Tag Archives: Diablo III

Stepping off the Treadmill: Alternatives to Gear

Honesty time: I have had enough of gear. The concept of continually acquiring new and better equipment lies at the heart of virtually all MMORPGs, but I’m just sick of it. It’s an easy way for developers to provide a carrot for players to chase, but I don’t think it’s healthy for the genre in the long run, and I for one am simply bored with the whole concept.

A high level character shows off their gear in World of Warcraft

Gear as a vertical progression system works well in single-player games because eventually you’ll have the best gear and be done with it. In an MMO, that can never happen. Regular gear resets are a necessity, so gearing becomes a treadmill where you never really get anywhere. Today’s best in slot will be tomorrow’s vendor trash.

It’s also a terribly binary form of progression. Either the item you want drops, or it doesn’t, and your time feels wasted. This can be mitigated with currency systems, where if gear doesn’t drop a currency that can eventually be spent on gear does, but even that only lessens the problem, rather than solving it entirely.

And of course it creates terrible inequality between players. There is inevitably a large power gap between those with the best gear and those without, fostering elitism and excluding many people from content.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other alternative progressions systems out there, and while none are perfect, many can avoid the pitfalls of the gear treadmill.

Continued Leveling

In most MMOs, leveling is little more than a time-gate. It’s something you work through before getting to the “real” game, which is usually where the gear treadmill kicks in.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be that way. Leveling is something that can continue indefinitely, providing players constant, incremental power increases. You can see examples of this in Diablo III’s paragon levels and Elder Scrolls Online’s champion points.

A necromancer character in Diablo III, a game where leveling never ends

There are some disadvantages to such a scheme. In the long run the constant small stat boosts can add up and begin to create balance issues or other strange behaviors, and as with gear, you risk creating a large divide between the haves and the have-nots, though that can be mitigated with catch-up mechanics.

Endless leveling does have some major positives, though. Because pretty much anything can give XP, leveling is a progression system that offers incredible freedom to the player. Any playstyle can be therefore be meaningfully rewarded. Add global level-scaling as seen in Guild Wars 2 or ESO, and your options become almost limitless.

You can also say goodbye to play sessions where nothing is accomplished because what you wanted didn’t drop. You’re always going to be earning at least some XP. And while it’s still vertical progression, it’s not a treadmill, because the levels you’ve already earned are never made irrelevant. You’re always moving forward.

Non-combat Skills

Not all progression needs to be about helping you kill stuff faster. Progression can instead take the form of various non-combat abilities and buffs. Perhaps players can gain new movement skills, or learn new languages to access quests from isolated NPC races, or gain more incremental buffs to things like movement speed or gold find.

The masteries introduced in Guild Wars 2’s Heart of Thorns expansion are one example of this, and some of ESO’s champion points and Diablo’s paragon levels also offer non-combat improvements.

Horizontal progression such as this is good because it side-steps nearly all of the problems with gear. The gap between veteran and newcomer is largely irrelevant, since both groups maintain roughly the same power level where it most counts. There is no treadmill, as the bonuses you’ve earned are always relevant. Like endless leveling, it’s also a good opportunity to reward all playstyles and make every session rewarding.

A character in Guild Wars 2, a game with a vocal but not always successful commitment to horizontal progression

The downsides are that non-combat bonuses don’t always have the same “sex appeal” as doing more damage or having more health, and it can be difficult to design non-combat boosts that are useful enough to be appealing but optional enough to not break the game.

Non-combat progression likely works best as a supplement to other systems rather than the core progression model of a game. It can be something to help you achieve your other goals, since not everyone will find it a worthy goal unto itself.


Progression doesn’t even necessarily need to be about gameplay. It can also just be about bringing the flair. There are already plenty of people throughout the MMO community who will pursue gear purely for its looks, rather than its stats. Some wily developer could capitalize on this and put cosmetic progression front and center.

In theory, cosmetic progression was supposed to a key part of Guild Wars 2’s design, though it never seemed to quite work out that way. I don’t think it had enough different looks to choose from, at least at launch, and limiting the transmutation charges needed to a change an item’s appearance was a mistake. If you want to make appearance items a core progression system, it needs to be easy to create, save, and swap outfits at will. Otherwise you encourage people to find one look they like and stick with it forever after.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has a very good outfit system that allows you to save multiple looks and swap between them whenever, wherever. It’s certainly encouraged me to horde a massive amount of cosmetic gear. Also, while it’s not an MMO, Overwatch seems to be doing quite well with a purely cosmetic progression model, so I definitely think it can work.

I think the trick to a really strong cosmetic progression system is to have a wealth of options. Not just the usual gear slots we’re used to, but also visible jewelry, dyes and accessories to modify your clothes, and perhaps unlockable hairstyles or idle animations.

SWTOR is a good MMORPG for cosmetic progression

Make it so no two characters ever look alike, so each avatar is a visual record of that player’s accomplishments. Then move it beyond avatars to also include non-combat pets and mount skins. Even spells and abilities could potentially be reskinned, with more unusual effects reserved for the greatest in-game accomplishments.

With some creativity, the potential for cosmetic progression is almost limitless. The only real downside is that, like gear with stats, cosmetics don’t lend themselves to incremental progress very well. You either get the item you want, or you don’t.

Earning Abilities

Another option for horizontal progression is to continually earn new abilities. These abilities are not necessarily more powerful than what you already have, but simply add new options. This is a more niche option, but for me personally, it’s the most appealing form of progression.

The main example of this I can think of was the late, lamented ability wheel of The Secret World, wherein players constantly earned ability points that could then be spent unlocking hundreds of active and passive abilities. Only a few of these abilities could be equipped at a time, making for careful strategic decision-making and allowing for true horizontal progression. Leveling up different jobs on the same character in Final Fantasy XIV could also be considered a version of this progression model, though a very watered down one.

There are a lot of obvious advantages to this. It greatly narrows the gap between the haves and the have-nots because veteran players simply have more options rather than being directly more powerful.

It also eliminates the treadmill issue. Your old abilities are never invalidated. They will always have uses, even if they’re niche.

The Secret World was one of the best MMOs for horizontal progression before its reboot

The downsides are the potential balance issues caused by endlessly adding new abilities and the design challenge in keeping the new abilities meaningful and interesting, but I don’t think those are necessarily unsolvable. TSW may have had cookie cutter builds for certain situations, but there were no builds that dominated every aspect of the game, and almost every ability was useful in at least one or two circumstances.

These new abilities could be earned through traditional XP farming as in TSW and FFXIV, but developers could also get more creative. There could be lengthy quest chains where one learns new abilities from a master, or defeating a powerful boss could grant the player permanent use of one of the boss’s powers.

Mix and Match

Ultimately, no one single alternative to gear will work for everyone. It would be best to combine a few to achieve a broad appeal and add depth to the experience.

But really, that’s to be expected. Even games that do rely on gear for vertical progression often include at least some elements of other systems.

What is clear is that the gear treadmill is not the be all and end all of MMORPG progression. Developers like it because it’s easy to design, and players like it because we’ve been conditioned to, but the genre can and should do better. There are alternatives out there. All we need is a developer with the courage to try.

Is Blizzard Moving Away from Narrative?

This year’s BlizzCon had a lot of good news, but there was also a lot about it that disappointed me. In particular I was saddened by the continued lack of an expansion for Diablo III. Yes, some updates are planned, but they’re mostly pretty small, and they do nothing to expand the story.

A cutscene from Diablo III's story mode

That combined with other recent developments has planted a disquieting thought in my mind: Could Blizzard be giving up on narrative in its games altogether?

The shift away from story:

Up until quite recently, story was a pillar of every Blizzard game for the past two decades. All of the older Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo games featured extensive story-driven campaigns, without exception.

Now, in the space of a few short years, we’ve reached a point where fully half of Blizzard’s current catalogue has no in-game story to speak of.

In some cases this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone really expects a single-player campaign for Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’re silly games meant to deliver fun and exciting gameplay, and nothing else.

And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be some narrative-driven work of art. There is a place for games that are purely mechanical.

But then you get to Overwatch, and that’s more worrisome. Like Heroes and Hearthstone, it lacks any kind of story content, but unlike those games, it has lots of potential for a good story. That potential is simply being ignored.

Hearthstone is just a spin-off of Warcraft, so it’s backstory has already been fully fleshed out, and Heroes is just a ridiculous “what if” scenario throwing together random elements of Blizzard’s other games. Overwatch, though, has a pretty rich world, a detailed backstory, and some interesting characters, but none of this is leveraged by the game itself.

The tutorial for Overwatch

Overwatch has all the right ingredients to provide a fantastic narrative experience, but for whatever reason Blizzard doesn’t seem to want to try.

And now it seems like even Blizzard’s older franchises are beginning to leave story by the wayside.

Everyone has spent the last few years expecting a second expansion to Diablo III, but now it’s looking like that might never happen. There are some updates planned, but they won’t do much to advance the story.

This is despite the fact that the ending to the previous expansion, Reaper of Souls, left the story very clearly unfinished. Both the main storyline of the world and many of the characters’ personal stories have been left obviously unfinished. As with Overwatch, there’s plenty of potential for story here; that potential is simply being left to wither on the vine.

And then there’s the news that StarCraft II will not be producing any more mission packs following the conclusion of the Covert Ops storyline later this month — or at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in this case there isn’t a pressing need for more story content in StarCraft. There’s definitely potential for more stories within the universe — I’d been hoping for some mission packs around Selendis and Alexei Stukov, myself — but after three massive campaigns and a fairly substantive DLC in the form of Covert Ops, you definitely can’t argue StarCraft’s story fans haven’t gotten their due.

The lack of new mission packs for SC2 is mildly disappointing, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d get too worked up about under other circumstances. It’s only when viewed in the context of a potential shift away from story for the company as a whole that it becomes worrying.

A cutscene in the campaign for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

And then there’s the recent retirement of Chris Metzen to consider. Metzen was the main creative force behind the worlds and stories of every Blizzard game since the early days of the Warcraft strategy games. Blizzard has other writers, and of course the company can continue to produce good stories without him, but I worry his departure might signal a culture shift in the company.

Metzen, so far as I can tell, was the main voice within Blizzard that argued in favor of the importance of lore and narrative. In fact I seem to recall hearing he’d wanted to do a story mode for Overwatch but had been voted down.

Now, I don’t think Metzen quit because he disagreed with the direction of the company, or he was forced out, or anything like that. I’m not that paranoid. But with Metzen gone, I have to wonder how much desire for story there is within Blizzard. Who is left to argue for its importance?

Individually, these things might not be a great cause for concern, but together they seem to form a pattern, and that pattern worries me.

What remains:

Blizzard is still telling stories… but increasingly it seems to be happening outside of their games.

StarCraft just launched a new tie-in novel, Timothy Zahn’s Evolution, and Overwatch has been putting out a steady stream of tie-in content, from digital comics to animated shorts to the upcoming First Strike graphic novel.

I enjoy tie-ins like this — I fully intend to pick up Evolution. But it’s not the same as actual in-game stories. It’s not quite so satisfying. This is especially true for Overwatch. Normally tie-ins like this are meant to supplement the main story, which happens in-game, but when the entire story takes place outside the game, it feels thin and scattered.

A shot from the animated short for Overwatch's new Sombra character

With the way things are going, one could even envision a future where all of Blizzard’s story-telling takes place outside its games, and I think we can all agree that would be a pretty weird situation for a video game company.

Of course, the elephant in the room — as is often the case — is World of Warcraft. There’s no evidence at all that WoW is moving away from telling stories in-game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legion is probably the most story-driven expansion to date.

But it’s possible that the shift away from narrative simply hasn’t begun to affect Warcraft yet, or that WoW is a legacy of an older version of Blizzard and will continue on as it has out of a sense of tradition, even as the rest of the company’s games abandon in-game stories.

It’s also possible that I am seeing patterns where none exist, and that this entire post is nothing but paranoid nonsense. I remain open to that possibility.

Why it all matters:

“If the gameplay is good, the story doesn’t matter” is an attitude you’ll see a lot of in the gaming community. A lot of people view plot in gaming as an optional frill, nice to have at but hardly essential. That can be true for some people and some games, but I think the importance of a good story is often greatly overlooked within gaming.

You would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King purely because Arthas was dead, and his was the story they cared about. With him gone, they lost their investiture in the game world and simply moved on.

The conclusion of the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft, modified by a local void totem

Overwatch has been a big success despite its lack of narrative, but one has to wonder how much bigger it could have been if it had also appealed to story fans. I know it lost my patronage by focusing purely on PvP.

You can cite plenty of other examples of games that succeeded with little or no story, but then again I can also think of more than a few games that succeeded entirely based on the strength of their narrative. You’d hard-pressed to find much praise for the gameplay of the original Mass Effect, yet it’s still considered a classic. We’re even starting to see an increased demand for games that focus entirely on story with little or no gameplay to speak of, such as the much-praised Life Is Strange.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge of fan of the core gameplay of World of Warcraft. It is at best adequate. More than anything else, it’s my love for the world of Azeroth that always keeps me coming back. And this is far from the only time I’ve invested in a game despite lukewarm feelings toward its game mechanics.

Over the past twenty years, Blizzard has built some incredibly deep and vibrant worlds, full of beloved characters and memorable stories. That is a powerful resource, and it would be tremendously wasteful not to capitalize on it.

Blizzard is too much of a juggernaut for the loss of story to be a serious threat to its financial success, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose if they leave narrative behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find other games to play if they give up on plot entirely, and putting aside more practical considerations, games lose something special without story. I know I’m going to remember Arthas’ fall a lot longer than that time I got off a good gank in Heroes of the Storm.

5 Free Diablo Clones

Blizzard’s Diablo has now achieved such a level of notoriety that an entire genre is now based on its name. While many people refer to this genre by more generic terms such as action-RPGs or hack and slash MMOs, nothing gets the point across faster than “Diablo clone”. The commonality between these games is tons of loot, fast paced combat, lots of enemies on screen, cooperative play, and character build variety. Different games accomplish this in different ways, and it’s hard to beat free. Thus, I’ve compiled a list of what I think are the 5 best free diablo clones currently available, along with who they best appeal to.

path of exile free diablo clone diablo 2

Path of Exile

Appeals to: Old school Diablo II fans

Path of Exile launched about a year after Diablo III. Whereas most games in a similar genre typically benefit from a first mover advantage, Path of Exile probably received a nice boost from its later release. You see, the latest Diablo release changed a lot of things from Diablo II. It wasn’t an iterative improvement, but an entire overhaul. The problem with that is Diablo II is and was a great game. Many People weren’t looking for a reworking of the wheel, but changes to improve on archaic design flaws of Diablo II. In many ways, Path of Exile did both.

It’s a game with its own unique vision but stays true to what made Diablo II a classic: trading, impactful character building, PvP, and crazy amounts of loot. There’s a ton of character build variety in the game with its huge passive skill grid, reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. Weapons and armors with numerous effects are important, but Path of Exile steps it up with its skill gems. Skills gems are socketable items that provide active abilities for players to use. These gems also level up during play. Instead of learning skills on level ups, you “learn” them by equipping skill gems. As any Diablo fan will tell you, finding new loot is the best part of the game. In Path of Exile, not only do you find equipment, you find new skills to mix and match with your build.

Between passives, skill gems, gem modifiers, and randomized loot, there’s a near limitless number of ways to build characters. What’s truly impressive is how many players enjoy creating new characters just to try new builds. Theorycrafting is definitely alive and well in Path of Exile. While there’s no way to fully respec, you can also make small changes to your passive skills. No longer do you need to fear an errant click ruining your build like in Diablo II.

And more than anything, it’s these small things that make Path of Exile most appealing. The character sheet is chock full of information. Potions refill on their own and a variety of different potion combinations impact builds in their own unique way. Inventory management is now a breeze. Instanced dungeons and loot runs with friends is now faster, more intuitive, and easier to setup.

Path of Exile might be the best free Diablo clone simply because it’s the game that actually plays most similar to Diablo. It’s also notable for lacking any “pay for power” cash shop items.

Read our full Path of Exile review or play it now.

herowarz free diablo clone anime


Appeals to: Cute and silly anime lovers who like switching characters and faster paced combat

HeroWarz is the latest free MMO on this list to follow in Diablo’s footsteps. Releasing earlier this year, it surprised a lot of people, myself included. Expecting another generic anime MMO, I braced myself for the worst. Ultimately though, I found the game to be a very enjoyable experience.

First, the style is a welcome change from the dark and dreary colors of most dungeon delving ARPGs. And unlike Diablo III, it actually fits the atmosphere. Instead of playing different classes, players select characters that they can freely swap between. This plays out similarly to different characters in MOBAs like League of Legends or DOTA2. As someone who had spent hundreds of hours playing League in the past, I really enjoyed this setup. Additionally, the PvP mode also feels like a MOBA so HeroWarz ends up offering two unique experiences in one package.

The action is a lot more frantic than other Diablo clones. Enemies basically rush at you in waves (rather than you going to meet them). Players can get overwhelmed if they’re not ready or playing their characters correctly. Healing potions also work on a 30 second timer rather than using a limited supply, which I prefer. The name may be really dumb (seriously, a z replacing an s is so 1998), but HeroWarz is a welcome addition to the stable of free Diablo clones.

Read our full HeroWarz review or play it now.

drakensang online free diablo clone browser

Drakensang Online

Appeals to: Those seeking a balanced and solid web based Diablo experience

Drakensang Online doesn’t innovate as much as Path of Exile or HeroWarz. It’s also much older, releasing in 2011. While it does offer a standalone client, Drakensang Online’s biggest plus is its accessibility. Any somewhat modern computer can run it straight from a browser. And for a browser title, it looks pretty damn good.

One of the cooler design decisions for a free to play game is that Andermant, Drakensang’s premium currency, drops from monsters and chests. While the cash shop plays a larger role than other free Diablo clones, it’s mitigated by this simple feature. The gameplay itself is solid but not spectacular. There are four unique classes in the game, all of which are surprisingly well balanced. Customization comes in the form of three different ability/attribute trees. You won’t make many agonizing character build choices, but leveling does bring some interesting decisions.

The itemization is solid. The quests are solid. The overworld map has fun places to explore. The color palettes and enemies fit the tone. Everything works well in Drakensang. While there’s not a lot of flash here, it’s a very solid game.

Read our full Drakensang Online review or play it now.

guardians of divinity free diablo clone automated

Guardians of Divinity

Appeals to: People who like ARPG loot without the work or want a Facebook version of Diablo

Guardians of Divinity is another browser based MMORPG. Whereas Drakensang Online feels first and foremost a Diablo-esque game, Guardians of Divinity feels primarily a browser game. By that, I mean to say it’s much simpler and dumbed down. The quests are uninspired and the whole story is filled with complete randomness. So why include Guardians of Divinity on this list?

Guardians of Divinity’s appeal lies in its autoplay system. With relatively minimal input, players can instruct their characters to kill mobs, pickup loot, and turn in quests. Players will want to check in occasionally, but it’s a perfect game for playing at work. It’s also perfect for getting ahead without really putting in any effort. One of the most divisive issues when it comes to ARPGs is the grind to level new characters or get new loot. While I think the other four Diablo clones listed have improved core gameplay components, the real joy is still in finding sweet new gear to equip. Guardians of Divinity offers players.

Like many Facebook games, it’s a bit hollow and fairly shallow. But it’s also addictive to see new rares in your inventory every time you alt+tab over.

Read our full Guardians of Divinity review or play it now.

marvel heroes free diablo clone superhero

Marvel Heroes

Appeals to: Superhero fans, someone seeking a Diablo clone with more MMO features, or players who suffer from Altitis

Marvel Heroes is perhaps the best video game use of the Marvel license yet. The game was pretty awful at launch but has turned into something pretty remarkable. Players in Marvel Heroes can unlock dozens of iconic heroes and villains, each with their own unique skill sets. Players can also switch characters mid-mission and take part in MOBA PvP like in HeroWarz. Each of these characters have their own unique tree that allows for a staggering number of builds, given the breadth of character selection.

The core gameplay of Marvel Heroes is fairly similar to other Diablo style games. Where gameplay gets really interesting is with its MMORPG components. First, Marvel Heroes has raids. These are ten person raids that are meant to challenge groups. The green/red difficulty scale is akin to World of Warcraft’s normal/heroic scale. In true ARPG, hack and slash MMO fashion, the loot can be pretty amazing for overcoming raids. It’s a worthwhile endgame goal that sure beats Baal runs. Players can also craft gear from components in between missions for even more loot based fun.

I find playing Marvel Heroes to be most similar to playing Diablo III. Players can respec freely an unlimited number of times. The combat pacing mirrors the most recent Diablo and some of the levels eerily feel like Blizzard even designed them.  Now, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Marvel Heroes (and Diablo III) are very polished with easy to grasp gameplay and tons of progression. However, these similarities are noteworthy for deciding whether Marvel Heroes is right for you.

Read our full Marvel Heroes review or play it now.

Picking One

I’m really impressed with what’s available for free to play Diablo clones. I can truly see the appeal of all of the above games. While I don’t have near enough time to grind for loot in all of them, an occasional mission might just hit the spot. And after a while, maybe one will emerge. Which one will it be for you?