back there, although I remember wasting way too many quarters in Rastan. Before that there was Spy Hunter and if we go back far enough, even Pole Position. I’m sure there was probably others before that, but we’re edging back to the limits of my memory, I’m not *that* old after all.

At the time I was playing these though, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that there were people who actually created these wonderful things. Sure, it seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time I was a young kid, I probably would have believed that unicorns and fairies made the games I loved. I knew there was some kind of a computer in there, and that’s what I wanted, but we were quite poor at the time and couldn’t afford one.

Luckily, my mother saved up for a year and she was quite excited to finally give me a computer for Christmas one year, and boy was I excited to get it. It was an amazing piece of hardware called the TRS-80 (that has a nickname now of “trash 80”, but I didn’t care, it was a real computer). Looking back at that now, it’s kind of funny, the very first thing it said when you turned it on was Microsoft (MS did the BASIC for the system). Who would have thought that 15 years later I would actually be *working* at Microsoft, the computer had given me an inspiration I didn’t even realize.

The system came with the BASIC mentioned above and it was fascinating to me. I could type things and stuff would happen. I devoured the few “tutorials” in the book that came with the system and was anxious to find anything more I could. I started out probably the way many kids back then did, by copying huge chunks of text out of a magazine, not necessarily understanding what was going on, but being amazed by the results. Well, after running it the first time, realizing it was broken and then spending hours painstakingly trying to find the single spot I had messed up typing.

With that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. I would write games, and despite not even being a teenager yet, I was going to write the best game the world had ever seen. It was here that I learned a very powerful lesson; that being that writing a game was hard. I wasn’t even remotely qualified to do this.

I spent the next several years learning how to be a developer in general, always thinking of games in the background, but learning the basics. I learned new languages, being fascinated by the power of Pascal before migrating to C, and then discovering Visual Basic and realizing that as a development language, this was the beginning of a boon to developers everywhere. It had a low barrier to entry and could explode at any time.

Now, I still wanted to be a game developer, and I still didn’t think I was qualified to be one, so it was then that I decided what better way to become qualified than by opening up game development to the masses and help *everyone* become qualified. By now, I was already working at Microsoft and migrated over to the DirectX team and began a project that intended to bring the power of DirectX to Visual Basic. I’ve told this story many times, so I’m sure everyone knows by now that DirectX for Visual Basic turned into DirectX.NET which turned into Managed DirectX which turned into XNA. By the time I looked up I realized that I had been writing platforms for an entire decade, and still not writing games.

That’s when I switched. I moved over to Microsoft Studios (then Microsoft Games Studios) and started making games. So here we are now, a year and a half later. What have I discovered?

Despite both of them being writing code, and actually, even somewhat related code, the two activities are so very far apart. There are so many things you need to take care of for a platform (such as robust parameter validation) that you simply don’t need to worry about in a game. On the flip side, writing games has extra constraints you just don’t see on the platform side such as game designers. Ok, sure, you could argue that program managers help define the “mechanics” of APIs much like a game designer helps define the “mechanics” of the game, but once the program manager has defined the mechanics, she is done. The game designer must also make those mechanics fun.

There’s so much more creativity required when writing games as well. Sure, there is some creativity in designing API’s and functionality and feature set on a platform, but it’s not nearly the same magnitude. Actually, I suppose that isn’t fair, there is a lot of creativity in developing a platform, just not the type of creativity that excites me the way writing a game does; coming up with narrative, etc.

It’s also taught me that despite spending a decade making game development easier to do, I still have so much to learn. I would feel comfortable developing a platform completely on my own (hell, I have done it before), while I’m not sure I could say the same thing about writing a game. The work game designers do (and the way in which they think about things) is a skill I need to learn, and I’m thankful I have the opportunity to learn from a group of people who are amazing at what they do. Some of my coworkers have done design work on some of my favorite games of all time such as Command and Conquer; Gears of War; Alan Wake; Dungeon Siege; the list goes on and on.

That isn’t to say that I worked with less amazing people before (I’m sure everyone knows who Shawn is, which would disprove that), it’s just a different type of awesome. Developing a platform, the cool things we normally get to see could best be described as tech demos, and while they’re amazing in their own right, you normally have to wait for your customers to write something awesome to fully realize your initial vision.

If there was one thing I missed about being on the platform team it was the intimate knowledge of what was coming next. I just don’t have that anymore, and it is frustrating. I wish someone would say something about XNA and Windows 8 just like everyone else does. However, for where I was in my career and my life, making the transition to making games was definitely the right move for me. I can flex my creative juices and expand in the areas I am weak in.

It’s nice to realize that your dream job at eleven can still be your dream job at thirty six.

The Gunstringer and Fruit Ninja Kinect, $40 bundled!

One of the more difficult things about my job at Microsoft is not talking about all of the cool things we have coming up. Luckily we eventually announce things publicly and then I can talk about them, and today was another one of those announcements!

On September 13th (September 16th in Europe) The Gunstringer from Twisted Pixel will be publicly available for $40. If you don’t know who Twisted Pixel is they’ve put out some of my favorite XBLA games to date (‘Splosion Man, Ms ‘Splosion Man, Comic Jumper, The Maw), and having their brand of humor in a puppet shooter kinect game? I’m looking forward to this one!

What’s even better than that, it will come bundled with a code for the XBLA title Fruit Ninja Kinect. If you think slicing fruit with your finger on a phone is fun, wait until you try it with your whole arm.

This bundle is going to be one heck of a good deal if you ask me, and I can’t wait for it!

Multiboxing

After being bored with World of Warcraft a bit, I decided to get back into some multiboxing where I’m controlling an entire instance group on my own (5 players). Here are a few videos of my recent escapades with my 5 paladin group!

Archaedas

Princess Theradras

Herod

Razorfen Kraul

Lord Vyletongue

My new project!

After I left the XNA team last year, two of the most popular questions I was ask was why I left and what I was going to do next. It was hard to really formulate a good response to either given the general culture of secrecy that seems to always be around. However, now is the time to lay it all out on the line!

First, why did I leave to begin with? Philosophical differences I suppose you could call them. I was pushing very hard to get a LISP and COBOL version of the project out, and they didn’t think it would have a large enough audience. I still can’t believe they were so naive, but c’est la vie.

When I left I had a multitude of opportunities available to me, each of which were very compelling. Right when word got out I was leaving, I was contacted by the good folks at a new team that was forming. They had discovered that certain images in certain sequences could actually change the chemistry in the brain and give the user experiencing them a completely new outlook on life. The government wanted to get involved though, and I’ve worked with the government before. The technology was exciting, but not enough to work with them again.

Yet another group offered me a new job which sounded at first glance to be quite boring. Have you seen those big number signs where they’re constantly increasing with witty phrases such as “Your share of the national debt is <blah>”? Did you know that Microsoft wrote that software? I was offered the chance to be the guy who watches the numbers scroll by and make sure they stay accurate. Sure, it sounds boring, but you get to travel the world and see lots of numbers, how bad could have it been? Everyone loves numbers!

However, the job I finally took was over in Microsoft Game Studios working on an amazing new title. I probably shouldn’t be telling anyone this, but I’ve been holding it in so long, I just can’t wait anymore. What’s the worst they could do? I’m proud to announce our new game Kinectodeck. Everyone has seen how amazing it can be when you’re the controller, but we wanted to see how amazing it could be if you were actually in the game!  We use an amazing set of new technlogies to transform your living room into the actual game playing field. There are eight different Kinect sensors spread throughout the room along with sixteen mini-projectors which bring the game world directly there! It is a completely new innovative experience, where the possibilities are really limitless.  One of our recent test subjects was sent on an safari adventure where they were out riding a tiger through a lake:

We have a few bugs we still need to work out though. For example, due to our desire to have maximum realism, we may have went a little overboard. Shortly after the picture above was taken, the tiger ate our poor test subject. It’s ok though, she signed the release form. Minor setbacks, something you would expect from such an ambitious project. Major innovation doesn’t happen by being safe!  We’re moving quite fast though, and an expected release date should be just about a year from now, and I can’t tell you how excited I am.

You may be wondering how you write the games though? Why XNA of course!  You will of course need an AppHub membership to get the toolset. I’m also happy to announce that the toolset will be available for download (in a very early alpha form) next week! Stay tuned for more information, this is an exciting time in our industry and I am ecstatic to be a part of it.

Sometimes I don’t understand book reviews..

Not that I have any complaint about them, it’s just odd. For example, my latest book only has a single review, but the review is glowing and the best it could be.  Now, I naturally don’t know how other books are doing, but I am a little obsessive compulsive, so I do watch the average Amazon sales numbers, and compare them to how my book has been doing. Generally, in the category the book is in, we do very well (which is awesome), yet I see other books doing much worse in the average sales with many more reviews and I wonder why? Does their publisher try to prime the channel with reviews? Pay people to give reviews? Maybe those books just give people the overwhelming need to tell others about them, where ours does not?

I also know that our book isn’t perfect, I’ve seen mistakes in there.

I’m curious though, what do you think about the book? Like it? Hate it?