Blizzard is hoping to find the fun again with exciting changes to Diablo III and StarCraft II

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Growing up, I was a rabid Blizzard fan. I would run home from school almost every day to play some combination of StarCraft, WarCraft, and Diablo. But as the StarCraft competitive community developed and World of Warcraft cemented its dominance of the MMO sphere, something changed. Gone were the days when I could relax in Blizzard games. Everything seemed geared toward the competitive players.

Astonishingly, Blizzard agrees.

“We made a few mistakes,” Kevin Martens, one of the lead designers for Diablo III told me. “We forgot what made our games fun, and how we can create the best experiences for all of our fans.” Now the company has gone back to the drawing board to figure out how to make its games inviting to players of all stripes.

Diablo III

Martens’ team has been working on a few things in particular that they think will completely change the way people see Diablo III. “Reaper of Souls was extremely well-received, but we still felt like we weren’t there.” Martens said that they’ve struggled with how to design a game that lets its players always feel powerful and badass without making things too hard, too easy, too obtuse, or too ridiculous. “We consulted with a lot of the folks on the [World of Warcraft] teams. Power creep is something that they’ve been dealing with for more than a decade now, and we think they’ve had some pretty ingenious solutions.”

Beginning with a series of patches that started going live earlier this month, the Diablo teams have been working on making sure every piece of equipment is intrinsically interesting and valuable. “Gone are the days when everyone is wearing only this very specific set of super high-end gear,” he said. “We want every bit of treasure, everything that you can possibly find to feel cool and special.” As he says this, I’m watching countless numbers pop up on screen showing the damage he’s dealing. I’ve never had a max-level Diablo III character, so the figures look preposterously large.

“It’s more than numbers, but for us this gives us a good gauge of how well we’re doing. We don’t want people going too long without a kill, and we’ve started gearing our systems to reflect that.” Monks, demon hunters, and more are being reworked and tweaked so that they always make their players feel powerful and that the game is simply rewarding to play — regardless of what kind of loot you have or are looking for.

StarCraft II

Shortly after Martens finishes showing me just how responsive Blizzard wants to be with fans, I’m ushered over to the other half of the room and joined by fellow game journalist Katie Williams. This time, we’re checking out some of the new additions coming to StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void.

StarCraft is the one franchise in Blizzard’s library that I’ve kept up with more than any other. The rough and tumble, classic RTS feel I get from it is surprisingly rare in many recent games, and it’s kept me coming back from time to time. Once again I am told that’s a pretty common reaction. “StarCraft is a unique property,” explains StarCraft PR Manager Vanessa Vanasin, “and we’d like to keep people as engaged and active as possible.”

In fact, that idea is the crux of a brand new game mode — Archon. This new multiplayer game type, they said, was purpose-built to introduce new players to the complexity and nuance of StarCraft II.

Players are divided into teams of two, sharing control over the same units and resources. That’s different from traditional StarCraft II co-op where each player would have their own resource pool to draw from and neither could override troop orders that the other had given. This, Vanessa said, was essential in creating a gameplay type that could help veterans teach new players.

Katie just so happened to be the perfect partner for this demonstration. I, while far from a tournament-level, am skilled enough that I could hold my own against most people. Katie, on the other hand, had much closer ties to the World of Warcraft scene and had only passing experience with Blizzard’s sci-fi RTS. She and I squared off against two Blizzard representatives in the new mode.

The benefits of something like Archon became immediately apparent. In a traditional game, if I was coaching a new player, I’d have to both coordinate base building, gathering resources, planning, and micro-management, all while giving gentle instructions for my partner to do the same. With Archon, I could simply direct control over most of the action, demonstrating exactly what to do, and explaining why, before letting my partner experiment on her own.

Vanessa said that this was intentional. “We wanted to create a safe environment where an expert wouldn’t feel like their ability to win was compromised by having another player to take care of.” She said. “We think this will create an environment where it’s fun for both experienced and new players alike to dig into the game we’ve built. Most of all we hope that this will create an environment where current fans want to bring new friends into the game and share their passion.”

From what I played, the Archon mode seemed to work pretty well. I wanted to help Katie more, but unfortunately, we were in the same room as our foes, so we couldn’t easily communicate without tipping them off to our plans. It did however allow her to focus on a few small, manageable projects that were mutually beneficial while I tried to handle the bulk of the micro management. From what she told me after our match, she enjoyed it, even though she didn’t have a great grasp on what she was doing. Plus we won, so that was nice.

Back to basics

These changes reminded me why I found myself so drawn to Blizzard’s games in my youth. Countless late nights with friends at LAN parties, creating new maps, sharing our favorite games and mods, and simply having a good time. As an adult, I don’t often get to have those kinds of experiences anymore, but I’ve never been more excited about the possibility of bringing new friends into one of my old favorites.

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void entered a closed, invite-only beta on March 31. No release date has yet been announced, but it will likely be within 2015.

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