May 15, 2012. Diablo III, a game millions had been waiting to play for over a decade, launches into immediate turmoil: overloaded login servers sour the experience into little more than waiting outside of the coolest party in town, only players had already spent $60 to get in. The problems took days to rectify, but the real damage came weeks later: with an economy that had to factor in a controversial auction house, people were bored of playing a game designed to never get boring.
Blizzard Entertainment is one of the industry's most cherished developers. It does not--or did not, depending on how you see it--make bad games. As of February 2014, Diablo III has sold 15 million copies. But the general mood towards the game felt like one of bitterness, disappointment, and frustration.
How do you solve a problem like Diablo III?
"That's been a strange phenomenon," says Alex Mayberry on the morning before the launch of the game's transformative expansion, Reaper of Souls. I ask him what it's like to have Diablo 3 become so closely linked with such a feeling of dissatisfaction. "I don't know if it gets overemphasised. Who's our vocal minority, and what is that number? Even if it's only one percent, or two percent, that's a lot of people."
Two percent of disappointed Diablo 3 owners is 280,000 people. That's a lot of angry commenters. "It's been hard to distinguish all the voices in that loud cacophony," Mayberry adds.
Reaper of Souls launches tomorrow with new loot-dropping systems, a new Crusader class, a new level 70 cap, an Adventure Mode, and the removal of the controversial Auction House. Many of its mechanical changes have been folded back into the vanilla game as part of patch 2.0.1, but the general gist is that players will get more varied loot more often. The response, generally, has been optimistic. "It's nice to now see people reacting to the changes," Mayberry says, "and I think the changes are great."
"We know we're in a good place with it because we ourselves are wanting to play it all the time," he added. "There's a lot of excitement, and we're waiting to see what people are going to say."
Leading the charge on Reaper of Souls is Josh Mosqueira, who took over as game director in June 2013. Mayberry explained the effect that some of his decisions have had on the game. "Josh came in and really pushed for Adventure Mode and the dynamic difficulty system. Opening up the game. Jay [Wilson, former game director] was really focused on getting that Diablo experience down, and Josh's focus has been: how do we expand on it? We had to make some pretty major changes to do what Josh wanted to do, and it was kind of one of those things that, well, once we do this there's no going back. So there was some nervousness early on when we were first starting to develop it, but it came together really well."
And what about Wilson, who was flooded with thousands upon thousands of furious comments following the release of Diablo III. "Josh worked very closely with Jay," says Mayberry. "I've known Jay for, well, I helped bring Jay to Blizzard, I've known him for 20 years. I think the fans like to create a rivalry somehow between those two. There's none whatsoever at all."
Nobody at Blizzard will use words like mistake, error, or regret when it comes to Diablo III, but the message seems clear to me: the team has been quick to extol the virtues of what's changed, and has not really been seen to mourn for what has gone.
"I know some of you feel we fell short of our promise to release the game 'when it's ready,'" wrote Wilson on Blizzard's forums when he announced he was stepping away from Diablo III at the start of 2013. "While we're not perfect, we try to make the best decisions we can with the information and knowledge we have at the time. That doesn't mean we always make the right decisions, but if we made a mistake then I feel we've made an exceptional effort to correct it."
Only time will tell if Reaper of Souls will be accepted by those 280,000 vocal fans in a way that the original Diablo 3 was not. "It's hard to know where ideas originated and where they didn't," continues Mayberry. "I think Jay had the harder challenge of just getting Diablo 3 out, and that took a lot out of Jay, and I think for Josh, he's come in now and helped put that next layer on. I think together they've done a really great job."
Reaper of Souls, with its procedurally generated adventure modes, intends to be that next layer. Mayberry says that the expansion makes the game feel more like a sandbox, and less like a directed experience that more closely apes the original games.
"If you look at traditional Diablo--Diablo 1, Diablo II, the first incarnation of Diablo III, you're playing through that story narrative. That was the paradigm they created back then, and one of the challenges for making Diablo III was, 'What do we hold on to from previous games and what do we change?'" That focus on just the story campaign "made the game feel smaller than it should have," says Mayberry. "Because you're always being driven--go there, and now go there."
Those who have been avoiding Diablo III because of its less-than-stellar loot variety might also find enough new loot to warrant another look. Items are now designed to synergise with one another, Mayberry explains, and there are way more combinations for interesting character builds. "I had something drop that, when I got a Massacre bonus, it caused gold to rain down. Then I found something else that boosted my gold drop by 35 percent or something, so that made even more gold. And then I got something that, when I picked up gold, depending on how much I picked up, would temporarily increase my toughness. So gold became a powerup for me! With my Wizard I would squeeze as many guys together as I could, burn them down, they'll all spit out gold and then I'd pick up the gold and my toughness, temporarily, would spike by hundreds of percent."
Mayberry says that he feels like he's missing "half a game" if he now goes back to vanilla Diablo 3, but does that mean that players will have to shell out extra money to get the experience they deserve? "You don't have to. We made it so that you don't. Patch 2.0.1 is perfectly viable for anyone that doesn't want to buy it. But it would be a shame to not buy it, because we've added so much more to the game. And I feel like, you know, Reaper of Souls really pushes Diablo down the path it needs to go."
And what is that path? What comes next for Diablo 3? Is it ladders and tournaments, a real PvP arena, or bringing these updates more regularly to the console versions of the game? "These are all things we're talking about now. We're not making definite plans yet. We have our first content plan figured out. First update. But after that, Josh really wants to wait and see what the community says. What the reaction is. There's a million different things we could start doing. We really want to see what, based on the players' reaction to Reaper of Souls, what should we do next. That's the approach we're taking right now."