Past weekend, I played a ton of Diablo 2: Resurrected’s open beta. I expected it to be great, but it was really great. If left unchecked for too long, my brain would actually ask itself “wait, is this the old version or the new one?” for a fraction of a second – or as someone put it, it didn’t look exactly like the old version; it just looked exactly how I remembered it.
I actually compare it to fine art restoration: Vicarious Visions‘ direction clearly seemed to be bringing back the original with the minimum retouching necessary. Visually, I’m glad their source material was lo-fi enough so their artists could have creative input: there’s way more tileset variation, and some art direction retouches that only absolute nerds would notice (and by that I mean me going “OH, this is cool, the sarcophagus face mask in the original version looked Egyptian, but the new one is more Mesopotamian, like the statues outside”).
There’s obviously some rose-tinted nostalgia involved: I loved Diablo 2 as a kid, and it’s a game every single one of my friends copiously played. One of my childhood friends was a total D2 addict – I’m talking rushing chars to level cap weekly, in his undies, eating Cheetos (a sight which made me never touch his keyboard again). Ironically, he took a lot of convincing to try the free beta, and he wasn’t too excited about it afterwards. When I asked him “who are you, and what did you do to my friend?”, he replied “After Dead Cells and Hades, D2 is kinda meh. Diablo IV looks dope tho!”
And… he’s right! He is objectively right. There has been 20 years of design refinements on those games. And when he asked me why I wasn’t excited about D4 the TL;DR of the answer was “I’m old”.
Being a person with very specific tastes, there was a thing I learnt over my years having so many musician friends: separating my personal opinion from my technical opinion. You need to know how to appreciate something you, personally, don’t like at a subjective level: “the mix in these guitars is really cool, and I love the harmonies in the pre-chorus!” coexists with “but I’d never listen to this in a million years if I weren’t your friend, and I probably won’t ever again” – and that’s ok!
I remember on my interview with Bossa I got asked “so what have you been playing?”. I was playing No Man’s Sky, which had just released the first update with a more guided questline, and I mentioned that the update was making the game objectively better, but I didn’t like it. It didn’t do anything for me: I was happy just floating planet to planet, looking around, with no specific aim or something to say “there, you finished the game, go look around now because there’s ‘nothing else’ for you”. It did, however, provide structure to a highly unstructured game, and unstructured games are usually flawed games which, to the larger audience, makes them bad games. But to me, as a player, it made it less meditative. Fast forward 5 years, the growing pains are gone, and it’s a really solid game, full of content, so the seed they planted was definitely worth it, and I knew it would be – but I still love the original NMS and how it felt like it was more about “being there” than about busywork.
Now, that’s what I remember about what I felt. Objectively, the game was actually ridden with busywork and micro-grinding so you could get from place to place (likely in an attempt to extend the content as much as possible). And the inventories, oh god, all the inventory Tetris, and not having space, ugh.
Ironically, that’s not how I feel about D2’s inventory. I actually really enjoy it. I can’t pinpoint why: it could be nostalgia, it could be the TTRPG feeling of “you have to prepare before you engage”, or the fact that reorganizing your inventory between two sections of a dungeon is like a puzzle mini-game that gives you a breather from the action.
One thing I’ve suffered with since I was a kid was the analysis paralysis of the skill trees. Such combinatorics! Much possibility space! Then the Diablo 3 beta came out, and skill trees became skill lines and I’m mortified. “Wait what, the weapons just feed your skill base damage now? What is happening?! Where’s my illusion of choice?!?!?!”
Diablo 3 was the first time my expectations clashed with my pet peeve of “perfectly tuned” games. I remember when playing the beta I noticed at some point that I’m pressing the mouse button every now and then with my right hand, and holding my head with my left hand. It was… boring? How can they have made Diablo boring?
Like many other games in that era (and to this day), it was just… smooth. Smooth throughout. There was no friction in absolutely any point of the way. I literally couldn’t “feel” the game, I was just “operating” it. This is an inevitable trend, I guess: acquisition is becoming impossible even for big studios. Retention is sometimes even harder because audiences are so fickle – people measure their enjoyment by the amount of hours that they spent on a game, not if the game made them feel something or not.
I was told Diablo 3 improved a lot, and that the higher levels is where the game REALLY starts, but jeez man, I don’t have time for replaying the same game again and again, and grinding for sets, and queueing to play with strangers. As an audience, I’m on this weird middle ground where I don’t have time to commit my life to a game, but I also don’t want it to just tunnel me throughout the entire experience without me having to think at all, especially when presented as a complex, deep experience.
That’s why I loved D3 so much on the console, by the way: if most of the vanilla game feels like a chill twin stick shooter, I’d rather do it couch-coop as I prep for a nice snooze. I did fall asleep a couple of times playing it – not just D3’s merit tho, it was a very nice couch and days at work were very long!
Playing D2:R took me back to “the old days” of imperfect games. Tapping on my keyboard like it was an RTS, eyeballing all corners of the screen to make sure my party, health and mana were ok, an uneven difficulty curve keeping me on my toes. And of course, this is all an illusion – this is all just busywork, but it tickles my brain on the right spots. I remember very clearly wanting D3 to be D2, but pretty, and that’s what D2:R is.
All in all, is D2:R better than D3? At least on PC, I’d say maybe. On one hand, there’s probably a reason for Diablo 2 to have an active player base for the past 20 years. On the other, I can’t trust my personal opinion not to cloud my judgement on this one – especially because some of the design seeped so much into how I designed my games.
Diablo is also a big reason why I ended up gravitating towards procedural generation. Before deckbuilders were cool again, SumoCheckers had a “scrolls” metagame, and the delicious color coded items with compound names were way more of an influence than Magic: The Gathering (which I played like once with a borrowed deck). I’m actually considering if I should have Bestiarium‘s inventory system have a little Diablo-Tetris to it as well.
I always had this really weird influence matrix and my favorite things tended to be in opposite sides of the spectrum. Quake and Monkey Island. Gentle Giant and Meshuggah. This always lands me on what I call “The Venn Diagram Problem”: if you’re making something based on two or more other things, your target audience won’t be the union of the sets, but the intersection. SumoCheckers was a mashup of a simple strategy game and a simple fighting game. Tribot was an endless runner where you had to manage multiple objects. They were both more and less than the sum of their parts, but I have to admit it was great watching the few people who enjoyed the intersection: they were unicorns, but they loved it!
And it’s funny because those were games I was trying to make for an audience – back then, I was an indie with absolutely no prospects of finding a job, and their failures (as products) taught me a lot.
Bestiarium is different. I’m not making it for the money. I’d love if it turned out to be something I could make into a product, but it’s not supposed to be one – I at the same time know exactly what and have no idea what it is. It’s just something that inhabits my head since 2015 or something? I can’t even tell by this point. Ironically, it all started as some notes on “how can I prototype a thing to create mobs for my twin-stick looter shooter” – a game that I never made because it would be too big and D3 came around and filled my need for it. Those notes became this sprawling, half-a-decade+ long thing that I’ve also avoided making because it was too big, while doing years of prototypes until I finally said “you know what? Fine. I’ll just do it then”.
The core of the game has changed remarkably little from the original notes and, when you think about a project for this long, you inevitably come across things that look very much like it. You sweat, then you see they’re different enough, and you chill. This happened for a bunch of games throughout the years, and it’s easier to demonstrate by going through the elevator pitches:
“It’s a game I’ve been thinking about since 2015 or something. A bit like a procedural Stardew Valley in a way, but grim and with a bunch of dark humour.”
“Oh, you mean Graveyard Keeper (2018)?”
“Not quite, there’s some similarities and it’s funny that they also have a talking skull, but it’s not really that. There’s also like discovering these potions and what they do, doing mixing, diluting, etc.“
“Ah, got it, like PotionCraft (2020)?”
“Oh, that’s really elegant, actually! It’s close to that, but there’s more to it. I’ll give you the full scoop: you’re an alchemist. You conjure portals to places by doing rituals. Where the portal leads you depends on the ritual you performed. You enter the portal, do a dungeon crawl, bring things back, study them, create materials that allow you to make potions, tools and conjure different portals, rinse, repeat.“
“AH! Just like Into the Pit (2021) then!“
“Oh. Oh. Y… yeah. Yeah. It’s actually just like Into The Pit. But… boring?“
That’s a pretty good dramatic reenactment of my past few years with the last bit being yesterday at around 10pm, and the director’s cut would likely include the scene where I just laid down on the ground in fetal position so I could mope about it finally happening: someone made the game I wanted to make… but cooler. First person roguelite dungeon crawling. The setting, the terminology. I also was this close on settling on the whole “modern retro” look (but didn’t invest more in it because if the game came out in 2023 or something, it probably would be saturated). Sometimes, life comes into your proverbial kitchen like a Thai elephant.
The human brain does not come up with anything new, period. It comes up with new associations, and builds from that, but nothing is invented in a vacuum. This means that the same things that influenced me are out there to influence other people, and ideas will ebb and flow into the same directions. It happened to people like Newton and Leibniz, it surely will happen to a donut like me. Even in nature – I’m still fascinated by carcinisation, where it seems all crustaceans basically converge to crabs over time. Maybe ideas exist out there and they want to get out – and if it’s not you conjuring them, it’s not their problem!
This is definitely not the first game that is just like a game I wanted to make, just the one I was the most invested in. So what exactly does this mean for Bestiarium? The answer is: it’s complicated. I first spent years beating around the bush doing prototypes, because “the full game is too big”. I learnt a bunch from them, and now I had a clear roadmap and was chipping away at it, but it’s still just an unsurmountable amount of work. I’ve avoided doing anything else for years because there’s only so many free hours in a day, and free days in a year, and this is nowhere near being a full time thing for me. While my head is fine, maybe my body can’t keep up with work, plus this anymore – ulnar nerve damage on one arm and an undiagnosed condition on the other are maybe its ways of telling me I shouldn’t be spending that long on the keyboard.
Now, thinking about this with a straight head: while the core innovation (a roguelite where you pick where you go next by building the parameters for the generation in-game) is now on Into the Pit’s turf, Bestiarium is a completely different game. It’s a slower-paced love letter to science, throwing a bunch of things that influenced me since I’m a kid into the mix. And not having an audience isn’t that much of an issue: it’s a game I want to make for myself, not because I’ll play it, but because I want it to exist. If other people enjoy it, even better!
But then… isn’t there maybe something else I want to do with my free time? Maybe I want to learn the piano. Start jogging. Juggling! Maybe the reason I think about this game so much is just because I’ve thought about it too much for too long.
So, really, what does this mean for Bestiarium? Maybe objectively, not doing it is better. Maybe subjectively, it’s something I want to conjure, even if there’s something similar out there, or there’s nothing new about it, or it’ll just turn out like crap. Maybe it just means I’m on an abusive relationship with my creative self, and I’ll go back to writing Localization code for the game after I post this and rest my arms a bit.
All in all, the only person who can make the game I want to make is me, because I’m me. I might not be able to make it the way I envision it, but if I don’t try, it sure as hell won’t exist. And the same goes for everyone: if you’re embarking on any creative endeavor for the sake of creation, my top 2 tips are always 1) don’t quit your day job and 2) make sure it comes from YOU. Only you can make your thing. And if something like it already exists, it doesn’t really matter. Every creative market is impossible nowadays. Everyone makes things, and that’s great! The chances of someone finding what you made are slim, so don’t make “art for art’s sake” based on the necessity of it being found, or cherished. Maybe the easiest way to follow your dreams is being the kid on the right.
One thing is sure tho: I’ll play the shit out of Into The Pit and you should probably go wishlist it!