It’s a guy thing, isn’t it, the urge to collect. It’s something that women don’t necessarily get, regardless of how many shoes they have, but We collect stuff like crazed magpies tempted by bottle caps on a rope. It could be baked bean labels, Star Wars toys, or any one of these weird and wonderful collections… but whatever it is, I’m sure it makes you happy. There’s just something in us that makes us smile when we see a new item to add to our treasure pile, and that’s perhaps why we give so much time to games that come straight from the Shiny Thing School of Design, epitomised by Diablo II.
Straightaway, the vast majority of readers will know of what I speak. The name Diablo II is now synonymous with a genre of game that bombards the players with loot in the form of gold, potions, and lots and lots of shiny things with double- or triple-barrelled names: Massive Lump Hammer of Hurting, Preposterously Powerful Stick of Poking, Fancy Bangle of Blingness etc etc. The fine details of the gameplay sometimes change, as seen most radically and most recently in Borderlands, but the core attraction of this genre remains the compulsive need to find an item ever so slightly better than the one you are currently using.
But does this manic magpie collecting instinct obfuscate the shallowness of the gameplay? Or are we all aware of how limited the actual game is underneath the shine? Playing Torchlight recently, a game that essentially copies the Diablo II template completely, I find that my interaction with the screen consists of clicking the left-mouse frantically, holding ALT down when there’s a pause in the action, and then clicking frantically once more to hoover up all the item drops.
Should we demand more? For all the time and effort expended in creating these games, they boil down to something that could be done in Excel – click a button to simulate a random encounter; click to grab randomly generated loot; click to equip anything better than your current gear; click fight button once more. While I’m sure it’s possible to de-construct many genres down to the basic building blocks (both Football Manager and EVE Online have also been likened to Excel with graphics, for instance), the point remains: the lack of depth in the mechanics is obscured by the compulsion to collect.
Of course, this compulsion doesn’t just exist in the case of the kill’n'collect genre. Anyone who has reached the level cap in World of Warcraft will know how intensely players search for the perfect set to suit their build. There’s an EVE player known as Entity trying to gather 1 unit of every available item in the game, with 8341 unique mods so far and, of course, there’s the Pokemon phenomenon.
But, still, we play, feeding our addiction. Or, rather, being fed. It’s harsh to call these games cynical – apart from the much maligned Hellgate: London’s subscription fee the genre is so far free of micropayments for premium loot (which, as an aside, would defeat the purpose entirely) or any other form of extra cost bar the initial outlay – but ultimately they are shallow. Attempts to tart them up, like Dungeon Siege’s group dynamic, do nothing to paper over the cracks. It’s click, kill, click, collect. Failure has a low cost (back to the hub, possibly missing some XP and/or money), while the rewards increase in value the more you play. Raise the difficulty level for higher value loot, play as a Hardcore character for even better loot: the mechanics don’t change, your HP goes down more quickly and you need to click more often to kill, but the shiny things do get shinier.
We get caught in the moment, caught in the abstract joy of putting a +2 sword into our weapon slot to replace the +1 we had before it. Often there’s not even a visual reward to accompany these changes, slightly different weapon model aside – Diablo or Torchlight might give you a wreathe of fire around your Flaming Sword of Burny Burny, but there’s no money shot to accompany it, no extra value from spontaneously combusting an enemy, or setting the scenery on fire. Borderlands allows the chance of elemental deaths, but the visual treats fail in the other direction, as it’s a game that concentrates solely on weaponry. There is no change to your avatar through new armour as it’s an element ignored by the game. Indeed, since you can’t even see your avatar, why bother?
It boils down to statistics, and behind the scenes dice rolling. The avatar is always more powerful than any one enemy – as it should be, to allow the player to progress – so the developers simply pile on more numbers to enhance difficulty. Add some more enemies in every encounter, give them higher HP, make their weapons hurt more. There’s no grand strategy to the genre. Click, kill, click, collect.
Is this all it takes to attract us to a game? A flimsy mechanic and the promise of easy treats? Developers know that the simplicity, allied to a constant stream of reward, produce sales, so they harness the Diablo template, slap some fresh graphics on it and send it out to us, the hungry consumer. We should ask ourselves what it is about us, either as gamers in particular or human beings in general, that causes us to be so easily manipulated by the promise of free sweeties. Surely we, in turn, are not that shallow?