Monday, May 21, 2012

In Defense of Blizzard - Always Online DRM

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, the auction house, and the seamless co-op gameplay.

Let's work our way backwards through that list. Connecting Diablo 3 to your 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 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.


  1. It is perfectly reasonable from Blizzard's point of view. Since the online players were long the champions of Diablo II, it's no wonder that Blizzard has made the experience better for them. That it has made the experience demonstrably worse for me has to be an acceptible loss as far as they are concerned. Add safeguarding against account hacking to the above and I can't see the personal upside.

    Of course, all of this will be moot as the servers calm down and the online issues fade into the background.

  2. My attempts to respond from my phone were met with failure, and I assume some Apple employee must be having a chuckle at my expense. That being said, I do like the phrase you used: "Acceptable Loss". Blizzard has used the opportunity to try and catch some of their WoW crowd. I truly believe they are trying to make a Blizzard network of sorts. Whether they succeed or not is irrelevant, but I believe that is the main motivation behind this decision.

    I agree that most of it will become moot soon. The game will settle and everyone will get used to it. Unfortunate that there were losses, but I hope the company can make up for it in other ways. I'm still thinking they might go for the trial offline mode I mentioned. Speaking of unhappy players...

  3. This comment was left on this post, and either got lost in the system or deleted by its owner. Should the owner come forward I would be happy to take it down, but until then I thought it showed a good viewpoint of some of the players who were sidelined by this.

    "I am one of those people "that live in a vacuum." I just want my old school Diablo 2 experience that I treasure in my memory. I won't use either Auction House, have no online friends through, and Blizzard's Achievements are a joke since they do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

    The biggest problem I have with the always online is the Blizzard Fanboys' letting Blizzard off the hook for doing things this way. "There'd be rampant cheating if Blizzard opened up an offline mode", they cry.

    Hmmmmm.....let me see. One of the largest, most profitable, and experienced software development companies that has more money than God and is currently running (one of) the largest MMO on the planet can't figure out how to patrol and regulate their new online game? Give me a break. They could hire more GMs, put a delay on AH cash outs, develop security software to monitor everything. Something. The fanboys all believe that Blizzard cannot do anything wrong, how is it that an offline option is suddenly beyond them?

    Blizzard could have done it if they wanted to, they just decided not to. They should be held accountable by the gaming public. Taking away options from gamers is bad and lazy development and Blizzard is quickly becoming a master at the art."

  4. I do disagree with a few points, specifically the ones about throwing money at the problems, but I do agree with the last paragraph. Looking at the metacritic scores will clearly show that the gaming public is angry and trying in some way to make Blizzard accountable for this decision.

    Taking options away from gamers is bad. Clearly Blizzard thought they were replacing those options with better ones and the gaming public disagrees. I'll repeat myself again, I think they are doing this to make some sort of Blizzard network of games and I have to ask "Is it worth this kind of response?"

  5. As I said in my own post, I think think the always online thing is a clear "less is more" play that is straight out of the Apple handbook.

    Blizzard decided to emphasize one play style, multiplayer co-op, and built everything around making that as easy to do as possible. And I can without a doubt that they succeeded in that. There is no planning or coordination needed. You see a friend playing online... the only way you can play... and you can join them. I have literally spent more time in D3 grouped with friends... and an array of different friends... than I have in a long, long time.

    The burden is on Blizz though to keep the servers up, but that is a short term technical issue. It has a solution.

    And, as happens with Apple, some people will hate any constraints put on them. But I do not expect Blizz will change their model for D3 as it clearly wins for what they set out to achieve. People who do not like it will go away, people who see the benefit will become better customers for Blizz in the long term.

    This is not, in any sense, "taking options away from gamers" any more than only being able to buy iPhone apps from Apple's app store is taking anything away from iPhone users. You knew that was the deal when you bought in. If you don't like it, you shouldn't have gone down this path.

  6. I've always seen Apple stores as sort of a cult. I went in there once to buy a case for my iPhone and, although I found the fact that I could buy things in the store by scanning them on my iPhone awesome, the employee I interacted with made me feel like I was being inducted into a club.

    I could easily see Blizzard creating a closed system like this. Since news has been sparse nobody has been talking about Titan, but Blizzard branching out into different genres and inducting them into their system can very easily be related to Apple's branching out into the tablet and phone industries after the success of the iPod. They establish a brand and provide their customers everything they need for their gaming, or at least convince their customers that they do. Sometimes that is just as good.

    It adds a lot for dedicated customers, and I don't think this is a reaction to the subscription drop in WoW. Blizzard has clearly been leading up to this ever since the announcement of RealID. They've just gotten better at it. Polish and release it when it's ready is Blizzard's way, and I'm interested to see how their network will evolve. More importantly, I'm interested in how other game companies adapt.

  7. Sorry to dig up an old post. I must say that the decision for always-online is a very sound "business" decision. It not only curtails piracy (at least during the most popular release periods), it provides extremely valuable play statistics from which expansions, tweaks, bug fixes can be developed.

    It does place a significant burden on the company to maintain the service, but they already have the expertise and experience, with a new business model based on the RMAH to recover costs.

    That said, most of your points in the post aren't positives for me, because I wanted a real single player experience. I opted to try it out, but it turns out that it is so completely engineered as a online experience, it harms pure solo players. It is still a great game, just not one that I was looking for.

    And let me end by saying, I sure got---and am still getting---my worth of the money out of it.

  8. No worries! Sorry for the delay in responding. I love the discussion that surrounds this decision and always want to hear new people chime in. Blizzard is a big company and with so many eyes watching their decisions it always gets the "blogosphere" talking.

    I sympathize with the fact that many of my points don't reverberate with you. Though I am defending Blizzard in these posts, I would be blind not to recognize the losses that this decision has caused. It was most definitely a move caused by money: No pirating means more money and allows for the RMAH which brings more revenue. The network I described above is an idealistic goal, but in the end it serves to keep players within the system and sending their money to Blizzard.

    I'm happy that you at least played the game before making a decision on it, as this is the internet and misinformed opinions are its currency. I do have to echo TAGN's words though: They didn't exactly hide this fact about the game. Many of its effects could be anticipated, and any fan that feels tricked by the company should have probably read the box. It says right on here "requires internet connection to play".

    Feeling betrayed, however? Perfectly reasonable. Starcraft is running quite well with an offline option, and the solo players are right in feeling that burn from the company.