How Blizzard was able to keep the game engaging for so long is by changing the strongest state a player could achieve.
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.