It's addictive, but is it fun?

I made a dreadful mistake a week ago. With my Radeon HD 4870 in MSI's hands in City of Industry, my desktop has been cheerfully running on a Radeon HD 4670. The 4670 is a beast for what it is, and miraculously, a bunch of my games play perfectly fine at my display's native 1920x1200 resolution. Unfortunately, once you've tasted the incredible power of a higher end (albeit now quite affordable) graphics card, making the step back proves difficult.

So, I wound up going back to an older game. Specifically, I installed Diablo II.

I've never been a huge Blizzard fan, but I respect what the company does. Just to stir the pot a little, I don't think its games are actually that great. Certainly, by a commercial metric and by the rabid fan base, Blizzard games could be considered absolutely amazing. For me, though, they've always been a kind of gaming junk food. Much as I never feel very good about myself after eating a bag of Milano cookies, Diablo II leaves me feeling curiously empty after a few hours. I got the same feeling with World of Warcraft. To my credit, however, I was able to kick that habit pretty easily. Every class but the Rogue felt like a series of timers in the early going, and the game eventually no longer seemed worth the subscription fee. I ended up buying the Nicoderm CQ of MMORPGs, Guild Wars.

With that said, I feel like Diablo II and World of Warcraft manage to be devastatingly addictive without feeling very rewarding—for me, at least—simply because Blizzard designed them only to stimulate the ever-loving crap out of the human brain's reward center. When I play Diablo II, I am rewarded for my tireless, ceaseless clicking. I play a fairly popular mod called Eastern Sun (a friend admonishes me constantly for this, saying he thinks vanilla Diablo II is better), and with the tweaked drop rate and vastly increased number of uniques, set items, and so on, I get to see all kinds of new and exciting gear. Goals are set for which items to grind or gamble for, what level to hit, and so on.

By the time all is said and done, though, I may have bumped up a couple of levels and amassed a veritable wealth of gear, but nothing has actually happened. Even in the game, progress doesn't seem that exciting. The story itself never struck me as being terribly compelling, crippled by how orderly the game plays out. I never really feel like I'm getting anywhere, knowing I'll just be playing the same five acts on a harder and then harder-still difficulty level.

There's just something about the way Blizzard designs games. Diablo II has always had aggravating balance issues, and I gave up playing the vanilla version in part because only certain, specific builds could really make it through the game. It's the same reason I don't play Magic: the Gathering competitively, either; I don't like when one choice is so simply, purely better. The class I liked playing, the Amazon (javelin specialized), got nerfed a while ago, which caused the character build to just lose steam at a certain point. My understanding is that World of Warcraft isn't much better in this respect, and to me, that defeats the purpose of a class system and character building. In Mass Effect or Fallout 3, I largely adapted my builds to my playing style. The games gave me different ways of interacting with them, and all avenues were at least viable. Blizzard games seem to punish more casual players and balance things for the obsessive ones.

Speaking of balancing, the ever-changing nature of Diablo II (and even more so World of Warcraft) also bothers me. Game patches normally exist in large part to fix problems, but Blizzard patches often radically revamp the games themselves. Classes get heavily tweaked or nerfed, drops change, and so on. It certainly seems to keep the game fresh, but the policy never agreed with me.

Yet I can't stop playing. As I said before, there's something about Diablo II that just stimulates my brain's reward center. In an episode of the Garfield cartoon, there was a game show called "Hit the Buzzer, Win a Cookie," and that seems to be pretty much what's going on here. Kill some cows, gain a level, get some loot. Sell the loot, lather, rinse, repeat. Look at all the cool new gear I can go kill cows with! And the only progress I've made is that I've become more efficient at the grind. It's questionably satisfying, but I can't seem to stop.

With the other games I mentioned, I at least get the feeling I'm progressing through a story, like I have a set goal and will eventually get to some type of ending. Diablo II was never about that. From day one, it was about rapid character-building with friends, racing through the game, and settling on a specific build. There were just certain ways you did things, and we'd all get into it and talk about them, but that sense of "what exactly am I achieving?" eventually set in.

I'm genuinely curious if anyone else has gotten this same vibe. There's no question that Blizzard's games seem to demand a heck of a lot of play, especially with entire television stations devoted to Starcraft in South Korea, and the embarrassing amount of cash World of Warcraft rakes in. Am I alone here, or are these games (or at least Diablo II) just addictive despite not actually being that much genuine fun?

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