“That bauble around your neck—was it bought with gold or iron?”

Hardcore mode. Sounds intimidating. It’s for “hardcore players,” which as any erstwhile WoW forum reader knows, is the opposite of “casual players.” Which is what, statistically speaking, you probably are. This post is about why, name notwithstanding, Hardcore mode is for you. Paradoxically, it can be not only the most intense way to play, but also the most casual way to play. My goal in writing this is for you (whoever you are) to try it. Nothing more. Next time you’re logging in to D3 and don’t have a pressing goal in mind, or aren’t sure what you want to do, just hit that red button on the character creation screen and see what happens. Don’t have to do it for long, or have any big plan, just try it for an evening. There’s really only one risk: a lot of people never go back.

Do you want your possessions identified?

Diablo was in one sense the first of its kind, but it was really a update of a long-standing game genre, the “roguelike” (most famously Nethack). Diablo added graphics to the then-existing hack-and-slash dungeon crawling game concept. But a brief look back at Nethack, a well-known classic, is informative. Dungeon sizes, spell and monster lists, and item stat combinations were far more vast than we’re used to in the era after text-based games (aside: not having graphics used to leave quite a lot of resources free for other things). People would play for years and stumble across new spell/item/monster interactions, because it was virtually impossible to learn them all on your own. Beating the whole game was hard, and very few people did. The interesting fact for today though, is something that was so obvious there wasn’t even a name for it at the time: it was Hardcore. The whole value of the game was learning from your deaths. The first time I tried playing, my character died of hunger before I made it off the first level (so I don’t leave you in suspense, my next character died of food poisoning). Once I mastered the nuances of eating properly, and other skills, I’d get further with each character. Not because of any in-game property that carried over, but because I learned more about what to do and what not to do.

The idea that each character represents wasted time merely because he dies couldn’t be further from the player’s mind. The value is what happened along the way, and even though you roll up a fresh new character as far as the game is concerned, you, as a player, bring something new from the previous game that’s valuable and can’t be taken away. As a final aside: since Nethack (1987) was far before the era of online-only gaming, of course it was trivial to continue playing dead characters by copying save files or the like. But this was considered the highest form of cheating, and more importantly for this discussion–the people who did so would never even understand that they’d missed out on the entire game.

“This death takes place in the shadow of new life.”

Videogames have changed in the past 25 years, and so fortunately we have a much wider variety of playstyles to choose from. But what haven’t changed are the reasons that focusing on adventuring, careful choices, and learning from your mistakes will make for a great time, and for an experience you’re far more likely to remember long after you’re done playing.

1) No content is meaningless. The first time you play through D3, everything is new and exciting. You don’t know what abilities upcoming monsters will have, you’re not sure how your next spell will work even if you read the description, and each item you upgrade to is the best thing you’ve ever had. That’s all well and good, and I played through D3 softcore the first time, like nearly everyone (interestingly, I had no idea I’d ever touch Hardcore at the time). But what about after that? You feel like playing an alt, but suddenly that experience bar looks pretty long. Sure, you’ll do what everyone does, and plow through all the zones as quickly as you can while watching TV (don’t deny it), so that after many hours you can try another class in Hell or Inferno, and deck them out in sweet gear you grabbed off the AH. But what if it didn’t have to be that way?

In Hardcore, you have an interest in what’s going on the entire time. Which isn’t to say it’s a constant strenuous challenge–once you’ve done it once or twice, Normal difficulty is pretty comfortable and nonthreatening. And even in later levels, you tend not to play in areas where you’re always on the edge of your seat. But you always care about how you’re playing. And even when things are easy, it’s because you’re set up well with gear/skills that you picked, and as a player know how to handle the various monsters you might encounter. That constantly rewarding feeling is one of the biggest things that will hook you in to the game.

2) Choices matter. As a corollary to the above, D3, before the very high difficulties, rarely causes you to take even a serious moment’s thought about gear or spec decisions. The free respecs, freely tradable gear, and lack of penalty for death all conspire to let you generally do absolutely whatever you want without much care about how well it plays. Now this has its upsides–accessibility, uninterrupted gameplay, and character diversity. But it also leaves something else missing: the feeling of having made a meaningful decision about your character and, for better or worse, seeing how it turns out. To state the obvious: sometimes this means you can fail. But a consistent theme here is that “failure” is not all-downside. Not only do you learn from it, but even when you succeed, the very possibility of failure is what makes the success matter. Killing a boss and knowing that you would have died if you’d made different decisions about gear, skills, or tactics (perhaps you know it because you’ve died before) is the highest payoff the game has to offer.

3) Goals. Once you’re level 60, you can try to beat Inferno, which is a serious challenge in its own right before the 1.0.3 patch, and probably a reasonable challenge even afterwards. But how do you go about that, and/or, what do you after you’ve done it? All there is to do is get better gear. The whole game becomes an elaborate exercise in amassing wealth (see our essay about the Auction House for more on how gold is the be all and end all of high-end D3). This is the biggest reason why I often say that Hardcore can be the most casual way to play. In softcore, improving your stature can only be accomplished by farming or somehow acquiring more gold. It is slow, time-intensive, and doesn’t even center on using your character to do hard things–it’s usually about doing easy things repeatedly. In Hardcore you’re never in that state. The goal is always to progress further, by seeing what your character is capable of. No matter what stage you’re at, you have an interesting challenge in front of you. If you want a version of Diablo where you’re going to log in and worry about killing the next monster, not about how the Auction House is going to treat you today, Hardcore is for you. If you’re limited in your play time, think hard about whether a game in which finite standalone adventures matter might be more interesting than an unending grind for gold.

4) No real-money Auction House. The trials and tribulations of the RMAH could definitely be a post on its own (and may well we, after enough time has passed to digest it all), but for now I’m just going to leave this one here. Suffice to say, there are at least a lot of people for whom this is a pretty significant draw.

5) Not everything is max-level. This is worth mentioning since I’m mostly known for my efforts to help people min/max to an extreme degree in WoW. But I also enjoy the world of the suboptimal, in all games. I like looking at two level 25 blue pants and figuring out which is better for keeping me safe at Belial. It’s similar to the reason I like drafting in Magic–it’s fun looking at two mediocre commons and knowing which better fits in the last spot in your deck. Things get very monotonous in any game when the only things you look at are the most optimized, highest-level, well-tested items (or stats, or cards, or whatever it is), and everything else is ignored. Making sense of the random assortments of low-level junk you deal with while leveling Hardcore characters is not only interesting because it’s different every time, but utilizes game knowledge far more than buying rare attack speed gloves on the AH for your level 60 because you know from the forums that everyone else is.

6) The Auction House is not the solution to everything. I linked above the piece we co-wrote on this blog about the AH; I won’t restate the thesis here. But suffice to say, in Hardcore, you can’t get everything you need from there for trivial prices, and high-level availability in particular is very limited. Most of this is obvious, but the most important point is that, since items actually leave the system (and it’s the good items that vanish, the ones people were actually using), item availability does not increase without bound. You have to both use what you get from drops, and use gold carefully, because good items will always have meaningful costs.

“He’s not really dead … as long as we remember him.”

What about the reasons not to play? I want to address them, but in truth, I’ve only heard one, and I think it’s already handled nicely by the above.

The objection I’m referring to is, “when I die, all that time is wasted.” But the answer couldn’t be more simple: no it is not. If you’re not convinced of this so far, I don’t know what to add except to ask: if you really think all that time would be wasted, why are you playing this game at all? Someday you’re going to quit and all of your characters will never be played again, Hardcore or otherwise. All you’ve gotten out of it is the experience of playing. Maximizing what you get out of your time spent playing is infinitely more valuable than some in-game assets you might lose every now and then.

Paying the Iron Price

A major theme in much of my writing about games is that the chance of failure and the chance of success are what bring all games to life. Without the chance of failure, what does success even mean? You just spent some time doing something and got a guaranteed result. I’m not going to deny that that sort of activity has its place, but I’m telling you here: try something different as well. Unless you’re a fan of the Nethack ilk, you may never have played this sort of game before. Now you’re playing a game with a tailor-made play mode intended for this very purpose, waiting for you to use it.

If you can’t help but balk at the perceived risk, nothing I can say might be able to make you click that button. But if you can bring yourself to try, the rewards do not take long to appear. In just an hour to two you can try to reach the Skeleton King and kill him. If you do that, I’d wager even money that next time you log in, you’ll find yourself playing that character again instead of your level 60. After the Butcher, you’ll be the one linking this article to your friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens even if you lose. Because you’ll have tasted something that has no substitute. And, well, to use the parlance of our times: you only live once.