Burning The Mother Down: The Failings Behind Diablo 3’s Inferno Mode

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

Over the course of the last two weeks, I’ve easily spent 20 hours going through Diablo 3‘s hardest difficulty setting: Inferno mode. As it currently stands I’m on act 3 stuck due to inadequate gear. Over those same two weeks, I’ve had a chance to examine Inferno mode and came to a realization: Blizzard screwed up.

Before we begin, this piece references my earlier thoughts on Diablo 3‘s design and difficulty and if you haven’t read them yet, it will be a good idea so that everyone is on the same page:

Diablo 3 analysis 

A look at Masochistic Difficulty

And if it’s not already made clear, this post and discussions can have spoilers in it.

The Only Way Out:

In my Diablo 3 analysis, I touched on the problems with the itemization that plagued the game from Normal to Hell Difficulty. Because characters only receive direct bonuses from their primary stat and vitality, it limits the gear that each character could wear.

In the earlier difficulties, the level of the gear available goes up with each act, which makes the player start to see gear that is relatively better then ones before it. But, because of the importance of the stats, lower level gear could be better for specific characters if they have the right affixes of bonuses. That however gets thrown out the window once the player reaches inferno.

At the level cap (which is currently at 60), players will of course not receive any more levels, skills or runes and must rely on equipment to continue improving their character. But while the player is done improving, the level of gear available continues up for 4 more levels: 60-63. The difference in base stats between level 61 items to those below it is huge. This is where weapons’ Damage Per Second (or DPS) begins to reach into the high hundreds and armor has the affix that gives resistance to all types of damage.

                                          A Basic level 59 Axe

Before, lower level gear could still be viable, but not anymore. A rare level 55 item will not be anywhere as good as a level 62 or up magic item. And the jump between level 60 to level 63 items is also a big deal, as level 63 weapons have their DPS normally above one thousand. While the player can find level 60 to level 63 equipment, there is only one option to survive inferno mode: level 63 or bust.

This mechanic presents several major design flaws with Diablo 3. First is that it makes the already limited choices for finding good gear, even more restrictive. Because the player can’t improve their character any other way, they are at the mercy of the auction house and random number generator to have any hope of getting through inferno.

The even bigger problem is that the designers have destroyed the power curve behind item growth, which was one of the major attractions behind Diablo 2. In Diablo 2, loot was always scaling up, and the equipment you would find in one act, would be weaker than the ones in the next act. That meant that as a player, you would get more powerful the further you played.

But in Diablo 3, once someone reaches inferno mode, the loot available stops at level 63 and can be found in act one. The only difference between the acts is the chance that a higher level item will drop. Meaning that someone could easily find gear in Act 1, that would be used all the way into act 4.

Not only does this ruin the power curve, but it also affects the auction house as players are only going to buy level 63 items due to their innately higher base stats. What Blizzard should have done was tighten up the level curve to make only level 60 and up items drop in inferno and then add more item levels between each act. For example: act 1 would still have level 60-63 items available, but act 2 would have 60-64, act 3 have 60-65 and act 4 would carry 60-66.

This change would give players a higher chance of finding good gear and at the same time, motivate them to continue playing through the acts to improve their character. As it stands, you could just keep replaying Act 1 and eventually get the best loot in the game, which the game is designed around at this point.

                                           A Basic level 63 Axe

The Enemy Affixes of Doom:

The next problem has to do with fighting special and elite enemies. In the earlier difficulty levels, players would have dealt with the various modifiers attached to special enemies. But with enemies that are naturally harder in inferno, which I talked about in my masochism difficulty post. And when you take those mechanics and add the higher enemy stats combined with the combination of modifiers pushes the game’s difficulty into cheap territory.

Several modifiers (Waller, vortex, and jailer) cannot be avoided by player skill. Once the enemy uses them, the player is going to be affected. The only option the player has is if they have a skill not on cool down that allows them to recover. But when an enemy group is using the same modifier, chances are the player will be hit by it again before their escape skill has finished recharging.

All the player can do then is just wait and hope that the enemy doesn’t finish them off during the several seconds of immobility. Things become worse when the modifiers around enemy shields appear. When an enemy is shielded they are immune to all damage for several seconds. After the shield goes down, players only have a few seconds to do damage before it comes back up.

When you have fast moving enemies who can do a quarter or more of the player’s health per hit, giving them immunity to damage is effectively an “I-Win Button”. Once again this gets back to removing the player’s skill from the equation. It doesn’t matter how skilled the player is, or what their character’s stats are, when the enemy can become invincible for several seconds constantly during a battle.

These modifiers that remove player skill and control are bad enough, but the next detail just seals the deal on the problems with difficulty.

Getting Enraged

Once the player reaches inferno, special, elite and boss enemies will have a new ability. If the player spends more than 5 minutes fighting one set of enemies, they will become enraged. What that means is that either the enemy’s damage output would go through the roof, or by being near the enemy the player will take constant damage until they die. For bosses, it means that the player will be killed without any way to avoid it.

The problem with this mechanic is that it further destroys skill customization which was already at an all time low. Going into inferno, a lot of the skills and runes available lose their utility thanks to the increased attributes of the enemies. But with the enrage timer, it makes characters built towards defense obsolete, as even if they can take the damage, they’ll be killed once the timer goes off. This mechanic once again limits the skills and runes available and forces the player to focus on offense.

                                                  Act 1 Boss Fight
Having the timer for boss fights was an even more confusing decision. As not only does it limit choice, but it punishes players who team up with their friends. As each new person in the group, increases the health pool of the boss. If your friends aren’t strong enough, they can make the boss impossible to kill before the timer goes off by no fault of their own.

In a recent forum post, Diablo 3‘s community manager said that Diablo 3 doesn’t have a proper end game and that the itemization is not enough at this point. Without sounding too smug all I can say is “duh.” It took me less than 2 weeks to see the problems with inferno mode and I’m starting to question the design decisions at Blizzard for them not to see these issues after working on the game for years.

The part that has me really worried is that maybe the designers aren’t as foolish as I think they are, and instead planned this as an excuse to sell more expansions. I really hope that I’m wrong on this point as there are a lot of good things in Diablo 3. But the further I played the more problems and quite frankly, stupid mistakes I see with the design.

Diablo 3 could have easily been at the top of my best games of 2012 list, but as it stands the numerous problems are dragging it further and further down. It’s baffling, like watching a high rank Tennis player, lose in the early rounds of a tournament against a lower ranked player. You know they have the skills, but for some reason they just can’t get it together.

Josh Bycer

  • 1. Enrage timers are a bad joke. But really, the whole of D3 progression is what I would term “somewhat strict raid progression”. That rage timers exist in light of this is unsurprising.

    2. I take some exception with your explanation of itemization in D2. In fact, and setting aside uniques & sets for a moment, you could find stuff earlier in the game that was better than stuff that dropped later. For some values of “better”.

    Consider that the easiest way to get yourself a stable base for nightmare was to find a 3 socketed shield an drop 3 perfect diamonds in it. Shields could come later with more defense or even some other intriguing stats, but this gave you a healthy base to compensate for the resistance hit going to nightmare. The defense was nice but it was not, IMO, so critical that you'd run to upgrade. *unless* other gear had given you suitable resistance coverage.

    However, you could find rings, weapons, etc that could last awhile. Life steal, % damage weapons (Dropped in nightmare). These things could last for acts, easily. That was ok. The difficulty didn't ramp up the same way. When you added in the fact that at least *some* of your damage and defense scaling came from skill point investment it really worked. Since scaling is like 95% gear based in d3, it's another story (and a less interesting one IMO). Anyway, it was usually true that you found an upgrade sooner rather than later as you went, I'll grant that. I think there was an. . . “elasticity” in the itemization in D2 that isn't present in D3. And I prefer D2's approach.

    Of course, the unique + set design that was much better on average. “End game” weapons could drop in nightmare for certain builds. E.g. Burrito or WWS for bowies. Or a nice Ribcracker for a wearbear or barbarian. Again, this is a fine result because that's not suddenly like 18% of your scaling set in stone. Those items are rare finds but they are *worthwhile* finds, which is more than we can say for most D3 legendaries (uniques or sets).

    Anyway, gear is so screwey in this one. In D2 weapon could affect your damage output. Other pieces could contribute but it was in more limited ways. Here it's cram as many attack stats as possible on every piece of gear. Don't care for that either.

    3. I find it interested that D3 purported to streamline things, and yet it's got slightly more convoluted mechanics in some respects. I migtht argue against having both physical resistance *and* armor, and I don't really like that armor reduces *all* damage (unlike it's predecessor). Since this is a raid progression system it's all about numbers going from 1 to Godzillion, and so now we've got marginal returns kicking in and where before 55% resist fire was 55% resist fire, now 600 resist fire is like 52.4%. And don't get me started on Vit giving out more health based on the difficulty you are in, or the fact that things like attack speed and crit damage affect my spells.

    I don't think D3 gave us superior mechanics. And I for one do not care for all skills scaling on DPS, nor on all the bizzare “gotchas” that can crop up with some classes and fast vs slow weapons. At base, I would prefer a system where Some classes rely more heavily on weapon/gear scaling on others, and some lean on different mechanics. Like what D2 had. I think you can do D2 skill trees better than they were done, though there aren't many games I would claim did so (TQ, though it had it's own pitfalls).

    4. Hell (d2)was way more interesting than Inferno. The fact that you could encounter *any* monster from any act spiced things up. d3 in general is lacking that touch. Inferno i s less interesting because the only way to make it more diffuclt was to go over the top (to paraphrase what you have said). Moar, harder numbers.

    5. I was going to say something else but I forgot.