Right Click to Zoom — The Value Proposition Issue of ARPGs

Welcome to this week’s iteration of Right Click to Zoom, the more in-depth article side of this blog. Today I’m going to be talking about the growing concept and issues of the value proposition of games, particularly how they relate to hack-and-slash action RPGs (referred to as ARPGs for the remainder of the article).

The idea of a value proposition is simple: it’s the idea that a product, in this case a video game, presents itself in its entirety and then asks the consumer for the purchase price. A user deciding that the game is too expensive or doesn’t offer enough gameplay, longevity, or some other criteria is saying that the proposition fails; it’s not worth the value they’re asking.

A number of these concepts can be applied to video games as a whole, but I’m going to relate them back to this one genre for the sake of the article today. This is largely because they are a kind of game that can fall into this discussion fairly quickly by the very nature of how they play. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s start with the poster child of the hack-and-slash ARPG genre: the Diablo series.

The original Diablo is one of the more iconic games of its time, releasing nearly a year before the first Fallout game and simplifying the oft convoluted RPG genre down to a more accessible format. The huge, complex and intricate worlds with fiddly systems of the Ultima series and its ilk were instead reduced to a single town. From this town, you would descend into the catacombs beneath the cathedral, diving deeper until you reached Hell itself to defeat titular demon Diablo.

While still gaining power through traditional level ups, much of your character’s strength came from the randomised loot that would drop as you explored. Some drops were guaranteed from quests that would appear within the dungeon, but they too were randomly assigned; not everyone would find the quest to kill the Butcher or the Skeleton King in their run. You could play through it multiple times and still discover something new, and the same character could become wildly skewed in power. This became the core of the hack-and-slash ARPG: the loot.

If Diablo popularised the concept and genre, Diablo 2 refined and polished it. More character classes, more intricate and variable skill trees, more in-depth storytelling and world building, a bigger world to explore and play with… but most importantly, more loot. Winning a whole slew of awards and quickly becoming the fastest selling video game in history at the time, Diablo 2 opened up the genre to more people than ever before.

The inclusion of additional difficulty levels encouraged repeat playthroughs with the one character. Combine this with a strong multiplayer aspect and options, and the game saw continual play for years afterwards. Arguably, that is where the problems inherent in the modern day perception of the genre began, and few points can highlight this better than the launch of the next game in the Diablo chain.

Diablo 3 as a service

Before we jump into the release of Diablo 3 in 2012, we need to look at the wider picture of gaming, Blizzard, and ARPGs at the time.

A dozen years after its release, Diablo 2 was still the undisputed king of the genre. While there had been a myriad of new games in its vein since, the most notable ones were either of mixed reception or were clear reinterpretations of the series’ offerings. 2009’s Torchlight was very clearly a modern take of the original Diablo, taking place in a single town and diving into the catacombs beneath it. Titan Quest took the genre through ancient mythologies, but while offering interesting systems, it failed to make too many waves by contrast. There was very little else on the market that could really contest the impending Diablo 3 release; people were still largely just replaying Diablo 2.

As for Blizzard themselves, World of Warcraft was now eight years old and still going strong, but was starting to waver for perhaps the first time in its history. Cataclysm was concluding and, by general consensus, had tripped up considerably after the initial expansion launch and was now considered the weakest in WoW’s history. Despite this, the online features and continual support of the MMORPG had started to create expectations that similar treatment would be given to Diablo 3, despite being a largely different genre.

Following Diablo 3’s release, it was met with mixed response, with more leaning towards negative than perhaps expected. Amidst the valid concerns of a predictable and badly executed story amongst other things came an outcry that I personally found quite strange: there was nothing to do once the game was beaten at the highest difficulty.

I played through Diablo 3 at launch just once on Normal difficulty and completed it without incident. While the gameplay was passable, the story and overall execution was extremely poor, moving from a gothic horror setting to something more traditionally fantasy that felt like a Disney parable upon conclusion. In addition, the always online feature meant that I had struggled to beat the final boss; rather than dodging his attacks, I had to evade them with enough leeway to make up for the server lag that was trying to reach across the Pacific Ocean (which I couldn’t reliably do). As such, I didn’t have any inclination on playing through it more.

Here’s where the discussion of value proposition started entering my consciousness as a video game consumer. Observe: I purchased Diablo 3 on launch. I played through it once from start to finish on base difficulty. I didn’t particularly think it was good or care for it much, but it was a product that I purchased all the same for a comparative premium (at the time) and I didn’t begrudge that it was over. I purchased, played through, finished, put aside. Done. Single player game concluded. That is the contract I entered into as a consumer, and that was fine for me. I would have preferred it be a better quality game, but I don’t feel that I was robbed because it didn’t go for a set amount of time longer or shorter. Beginning, middle, end. Complete.

As such, I found it quite strange when I heard continual complaints from people that felt as though they were robbed because there was nothing left to do after the game was completed four times.

Now, complaints about the Real Money Auction House I heard as valid, as well as complaints about certain combinations of enemy modifiers in the highest difficulty being nigh impossible to deal with unless you were considerably decked out in gear. That all made sense to me, but the proposition that people felt cheated despite completing a game four times through and still feeling like there was nothing left? That’s bizarre to me.

Perhaps it was the continual evolution of the internet and its presence in gaming that was shifting perspectives, or else the rampant success of World of Warcraft ended up shaping all expectations of future Blizzard titles. All I knew at the time is that I found it strange that an ARPG — a wholly different experience from the MMORPG of WoW — was being treated with the same expectations of continual support, updates, content releases and so on.

Diablo 2 was still being played to that day, sure, but I don’t believe for a second that it was designed with the expectation that it was being released as a service to be continually maintained and added to. It got an expansion pack after release and was given balance patches a few times in its lifespan, but anything beyond that seemed unnecessary to me. Why was Diablo 3 taken so much further?

Whether it was intended to be at the time, or else whether its design philosophies shifted in accordance with the player feedback, the continuing life of Diablo 3 saw it change dramatically. It became less a once-off game as I had envisioned when I purchased it, and more a playable service that continued indefinitely. Even with the traditional expansion pack and other DLC purchases becoming available, the game was continually updated and saw the Seasons system implemented to keep the game relevant.

This might have been enough to call it a day, but what compounds this further is that the Diablo fanbase even to the present seems to want more. Jump to the present day, Diablo 3 hasn’t received much further content in the last 12 months beyond the addition of the Necromancer class and some small changes along the way. It’s had a huge amount of alterations and development in the long run however, and honestly went from a game I considered mediocre to one that’s much better. If the game were not to receive changes from here, I would consider that more than acceptable. It’s finished, so you can move on to a new game, right?

Unfortunately, the vocal Diablo fanbase seems to consider this the worst fate in the world. With no official announcement of Diablo 4 or any further expansions for Diablo 3, some seem to bemoan the series as dead. They complain that they have nothing more to do with it and are moving on to other games, as if this isn’t a completely normal, reasonable thing to do. The assumption that I had years ago — that a game can be completed and put down — seems to be a completely alien concept to some of these players. The notion of calling it a day with Diablo 3 and moving on to a new game, even another game like it, is unthinkable.

Along the way, Diablo 3 stopped being a game and started being a service. It’s expected that as long as the developers keep up with the service, it should be continually supported. And this is a belief that’s starting to creep into just about every genre and type of video game since Diablo 3 first brought it to my attention. If a game isn’t a service, some will consider it not worth the asking price. The value proposition simply isn’t offering enough game to dollar ratio if that game was to also have an end.

Value propositions of game purchases; or, “The Final Game You’ll Ever Play”

Games have been growing increasingly large in scope as technology and development has allowed them to. From the first Diablo and its singular town of Tristram, to Diablo 2 exploring larger swathes of world, and on to Diablo 3 visiting not just that world but even Heaven and Hell itself, the scope of games is frequently swelling.

But even beyond just this one series, the scope zooms out further still. Minecraft generates massive worlds for one to explore and interact with, even if it’s beyond anything realistically usable. What’s one world, however, when you could have whole galaxies? No Man’s Sky was marketed as a game of unprecedented scope, as was the massively inflated feature-creep approach to Star Citizen’s design. All of these games seemed to be offering an assumption to players: if the game works as intended, you need never play another game but this one.

It’s the realm of science fiction, and has been since the earliest days of the genre. Massive virtual reality games that are so immenseely dense with content and broad in scope that you could live your entire life within it? It’s been done many times over many years, and is a concept that’s still being retold in modern times through books or films like Ready Player One or Summer Wars respectively. While that kind of all-encompassing aspect of digital life is still a ways off, games are constantly striding towards that promised land.

Here’s the dilemma, then: if you have a game of this size and scope and you attach a price point to it for consumer purchase, how does that change the value proposition of every other game made?

More and more, I’ll see games released that will be judged harshly and ignored simply because of their price compared to other games, regardless of its content quality. It’s even more prevalent in Australia as we will often have to pay US dollars for games on Steam, yet the prices are inflated to be more like what an Australian dollar price tag would look like. Example: a game at the store costs 70AUD, so it costs 70US on Steam despite that converting to a much larger price. Suddenly, we have to judge our purchases very carefully.

Recently, I wanted to purchase Prey, but it’s 60US. For that price I could pick up numerous other games I also want; I recently bought the first Total War: Warhammer game for cheap on Humble Bundle, and could have afforded to buy it twice more to match the cost of one Prey copy. As much as I’d love to play Prey, the value proposition isn’t enough to me just yet.

This is seeping into the gaming consciousness as a whole, it seems. People don’t particularly want to pay full price on release for something like Diablo 3 without the knowledge that they’re getting potentially years worth of content, hence the clamouring for it to become the service that it did.

Another example would be the MMORPGs. At the time of WoW’s launch, the paid subscription model was the norm and completely expected. Ten years on, however, just about every relevant MMORPG that I can think of has completely done away with the mandatory subscription except for WoW and Final Fantasy 14, the two most successful. Many others try it for a while, only to toss it aside in favour of one-off purchases (Elder Scrolls Online) or free to play systems supported with microtransactions (Star Wars: The Old Republic). After all, why pay a subscription when a decade old game has far more content to play than yours will ever have?

If a game is not considered worth the price point of a specific consumer, then they won’t purchase it and take their money elsewhere instead. As it was with Diablo 3, now it is with every game.

For hack and slash ARPGs, this is almost certainly going to become a problem in the future. Should a Diablo 4 ever release, it will be in a market that has a lot more interesting games in the genre to contend with than Diablo 3 did. And now we must focus on one title in particular…

Zero dollar price point: The Path of Exile approach

Releasing a year after Diablo 3, Path of Exile made some serious waves on its arrival for a handful of reasons. Playing a lot like a more modern rendition of Diablo 2 (even more so than Torchlight 2 did), the game featured a skill tree of frankly absurd size and customisation potential. It featured a story and setting that was far more grim than the much lighter Diablo 3 had been, had regular seasons and updates in the form of leagues, and generally provided a game that was far more of what the remaining Diablo 2 fanbase was looking for.

Most importantly, it released completely free for anyone to play.

As far as F2P games have gone, Path of Exile is perhaps the best example of doing it right. A game that you can play solo or with friends both known and met through the game with huge amounts of options and content for not a cent. Most importantly, the microtransactions were completely free of any pay to win options, instead just providing a slew of cosmetic features or else optional convenience (additional storage space and the like).

Developers Grinding Gear Games have continued to patch and update the game routinely, adding new features and functionality throughout the game’s lifespan. Most notably was the Fall of Oriath update released just a month or two ago, which included a total overhaul of the game’s progression to include a whopping six new acts of story (bringing the previous total of four up to ten).

This update also removed the need for added difficulty reruns that have been the staple of the ARPG since Diablo 2. No longer did you just play through Acts 1 to 4 three or four times at increasingly harder levels; now you just go from 1 to 10 at a steadily increasing challenge level, and once you complete it there are additional maps and randomised dungeons to take on.

Beyond the legacy of Diablo 2, Path of Exile is widely considered the best hack-and-slash ARPG on the market. And even if you don’t personally like it as much as other offerings, well… it will absolutely win in value for money. Anyone can give it a shot without having to pay a cent, and even if it doesn’t stick that’s hardly a bad value proposition.

Plus, even if you don’t particularly care for it now, the league system will usually see additional updates and tweaks to the formula on a regular basis. Those who have played the existing one usually return and try out a new character build, or else something you wanted to try previously might now be an option. There’s still more content to come with the game, so Path of Exile remains tempting whenever someone feels like playing an ARPG.

While there are legitimate criticisms one could level at Path of Exile, I would honestly struggle to do so without descending into nitpick territory. It is through and through a great game, and many of the issues I might have with it were addressed long ago.

So how could a theoretical Diablo 4 begin to compete with that, even from a simple value standpoint? And not just a Diablo game, but any ARPG in that style?

A not so Grim future

As fatalistic as that sounds, it’s not all doom and gloom for the ARPG. Path of Exile might have the attention of the hardcore genre player and Diablo 3 is still played by many, but they’re not the only standouts. As well as the slew of up and coming or lesser games, one title has risen to the upper echelons alongside them: Grim Dawn.

Compared to the always online systems of Diablo 3 or Path of Exile, Grim Dawn is a more traditional game that can be played solo offline, or with friends. It offers a flexible class system based off Titan Quest’s masteries that sees you picking a combination of two of the six classes to build your skillset. There’s a secondary skill system that’s added to by finding and clearing shrines in the world which allows additional customisation options. There’s a fairly engrossing world with a decent plot that is further expanded by having reputation systems with certain groups that you can progress with. And, naturally, there’s bundles of randomly generated loot to acquire.

Grim Dawn ended up being in Early Access for a time and was in development for an extended stint. When it finally released, it had taken in much of the feedback of the players and created a fairly robust and enjoyable ARPG. It follows the semi-traditional “Acts 1 through 4 and repeat on higher difficulty” system that the latter Diablos and Path of Exile adopted, but is much looser about defining acts as such. Numerous dungeons are optional to the main plot and are there simply for the sake of exploring or adding to the world.

There’s also a slew of new features, areas, and quests that are only accessible on the higher difficulties, so there’s more incentive to clear them rather than just because they’re available. It’s much harder to say you’ve completed the game if you’ve only beaten it on Normal this time around.

The game is purchasable now on Steam for a reasonably smaller price than your average new game, so while the value proposition is certainly not as impressive as Path of Exile’s, it’s not enough to leave it without any players. Personally, I’ve actually found myself more engaged by Grim Dawn as a game than Path of Exile more often than not, and I’m strongly looking at playing more of it even before the expansion pack releases.

I’m hardly the standard player, though, meaning that I routinely worry about the fate of the ARPG as a result. With the expectation that a new game in the genre would likely have to be a continually updating service in order to maintain traction and be considered a success, that’s a large developmental strain on an aspiring team. Furthermore, the game has to stand out enough when there are fantastic games to compete with that literally don’t cost a cent to play.

In such an environment, it’s really hard to imagine there being much of a desire to work on a new Diablo game. The expectations will be astronomically high, even beyond those going into 3’s announcement. Despite this, history has shown that Blizzard games will generally sell regardless of their price point, as the company is trusted and adored by many.

For another company? That’s much harder to imagine. Still, if nothing else, Grim Dawn has proven that it’s certainly possible to make a good game in the genre according to those specifications and still be a decent value proposition.

At the end of the day, all you really have to do is make a good quality game, and people will enjoy it. Crazy, isn’t it?

The notion of the value proposition, of the last game you’ll ever play, and other such concepts are certainly things that I’d like to touch on in more depth. But that’s a topic for another article; for now, this is certainly a genre that is at the forefront of the discussion, and one I can hopefully provoke a little thought about by discussing it that way. Let me know what you think about it, and I’ll see you next week. Delfeir out.

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