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Gameverse | December 10, 2019

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Can Developers Bring Life Back to the ARPG?

Robert Endyo

There has been no shortage of news relating to the classic Action Role Playing Games (ARPGs) lately. The obvious, of course, is the announcement of Diablo 4. However, since that time, the sequel to Path of Exile was also announced along with a delay to Torchlight Frontiers, a persistent world multiplayer successor in the Torchlight franchise. Even Minecraft is joining in on the genre with Minecraft Dungeons. The Diablo-like genre of ARPGs has never had a brighter future if you ignore the fact that they’ve been mechanically stagnant for years.

Many games have adapted the design made popular by the original Diablo in 1996. The concept of moving your character around with mouse clicks was well established, but tying it all together with repetitious attacks and loot collecting spawned a wave of games using a similar design for decades. Heading into the fourth (real) iteration of the series, Blizzard seems unwilling to shake much of that formula. Heroes still perform attacks and spell casting at the whim of a cursor ripping through waves of enemies. The recent Path of Exile 2 trailer demonstrates quite a bit of this as well. Where is the innovation?

The defining factors for differentiating games of this genre have been adding unique character classes, building up lore, and enhancing the visual fidelity of the environment/enemies/spells/etc. Outside of these criteria, there were few ways to have a distinct ARPG. Now we’re headed into the next wave of this genre and it seems little will change.

It may not be the fault of the developers though. Changes to the base formula are often met with very vocal opposition. The love of loot-filled piñatas and repetitive monster clicking is deeply ingrained in many fans of the genre. Even as I tire of looping through procedurally generated dungeons obliterating the same demons, I still find the value in the experience. However, I do desire something more to the process. Something that can make ARPGs less about just picking up loot or enjoying a story only the first time through multiple playthroughs.

Technically, there are quite a few ARPGs if you step away from the classification of just being “like Diablo.” The most notable being the “Souls-like” games that are now ubiquitous on every platform. These games still rely on sprawling environments, loads of enemies, and even a somewhat toned down but still relevant loot system. Yet they stand out mechanically by giving the player dodge, block, and parry maneuvers along with much more deadly combat. We’ve discussed previously whether this would be a viable addition, but it seems – aside from some dodge maneuvers – there isn’t much of it going on in Diablo 4 or any other ARPGs.

One way they could flesh out these types of games is to give the players more lore to experience. Diablo has always had a rich backstory, but it’s one that gets lost in the frantic flow of the online experience. Even when you take the time to look at it, it lacks the depth of many other more traditional RPGs. We’ve seen from The Witcher 3 that mature-themed RPG stories can be incredible, so perhaps this can be a route Blizzard and other ARPG developers pursue.

While there are plenty of directions Diablo and other ARPGs franchises can take to add depth to their games, there will always be a group of people that prefer the fundamentals of the genre. Even with the potential for monotonous gameplay, there’s a good chance I’ll find myself playing and probably enjoying several of these upcoming games. I can only hope that innovation allows them to stick with me for longer than the last generation of these ARPGs.