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Although it's been years since we've had a new Diablo game, with all the dungeon-crawling, loot-grabbing, monster-slaying action that fans have been in love with for over a decade now (hard to believe, isn't it?), today we find ourselves just a few short months away from Diablo III's release. A long-awaited closed beta test has come and is now old news amongst players, and Blizzard's fanbase are eagerly awaiting the release of a more public demo and other tastes of the game, though of course, it's unlikely that the hype surrounding the game will be satiated until well after its release early next year.
As much as Diablo is a genre-defining series and, in some senses, the ultimate in accessible PC-oriented action-RPGs, even with the much-awaited Diablo III on the horizon, I've found myself asking a number of questions concerning economics and value, the game's online-only focus, and other design decisions, which really make me question not only how relevant Diablo is to RPGs anymore, but, on a more personal level, to me as well. Although it's still very much the biggest and, arguably, best of hack and slash action-RPGs, I feel very much that Diablo's legacy has, in many ways, outgrown the relatively rigid confines and small scope which in so many ways defined it in the first place... and I feel that it's left me behind, as well.
A Questionable Value Proposition
These days, games can be expensive: both to buy, and to make. While I don't know just how much money Diablo III cost to make, I can bet that it's in excess of most titles on the market these days - it has been in development at least on and off over the course of ten years, after all. More concerning for the end user is the game's retail price. With the cost of PC games continuing to incline, and Activision's PC version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 the equivalent of $80 USD within Europe, it's also certainly possible that Diablo III (published by Activision Blizzard) will end up sharing a higher price than any previous game in the series, before you take the microtransactions, DLC and expansion packs into account. Games have all been steadily rising in price these last few years, so this many not immediately be surprising, but what makes this a bigger issue for Diablo III is that a new, potent challenger has entered the arena.
I'm talking, of course, about Torchlight. Released in 2009, Runic Games' title quickly filled a vacuum in the gaming world by providing a very solid, albeit trimmed-down version of Diablo's gameplay. Torchlight was, however, quite limited in a few ways: its randomly-generated dungeons, while impressive, were also effectively limited to corridors, and there was none of the outdoor exploration that defined much of Diablo II, as well as some of the other Diablo-likes on the market, such as Iron Lore's Titan Quest. The biggest blow for Torchlight, though, was its lack of online multiplayer, which was a deal-breaker for a lot of gamers.
The upcoming Torchlight II, however, is poised to release in as little as a month if all goes well, and Runic Games have taken the time to address virtually every complaint made about the first one. The environments are bigger and more varied. The story is a bigger part of the game, and the campaign longer. There are multiple acts complete with different terrain, towns and dungeons. There are more complex randomly-generated quests and more interactive environments. The classes and loot are more diverse and better balanced. And yes, now there's co-op multiplayer for at least four players, and possibly more. All of this would normally be well and good, but the real kicker? Torchlight II is going to sell for $20 USD at launch.
Now, I am certainly not one to sit here and espouse the virtues of games that I haven't played - and I certainly don't want to give the impression that I think Torchlight II is a flawless gem of a product. Yet, from all we've seen so far, Torchlight II's feature set comes extremely close to what Diablo III will offer players - not only is it the same type of game, it's also likely to be just as expansive, if not more so, and it all comes in at a third of Diablo III's asking price, or even less.
From a gamer's perspective, especially in this tougher economic time, in terms of its raw value proposition... the simple fact is that Diablo III begins to look like a classic case of paying a premium price for a name brand, when the competition is bringing just as much if not more to the table, all for a much more reasonable price. I don't presume to speak for all gamers, but when I look at both games and then weigh the asking prices of each, it's hard not to feel Diablo III simply doesn't provide the same level of value - even were Torchlight II twice as much money, it'd still likely look like a better deal. In the end, you're paying for that Diablo image and entrance to its user community, but not necessarily much else.
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