Keeping with the Diablo 3 theme, now that patch 13 has been out for a few days, it’s time to review some of the major changes made. But because everyone’s favourite topic right now is still the release date, let’s discuss that first.
Release Date Blues
If you recall my pre-conference call release date analysis, after getting over the depression at the game missing Q1, you’ll notice I mention that the alternative to a Q1 release date was a May or June release (basically: no late March, no April). Why?
Well – they can’t announce a release date immediately after a conference call (because the investors should have been advised, if they were that close). So, that rules out a February announcement. However, they are very close to being ready – look at all the evidence I noted before (which mostly still stands), and when you add in the new stuff, like Jay Wilson’s recent rumblings. There are also yet more beta keys – thousands – going out this coming Monday.
It’s always a lottery, but if I had to guess, I would say the most likely dates for a release date announcement, based on all the information that’s public right now, is either March 5th or March 12th (Blizzard like to announce on Mondays, and 10-20 days fits their “in the near future” timeline), and the most likely actual release date is probably the week of May 7th right now (they like a 6-8 week lead time, and their next investor quarterly conference call is I believe May 10th, which would make the timing perfect).
Beta Patch 13 – is it the LAST beta patch?
In a word: possibly! What leads me to this crazy conclusion? Well, a few things. For one, Blizzard worked all through the weekend to release this patch, which is not normal for them (in the past, when a Friday patch has been delayed, they’ve just delayed it until Monday). Why would getting a new patch version out be so important that they would crunch it to deliver on a Saturday (when they’re already in crunch for the release itself, this is a big ask for the support team)? One obvious answer is that it is the last beta patch, and once it’s out, they can close/reallocate staff from “beta release management” to “release management”.
There are other clues too. D3 site incgamers noticed that the executable “title” had changed from “Diablo III Beta” to “Diablo III Retail” when right-clicked in Windows 7’s taskbar (although I couldn’t reproduce this). Some of Bashiok’s most recent posts and are also intriguing. When asked about changes to the new ‘chat channels’ interface, he replied: “Just about everything is set as it will be at release. There will certainly be tweaks here and there, and some small improvements, but no, we don’t have any current plans to change the chat channel interface.” If we take him at face value, and almost everything is pretty much locked for release, then there’s no need for new beta patches, as they wouldn’t provide anything new to test. Finally, it also fits with my timeline on the expected release date above. While circumstantial at best, at least it’s logically consistent!
Any contrary evidence? Well, the only thing I can think of is the new Skill/Hotbar UI. It’s actually quite terrible as of this patch. I expect that we will see significant reworking in this area to fix it, and if there’s another beta patch, I think the reason will probably be to make sure they got that bit right.
About the Patch Gameplay Changes
Well, there are a few. Lots of them are minor improvements, bug fixes, tweaks to damage numbers, stuff like that. Some stuff you don’t even notice during play, others make you go “oh yes, that’s much better” (Monks have improved pathfinding on my favorite skill Dashing Strike, for example – it will now go around corners instead of getting stuck on walls or desks or tombs all the time). They also have Chat Channels, which look very similar to gothic reskins of the Starcraft 2 chat interface. I won’t go through them all, because there’s one change that really deserves all the attention: the Rune System changes.
The Skill Rune System
In a nutshell: skill “runes” are no longer items. They will no longer drop from monsters, and can no longer be traded on the auction house. Instead, you will ‘unlock’ the different rune versions of all of your skills, one at a time, as you level from 1-60. The unlocking system is predetermined (i.e. you can’t choose what to unlock when – it’s the same for everyone). There are no longer different ‘ranks’ to the skill runes either, they are now just one set effect. Once a skill rune has become unlocked, you can select it in the same UI menu where you select your skills. You can change them at any time, but they’re subject to the normal skill-change cooldown timer.
Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of this system, compared to the old one (which, to be fair, is based on what we have been told rather than what we have seen, since they were never in the beta before now).
Pros of new system:
- No longer takes up inventory/stash space (yay!)
- No need to buy/trade for the particular skill rune you want
- You will unlock a new ability at every level (no more 30-60 ‘deadzone’)
- UI shows you exactly what each potential effect is for all of your skills at all times
- You’re free to experiment with each effect, no need to find/buy them to try them
Cons of the new system:
- You can’t buy a rune for a particular skill. You must wait until you unlock it
- No more skill ranks – another point of customization removed
- You are less ‘invested’ in a specific build, and potentially your character
Overall, I think this is a change for the better. For inventory space considerations alone, the old system was a nightmare. There are around 130 different skills in the game (across the 5 classes). Multiplied by the 5 different runes, that’s 650 different skill runes that you would have potentially needed to access – let’s forget about the fact that they each had ranks 1-7 available. The maximum size of the shared stash right now is only 210 slots. Something did not add up.
Also, the “deadzone” between levels 30-60 was a real problem in the old system. You’re playing through Nightmare or Hell: you’ve already played the story, it’s just harder, and you’re not getting anything new and shiny to play with? Making it so that every level you have something to look forward to was a very good move by Blizzard.
Against this – it’s sad that skill ranks are removed. No more being able to awe the random strangers in your party by casting your Rank 7 runed Magic Missile which fired 8 missiles in all directions. Now, everyone who selects that Magic Missile rune will fire the same number (usually equivalent to rank 4 or 5, depending on the skill).
However, there are rumors that we have an alternative mechanism for this: “+to specific skill” affixes back on individual items (like they were on D2). This hasn’t been confirmed by anyone in Blizz, but the dataminers have apparently located affixes that could do this. If so, it’s a fantastic solution – since not only can you again differentiate yourself from the other users of the same skill rune, but also it reintroduces “investment” into each particular endgame build, since you will now want a specific itemization set to go with your chosen build. Also, it adds additional item diversity to the affix pool, which is always, always a good thing.