Before I begin, a brief note: Besides the guest keys for the starter edition, one of the most exciting things I found in the Diablo 3 box was a Diablo themed notepad. I have no idea why. Probably because I am a man who loves his lists. This may explain why I enjoy reading Bullet Points so much.
Back on track, on a wonderful suggestion I've decided to do a trial run of a series of posts based around a theme. This first run will be in defense of Blizzard's more controversial decisions. I hold no illusion that Blizzard requires defending, but in a sea of those who enjoy bashing the company I'd like to try my hand at challenging those arguments, if only to explore both sides.
This first post will be in defense of Blizzard's (not-so) recent decision to make Diablo 3's gameplay online all the time, regardless of whether you choose to take advantage of the online features. In the days since launch, I don't feel like I need to explain how this can go sour. It is largely considered DRM because it prevents players who only want the single player experience from playing the game alone, it prevents used or pirated copies from being played (for now, those pirates will find a way somehow) and it keeps anyone without an internet connection from playing the game entirely. This feature alone has caused its Metacritic score to fluctuate wildly, with low fan scores flooding the site in protest of this feature.
I won't argue that point: Having to be online all the time is a hindrance to the single player experience. Blizzard could have easily chosen to create a single player mode that detaches itself from the online experience entirely. Give it some limitations, such as not being able to play on the highest difficulty or something of that nature, if only to encourage players to play online. But locking out the solo'ers and anyone without a dedicated internet connection was a low blow to many.
However, connecting Diablo 3 to servers wasn't done arbitrarily and it wasn't done without significant benefit to the players. Blizzard did not stop at simply adding DRM: they made the DRM part of the experience. The connection to Battle.net, the auction house, and the seamless co-op gameplay.
Let's work our way backwards through that list. Connecting Diablo 3 to your Battle.net account allows players to rather seamlessly hop in and out of co-op games, or at least when it comes to hosting. Opening up your game to the public allows others to hop in and out as they please, which can only assist and enhance your experience. Loot and gold are automatically divided up, and the difficulty adjusts for each person who joins. You get to progress in your storyline and those who join get their experience and loot for the assist. Hopping into someone else's game requires a few more steps, but if you have friends with the game you can easily link up with them and roll out into a dungeon.
The last paragraph is completely pointless to solo players: They want to take their character and conquer Diablo himself without any assistance at all. For those who enjoy the hack and slash genre the multi-player offers no replayability at all. But there may be times when a wealth of gold and a lack of items may strike a player. That is where the auction house comes in. Disregarding the real-money AH (which has yet to be implemented anyway) the AH allows players to skip some of the grind and pick up the items they need to progress. This adds an entirely new dimension to the game that many WoW players are familiar with: Either rely on random chance to get the gear you need, or save up a form of currency to earn it. Either way involves work, but now players get a choice as to how they want their work to be rewarded. Gold is not hard to get in Diablo 3, and there aren't many things to spend it on. The Auction House relieves that while providing a more stable way to receive rewards. Even if you don't want to play with others trading with them is just as viable an option.
Even if a player chooses to forgo both the auction house and the multiplayer, it is hard to imagine that player living in a vaccuum. They may frequent a forum, be a part of a gaming group or have some real life friends who enjoy the same solo challenges they do. The achievement system alone allows players to hand off links to their characters, showing off their achievements and gear easily. We may laugh at the kid now, but in a gaming world that is dominated by achievements, trophies, and even Facebook posts that record our milestones, gaming has become a far more social experience than in its early days. Your Xbox Live profile and Steam profile showcase your achievements, even if you only play single player games. Blizzard is trying to turn Battle.net into that kind of network and they are doing it well.
The always online DRM may place restrictions on those who cannot or do not want to play on the internet, but it frees us in more ways than it restricts us. Cross-game chat allows the thousands of Annual Pass buyers to keep in contact with their WoW friends (who are probably playing Diablo anyway) while still playing the game they enjoy. That simple act of communication is a huge wall being torn down. Blizzard is pulling down the walls between their games to allow their players to communicate and share while still doing the things they enjoy, rather than making them regret their decision to leave their WoW friends to play Starcraft or Diablo. We, as gamers, are very used to the idea that playing a different game means abandoning the previous one. Any loyal Blizzard customer doesn't have to now. Perhaps these console gamers have really got something here.