Diablo 3 And The Attack On Offline Play

Behold, the future! (image: justd3.com)

I think Diablo 3 has set a worrying precedent.

Regardless of whether you want to play by yourself or with friends, you need to log in to Battle.net first. Content is streamed into your game session from the servers, turning single-player mode into a very, very lonely online environment.

The only problem is that servers are fallible. The launch was plagued with connectivity issues as Blizzard infrastructure struggled to keep up with demand. (Server capacity has since doubled.) Players from places such as Australia were experiencing latency to the point where it was nigh impossible to progress on harder difficulties. Server maintenance affects players worldwide, and it seems to affect players on the other side of the pond – why should it matter that some poor schmuck has to clock in at 2A.M. in California to tweak servers when players on the other side of the world face 8 hours worth of peak hour downtime? That’s the whole game offline, mind you – single player and all. That’s the service you paid for when you agreed to that EULA.

This “always online” DRM would have most gamers at any developer’s throats, let alone Blizzard’s. That hasn’t stopped Blizzard from selling 3.5 million units in the first 24 hours of release – a new all-time record for the fastest-selling PC game.

“So what’s the problem?” commentators say, rolling their eyes and sighing dramatically. They utter phrases like “gamer entitlement” and “vote with your wallet”. They dismiss complaints as hasty whining from mouth-breathing self-diagnosing sociopaths. Like a terrible parental figure, they clap gamers on the back and tell them to “suck it up”, because after all, it’s “only a game”.

For a while, I was also one of these commentators, believing that most mainstream gamers were simply overgrown children complaining that this colour palette is completely different to the colour palettes of yore.

But this is different. This isn’t aesthetics. This isn’t about game mechanics. This is a model. A service model. A business model.

Blizzard have shifted the gaming model from being a product to being a service. You are indeed running code locally on your machine, but you are tapping into Blizzard infrastructure to network with players, trade items and equipment, track statistics, and now (in Diablo 3) you are streaming in-game content. Diablo 3 Senior Producer Alex Mayberry says that the paradigm is indeed shifting to an always-online environment:

“Obviously StarCraft 2 did it, World of Warcraft authenticates also. It’s kind of the way things are, these days. The world of gaming is not the same as it was when Diablo 2 came out.”

A company like Blizzard has a great influence – loyal fans, enormous war chests from previous title successes, and assured sales from highly anticipated games. With that influence they have managed to amputate the offline single-player component in Diablo 3, and they turned a profit doing so. What will they do now that they require you to log in before playing? I’m sure the marketing and sales department has some great ideas.

In the end, Diablo 3 has become a purely online RPG. The game cannot function without an Internet connection. Diablo 3 owners are at the mercy of the makers. But so be it, for “the world of gaming is not the same as it was”.

Blizzard have established a milestone in gaming. All it cost us was the ability to play the game without Blizzard saying “when”.

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