I feel a bit of dull shame when I return to Blizzard games, and this emotion is mirrored when my friends see each other on Battle.net. It feels like bumping into someone you know at a seedy club, or wondering if someone is an alcoholic because you see them at the bar every night. We virtually nod at each other, but conversation doesn’t go much further unless we’re playing together. There is business to get to. Secret, slightly furtive business.
There is something deeply satisfying about playing games like Diablo 3 — which I’m going to focus on for this piece — World of Warcraft or StarCraft 2. But it’s the type of satisfaction that feels like sliding back into your old habits, like reading the same book for the tenth time instead of doing anything else. People tend to avert their eyes when they tell you they’re back playing a classic Blizzard game.
Spending time on these games can feel like time taken away from newer games, games that didn’t take up my childhood. And there’s no deeper reason to come back to Diablo 3; it’s not like much has changed with the story or even the basic game mechanics. You click, you kill, you become slightly more powerful and you repeat. It never has to end.
It’s that lack of friction after a long absence that makes it so easy to return. You didn’t forget any necessary skills, and you don’t have to put a bookmark down in the story to remember where you left off. Beginning a new character doesn’t feel like a tragedy of lost progress; doing so is required for each new season of content, in fact. Your skills will never rust.
Diablo 3’s “new” Adventure mode — which only feels new if you’ve been following the series the two decades and change it has been around — gets rid of the story entirely. In its place is a purer grind, with rifts and bounties that you can play damned near forever to collect, build or gamble your way into better gear.
That better gear is used to play the same content on harder difficulty levels, which of course increases your chances of getting even better gear. Everything that isn’t the grind has been stripped away, and it has only made the game better. It’s a treadmill that fools you into thinking you’re getting somewhere, even as you play the same content time and time again.
Diablo 3 is a flat circle
My friends, coworkers and many people I know in the industry seem to return to Diablo 3 for at least a month or two every year, and it always happens in clumps. Diablo 3 is a game that is much more fun when you get to celebrate your gear in small groups. But their return is never offered in conversation; it’s always an admission that has to be dragged out, after at least a few attempts to deflect the question of what they’re playing.
There’s sometimes a sigh, like they’re about to deliver bad news. “I’m back on Diablo, man,” someone will say. Sometimes, but not always, the return to Diablo is evidence that something else is going poorly in their lives. It’s the gaming equivalent of finding empty bottles of booze in the recycling. But mostly it just means they were bored, and Diablo 3 is always there for your boredom.
Regardless, the reaction from the people who didn’t fall back into Diablo 3 is always the same.
I only say all this because I’ve succumbed myself this month. I reinstalled the game, rolled a new Demon Hunter and started work on finding gear. The fun stuff happens after you hit level 70, and my friends were nice enough to spend 10 minutes to power-level me through those first 70 levels in about ten minutes. We’re here for the endgame, and there’s no reason to waste time on anything else.
It helps that Diablo 3 feels wholesome in a way that’s rare in modern gaming. You can gamble your blood shards to try to get better equipment, but you can’t buy them with real money. The grind is based around random drops, but there are no loot boxes. The mechanics can feel satisfying, but the ability to play in short sessions and the lack of constantly released content to buy keeps the game from feeling addictive or exploitative. It scratches every itch without leaving a scar; Diablo 3 is the equivalent of a bag of potato chips with no calories or fat.
It’s also easy to leave Diablo 3 again, putting it aside for another year or just a few months. The things that make it easy to pick up whenever you need to click on some demons make it just as easy to walk away. The hooks go in deep, but there’s no barb on the other side to keep ‘em in. You never have to feel guilty when walking away, even if you may feel a bit guilty every time you come back.
Diablo 3 feels gloriously pointless in the grand scheme of things, just like most video games, but the game doesn’t go to any great lengths to hide it. There are no pretensions other than to be a game you can return to over and over, enjoying the same loop and getting a rush out of good drops.
It will always be there for you, and it will always be basically the same. Forever and ever, game without end, amen.