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Two, three, four hours into Diablo III and you are off to a rolling start. Like any game with loot, your character is finding new gear - you're upgrading and improving. Cut to level sixty. Hours pass you by and you start to realize that the loot flowing from the broken bodies of your enemies is nonsense.
It seems like the Diablo III loot table is so effectively randomized that it's entirely possible for a player's entire end-game playtime to be saturated with entirely useless loot. While your first run through Diablo III is cinematic and exciting, the longtail on the experience is clearly meant to be a randomized grind. You play the campaign again and again not for the story or experience, but for the loot. You revisit specific boss encounters for the prizes.
The problem is that, for the average player without secondary magic-find gear, the majority if not all the loot you find is entirely useless. The auction house seems to exist not as a plus - not an intriguing marketplace as in World of Warcraft - but as a nexus, a loot aggregator.
It's as if it's quietly understood that your chances of finding good loot on your own, with which to progress through Inferno with, are close to nil. Your only hope is that the community as a whole will find and save the gear with stats that have been rolled appropriately so as to be considered useful or optimal by any of the game's classes. Rather than the auction house acting as a side project in economics, it seems to exist as a fundamental necessity for player progression for post-60 players in Inferno.
This seems like an odd take on RPG items and the concept of loot drops. In order for any item drop to be worth something there need to be a larger number of entirely useless items - junk - that drops alongside it. The issue here is that Diablo III seems to drop almost nothing but junk items.
One would think that Blizzard would cheat the system for the player - the idea being that a player who has spent a night gaming and has found nothing of worth is not a player who is going to be excited to come back and try again. At first, I expected some sort of drop bias based on my character - will Barbarian items have a larger chance to drop while I'm playing my Barbarian? (Nope.)
In a single-player context, this would make a lot of sense. And really, even while playing co-op, Diablo III is a single-player experience. There is none of the world and community of a World of Warcraft. Even when playing with others, the player feels very alone. The absolute randomness of the item drops, in this case, is perplexing.
When I was attending a one year program for game design one of my classes was Analog Game Theory. The end result of the class was to create a boardgame, and as a younger man my view of what constituted a solid game was very different from the views of my teacher.
I had taken the concept of chess - clearly defined and designed roles and interactions - and messed with them to create what was essentially a chess variant. The boardgames that most impressed the instructor, however, were games that were innovative and new if not entirely solid and timeless in their design. This reflected my view that if a game is to be updated, you should not tamper with its core. Make it look nicer, add new dependencies, but let it remain essentially the same - that's what made people like it in the first place. But as I get older, and my time becomes more scarce, I've come to believe that change is essential. In terms of loot drops, Diablo III is especially conservative - so much so that it feels indicative of another, older era.
These days I expect a game to impress me, but also to cater to me. I expected Diablo III to reward me with interesting items, but instead it harkens back to the days when good gear in a game is a status symbol for the young elite, pulling pizza-fueled all-nighters in accord with the byzantine systems of the game.
Instead, I feel like I've hit a brick wall. I have yet to finish the game on Inferno, and I feel like the game is not helping me - in fact I feel like it is broken because of this. Even grinding the first couple acts of Inferno is not nearly enough to produce the sort of gear required to complete the game. Instead all signs seem to point to the accumulation of gold in order to purchase the required gear from other players.
Rather than provide an stimulating economic side-game, the auction house seems instead to exist as a mechanism to correct for the fact that playing the game in and of itself is not enough to correctly gear a character. I can't shake the feeling that this is a heavy handed and perhaps entirely incorrect approach to creating an end-game that keeps players interested.
It may keep players unhappily running the treadmill in a fury to best a game that is fervent in denying them much help, but it is certainly not enticing and accessible to the general gaming public who want to simply play a game to its finish.