On the surface, the question posed in the headline is obvious. It’s Diablo III, dummy. As we dig a little deeper, though, we find that response to be the source of much frustration with the title. If “Diablo III isn’t World of Warcraft,” (as stated by Blizzard Community Manager Bashiok recently) what exactly is it?

It’s not an MMO, at least not in the way that we generally think of that genre, but it does force its tropes upon players. The online connection requirement, the constant nagging chat window and, oh, the nerfs. Diablo III might not be an MMO, but it is trying damn hard to convince us otherwise. If Blizzard were to simply wrap its arms around the increasingly cloudy acronym, the ire of the community might not be so great.

This latest head-scratching moment was kicked off by Bashiok in a substantial post two days ago that stated,

We recognize that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game. There are still tons of people playing every day and week, and playing a lot, but eventually they’re going to run out of stuff to do (if they haven’t already). Killing enemies and finding items is a lot of fun, and we think we have a lot of the systems surrounding that right, or at least on the right path with a few corrections and tweaks. But honestly Diablo III is not World of Warcraft. We aren’t going to be able to pump out tons of new systems and content every couple months. There needs to be something else that keeps people engaged, and we know it’s not there right now.

We’re working toward 1.0.4, which we’re really trying to pack with as many fixes and changes we can to help you guys out (and we’ll have a bunch of articles posted with all the details as we get closer), and we’re of course working on 1.1 with PvP arenas. I think both those patches will do a lot to give people things to do, and get them excited about playing, but they’re not going to be a real end-game solution, at least not what we would expect out of a proper end-game. We have some ideas for progression systems, but honestly it’s a huge feature if we want to try to do it right, and not something we could envision being possible until well after 1.1 which it itself still a ways out.

Especially with the (sensible) tweaks to Inferno difficulty (the game’s most brutal challenge), more people are seeing their way through to the end of the game. With most titles, that would signify one of two things to players: start a new character and begin again, or put the game away. No one can argue that, even for its imperfections, Diablo III provides great value for the price of admission. The five character classes and multiple difficulties (not to mention the loot drops that keep people clicking) would take hundreds of hours for a single player to fully explore.

At the same time, though, there is an expectation gamers have of Blizzard that isn’t quite fair. Their games typically have a fantastic shelf life. World of Warcraft gets regular content updates. Entries in the Warcraft and Starcraft series have competitive modes for players that have conquered the solo campaign. Why does Diablo III need end-game content? Why won’t Blizzard suggest to players that they anxiously await an expansion? It feels like the developer is allowing themselves to be bullied by players. Being receptive to your customers is one thing, but at some point you have to tie off the end of the product, patch what’s broken, lay out your DLC or expansion plans and get to work on the future.

On the flip side, this release has been an anomaly for Blizzard. The removal of PvP was met with a mixed response. Some players were glad to get the majority of the game earlier, while others were concerned about an unfinished product. The developer is known for standing by the “it’ll ship when it’s done” credo. Talk of ambiguous plans for new systems and content that hasn’t yet been created (but isn’t part of a true expansion) invites the MMO comparison. In that genre, the game is never out of production until it is shut down for good. Trickling out enhancements, patching in end-game content and adding new incentives for players to stay or come back aren’t bad things, especially if there is no cost to the player. They do, however, breed confusion about what Diablo III is supposed to be.

Blizzard needs to more concretely define the future of their hit action-RPG and do a better a job of setting player expectations. Their attentiveness to patching and hot fixing has been admirable. The fallout from patch 1.0.3 seems to be fading thanks to dramatically increased drop rates, evidencing that the company continues to respond in the right ways to player concerns.

So, if Diablo III isn’t World of Warcraft, what is it? Maybe it’s time for Blizzard to define this new genre.

via[MCV], Banner image captured from Kripparian’s defeat of Diablo on Hardcore Inferno (before the difficulty was eased), which you can watch below. via[Kotaku]

Michael Futter is the Managing Editor of @RipTen. You can follow him on Twitter @mmmfutter.