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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.

This discussion of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 contains spoilers for this game as well as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Bioshock.


The most compelling thing about the use of the first person perspective in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was how it victimized the player.  From the opening scene in which the player was forced to take on the role of the victim of an execution to the sequence in which the player tried but failed to escape a nuclear blast, the game victimized the player by immersion. Taking full advantage of the illusion of the personal that the first person evokes in video games (you do after all seem to see right out of the eyes of the character that you are inhabiting), the immersive quality of being able to control your perspective in the first sequence but being left unable to escape the consequence of a fatal shot leaves the player sharing and experiencing the helplessness of the doomed character.  Likewise, the ability to crawl from the wreckage of a helicopter downed by the eddies of a nuclear explosion but being unable to get much further before dying in the ruined landscape is a suggestion that despite seemingly having “control” over a character (something the gamer is accustomed to having) that control of a final destiny is tenuous at best.  The character’s helplessness is the player’s helplessness, reflecting the game in the experience of it.  For gamers used to the sense of invulnerability and immortality that gaming experiences provide through multiple lives and continue options, this experience produces an unaccustomed impotence.


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 significantly ups the ante of exploring ways of reflecting the experience of playing a character with the players own experience of gaming, but it additionally begins to explore how that relationship coincides with questions of rules and authority.


At the beginning of the third chapter of the game, an Army Ranger,  Pfc. Joseph Allen, is briefed on his mission to go undercover with a Russian named Makarov who has no territorial or political affiliations.  Makarov is genocidal and traffics in human beings.  As the briefing reveals, “Makarov’s fighting his own war, and he has no rules and no boundaries.”  Rules and boundaries become the chief interest of this sequence and subtley also everything that the player has done thus far and usually does in an FPS or any video game for that matter.  Playing at soldier is what a player does in any game in the Call of Duty series and always within the same sorts of boundaries that a soldier has.  You are given mission objectives and meant to fulfill them.  Gamers are most often followers of rules.


Indeed, in the previous mission while playing as Sgt. “Roach” Sanderson, the player is given an onscreen prompt to “Follow MacTavish” as Sgt. “Soap” MacTavish leads a mission to infilitrate an enemy compound.  The instruction is almost needless as any player of games is accustomed to following other characters’ leads in missions.  The player is unlikely to give any second thoughts to following the instructions of MacTavish.  Falling into the role of a soldier is about the equivalent to falling into the role of the player of a game.  Follow the rules and don’t step outside of the boundaries.  Conforming to rules leads to solution, the solving of the game.


The Makarov mission, however, begins to challenge rules and boundaries with its content and much of that challenge lies in the mission briefings description of the events surrounding the mission.  It explains that in the current global political situation “Uniforms are relics.  The war rages everywhere, and there will be casualties.”  This reference to uniforms certainly informs about Makarov’s nature as an apolitical animal that is not affiliated with, not marked by the uniform of a citizen loyal to a particular national interest, but it also alludes to the situation that the player is about to experience, one that violates the “rules” and “boundaries” of a typical military FPS.


The mission begins with the player riding an elevator alongside four heavily armed men that are dressed as civilians (one of which is Makarov).  That familiar and almost invisible prompt “Follow Makarov” is one of only two instructions that the player receives in terms of his objectives for this mission.  The second is one of his colleagues turning and simply stating “No Russian.”  As the elevator opens and the player moves forward (“following Makarov”), the reason for the second instruction becomes clear.  A group of civilians easily noted by their lack of uniforms (indeed “uniforms are relics” and the “rules” and “boundaries” of the game of war have seemingly been altered in modern warfare) waits in line at airport security. 


As a player that was “following Makarov” and drawing conclusions about the lines that I had just heard about uniforms now being irrelevant in warfare and that I was to follow Makarov’s lead to complete my objective, I felt one thing at this moment, despair.  My character had lifted his machine gun, and I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.  Makarov and his men opened fire.  I did not.


What I did wonder as I watched Makarov and his men gun down three or four dozen people in front of me is: how many players would open fire on the crowd?  After all, like every other mission in the game and most missions in video games, instructions were clearly given on what to do: follow.


My choice not to do so seemed cued by the lack of uniforms in front of me.  Enemies in video games generally are marked visually in some way to represent them as targets.  Such markings include ugliness, monstrosity, and, of course, the uniform of a foreign government.  My choice to not open fire may have been as “rule driven” as the choice to open fire.  Players opening fire may do so because they are trained to follow onscreen prompts.  Players who do not may not do so because they are trained to recognize the “otherness” of enemies through simple and clear signs like uniforms. 


In any case, I stood and watched.  As Makarov and his men advanced, I quickly fell into the role of “following” as I was supposed to.  I followed Makarov up an escalator as he and his men killed civilians in droves.  At one point, I even stepped to the edge of a balcony to watch the man that was now beside me kill everyone below.  I fell into my role as undercover agent.  Unwilling to participate, I also was participating in not blowing my cover.  I realized that I had become complicit in the actions of Makarov and his thugs by merely observing. 


My second feeling of despair hit as we were about to descend to the floor below, and it occurred to me that I was armed and standing behind Makarov.  While uniforms were obviously not relics to me, why hadn’t I tried to intervene on the behalf of the victims of those who violated such rules?  I am ashamed to say that I hesitated for a moment wondering if shooting Makarov would cause me to fail my mission (again, rules intervened in my considertaion of how to appropriately participate in this sequence).  However, I determined to see what the outcome of shooting Makarov would be.


Indeed, killing Makarov branded me a traitor and ended the mission.  Thus, as the game loaded me once again to the checkpoint, I found myself fatally bound to follow Makarov whether as an active participant or not.  I continued as observer and found myself scanning the faces of crumpled bodies that we waded through as we approached the doors out to the tarmac where rules and uniforms saved me once again.


Outside we were greeted by policemen that began shooting at us.  While I waited a bit and watched Makarov and his men engage the cops, I could clearly see that they were making no headway and in any case, my life was being threatened, and I knew the rules: when you are being shot at you can shoot back.  Suddenly, my role as soldier and as a gamer had been reinstated by the uniforms of my enemies.


The ending sequence of the level does provide a kind of means of absolving the player of the guilt of either having had directly participated in this sequence or in indirectly by avoiding but still watching an atrocity.  Pfc Allen is gunned down by Makarov, removing the stain of his actions by negating the character as a future protagonist.


Currently, it is all the rage to prize games that offer players complex choices, moral and otherwise, in approaching solutions to levels or resolution of narrative.  Indeed, one of the most compelling and largely unique things about games as a medium is that the audience of the medium is given the ability to participate in and potentially alter the narrative itself.  Much maligned are games that enforce narrative elements like the often criticized sequence in Bioshock in which the player suddenly loses control of himself and is made to execute Andrew Ryan.  Despite the seeming choice that the player seems to have to not fire, though, like Bioshock, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 seems interested in interrogating the relationship between authority and free will.


Certainly, I may have “chosen” the more noble route of not participating in the murder of innocents.  Nevertheless, I still followed Makarov as instructed.  Even when I realized that I might have some alternative option to intervene in an activity that was distasteful to me, I still felt hamstrung by rules and hesitated in executing Makarov and his men because of my expectations of the rules and conventions of the game despite my own moral quandry.


Despite being a simulation about soldiers, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 calls into question our tendency to blindly follow rules in general.  In fact, as I was playing through this sequence the prompt “Follow Makarov” evoked my recollection of how I had previously been quite comfortable with the prompt “Follow MacTavish” and made me wonder why I had not felt anything about gunning down humans that were one symbolic marker away from civilians.  If uniforms are only relics now, why were uniforms something that I could acceptably assault before now with no concern for the human underneath?


Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is ferocious and terrible.  It once again victimizes the player, ironically, by offering the illusion of choice to the player but then reminding him of his own dedication to rules that are followed consciously and unconsciously.  The reflection of the life of the soldier on the experience of the gamer once again becomes a way of causing the player to reflect on themselves.  In this case, though, it may be a reflection of a terrible ferocity that we share with the game.


Even if we believe that rules don’t guide our decisions and that we are free to make choices, remember that even a man with no rules and no political boundaries may find himself falling prey to deeply embedded rules: “No Russian.”


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 17, 2009
Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.

A roundtable discussion over at EDGE online pits three different design philosophies against one another. Emergent, multiplayer, and linear narrative systems are all advocated by three different parties.  The conversation is worth reading, although in the comments it becomes obvious that readers felt it was a little bit biased against linear narratives. I’m a very big fan of Ragnar Tornquist’s work, but I’m not sure that adventure games can be considered the prime example of a linear story. As content delivery systems they are the most efficient at keeping long speeches and complex plot engaging, but interaction is not their primary tool for this exchange. They instead rely on a lot of cinematic techniques. Having varying artistic sensibilities for what a medium should do is very healthy, it allows for more diversity and variation in both subject and presentation, so with that in mind this is an argument for why linear stories in games continue to be valid. I’ve made the opposite argument before as well.


Much like the emergent and multiplayer experiences that are just now coming into their own, linear experiences in games are better crafted and designed than ever before in video games. Like an emergent or multiplayer game, it can be seen as a series of layers. Visuals stack onto sound which both represent plot which is all driven by an underlying game design. However, unlike an emergent or multiplayer design which can be seen as a large spider web of interesting choices, a linear narrative is a straight line.


The thing is that calling these games linear is a bit misleading. A good way of looking at it comes from the way people interpret a loose, abstract linear narrative like a poem.  William H. Roetzheim writes in his introduction to The Giant Book of Poetry that poems can be broken down into four levels, all of which a great poem offers to a reader. Level one is when a poem works for the casual, uninterested reader who can understand what the poem is saying on the surface. Level two gives the more focused reader something to chew on: carefully organized phrases, rhythm, and a real sense of mood and style. Level three offers a separate, “hidden” message to the reader through metaphor or symbolism. Roetzheim writes, “The message should be recognizable to the skilled reader, and should be obvious to the non-skilled reader when it is pointed out.” Level Four, which he argues is the most difficult to produce, is when a poem’s symbols and language can create a unique, individual meaning for each reader. A Level four poem, “has both literal and representative meanings and the representative meaning is flexible with the reader able to fill in the specific meaning that applies most closely to their personal life.” The foundation of this idea is that a good poem should be both literal and abstract. It can hold your hand and walk you through an interesting experience but should you choose to cut loose and apply your own interpretation it still works. A strong linear game narrative works under very similar conditions. Chris DeLeon writes in a blog response to Jesper Juul that what makes a video game unique is the combination of forces at work. It’s the controller, the screen, the sounds, the music, the design, all working in tandum. A linear narrative consists of all these layers working in tandum, which a player can engage with in any manner they choose.


Take the difficulty levels for a game like Halo 3. On easy it’s not difficult to plow through and relatively boring. On Legendary, which many players vow is the only way to play the game properly, you have to duck for cover and engage with the game in a very complex, skilled manner. There is also a Sci-Fi narrative going on for people interested in that, solid co-op play for when you have company over, and superb multiplayer. The linear narrative is a similar exercise in creating a multi-level poem. It is not just a narrative, that’s just one of many levels that it exists on. What a successful linear narrative does is create a straight path the player must walk but lets them choose things like difficulty or even observing the story. Consider a remarkable game like Grand Theft Auto IV. You can completely play and beat that game without listening to the story once. You can also pay attention to every detail. The ability to phase the information in and out and still be able to enjoy it in your own personal way is where the craftsmanship comes through. Even an adventure game presents this in a minimal fashion: you can decide whether to absorb details and take in the scenery or focus purely on the puzzles to progress.


From Far Cry 2

From Far Cry 2


In contrast, the multiplayer and emergent design approaches are attempts to emphasize personalized metaphors and experiences that will be unique to each player. They are an exercise in creating an artistic medium that relies on the Fourth Level of Poetry. They apply a system of enormous choice with random events and circumstances that enable the player to encounter or generate something that is unique to them alone. The problem with this design philosophy is that empowering player choice results in a kind of self-imposed private redundancy. Every single time I play Civilization IV, I do the exact same thing because that’s the most efficient way for me to win. Far Cry 2 stalls at about 70% progress through the game because there are no more upgrades and thus no new weapons to change your play style. I beat every single mission for the second half of the game by using the same tactic. I climbed on top of the highest point possible, broke out the sniper rifle, and then burn out the survivors before mopping up with heavy weapons. Far Cry 2 is mostly a struggle with all the random jamming and AI encounters that make this approach difficult, but this is making up for what linear design does automatically. Both games are breaking me out of my play style, but the linear one is just being forceful instead of using a random system. There are numerous missions in linear FPS titles where you wish they’d just give you a sniper rifle and let you clean up the area. You’ll even be able to see a lovely mountain where you could do it all from if the dropship pilot wasn’t an idiot. But that’s also the point: going their way is going to be much more tense and exciting. It may not be the best route, but it’s also the most exciting one. Consider Ben Abraham’s Perma Death In Far Cry 2, the series is mostly an exercise in reinforcing linear elements into the game. When he died, that was it, no reloading. He had to modify his engagement with the game to break the personal stagnation that comes with emergent structures.


In an excellent post on the issues dealing with interactive fiction, Emily Short makes note of the fact that with any single player game, an AI is never going to be an audience member to our conduct. They are never going to appreciate our heroism beyond an in-game reward. The in-game conduct is never really going to amount to an epic experience through any literal connections, what makes conduct epic is both the audience and memory. Short eventually argues that these matter more in her medium of choice. She writes, “the story (as opposed to the text) is constructed in the mind of the reader by the work.”


That’s ultimately the leap of faith one takes with a linear game, just as one does with any form of media. An emergent narrative might give us multiple options just like a multiplayer game gives us multiple people to interact with, but in the end each player is still going to have their preferred experience. That’s what justifies the confines of linear design and story: people do it to themselves anyways. A linear narrative and design simply recognizes this fact and instead tries to let the decisions about interaction be much more basic. A designer is saying that this is the best way to experience the level when they make you go through a passage or unlock a certain door before progressing. That’s going to be true if you’re playing it on Hard or Easy, with friends watching, or completely by yourself. It’s going to be true if you’re ignoring the plot or you’re hanging on every word. Linearity is a valid design decision because in games, more than any other medium, there is more than one kind of choice.


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Friday, Nov 13, 2009
MadWorld succeeds in examining our attraction to violence, where so many others have failed.

Many movies have tried to explore why we as a people are so attracted to violence. Usually this exploration involves a violent crime that’s watched by many, and a main character that acts as the moral center of the film by denouncing those who watched and did nothing. But often the message of these movies ends up feeling hypocritical because while the character denounces our attraction to violence, the movie itself exploits that very attraction in order to gain an audience. The mixed messages contradict each other and the movie ends up saying nothing at all.


This is a problem for any story that wants to explore this subject. How do you examine our attraction to violence without descending into a glorification of it? Surprisingly, MadWorld succeeds where so many others have failed.


MadWorld revolves around a game within the game. An island city is cut off from the rest of the world, and transformed into one giant set for the game show Death Watch. It’s explained that Death Watch was created to “quench mankind’s thirst for blood and violence in the absence of war,” but this current incarnation of the games was driven by a pharmaceutical company to recoup profits after a major loss. The player controls Jack, a three-time Death Watch champion, now on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter from the island. 


MadWorld is a gloriously violent game, there’s no disputing that fact, but the game itself only passively encourages the sideshow of violence. If players never pick up a signpost, they’ll never see the gratuitous cut scene of Jack stabbing it through someone’s skull. If players never pick up an enemy, then they’ll never see the cut scene of Jack repeatedly ramming him into a spike. While the game allows for these acts of violence, it is ultimately the player who performs them. Therefore when MadWorld begins to moralize and condemn the Death Watch games, it blames those who participate in such games for continuing the trends of violence. It’s interactivity gives it an excuse to avoid any blame.


It’s telling that Jack is an ex-champion of the games, a professional killer. People bet money on contestants like Jack, they’re the lifeblood of the games, and it’s no surprise that his counterparts, the bosses we must kill to progress, are all psychotic. This is who we’re playing as. We’re one of the bad guys.


But what makes MadWorld so interesting is that it gives us players a scapegoat of our own. Jack is on a mission to rescue the mayor’s daughter, his (and by association, our) goal is a noble one. We may fight and kill, but it’s done in self-defense. We’re forced into the games, and the only way to reach the mayor’s daughter is by progressing. The end is supposed to justify the means. It helps that Jack isn’t portrayed as a psycho like the other contestants. In fact, he’s shockingly restrained in the cut scenes, so we see him as a good guy forced to do bad, and the real villains are the ones forcing us to kill.


There are no redeeming qualities to the pharmaceutical company that sponsors Death Watch. They’re using the games to earn money fast, implying that they’re entirely driven by greed. The members of this company, as well as other upper class elites, watch the games unfold from atop a huge tower. They watch for fun, they have no noble goal, for them the violence of Death Watch is just an avenue for entertainment and profit. Compared to them, the player and Jack and the other contestants are just pawns in a larger conspiracy. They’re the real villains; they’re the ones to blame for the cycle of violence.


But what exactly do they do to encourage this cycle? They create the violence for profit, and they watch the violence because they find it entertaining. With those traits in mind they’re no different from the developer and the player. MadWorld is unabashedly pointing the finger at itself, acknowledging its own role in the promotion of violence.


The game exposes our hypocrisy towards violent media by feeding it to us, then giving us a justification for our actions. In a brilliant twist the people we use as scapegoats, the voyeurs and profiteers, are not different from ourselves. We come to think that Death Watch is a horrible game, even as we enjoy MadWorld. The final message of MadWorld isn’t so much a condemnation of violent media, but rather our rationalizations for enjoying violent media. The game knows you love violence, that you’re attracted to the over-the-top black and white gore, that’s really the only reason to play it. In the end that’s all the justification you need, it tells us. You find violence fun. Admit it, and enjoy it.


Tagged as: madworld
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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Nov 11, 2009
The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in father-son stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony's homosexuality.
Your brand of charming homosexuality, Tony, it’s kind of run out of steam.
—Rocco Pelosi, Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony

This discussion of The Ballad of Gay Tony does contain spoilers.


The Ballad of Gay Tony is the straightest Grand Theft Auto ever. Okay, well not exactly (or perhaps, what my title implies isn’t exactly what I mean).  Nevertheless, despite its title, heterosexual sex acts are considerably more common than homosexual ones in The Ballad of Gay Tony.


This is due in large part to the significance of sex to this particular iteration of GTA but also due to the nature of the protagonist of this game, Luis Lopez, a partial owner of one of the hottest clubs in Liberty City, Maisonette 9. Lopez is a ladies man, unafraid to shake it on the dance floor in order to get a little on the side, and he is also the number one of the man who owns the controlling share of Maisonette 9, Gay Tony Prince.


When The Ballad of Gay Tony was announced, I was certainly surprised, left wondering if Rockstar had decided to feature a homosexual protagonist in one of their games.  That Gay Tony would not be the persona that players would be taking on was rather quickly made clear in Rockstar’s promotion of the game.  Still though, Gay Tony is a most crucial character as the title of the game implies, and his presentation is fairly fascinating given Rockstar’s history of creating cartoonish stereotypes of both gays and racial and ethnic groups as part of their parody-laden crime sagas.


As the owner of a nightclub that is signified by a description of an architectural space and designated by a number, Tony largely seems to be a kind of re-imagining, of Steve Rubell, the gay owner of Club 54.  Unlike Rubell, a man referred to openly as Gay Tony is obviously not closeted (he also owns a gay nightclub called Hercules), but Tony has been running clubs since 1987 very close to the year of Rubell’s death from AIDS.  As a result, Tony seems to be a kind of consideration of what a man like Rubell would be doing in the 2000s, and Tony is certainly prone to Rubell’s darker tendencies as he maintains a pretty substantial coke habit as well as exhibiting symptoms of paranoia and stress as a result of operating his businesses.


Club life is the central focus of The Ballad of Gay Tony, which brings us back to the sex act as a central concern of this version of GTA.  Much like Studio 54, Maisonette 9 is a hotbed of hormones.  Dancing leading up to the sex act is a tale as old as time and one written into nature itself as humans mirror the animals in performing mating dances to get the juices flowing.  The game features the ability to participate directly in such mating ritual as Luis can shake a little tail to get a little tail at the club, and his conquests frequently give out phone numbers that can be dialed up for health boosting booty calls at any point during the game.


In that sense, Gay Tony‘s sensibilities are a bit retrograde by linking sexual habits with criminality.  Much like crime fiction of the early twentieth century, homosexuality in crime fiction is often chained to the seamier aspects of life, including the criminal.  As anyone who has read a Raymond Chandler novel or two knows, crime novels tend to associate homosexuality with generally deviant lifestyle choices, and thus, homosexual characters in crime fiction are frequently associated with pornography, drugs, and the like (I’m thinking of novels like The Big Sleep for example).  Tony’s occupation and personal habits connect him to such things, but Luis’s promiscuity also marks him as being deviant from the mainstream ideal of monogamous sexuality.  Thus, the title Gay Tony might imply that sex of a wilder or more taboo nature is going to be explored or expressed in the game, sex that might be viewed as a “normal” part of a more licentious lifestyle, like that of a man dabbling with underworld connections.


However, Luis’s promiscuity is complicated by his own background, which is as a son whose own father abandoned him.  Curiously, this complication also connects him more closely to Tony.  At several points over the course of the story, Luis suggests that Tony has been like a father to him, having been the one to get Luis employed and on the straight and narrow (or at least out of prison) after running afoul of the police in his younger days.  Tony, too, mentions that Luis is like a son to him.  Thus, the game is less than retrograde in presenting a rather daring and progressive version of a father-son story, one in which the “father” is a homosexual.


The Oedipal drama that would normally ensue in such stories is inverted, though, perhaps as a result of Tony’s homosexuality.  Luis is not especially threatened by his “father’s” power as neither one compete with one another over a mother or any woman for that matter.  Freud would suggest that such competition is a necessary part of the psychology of becoming an adult.  The symbolic act of killing the father becomes foundational for becoming a mature adult capable of taking on the authority of being a father himself.  However, when faced with the dilemma of having to literally kill Tony near the climax of the game (which is a result of some mobsters needing the head of one of the two men because a diamond heist has put the two into bed with and in the cross-hairs of several criminal organizations), Luis chooses to save the man (as Tony did the younger Luis) rather than to destroy him and take his place (as the mobsters offer Luis the opportunity to do).  Indeed, throughout The Ballad of Gay Tony, Luis spends much of his time caring for this adopted “father” whose addiction is leading to some really bad decision making on the part of the elder of the two men.  This curious re-structuring of the Oedipal conflict with a homosexual and a heterosexual father and son removes conflict from their relationship altogether and offers instead a co-operative version of the relationship in which one man brings up and nurtures the other and then the other likewise returns the favor.


Thus, despite Rockstar’s frequent employment of stereotyping ethnic and sexual identity for the sake of parody, The Ballad of Gay Tony actually becomes a rather different kind of discourse on the development of human beings and their relationships to one another because of (not in spite of) their differences.  Social deviance becomes a means of uniting very different people rather than in dividing them from society.  Instead, Tony and Luis manage to form the most fundamental of social units out of deviance, a family.


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Nov 10, 2009
How Blizzard was able to keep the game engaging for so long is by changing the strongest state a player could achieve.

Of all the things Blizzard Entertainment has accomplished in the video game industry, the most interesting thing might simply be the longevity of their titles. Diablo 2 is almost a decade old but continues to be played by a core group of dedicated players thanks to several overhauls of the game design. Diablo 2 is free to play on battle.net and has been since its release. This essay will focus on how the game evolved to keep players interested for such a long period of time.


The design is a traditional RPG except all of the basic elements have been simplified and streamlined into a constant flow. Combat is either to use a physical attack or ability that is executed with a mouse click. There are only 4 attributes to upgrade, each character class is unique through abilities. Since the combat is simple and fluid, the creatures drop items at a rapid rate to keep fighting engaging. Money, magic items, jewels, and other unique goods can be dropped by one of the thousands of different monsters you’ll fight. In other words, the design is a very complex slot machine. Killing things pulls the lever, how you approach fighting is constantly improved and adjusted through the items you win and skills you develop. At a certain point there is, arguably, an ultimate state where you have the best items and are the most efficient at fighting in the game. How Blizzard was able to keep this process engaging for people for so long is through its carefully managed patching process that kept changing what that ultimate state was.


Understanding how a patch works in this game means differentiating it from a mere technical overhaul. The programming glitches and problems in a game will often be fixed through patches. While the Diablo 2 patches still address this aspect, it also changes up the stats of the items and skills.  These changes are not always noticeable to the average player. I’ve beaten the game at Normal with several different character classes, but I never really noticed any of the changes. They mainly affected players who continue through the game at higher difficulties, which rewards the effort with better items and tougher enemies. What happens in such a stat heavy game for the devoted player is that they will eventually figure out the most efficient way to play. A group of players from the diii.net forums answered a couple of question and broke down their personal experiences of the game’s evolution for this essay.


Explaining how the game plays today, Flux writes, “At this point there’s very little trial and error, since the game has been out for so many years, and it’s been a long time since a patch really shook things up. Players have long since figured out the best builds and strategies and equipment, and the skill synergy changes in v1.10 did much to limit character variety.” The best armor and weapon in the game have been clearly identified along with the quickest ways to obtain it, leaving little experimentation in the wake of reliable tactics. The consequence, as Flux notes, is that “there’s no need to actually “play” a new character at the lower levels, and it’s become almost a lost art on Battle.net. New characters are rushed through the game by friends (or players do it for themselves by using multiple accounts/computers), all of their gear is twinked (shared amongst a player’s various characters), and come the end game they might only do one or two areas over and over again, and only in large groups.” For a game like Diablo 2, once you identify the final most powerful setup in the game and achieve it, there’s no more incentive to keep playing. The objective of a patch is to then adjust the numbers of this final, epic state so that you keep having to find new tactics. This is called ‘mudflation’ or when a developer introduces new items to a game that make the old ones inferior. The ultimate goal changes and players have something new to do as they find new methods of pulling the lever. Some players aren’t worried about perfectionism, instead just playing with all the different options in this game. BlameGBush describes this approach, “I motivate myself by trying a different build that I’ve never tried before. I’ve had the game since the day it came out, and just when I think I’ve seen all the builds worth playing, one pops up that I haven’t played and its very creative.”


Most of the other users commented that there were two adjustments to the game that radically changed this peak state: the Expansion Pack and Patch 1.10. The first major change to the game was the expansion. Sean Wallace, a longtime player writes, “The expansion was great fun in the beginning, new classes, new enemies, a new Act to play in, new drops, new equipment, new mercenaries, new quests.  It was all fun.  But…it got REALLY complicated in my opinion.” The two new character classes in the Expansion, the Druid and the Assassin, were overpowered at first before being reigned in by a subsequent patch so that they balanced out. Due to the increased power of the gear monsters might drop, the game’s monsters increased in difficulty overall to compensate. The interesting effect this had on multiplayer was that the Final Act of the game features such powerful monsters who drop so much strong gear that there really isn’t a point in playing the mid-game portions. A player starts a new character in the opening levels then skips to the final Act while a partner kills enemies and levels them up. Although efficient, when a game design starts to encourage skipping the actual game you start to run into a conflict of interest. To the frustration of someone like Sean, who enjoyed sitting and playing the game with others, the Expansion Pack encouraged just playing the last boss over and over because that was the best gear.


The other quirk is that the huge number of powerful items in the game meant people could create characters which significantly overpowered someone without the gear. BlameGBush argues, “I don’t care how skilled you are in this game, if you are a level 90 character with weak items going against a level 90 beginner who bought all his items off ebay, you will die every time. Once players both have relatively equal quality items, then strategy comes into play.” By creating epic gear that only rarely occurred in the game, you encourage people to go outside the intended modes of play to win. Some players used bots to automatically harvest money & items, trading outside the game’s economy, and mule characters to swap out gear. The rare items became so valuable and gave you such an edge that cheating was inevitable. A lot of players even play without the expansion pack installed. Most of the powerful gear is gone while the increased difficulty remains, meaning that group play is more challenging. There’s also no real incentive to skip sections and rush to the final portion of the game because the payoff isn’t as large there.


Although the game has had over a dozen patches, none was considered more game-changing than the 1.10 patch which introduced synergies. This made it so certain abilities boosted each other, radically changing the ways characters powered up while leveling. Although a lot of players like RobbyD were angry that all of their characters were now worthless, but it’s also possible to restore the game back to pre-patch status. Flux explains, “Past patches have made major changes by nerfing(weakening gear), but they usually add new things that are just as imbalanced. Players have usually been more interested in finding the new thing than in grieving over the old one.” Therein lies the key to Blizzard’s success with patching their games: you don’t have to force people to play the game differently. You just keep changing the final goal of the game and they adjust accordingly.


It’s interesting how this dynamic reflects back on a more casual player like myself. I spent most of my time as the Sorceress milking Chain Lightening and Fireball, ignoring the stronger spells except to try them out. I dumped all my points into jabbing as an Amazon, boosted my immunity to elemental attacks as a Paladin, or became a wicked teleporter as an Assassin. I wouldn’t call the game hard at this setting but you still have to put together some kind of strategy with your skills to get very far. The difficulty’s biggest impact seems to mostly be not leaving any room for experimenting. I could afford to dump a few random points into skills just to see what they did, while on higher difficulty every bit counts. I found a couple of rare pieces of loot while playing that were fun to wear but it’s not like I ever really needed them at Normal. Diablo 2 is impressive in that regard, the players interested in playing at the max difficulty get stuck having to farm the last level. The ones who are just playing around at lighter difficulties are the ones sightseeing anyways. Diablo 2’s experience is both enormous literally and in the way your playstyle can change everything about it.


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