That’s the title and thesis for a provocative essay by MMO writer Wolfshead. It’s not a new article; it went online back in January, but I hadn’t seen it until today, thanks to a site reader who referenced the link in an email full of useful feedback and comments on The Diablo Podcast. We don’t actually care about the quality of WoW expansions on this site, cause we’re about D3, but many of the issues cited against WoW:Cat are quite relevant to Diablo III’s design decisions. A few quotes:

    For years now I have been warning the MMO community about an impending cataclysm resulting from misguided game developers who have seen fit to substitute fundamental MMO design virtues with dumbed-down game play and assorted parlor tricks. So it?s something of a fitting coincidence that we have an expansion by that very name.

    …One of the major selling points for Cataclysm was that the original areas of WoW needed to be updated to reflect current design tools and the high level of craftsmanship of the quest team. It was also thought that creating a new WoW would provide more accessibility for future new players and ensure profitability for many years to come. Both admirable ideas if they could pull it off.

    The problem was in the execution…

    It?s almost as if someone has kidnapped the game designers at Irvine and replaced them with childcare workers. Azeroth which used to be somewhat exciting and marginally dangerous has become so kid friendly and idiot proof that you?d think you are wandering around in Mr. Rogers Neighborhood looking for a lemonade stand.

    …Cataclysm is the end result of a MMO design by numbers philosophy inspired by the wishes of accountants and avarice of shareholders. This is one picnic basket of childish quests and facile gameplay expressly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there.

    Maybe Blizzard thinks that new players are rather stupid and need to be held by the hand as they progress though WoW. This kind of underestimation of the abilities of new players is so pervasive that WoW has devolved into a perpetual tutorial that lasts 85 undeserved levels.

    …The players through no fault of their own have become virtual slackers addicted to a steady drip feed of rewards. Shooting fish in a barrel would require too much skill for today?s average WoW player. People don?t want to work for anything anymore; they feel entitled. They want achievements for just showing up and Blizzard is only too happy to oblige.

    I recommend that you read the whole piece; it’s full of hyperbole and makes some rather dubious assertions, but it’s got good points as well, and it’s certainly a conversation starter. I bring it up here since most of the guy’s arguments are not specifically about WoW, but are mroe about the sort of game design decisions Blizzard has gone all-in with, in recent years. Providing steady, regular, easily-obtained rewards. Making everyone feel powerful and successful. Teaching with rewards rather than fear of failure. Removing death penalties. Removing grinding. Automating LFG and PuG controls to save players from having to actually talk to each other. Etc.

    Those features are usually seen as improvements, individually, but when you add them all into the same game, does it become a glorified Farmville, paying off nothing but the time you spend playing, rather than requiring or rewarding skill? Is there a point when user-friendly and increased-accessibility becomes dumbed-down to the point that hardcore fans are bored and unchallenged? Pancake vs. donut hole?

    A lot of people in the Diablo III community have posted warnings and worries about this over the past couple of years, as we’ve seen one feature after another “dumbed-down” for the masses. In every case the D3 devs have provided a variety of reasons/excuses for the change, but mixed in amidst them is always some reference to “noobs wouldn’t understand it.”

    The problem with that logic is that everything worth doing has hidden or advanced subtleties that noobs won’t understand until they’re no longer noobs. Think of almost any hobby or activity you’re accomplished at; is the best thing about it ever what a brand new person can do or understand in the same way as an expert? For example, a beginner can have a lot of fun snowboarding the very first time they strap on a board, and when they’re first able to get down the hill without falling on their ass every ten meters, it’s great. But once someone really knows what they’re doing, the fun becomes going really fast, or carving in powder, or doing tricks and jumps. All things that beginners can’t even really comprehend.

    Here’s a very partial, top-of-my-head list of D3 features that are “simplified’ for noob-comprehension: No weapon switch hotkey. Fewer skill keys. Simplified interface. No follower AI controls. Only one follower at a time. Auto-assigned attributes. Normal difficulty balanced to be very easy. Four player max per game. No skill synergies.

    Will we miss all of them? Any of them? Can’t say yet. I agreed with Blizzard’s explanations for why most of those features were removed, and yet.. all of those changes, and many others along the same lines, contribute to the overall tone and mood and theme of the game. Like Wolfshead says about WoW:Cat, the concepts seemed great, in theory. And they seem to work in the game, and yet… fans are disappointed with Cataclysm, and the subscriber numbers are plummeting.

    Could this be a portent for Diablo III’s ultimate reception? A huge game full of great features, but when all combined together, there’s just something missing? Something that earlier, more challenging Blizzard games had?

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