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Burning The Mother Down: The Failings Behind Diablo 3's Inferno Mode
by Josh Bycer on 07/20/12 04:28:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Over the course of the last two weeks, I've easily spent 20 hours going through Diablo 3's hardest difficulty setting: Inferno mode. As it currently stands I'm on act 3 stuck due to inadequate gear. Over those same two weeks, I've had a chance to examine Inferno mode and came to a realization: Blizzard screwed up.

Before we begin, this piece references my earlier thoughts on Diablo 3's design and difficulty and if you haven't read them yet, it will be a good idea so that everyone is on the same page:

Diablo 3 analysis 

A look at Masochistic Difficulty

And if it's not already made clear, this post and discussions can have spoilers in it.

The Only Way Out:

In my Diablo 3 analysis, I touched on the problems with the itemization that plagued the game from Normal to Hell Difficulty. Because characters only received direct bonuses from their primary stat and vitality, it limited the gear that each character could wear.

In the earlier difficulties, the level of the gear available goes up with each act, which makes the player start to see gear that is relatively better then ones before it. But, because of the importance of the stats, lower level gear could be better for specific characters if they have the right affixes of bonuses. That however gets thrown out the window once the player reaches inferno.

At the level cap (which is currently at 60), players will of course not receive any more levels, skills or runes and must rely on equipment to continue improving their character. But while the player is done improving, the level of gear available continues up for 4 more levels: 60-63. The difference in base stats between level 61 items to those below it is huge. This is where weapons' Damage Per Second (or DPS) begins to reach into the high hundreds and armor that has the affix that gives resistance to all types of damage becomes easier to find.


                                          A Basic level 59 Axe

Before, lower level gear could still be viable, but not anymore. A rare level 55 item will not be anywhere as good as a level 62 or up magic item. And the jump between level 60 to level 63 items is also a big deal, as level 63 weapons can have their DPS above one thousand. While the player can find level 60 to level 63 equipment, there is only one option to survive inferno mode: level 63 or bust.

This mechanic presents several major design flaws with Diablo 3. First is that it makes the already limited choices for finding good gear, even more restrictive. Because the player can't improve their character any other way, they are at the mercy of the auction house and random number generator to have any hope of getting through inferno.

The even bigger problem is that the designers have destroyed the power curve behind item growth, which was one of the major attractions behind Diablo 2. In Diablo 2, loot was always scaling up, and the equipment you would find in one act, would be weaker than the ones in the next act. That meant that as a player, you would get more powerful the further you played.

But in Diablo 3, once someone reaches inferno mode, the loot available stops at level 63 and can be found in act one. The only difference between the acts is the chance that a higher level item will drop. Meaning that someone could easily find gear in Act 1, that would be used all the way into act 4.

Not only does this ruin the power curve, but it also affects the auction house as players are only going to buy level 63 items due to their innately higher base stats. What Blizzard should have done was tighten up the level curve to make only level 60 and up items drop in inferno and then add more item levels between each act. For example: act 1 would still have level 60-63 items available, but act 2 would have 60-64, act 3 have 60-65 and act 4 would carry 60-66.

This change would give players a higher chance of finding good gear and at the same time, motivate them to continue playing through the acts to improve their character. As it stands, you could just keep replaying Act 1 and eventually get the best loot in the game, which the game is designed around at this point.


                                           A Basic level 63 Axe

The Enemy Affixes of Doom:

The next problem has to do with fighting special and elite enemies. In the earlier difficulty levels, players would have dealt with the various modifiers attached to special enemies. But with enemies that are naturally harder in inferno, which I talked about in my masochism difficulty post. And when you take those mechanics and add the higher enemy stats combined with the combination of modifiers pushes the game's difficulty into cheap territory.

Several modifiers (Waller, vortex, and jailer) cannot be avoided by player skill. Once the enemy uses them, the player is going to be affected. The only option the player has is if they have a skill not on cool down that allows them to recover. But when an enemy group is using the same modifier, chances are the player will be hit by it again before their escape skill has finished recharging.

All the player can do then is just wait and hope that the enemy doesn't finish them off during the several seconds of immobility. Things become worse when the modifiers around enemy shields appear. When an enemy is shielded they are immune to all damage for several seconds. After the shield goes down, players only have a few seconds to do damage before it comes back up.

When you have fast moving enemies who can do a quarter or more of the player's health per hit, giving them immunity to damage is effectively an "I-Win Button". Once again this gets back to removing the player's skill from the equation. It doesn't matter how skilled the player is, or what their character's stats are, when the enemy can become invincible for several seconds constantly during a battle.

These modifiers that remove player skill and control are bad enough, but the next detail just seals the deal on the problems with difficulty.

Getting Enraged

Once the player reaches inferno: special, elite and boss enemies will have a new ability. If the player spends more than 5 minutes fighting one set of enemies, they will become enraged. What that means is that either the enemy's damage output would go through the roof, or by being near the enemy the player will take constant damage until they die. For bosses, it meant that the player will be killed without any way to avoid it.

The problem with this mechanic is that it further destroys skill customization which was already at an all time low. Going into inferno, a lot of the skills and runes available lose their utility thanks to the increased attributes of the enemies. But with the enrage timer, it makes characters built towards defense obsolete, as even if they can take the damage, they'll be killed once the timer goes off. This mechanic once again limits the skills and runes available and forces the player to focus on offense.


                                                  Act 1 Boss Fight

Having the timer for boss fights was an even more confusing decision. As not only does it limit choice, but it punishes players who team up with their friends. As each new person in the group, increases the health pool of the boss. If your friends aren't strong enough, they can make the boss impossible to kill before the timer goes off by no fault of their own.

In a recent forum post, Diablo 3's community manager said that Diablo 3 doesn't have a proper end game and that the itemization is not enough at this point. Without sounding too smug all I can say is "duh." It took me less than 2 weeks to see the problems with inferno mode and I'm starting to question the design decisions at Blizzard for them not to see these issues after working on the game for years.

The part that has me really worried is that maybe the designers aren't as foolish as I think they are, and instead planned this as an excuse to sell more expansions. I really hope that I'm wrong on this point as there are a lot of good things in Diablo 3. But the further I played the more problems and quite frankly, stupid mistakes I see with the design.

Diablo 3 could have easily been at the top of my best games of 2012 list, but as it stands the numerous problems are dragging it further and further down. It's baffling, like watching a high rank Tennis player, lose in the early rounds of a tournament against a lower ranked player. You know they have the skills, but for some reason they just can't get it together.

Josh Bycer

Reprinted from my blog: Mind's Eye 

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Jeff Beaudoin
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Great analysis.

I agree 100% with your assessment of the game.

JB Vorderkunz
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All of this is already discussed at length on the D3 forums, and although i could debate some points and quibble over others you've stated them all well - and EVERYONE agrees on the 'enrage timer' - that is the dumbest thing ever and their refusal to see it as such is nothing short of baffling.

Jonathan Jou
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Does anyone know who we can ask about this? I'd love for Gamasutra to do a thorough breakdown of what works and what doesn't work so far in D3, and then get Blizzard's story on why the game is what it is now.

As it stands, I can't think of any forgivable, or even understandable reasons for the company that is for whatever reason holding back on a guaranteed broken PvP experience (tuning PvE will never balance PvP) to continue pushing out half-baked game design choices without even letting players opt in or opt out.

Josh Bycer
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I would love a chance to ask them about some of their more baffling decisions. Like JB above, I can't imagine why they thought an enrage timer mechanic was a smart move. Considering they said that they designed the game to be played with a variety of builds, which having a five minute "kill switch" goes against.

Wayne Moorefield
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I do not believe adding more item levels to gear would solve the gear problems core to Diablo series. Since the introduction of trading by any means a player could have access to gear much higher than they are currently able to get. With the introduction of the Auction House this process has been even easier to do. The consequence of this brings to light the "haves and have nots." Without allowing max item level gear to drop in Act 1 the disparity between players that can get the gear and those that could not grow dramatically. Now that anyone is able to get max item level gear the market has devalued at a faster pace for all but the best gear, which only the haves can afford. However, now everyone has a chance to get that "1 in a million" drop just like the lottery and not only a few. The problems introduced now is just a new problem in the onion being pealed.

The monster pack difficulty due to being random does not teach players to overcome them. Good games introduce an ability let the player understand it and then build on it. In Diablo 3 it seems to surprise more often than being gradual. My experience is that after time each pack is easier to overcome until the point they are all fairly easy with enough gear, which anyone can get with time and luck.

I do have an issue with your enrage section of the blog.

"... it punishes players who team up with their friends. As each new person in the group, increases the health pool of the boss. If your friends aren't strong enough, they can make the boss impossible to kill before the timer goes off by no fault of their own."

The game is not completely designed to carry your friends through to the end with them doing little to affect the outcome. What fun would a game be if you could just sit there and have someone else beat the game for you I ask. Beating the game and achievements then would be completely worthless. The enrage timers were introduced to overcome the design teams lack of ability to overcome every skill combination for every boss. There will always be ways to "cheese" your way through a boss, but if you do not have enough damage the enrage timer is also a gear check. As for friends, help them get geared that is what we all should do enjoy helping each other out and overcoming a difficult obstacle instead of just carrying them or being carried through the game.

Diablo 3 has many issues as even Blizzard has admitted.

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It's simple.

WoW design philosophy infected Diablo.

All the tedious gearing up to progress (not present in d2 or d1, gear up to perfect yes, but not to progress), enrage timers in a single player game (ridiculous, but it's MMO gating, so it makes sense in this paradigm), auction house, even simple things like the constant online connection requirement. It was a fun game, and now it's done. From the distance of a couple months, I have more desire to play d2 than d3.

Matthew Calderaz
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Good analysis, I agree 100%. I did the inferno item hunt for a couple weeks and made it in to act 2, but ultimately gave up for the reasons you cited; (it becomes gearQuest at that point, and even with the right gear, the wrong random attributes on an elite pack will still wipe you out despite your best efforts.)

I'm ultimately also a bit disappointed with D3 overall; it seemed the difficulty was too easy up until Hell mode, and then Inferno went overboard. I will consider giving it another try when an expansion comes out if they've made substantial changes by then.

In the meantime, Guild Wars 2 is looking *awesome* (had an opportunity to try their recent beta weekend).

Anthony Boterf
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I finally was able to get D3 installed on my computer (by tricking my computer into saying it has all service legit Vista is all screwed up, don't ask!) wife has been playing alot, and is up to level 30, but i cannot even get myself interested enough to beat the first Act 1 boss. I get enough Diablo fix watching her play LOL!

I also was in the GW2 beta w/e, but was not so impressed. They have some great ideas, but I'm not convinced the execution is all there. But , that is for another blog!

Nathan Walker
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I agree d3 endgame is a fail. But I actually really enjoy the random affixes of doom. It is the one thing that keeps me logging in. So far with the classes I have played I have found a build that can beat every enemy type with fairly modest gear. The depth of the mechanics is pretty amazing. If you depend solely on skullcrushing through the endgame ... the cost of the gear gets ridiculous.

I have given up on gear progression and play solely to enjoy the difficulty. Every class is a solvable puzzle on a budget. No RMAH required.

The Le
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The heart of the problem, for this particular article, is not the lack of item drops at high levels -- the problem is the level 60 cap. As was mentioned early in this article, having a level 99 cap with appropriate penalties in diablo 2 kept people playing for a long time.