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On New Year’s Eve in 1996, Blizzard Entertainment inaugurated the action role-playing game genre with the release of the first Diablo. It was a massive hit and a novel experience. Diablo combined the procedurally generated dungeons and loot of games like Rogue, Moria, and NetHack with top-quality production values, a gothic fantasy setting, multiplayer, and fast-paced, clicky-clicky combat.
But it was 2000’s Diablo II that solidified the subgenre’s form—most current Action RPGs* are direct responses to the popularity and acclaim of Diablo II. D2 popularized four more major elements of the genre: an act structure, a competitive and cooperative online community, hardcore mode, and distinct character builds.
How we’re defining “action-RPG”*
We’re using action-RPG here to mean games specifically descended from Diablo, as opposed to RPGs that have action-based combat, like Mass Effect or Skyrim. This isn’t an ideal distinction, but genre titles rarely are ideal.
From those two games (which is not to say that there weren’t other Action RPGs in that era, just that these cast by far the longest shadow), we have the core elements of the genre, which almost every game today possesses:
- Procedurally generated levels: Each time you start, or sometimes even load, a game, the levels will be largely or almost entirely different in layout and creature distribution. As such, there’s rarely an expectation that you’ll see the levels more than once—whether starting new characters, replaying for experience or loot, or playing at a higher difficulty level.
- Procedurally generated loot: Action-RPGs have come to be known as “loot games,” where enemies drop randomized sets of items with procedurally generated attributes—like a “Lord’s Sword of Haste”—as a major part of the thrill. At the highest levels, these games continue to be viable and fun for seeking out better loot, from “Laz runs” of the first Diablo to the endgame maps of Path of Exile today.
- Click-based action combat: The basic setup of these games is that left-clicking you mouse does normal attacks, right-clicking does main special attacks, and using the keyboard brings in supplemental attacks. (In recent years, such games have started allowing players to hold down the button to continue attacking—as someone who gets repetitive stress injuries playing action-RPGs, this has been a godsend.)
- Top-quality production values: The fast-paced action combat has to be matched by onscreen clarity and both visual and aural feedback. Being good at depicting that’s happening, to keep players both informed and excited, is critical for these games.
- Gothic fantasy setting: Action-RPGs tend to take place in fantasy worlds, and darker ones than most games. This makes sense—they need excuses to have the player be motivated to slaughter foes by the hundreds, and necromancers and demons corrupting the world until a lone hero fights back works well for that. (There have been a few exceptions, but largely within games that are adjacent to the genre and probably on console: the superhero world of X-Men Legends, the postapocalyptic setting of Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, and the high fantasy of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I would like to see more thematic diversity in the genre.)
- Multiplayer and online community: Almost every action-RPG since Diablo allows small groups of four to eight players to join up and fight bad guys together. Many also include player-versus-player combat, though that’s very rarely any kind of game focus. With Diablo II and the expansion of Blizzard’s Battle.net service, it became a full online infrastructure for setting up teams and duels or trading items and tips
- Act structure: The stories of most action-RPGs since Diablo II has been three-to-five distinct acts, each taking place in distinct environments (in Diablo II: dark forest, massive desert, jungle ruins, Hell, and snowy mountain). Stories are usually slight and consist primarily of little more than explaining the backstory of the next dungeon or major enemy—action-RPGs rarely involve giving your player character enough personality that they can engage in any kind of meaningful non-combat confrontation or dialogue.
- Character customization: While player characters don’t have much personality in a story sense, most action-RPGs provide wide options for pragmatic customization. While the original Diablo only offered attacking and spells (making the Sorcerer a much more varied class than the Warrior), Diablo II made all of its seven classes have similar depth and multiple options for customization, both in skills you can learn and core attributes with choices given at each level-up.
- Hardcore mode: The old roguelikes that Diablo was partially inspired by were famous for their permanent death—once a character died, they were gone forever. While the original Diablo didn’t have that, it was present in Diablo II, and it has consistently been an option in most games within the subgenre.
This is a surprisingly strong subgenre of games, with several excellent and varied recent installments. We took a close look at a few of them: Torchlight II, Diablo III, Path of Exile — and a broad look at several of the rest.
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First up is the elephant in the room.
Diablo III’s initial problems were well documented: Server stability issues, an overbearing plot, poor loot progression, excessive difficulty, and the damnable auction house all served to give it a poor reputation. That was unfortunate for two reasons: first, a really good game was underneath the meta-game issues; and second, almost every patch since and the Reaper of Souls expansion have worked to eliminate DIII’s major problems.
Describing what actually worked about Diablo III presents some difficulty. It’s easy to look at meta-game systems like loot progression, but it’s much tougher to analyze what makes the individual animations of a shield bash superb. The sound and animation are all top-tier, with those Crusader Shield Bashes landing with satisfying thuds, while the Demon Hunter’s escape trick “vault” blurs across the screen with a nice little “whoosh.” As the game progresses, the situation onscreen becomes increasingly complicated with meteors falling, lightning hammers flying around, and bosses throwing up walls, but Diablo III always does just enough to feel comprehensible. The interface helps, too—all kinds of little things, like holding down the mouse button continuing to fire at the original enemy, even if it’s ported to the other side of the screen. Just fighting is incredibly satisfying. It’s also been ported to consoles and their controllers, to wildly successful reviews.
This is fortunate, because Diablo III has evolved into a game entirely focused on combat. The encounter design is effective for calling multiple groups of enemies together, turning fights into mobile, dynamic affairs, especially when multiple bosses get into place. The “Adventure Mode” added with Reaper of Souls, meanwhile, pushes the plot to the side and encourages consistent fighting. Finally, the controversial skill system, where every ability is available but only six can be used at once, works extremely well at allowing combat to be manageable even in chaos.
Those advantages come at a slight cost—Diablo III isn’t that good at creating a sense of character progression and history. You select whichever skills you feel like choosing, instead of building a powerhouse over time. Adventure Mode cuts out the repetitive story, but you just zap around the world with no sense of place. And the difficulty levels are player-centered—if you’re having a too-easy time, raise the level!—but that makes it tough to have a sense of accomplishment at getting to the next difficulty level, as the series used have.
If you want to focus on the “action” side of the genre, Diablo III is almost impossible to beat. But for a more satisfying, progress-centered take, Torchlight II is worth a look. …