It’s kind of weird for me to see the intensely positive reaction people have had to the concept art for the original version of Diablo III that was never actually made. On some level, yes, I can get it. That consternation about the game’s art design changing has never entirely gone away for some people, and the concept art on display is very washed-out and in muted tones compared to the actual game’s high-contrast design. I don’t know if I’d call that a positive difference, but it definitely is a notable one.
But was this the Diablo III people wanted? Well, no, because it didn’t exist.
Working around video games means learning a lot about the games that never quite made it over the finish line, either ones that were cancelled when they were very close to getting a full release or ones that never got much further than concept art. And make no mistake, I love learning about this stuff. But the reality is that games we never got offer a seductive vision of what could have been that does not conform to reality.
I’ve talked before about my general distinterest in the Diablo franchise as a whole, but there’s another example that provides a similar bout of immediate speculation: Guild Wars: Utopia. The fourth campaign for the original Guild Wars featured a laundry list of features that are among my personal bits of catnip, right down to the setting being inspired by South American cultures. This is something I love. None of the ideas that I have heard about the new campaign has ever been anything less than personally intriguing.
So does that mean I would have liked it more than Guild Wars: Eye of the North? Well… I have no idea. Nobody does. Because Eye of the North exists and, as hilarious as it is to say it based on the name, Utopia does not.
Ideas aren’t real things.
One of my old ways of describing video game Kickstarters which I still quite like is likening them to asking people, “Do you want to play my idea?” It prompts a lot of wild thinking and speculation. It’s based on the idea that you’re going to put this idea out in the world where people can be deeply invested in an idea, like the idea behind Chronicles of Elyria. I’ve already talked extensively about how that idea never actually coalesced into a playable state, to boot.
But the thing is that this stuff isn’t limited to Kickstarters. It’s just that Kickstarters are the most forward-facing way of selling you on an idea rather than an actual thing.
For example, how would Chronomancer have played in Utopia? Would it have been up there as one of my preferred ways to play, akin to Dervish? Would it have been kind of lackluster? I have no idea because we have no actual play information. Even if we did, I would still only have an idea, a gut check for what I think playing this might have been like if it actually existed, which it does not. It is entirely possible for something to look fun on paper and wind up hitting you cold when you actually play it.
Yet when I speculate about it, my mind naturally goes to how much I would have liked this much more than Eye of the North. Literally, it sounds better to me than the expansion right now, and this is in the middle of a column writing about how it didn’t exist. But some of that isn’t just because of what I find interesting in Utopia; it’s because it’s hard for a real thing to compare to something purely speculative.
A real game is always going to have pain points. It’s going to do some things well and some things wrong. You could, for example, have a terribly designed real-money auction house that immediately garners ill will from players, coupled with server instability on launch and general debates about whether this single-player game should have elements tying it into multiplayer servers in the first place.
But the reality is that a hypothetical version of Diablo III made by Blizzard North could also have bungled things in unforced ways just as surely, and we have no way of knowing that. We can speculate about it, and we can be reasonably sure based on timeframes that they wouldn’t have been the same mistakes, but at the end of the day the version of the game we got can’t compete with a version that never existed beyond concept art and initial planning documents.
You know the adage about how you should never meet your heroes? There’s a reason for that. It’s not because your heroes are necessarily bad people but because interacting with your heroes reveals the fact that they are people. They make bad choices and say things that hurt you and screw up and have bad ideas. You know, exactly like every other human being on the planet.
When you’re comparing an ideal to a person, the person loses out because the person will always let you down. The person doesn’t get to live in a space composed of only your favorite attributes. Humans are not perfect, and ideas can be… and our natural tendency when talking about ideas is always to focus on the things we actually like and want to be good, thereby contributing further to an image wherein the idea is good and pure but the reality is failing to live up to those ideas.
The exact same things are true about unreleased games. Our own Game Archaeologist column covers a lot of games that never quite made it to release. I wrote an entire Perfect Ten about gaming futures that never were that still fascinate me to this day. They’re a lot of fun to look at and speculate about.
But they’re also not litmus tests for how well the reality did compared to the ideal. They’re just interesting things to speculate upon, and while you can write a lot imagining how things would have looked if such-and-such a project had reached fruition or changes hadn’t been made or whatever, past a certain point you’re writing fanfic for a version of this game that exists solely within your head.
Heck, in that Perfect Ten I outright admitted that some of my “I wonder how this would have looked” material is already about fanfic versions of the title. Maybe WildStar’s endgame mess would have been in place even before the switch to active combat happened. Maybe the game still would have found a way to screw things up. I don’t know; I can speculate.
It’s just important not to conflate that speculation with what should have happened or would have happened if only the powers that be were smarter. Because, well… I don’t know about it. I don’t know about any of it. I don’t know if Middle-earth Online would be a game I like more than Lord of the Rings Online, but it’s pretty unfair to the latter to judge it against the former when only one of them has to actually be a real game.