After a long break from both games I dived right back in and spent another 150 hours in both games in recent months. Beat Uber Elder multiple times in POE, and worked to Greater Rift 100+ in Diablo 3. I am your average meta gamer. I look on POENINJA and Diablo 3 Ladder, find the most popular/dominant builds, find a build guide for that build to explain the mechanics, and play that build, that is it. My experience in these games is easily reproduce-able by anyone willing to google.
How They Got Here
Diablo 3 is one of the top 3 copies-sold, made-for-PC games of all-time, behind only Playerunknown Battleground and Minecraft. It took the traditionally niche ARPG genre and made it mainstream with very clever simplifications (and turning off hardcore Diablo 2 fans as a result, a conscious decision made from the get go) to make the game more accessible to a much wider audience. However, as big of a success as 30 million copies sounds, this is just 1.2 billion of revenue across core game + expansion and multiple platforms. World of Warcraft easily made more than this in a single year during its peak years, and the pay-once model is dying in the era of dominant billion dollar year freemium games like League of Legends, Fortnite and Dungeon Fighter Online, not to mention billion dollar year mobile games like Fate Grand Order, Pokemon Go, or even Activision/Blizzard's own Candy Crush. Blizzard has abandoned Diablo 3 for a few years now, and focused its effort on games with sustained revenue models.
Path of Exile is one of the most successful indie games of all time. From a tiny studio to a (rumored?) $100 million acquisition from Tencent, they probably make $30 million a year in revenue looking at the typical revenue-to-acquisition multiplier for game studios. They are running a true labor of love, and have one of the strongest communities. With Tencent's involvement they were able to grow their presence in China, and because of the modern freemium model, you are guaranteed to receive fresh contents for years to come. Out of all companies who tried to dethrone Diablo, GGG is the only studio to have a legit claim at the title and unfortunately for them, by the time the young swordsman is powerful enough to fight the master, the master already put down his sword years ago and rest of the world is using guns (Destiny/Division's success/mass appeal is hard for ARPG to compete). Still, while it is not likely for POE to ever reach more than a fraction of Diablo 3's economic success, living the life you want to live, making the game you and your fans want to play can be the biggest achievement in life on its own.
After a rocky start, in my honest opinion the current Path of Exile graphics has caught up to Diablo 3. GGG has really done a tremendous job to improve the graphics/animation over the years, that I really believe both games look good for their age. Some of Path of Exile's outdoor maps with modern water effects just looks really good. While Diablo 3 still has the Blizzard attention-to-detail on background animations, in my opinion they start to look aged with low polygon models from 2012. Sound vise, in my opinion Diablo 3 does not have the same iconic soundtrack of World of Warcraft games, and Path of Exile's uber lab music and emperor speech started to grow on me after a while.
Overall, I really believe you can take either one based on your personal taste, whether you prefer Diablo 3's slightly more cartoonish look or Path of Exile's darker theme. They are both good enough in this department and if graphic is the deciding factor for looters, Dungeon Fighter Online wouldn't be a 10 billion dollar franchise capable of competing with GTA series in total revenue.
Combat: Diablo 3
I am going to exclude the usage of grey area macros here for obvious reasons. If you play the games the way they are intended, Diablo 3 is simply the far more twitchy game. In Diablo 3, especially because you can easily increase the content difficulty to match your character's strength, the game play is much more cooldown/rotation based. It feels closer to a World of Warcraft DPS race in a raid, in that every cooldown is crucial. You will lose a big chunk of your damage and defense if something falls off. Melee range builds are also currently, much stronger in Diablo 3 than Path of Exile, so you have to be much more twitchy on dodging floor effects even when fighting elites while managing your cooldown. Finally, the Greater Rifts are time-based events and require speed play, so as a whole the game feels much faster paced than Path of Exile.
In Path of Exile you plan your build ahead and turn on all of your mana reservation skills, cast-when-damage taken skills, and the number of buttons you press with top-tier builds like Herald of Agony Occultist, Arc Mine Saboteur or Molten Strike Juggernaut are very limited outside of flasks usage. Heck GGG took this a step further with 3.5 so socketed gems will go off when you use other skills! It is the much more passive playing style and much easier on the fingers, and as a result it is easier to play extended sessions without noticing the clock tick by.
Itemization: Path of Exile
Diablo 3 is based on set bonuses. If you don't have a 6 piece set bonus, you don't play that build. This was consciously done to make player choices simpler. There is still amulet, belt, 2 x rings, 2 x weapon slots and three cube power slots for you to choose, but because of the power of unique items boosting key skills hundreds of percentage points, it is far easier for players to pick the correct pieces. From there you hope to get more powerful version of the same item with better rolls, and it is also made easier as you can change one item property to another with very little risk. Make no mistake about it, there is still enough min/max and complexity here for most players, you still need to cap certain stats like cooldown reduction, but Blizzard chose to sacrifice depth and richness to make it easier to absorb for console players.
Path of Exile on the other hand, is dominated by rare items with infinite number of prefix and suffix's. You can kill Uber Elder deathless, look up POENINJA and realize the guy in delve 1000 playing your build is doing more than triple the damage on Path of Building, that a single piece of his gear can buy your full set. The ceiling of how powerful an item can be is extremely high compared to Diablo 3, and much more difficult to get. Throw in the hundreds of prefix/suffix, keywords, it is really satisfying to build up your knowledge of how everything works over time, especially when it comes to deciding an item's true market value.
Class Design/Balance: Diablo 3
Classes in Diablo are very distinct and Blizzard, every class has its own skills, talents and items with very little shared across classes. By changing the number of zero's on less-popular sets, they have more-or-less forced every class to be within 10% of each other at Greater Rift Solo ceiling. However, because of the focus on hitting highest greater rift levels, and the free respecs, the builds are much more optimized, with just 5-10% in skill choices between top players of same build.
In Path of Exile, every class shares the same gigantic skill tree, skill gems and items. The only difference is the super duper passive skills each class gets as part of its ascendancy. However, the passive skill tree is huge and requires you to travel from one end to another, so you can't take the best skills and leave the rest. There are also many sub-branches subject to player discretion. A top player in Path of Exile can easily have 15-20% different skill tree choices than another top player of same build. And for something like Arc Mine that supports both life and low life based builds, you can have two 50-60% different trees at delve > 1000, using the same active skills. With the lack of focus in delving compared to greater rifts, players can experiment more with lower tier builds without feeling being punished.
However, the fact that everyone can use the same skill/item definitely makes Path of Exile classes feel samey. A top tier build like Howa Molten Strike can be played by both Occultist and Juggernaut (or any one else really at a lower tier), and ascendancy passives aside, they are more-or-less the same build. The items are mostly the same, the talent tree is mostly the same, they play the same and have similar effectiveness at end game contents, with Occultist's stronger curse makes it easier in delving, and Juggernaut's better passives vs bosses make it superior for bossing.
Same thing with Herald of Agony builds, or Arc Mine/Trap/Totem builds. There are of course exceptions to this rule, like Juggernaut's Nebuloch molten strike which can really only work with Juggernaut's endurance charge mechanisms, but it is still spamming balls in enemy's face and doesn't feel that different than other versions of molten strike beyond tankiness. As the only top tier melee skill in the game, the difference between classes is far less distinct than say, Crusader vs Barbarian melee builds. Once you increase the difficulty to delve 1000, which is the only way to measure character strength on a ladder at the moment in Path of Exile, Molten Strike, Blade Vortex and Herald of Agony is 82% of the player base. Occultist, Juggernaut and Ascendant is 75% of the player base.
The fact that every class shares the same tree, and every class can use the same skills and items, will make it very difficult for GGG to balance in the future. Fortunately, they know this as well, so they keep the game play difficulty low and time gate the more difficult contents. If you killed Uber Elder, you need to play 30+ maps to fight him again, so whether a build is better at killing him doesn't really matter. If you failed a deep delve encounter, well you need to farm a lot of sulphite just to be able to get deep enough where your build really matters, and most players don't do that.
With seasonal play, every class will kill Shaper or Uber Elder (depend on player's goal) and most people don't have time to deep delve enough for game balance problems to show up. As a result, Path of Exile has far more things to do than testing a character's true strength, thanks to its . . .
Trading & Economy: Path of Exile's Biggest Advantage
Path of Exile's single biggest advantage and addiction over Diablo 3, is without any question its trading. It is one of the only games where anything and everything can be traded, there is no such thing as bind to player! An ARPG is all about making decisions. How much is this drop worth to another player of a build I never heard of? How much should you price it if you want to sell it fast so you can buy another upgrade tonight? What is the next upgrade I should buy for my character? These are some of the most satisfying decisions you will ever make, and Path of Exile really pushes this to the max with the sky high ceiling of its items. Getting a great upgrade for cheap on poe.trade is easily as satisfying as getting a super desirable drop. You are also encouraged to read up poe.ninja to see what are the other hot builds out there and what items are more expensive now due to balance changes.
Blizzard's single biggest mistake was to close the auction house, and I am so glad people who made these decision are most likely pushed out of the company with Blizzard's move to a mobile/freemium Diablo game. I expect the next Diablo games to bring back the auction house and close its biggest gap vs Path of Exile. I truly miss the days when a correctly rolled item can be so incredibly valuable. Loot 2.0, while may be a great mechanism for Path of Exile's SSF mode, is Blizzard waving the white flag to satisfy the pay-once player base, and they lost the much more lucrative freemium/P2W playerbase as a result. They should have went freemium / full auction house P2W instead, and I believe the current Blizzard with the right management will not make the same mistake. In 2014 freemium was not nearly as dominant as it is today, I can not blame them too much for this given Blizzard's old school management at the time.
Having said that, if you prefer the traditional get loot for your own character playing style, in Path of Exile I have received maybe two or three pieces of gear my characters can use in end game in 400+ hours over last two years. Play Diablo 3 if you want to use what monsters drop and don't want to deal with trading/economy. Loot 2.0 is much more satisfying than Path of Exile SSF in my opinion.
End Game Content: Path of Exile
Thanks to a robust economy, Path of Exile has many more ways to make money, money you can use to make your character more powerful instead of relying on beating hard contents. You can delve lower level maps and farm for fossils in darkness. You can farm specific maps like The Underground Sea or Harbour Bridge. You can build dedicated MF characters with super movement speed and item quantity. With huge number of map modifers you can add via sextants and Zana upgrades, random activity triggers, delve, temple, hideout design, there is just a lot more to do than Greater Rift. While at its core it is still kill stuff/get stuff, Path of Exile's more variety (and more relaxed combat) makes it much easier to melt the hours away.
Of course the advantage of Greater Rift is, you are guaranteed random tilesets/enemies/boss encounters every time. The guardians and even shaper/uber elder encounter themselves get old after a while. You also don't have to force yourself to take on lower difficulty contents if you just want to push, push and push some more. Farming for rift token is also not nearly as annoying as farming for sulphite to continue delving.
Multiplayer: Diablo 3's Biggest Advantage
Blizzard's net code is still second to none. Super smooth four player games, whether you are team pushing greater rift, carrying newbies, or leeching paragon levels/loot from players much more powerful than you, it is a great experience every time. Just so satisfying to clear bounties super quick as a team and easily join/leave games you want. The four player couch coop experience, if you are lucky enough to have friends who are willing to do this with you, also takes this to a completely new level.
Unfortunately, with the dwindling ARPG community, it is harder and harder to get friends who are willing to play this kind of games vs the latest battle royale games or even Division/Destiny as their new looter fix. So Diablo 3's biggest advantage is shrinking by the day.
Player Experience: Constantly Rewarding vs Roller-coaster Emotion
In Diablo 3, Blizzard designed the entire experience to be enjoyable and make sure you will get something every single hour you play. Even if you just do 3 greater rift before you go to bed, you are likely to get some paragon levels, one or two minor upgrades, and gem upgrades. You never feel you wasted a hour of play, and this is crucial to make this genre more popular. However, as a result your upgrades feel more incremental once you get the initial upgrades. You don't feel the intense joy of finally getting your 7L bow for Herald of Agony, or buying something that is worth EX's in chaos from poe.trade.
In Path of Exile, if you want to min/max your character and get the last 5 talent points, 99% of the players have to force themselves to stop taking on challenging contents, and farm lower difficulty boring contents for countless hours. This is made easier in 3.5 as you can farm lower difficulty contents for experience AND currencies and use currencies to pay to use other people's leveling service aka upgraded breachstones, but still a very tedious process that stops all the fun because of the 10% experience penalty. Whether it is 6 linking an item or getting off-color chromes or crafting with alteration orbs/fussils, many many hours of grinding can be wasted in minutes. Throw in huge respec / gear cost to try new builds, the game feels much more punishing and when you do finally get that perfect piece of gear, the satisfaction is amplified, but many players have quit because of one bad luck streak.
In the end, 99% players do not get a full primal ancient set or mirror-level gear for their build, how you complete your basic build is what matters.
Community: Path of Exile
Path of Exile's community wins by a landslide, as it is a far more serious community playing the only hardcore game that can satisfy their crave. POBNinja, POE.TRADE and Path of Building, I probably spent as many hours on these three than I did playing the game. This is not to mention the amazing add-ons like loot filter made by Neversink.
Diablo 3 players know their game has been in maintenance mode for years. While they are some of the most helpful people I have ever met and in general, far less anger toward Path of Exile than the other way around, they can not compete with the Path of Exile community in creating new content, because Blizzard itself is not creating contents and has moved on.
The Future of ARPG Looters
Diablo 3 is already in maintenance mode, with no future content planned. The developers will be more aggressive in shaking up the meta as a result, with its latest season effectively reducing the number of set pieces to 5 to get the 6 piece bonus, and huge buffs to the weaker sets. The game can still provides hundreds of hours of joy and is perfectly suited if you want intense action, satisfying loot drops, and a rewarding game that does not require a steep learning curve. An excellent one-time purchase.
Path of Exile will continue to get fresh contents with Tencent funding for at least a few more years, however outside of a drastic shuffle which sacrifices its core supporters, the upside is limited because the game is just too hardcore. This is a $50-$100M a year game, enough to pay GGG's bills and satisfy the existing fan base, not enough to expand into new territories. Just buy the stash/currency/map tabs to support the developer, they are huge quality of life improvements and you are going to get countless future content updates.
I truly believe seasonal play is a cheap way to extend the life of ARPG games, and ultimately puts a low ceiling on its audience. I can understand why Blizzard does it to extend the life of a pay-once game at much lower cost than producing new contents for World of Warcraft. But the second you start seasonal ladders, you are capping your audience. The average player does not want to level a fresh character every 3 months and do the same content with some twists. They want to take the character they already put hundreds of hours into and take on the next big challenge, and make him/her even more powerful. You look at Dungeon Fighter Online, 10 billion dollars franchise enough to compete with GTA series in money made, or Blizzard's own World of Warcraft which is basically the game that turned Blizzard from small developer into superpower status. They are balanced around persistent play.
A freemium game with Lost Ark's graphics/combat, Diablo's distinct class design/itemization, Path of Exile's variety of game modes, full auction house with POE.TRADE's level of prefix/suffix search, balanced around MMORPG style persistent play instead of seasonal play, will take ARPG to the next level. It is not impossible for Blizzard's next Diablo game, whether it is on mobile or PC, to accomplish this, stay tuned!
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