I can even remember the first time I played the original Diablo, and I can remember the years I spend playing Diablo 2 and its expansion. Even long after that infatuation had ended, I kept my Diablo 2 CDs on hand and would occasionally install it so that I could run through a new mod, like Eastern Sun. I had Diablo 2 installed on my computer alongside the Diablo 3 beta.
I have also played most of the other major releases in the genre, but none of them have had the staying power of Diablo 2. There are always flaws that become more and more apparent as time goes by, until they eventually drive me away. In the case of Path of Exile, the process was so accelerated that I didn’t even finish the main game before giving up.
There are many things I could cite as reasons for my disillusionment with the genre that I grew up on. Boring items are at the top of the list, and something that is particularly a problem in the Torchlight series and Titan Quest. A general sense of been there, done that, which suffuses Path of Exile and Marvel Heroes. Maybe my dopamine receptors are broken. That’s all fine and maybe also true, but at the same time, I’m putting hundreds of hours into Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate will be my first system-selling game since Tales of Symphonia on the GCN. Both types of games involve grinding out loot tiers at their hearts, so why should I love one and not the other?
Gameplay and Goals
First, I think I should explain how I played Diablo 2, because I think it’s insightful about how I see that genre.
All of my Diablo 2 characters were terrible. I think my most notable one was a fendazon, which could barely pass muster pre-Lord of Destruction, but was pretty bad after that. Never mind that the Fend skill itself was permanently bugged in Diablo 2 and never worked properly, an Amazon fighting in melee, without a shield, and without decent elemental damage skills, was almost always a waste of space. That’s just how it was. And I didn’t care at all.
For most, the goal of playing a Diablo-clone is to design a strong character, and then use it to find the best loot and reach the highest level. The characters players tried to make were commonly strong in that they are designed to make grinding for loot and levels as easy and efficient as possible. Which is fine. That’s what those games are for. However, for me, the goal was to design a character that fit together in ways that pleased me, whether they were any good or not. I mean, obviously it’s pleasing to have a character that is good, and most players liked their efficiency-minded character builds precisely because they were good at what they were trying to do, but I wanted a character that I liked from the moment they were conceived purely because of its mechanics.
That immediately changed my goals in the game. I played Diablo 2 almost every day for years, and never got a character to level 99. I’m struggling to remember a character I even got to 90. Why would I? For the most part, a stat and skill build became complete in the mid 80s, and I could use the particular gear that I needed around that level as well. I also didn’t do much true grinding, and instead depended on getting loot from friends, who all played the better, more efficient characters.
Once I’d levelled a character to the point where it could do everything that I’d set out for it to do, my goal was to survive Hell Baal and a few Secret Cow Level runs, and after that I’d done what needed to be done. I had seen and completed all of the game’s content (this was back before the whole Uber Diablo end-game was added). I had no interest in more loot, unless it was for a new character. There was little concept of ultimate efficiency, of the perfect stats and gear, although there were certainly very rare items that I would have loved to get and never did. To me, gear is a means to an end, and I’d already reached that end. Why go further when I’ve already crossed the finish line?
It goes back to what I’ve said about enjoying mechanics more than gameplay. The goal of finding the best loot and getting to the highest level is less satisfying to me than the mechanics involved in creating and playing a unique character. The loot and levels are valuable only for how they can allow me to explore those mechanics. That’s the main reason I was turned off by Diablo 3’s items. A bunch of stats provides no room for creativity. All a player can do is seek out higher and higher numbers.
That is the approach I took into other games in the genre, and also the problem that I have with them. I find it difficult to design a character that I really like in Torchlight 2 or Path of Exile, which in turn removes all desire I have to continue playing them. The boring loot is just the kicker.
This type of gameplay is a key part of the biggest complaint that many have about the genre: the grind. Honestly, I didn’t mind grinding (or at least my version of it) that much in Diablo 2. I could get comfortable, listen to an audiobook or a radio show that I liked, and waste hours mashing monsters. It’s relaxing. Which may seem strange, because one of my major problems with some other genres, mainly MMOs, is the grind involved. Granted, my only real experience with MMOs was playing Final Fantasy XIV to the level cap, but I felt that dislike of the grind setting in hard as I neared the end of that game, and had to wonder why.
Thinking about it, I realized that as long as the grind is in the service of my own goals in the game, it doesn’t bother me much at all, but once I have accomplished those goals, or decided they’re not worth pursuing, that grind becomes a wall that I have no interest in breaking through.
Content and Grind
Why should I want to put hundreds of hours into Monster Hunter and only a few dozen into Path of Exile? Why did I not mind most of the journey to the level cap of Final Fantasy XIV, but could not justify renewing my subscription? The grind always has to serve a distinct and obvious purpose, and I believe that is the key to why I enjoy some of these games more than others.
When I grind in Diablo 2, I am doing it in order to finish my character. Each new level is another step toward that goal, toward that point where they will finally be whole. At the same time, Diablo 2 is a game I know intimately, which is why I play mods. They add new and unexpected things to see and do, as well as new ways to put together a character. That’s new content.
My interest in Final Fantasy XIV dried up along with the new content provided, which doesn’t seem to be that uncommon a reaction to MMOs. There is essentially no character building at all in that game, so I only played it for the content itself. Once I had played through all of the dungeons available, except for the very, very high-tier stuff, I could no longer justify the time spent, and the reason I didn’t do the high-tier dungeons was because I would have needed to grind dungeons I had already beaten for days just to gain access to them.
In Torchlight 2 I made an Engineer, and I played through the entire game. I got part way into New Game+ and realized that I had done everything there was to do, and that my character wasn’t going to do anything new, either–every new level meant putting a putting point into a skill that I already had. I waited a while, installed the Synergies mod, which gave me some new content to play through, but when that was done, the same thing happened as with Final Fantasy XIV. I tried playing around with some of the other classes, even the new ones added in the mod, but couldn’t find anything that I enjoyed. I’d built the most interesting character I could think of, and I had killed every monster available. After that, what else was there to do?
Those games depend heavily on tiered gameplay and loot for their grinds. The player progresses to a point in the game, usually the last boss, and then moves on to the next tier, be it Nightmare or New Game+, where they will experience the same content, only more difficult, and with better loot. They keep doing that until they hit the level cap, find all of the best-in-slot gear, or find something else to do. For some players, for many players, even, that is an acceptable system, and it works. Players will happily (or unhappily) sink as many hours as they can into those games. That’s fine. That’s how they’re designed.
On the surface, Monster Hunter appears to be the same. In that series, the player progresses through consecutive tiers of monsters, denoted by stars and Hunter Ranks, gradually putting together the gear needed to tackle the next tier, and so on, until the end. Monster Hunter has no character levels, and no gear drops (All the gear is crafted with parts removed from defeated monsters, and which parts it gives is somewhat random, so there’s still that essential element of chance involved.), but it still has a whole lot of grinding to do, and I was surprised that I didn’t hate it.
There are two key differences between Monster Hunter and Diablo-clones or MMOs that set that series apart. The first are the mechanics of the game. It controls like an action game, which is pretty much what it is. Think a Dark Souls-type game where all the player does is fight bosses. So, immediately the mechanics have changed from building a character and using skills and spells (there is no permanent character building at all in Monster Hunter), to playing the game itself. There are no active skills in Monster Hunter, no magic or anything of the sort, though there are usable items. Instead, there are different weapon types, up to 14 in the new Monster Hunter 4, and each of them controls and plays differently from the others. All of the mechanical complexity is wrapped up in using a given weapon properly and learning how to best exploit monster attack patterns.
Which isn’t to say that the game isn’t grindy, because it is. As I’ve said multiple times, I’ve put hundreds of hours into Freedom Unite, and it takes at least that many for most players to complete any game in the series. Crafting new gear usually means killing a given monster many times to get all the required parts, as well as fishing, mining, and catching bugs. That’s not even counting crafting consumables like healing potions and traps. All of that is as repetitive as any series of Mephisto runs, or whatever the kids do these days (Nephalem Rifts? I haven’t bought Diablo 3’s expansion yet, so I’m out of the loop.), and while a Meph run only takes a couple of minutes, killing your average monster in Monster Hunter is at least 15 minutes of making almost no mistakes, and many monsters can take half an hour or more before they go down.
The second difference is how the content is doled out. In a Diablo-clone, the player beats the final boss, then starts over on a higher difficulty, playing through each section of the game until they get to the last boss again. In Monster Hunter, each tier of the game is simply a collection of different monsters that can be tackled in any order. The next tier will have new monsters, and stronger version of previous monsters. Stronger monsters allow the player to craft stronger gear, so they can in turn take on the next tier of even stronger monsters. That factors into the difficulty curve of the games as well: instead of mere palette swaps, a higher tier version of a Monster Hunter enemy will also have new attacks and patterns, and fight in new areas. The challenge doesn’t come merely from inflating stats that must be combated with other stats, but with the raw mechanics of the fights themselves. Overcoming each beast takes more than gear–gear is simply never enough on its own, since it’s tied directly to what tier of monsters are available to fight–it takes the intestinal fortitude to tough out the rough patches and learn what each monster can do, and how it should be approached and fought. There are very few shortcuts in Monster Hunter games, and even the ones available would be considered winding scenic routes by standards of most other games.
The key here is that there are always new monsters to see in each tier. That means that the content itself is directly tied to progress, to grind. Where in Torchlight 2 I’m grinding only to get my levels up and find some new gear, not because I’m going to see anything actually new, in Monster Hunter I am creating new gear specifically so that I can get to new monsters, to new content. The grind is imbued with purpose: I am playing the game in order to fight cool monsters, and if I want to see the next new, cool monster, I will have to get strong enough to unlock it. It’s not a treadmill, which implies that the player isn’t going anywhere, but instead a marathon.
Not that Monster Hunter games are perfect, either. When so much of the game is tied to fighting the monsters themselves, it can drag when the monsters aren’t up to snuff. A few, like the massive Lao-Shan Lung, are simply chores to get through, requiring solid half hours of play and without any thought or interaction. Some others, like the Plesioth, must be coaxed into coming out to fight, and are plagued by wonky hitboxes on their attacks that make them obnoxious to fight when they finally arrive. Sometimes a monster decides that it wants to charge back and forth in an open space, wasting time while the player waits for it to settle down so that it can be attacked again. Then there’s the Fatalis, which have to be fought multiple times (and each fight will take at least 25 minutes) before they go down for good, and posses some truly stupid attacks–the Fatalis has a slow charging move, during which its entire body becomes an active hitbox, so that even brushing against the very tip of its tail can mean instant death. Then again, I’m playing Freedom Unite, which is an older game in the series, and I’ve heard a lot of hitbox and annoyance issues have been improved since.
I should also add that my feelings about extra content carry over to other types of games. Dark Souls, for all the love it gets, does New Game+ quite poorly, in my opinion. I see no reason to tackle the exact same content with nothing new added except for higher damage and more HP on the enemies, with the same character. They may as well add a hard difficulty so that I could experience that from the start (and truth be told, unless you’re gimping yourself, New Game+ is going to be easier in most places). A much better example of how to do New Game+ is Namco’s Tales series of action-oriented JRPGs. In those games, a New Game+ means not simply facing the same enemies with boosted stats, but also bosses with new attacks, and also new optional bonus dungeons and bosses. That’s incentive to play through more than once. Chrono Trigger also did New Game+ well, not by altering any of the enemies, but by having many ways to go through the game and multiple endings to unlock. That’s content added, because the player will experience completely new things each time.
To sum up, I have completed a Diablo-clone when I have finished my character–have acquired all of their skills and fitted them out with the best gear–which is long after I have seen all of the real content there is to see. I have completed a Monster Hunter game only when I have seen and killed that final monster. I find that very refreshing.