Should Diablo 4 really be considered an MMO? Probably not
Let’s start with a question — what is the first word that comes to mind when you think of those beautiful Diablo 4 demos from BlizzCon 2019? For me, it’s open-world (yes, I know that’s technically two words). But that leads me to ponder: As RPGs move more toward the open-world model, what differentiates them from MMORPGs? And (perhaps the more significant question), should there be more separation or uniqueness between the two?
What terms are we using here, and how do we mean them?
MMORPG, ARPG, Isometric, open-world… these are things we hear all the time in gaming. But how much do we understand them? What is the proper use of our gamer lexicon?
- MMORPG (massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game) — In this context, we’re using MMO to refer to games in which thousands or even millions of players get together online to play a roleplay-style game. There is a slew of subgenres applied to MMOs, but there are only so many hours of the day here!
- ARPG (action roleplaying game) — These games are more focused on real-time combat. The types more relevant to our topic are the “point-and-click” (referencing mouse use rather than console controller) and “hack-and-slash” (focusing on real-time combat) styles, which includes the Diablo franchise. The ARPG genre has much backstory, so I recommend reading up if you’re interested!
- Isometric — To put it simply, this refers to the camera viewing angle in the game. Developers use this method to turn 2D graphics into a 3D environment.
- Open-world — Probably the most open-ended definition, this refers to players freely roaming throughout the video game world; however, it has become synonymous with non-linear gameplay, implying free-form objective progression (AKA, the opposite of D3’s story mode).
- Roguelike — We’ve seen this term tossed around recently about Torghast. Still, it’s technically considered a parallel-to or sub-genre of ARPG. It focuses on requirements such as random dungeon generators, being defined by runs instead of save points, and hack-and-slash gameplay.
Vocabulary established. Now let’s use it.
The now and future Diablo franchise
Diablo historically has been an isometric (A)RPG. I put the (A) in parentheses because, depending on who you are talking to, we could use the point-and-click or hack-and-slash sub-genres. Regardless, it has generally taken over as a traditional example of the ARPG genre from games like the Zelda franchise.
During D4‘s unveiled at BlizzCon, the panels emphasized seamless exploration and of the new open-world design. Demos had players collaborating against world bosses for open events, fights where you’ll come across a giant invading demon, and “it’s gonna take more than the people in your party to fight it.” And boy, those fights looked like a lot of fun.
The maps previewed and inclusion of mounts also emphasize the scale players are facing in D4. The world of Sanctuary is about to get a lot bigger, and we’re going to need that mobility. But it does call to mind another Blizzard game.
Bringing the roguelike to World of Warcraft
WoW has already been influenced by several features initially implemented in D3. The current iteration of the WoW transmog system, for one, was born out of improvements developed when D3 added the Mystic. Socketing gems into items has roots in D2. Spells and gear have crossed franchises. WoW even has a “there is no cow level” loading screen tip.
Most notable is the new Torghast dungeon coming in Shadowlands. Blizzard has clearly stated that Torghast is “inspired by roguelike games.” It’s hard to disagree, with its ever-changing maps and purported “infinite” replayability. Progression through the Tower of the Damned results in increasing difficulty and complexity; the higher you climb, the more difficult the traps and enemies holding the keys. Your run is over when repeated deaths trigger the appearance of the Tarragrue, a giant unkillable creature that will kill you if it catches you. Our alpha runners have been having a blast exploring all the features and seeing how Blizzard has improved on the model introduced with Horrific Visions.
With all these inclusions in WoW, why continue making two games?
How Diablo and World of Warcraft differ
Yes, they’re both RPGs, but the Diablo and Warcraft franchises have some pretty significant differences.
First off, the tones of the two are significantly different. While I wouldn’t necessarily call WoW a happy-go-lucky game, bright landscapes and beautiful architecture are the prevailing themes. Just picture Suramar — supposedly thousands of years old, and utterly gorgeous while also showing an evident influence on the designs of the Night Elves and Blood Elves. On the flip side, Diablo is gritty. Heck, during his introduction of D4 during BlizzCon 2019, Game Director Luis Barriga summarized the new title as “darkness, world, and legacy.” Speculation has abounded as to how those three will show up in the title, but the trailer was promising levels of horrifying.
Additionally, the base stories are significantly different. Yes, both start in major wars — The Sin War and The War of the Ancients. However, even the roots of those events differ. Diablo focuses on themes more traditionally seen in religion — for example, the Eternal Conflict between the angels of the High Heavens and the demons of the Burning Hells. However, the Eternal Conflict was really over the Worldstone and its powers to shape the universe and create life. The Worldstone is, in fact, part of the origin of Sanctuary! Meanwhile, the backstories of Warcraft are much more tied in traditional, Tolkein- or D&D-style fantasy — Elves, Orcs, Trolls, Dwarves, and so on, interacting together in the world. There are still invading demons, but these are demons from the far reaches of space.
Lastly, and probably most significant, is the social aspects of the two franchises. Up to five people party up for WoW’s dungeons, and raids are larger 10/25-person affairs, although the social aspects of both have changed since the introduction of LFG/LFR. Guilds in WoW are the social groupings, based around shared goals (such as mythic raiding) or social interests. The closest social alliance in D3 would be clans, which are invitation-only, involve individual membership (you can’t be in two at once), and have a cap of 120 people. Meanwhile, D3 communities have no cap on headcount (and are not single-membership-only) and based around a specific goal (like Seasonal Powerleveling) or language. Grouping is a smaller scale, with a max number of four people per party to run bounties or Greater Rifts. As an MMO, it makes sense that WoW would be a more socially-oriented game, but it can make D3 feel lonely on occasion.
And now, for the question that you all want answered.
So, should D4 be considered an MMO?
Short version: No, it shouldn’t.
Despite the non-linear story path and open-world, I don’t think D4 would benefit from the MMO tag. MMOs can feel formulaic and are developing towards a wide and varied player base. The developers are working towards making D4 accessible to players of different skill levels, but have made clear they want to stay true to the foundations of the Diablo franchise. Things like rep grinds make no sense in a franchise like Diablo, where a design goal is to leave the players wondering if they will be successful. The “day late and dollar short” mentality just doesn’t fit with MMO games.
If anything is going to come close from Diablo, it is much more likely to be Diablo Immortal. Already classified as an MMOARPG by Blizzard, players experience the world in a “persistent, always-online adventure.” The title will feature social hubs, dynamic world events, and group dungeon runs. As a bridge between the stories of D2 and D3, it will be fascinating to see how both the MMO style and mobile form-factor impact this franchise.
It’s also important to remember that we’re still working off of BlizzCon 2019 announcements, and a few developers update blogs. Things could change at any given time. What we see at future BlizzCons or the release of the game, could differ wildly from the information we currently have. But, in the absence of news, all we can do is ponder the question: What will we see from Sanctuary next?
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