Inferno difficulty, whining and the endgame of Diablo III.
It has been two and a half weeks since the release of Blizzard's latest outing and I have spent all but three days of it progressing through Inferno with my Barbarian. According to a statistic Blizzard released in their latest blog post, only "1.9% of all characters have unlocked Inferno"; a potentially misleading statistic as it refers to characters instead of players and especially given that "unlocking" Inferno only means having reached level 60 and beating Diablo in Hell difficulty. The true number of players who have made significant progress in Inferno will be far lower than that; there is no doubt that the people who have reached Acts 2 and beyond are part of an elite within Diablo III's playerbase.
Personally, I am at the beginning of Act 3 right now, a feat deemed almost impossible for melee characters not even a week ago. Initially, it seemed that ranged characters were dealt the better hand in terms of progressing through Inferno, as seems to be the custom in role-playing games these days; Monks and Barbarians have no way of avoiding damage - and there is certainly enough to go around in Inferno. Instead, Wizards and Demon Hunters were able to fast track to the later Acts by using specific builds which stacked defensive skills and cooldowns in ways apparently too creative for Blizzard's QA team to find out until the players got their hands on the game; a hasty (and sloppily executed) nerf was the result.
Ever since then, there has been a chance in perception about the different classes' endgame viability; Barbarians and Monks, while heavily gear dependent, are making progress by using tanking builds whereas the ranged classes in general seem to struggle with being one-hit no matter what their gear carries in terms of defensive stats. It is now accepted opinion that melee are potentially the best farmers in Inferno simply due to their ability to gear up to a point where they can withstand whatever damage the game throws at them. The problem, of course, is getting there and I can tell you that even with gear worth ~30m on the EU servers currently, moving through Act 3 is anything but easy. But it is possible and that's more than we thought even a week ago.
So why am I telling you this exactly? Well, take a step back and look at what has happened in these two weeks of Inferno progress: We saw ranged classes moving extremely quickly due to "exploits" (Blizzard) or "creative skill builds" (players) and melee being considered useless once more and just a week later we are seeing melee as the supposed cream of the crop if you have the means to gear them. At the same time, Blizzard has announced that they plan on retuning Inferno in order to put a bigger focus on offensive instead of defensive strategy; they made very sure to stress that they don't plan on making it any easier. A welcome change, given that they manage to implement it right; playing offensively is just plain more fun than having to kite everything or stack defenses in order to plink down mobs for what seems like an eternity. Playing a Barbarian, the latter is a pretty good description of my playing experience for the last two weeks.
Now take note that all of this has happened in two weeks. Remember what Blizzard said about Inferno before release? How players were supposed to farm for weeks to months in order to move from one Act to another? And yet here we are with people feeling left behind the curve if they can't make it into Act 2 and, more importantly, complaining about it everywhere. There is no doubt in my mind that while the current way of creating difficulty might not be the best one, the immense amount of complaints is what drove Blizzard to announce the changes to be made. Along with these come complaints that Inferno drops gear anywhere from level 50 to 60 instead of just endgame gear and that rare items can spawn with extremely bad rolls of random stats.
Putting aside the latter two complaints for now, it seems to me that the evolution of the meta game from Diablo II to Diablo III was missed by a huge fraction of the players. They expect to hit the level cap, beat the game (that means killing Diablo on Inferno) and then start farming for items much in the same fashion as they did in Diablo II. They don't seem to realize that the farming now starts before the game ends and that not being able to move from one Act right to the other is how the game is supposed to be. Blizzard intended for players to be "stuck" in every new Act for quite a while until they have geared themselves up significantly while players expect to be able to progress through the following Act as soon as they have killed the boss of the last one.
Inferno is, in that respect, much like World of Warcraft was in its early years; hitting max level unlocked a plethora of raids for you but there was a very clear sense of progression in both vanilla and The Burning Crusade and just because you could move right into the hardest ones right away didn't mean you should; nor should you run the easier one exactly once and forget about it immediately. Of course this has changed since then and players can now fast track to the latest raids by way of using random dungeons to gear up but the similarity is striking and lead to the other two complaints I mentioned: Players feel that if they have to progress in an MMO-like fashion, the gear drops should be MMO-like as well; clear upgrades in all cases instead of randomized "Diablo" loot.
Once again, these players miss a huge point of what made Diablo II such a huge success for over a decade: for every amazing item, there are (and must be!) hundreds of sub-par pieces of gear; if anything, I'd fault Blizzard for putting a lower end on item drops, which means that low level legendaries cannot be found in the higher difficulties, thus removing a huge portion of items from Inferno droptables. This stings all the more as they have announced a (needed) retune for legendary items; imagine a level 45 item ending up being a viable endgame choice but you cannot find it in Inferno. The level 52 String of Ears is best-in-slot for Barbarians and Monks and doesn't drop in Acts 3 and 4.
Inferno needs to be changed but I agree with Blizzard in how it has to be altered; don't make it easier, make it more fun. How can there be such a difference between a relatively manageable ability such as Arcane Enchanted, which telegraphs its lasers and Desecrator, which spawns out of nowhere and starts dealing damage immediately? Frozen orbs spawn and let you know when they will explode, yet teleporting mobs just show up right next to you and kick your teeth in without so much as a warning. Identifying what works as a challenge and what needlessly frustrates players is what Blizzard has to do right now, not make sure that every rare item in Inferno spawns with at least 200 points in Vitality and a base stat (and yes, that was a genuine suggestion).
The game is barely three weeks old and already players have progressed faster and further than Blizzard imagined they would; this is very much their own fault, as World of Warcraft serves as an excellent precedent for never underestimating your playerbase; however, it also serves as precedent for the fact that the loudest part of a population is not always the one that needs to be listened to.
If you'd like to give feedback or read more about Devt's exploits in Diablo III or his choice of gaming apparel, you can follow him on Twitter.