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Diablo 3: The Online Only Debate

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May 21 2012

We've known for a very long time now that Diablo 3 would require a constant connection to the Internet to play, even when you're playing alone. I'm sure it was mentioned in almost every preview of the game that was written, and the long-running beta test left no doubt about how this would be implemented. So the debate over this requirement is getting old and it's safe to assume that anyone interested in the game has heard it all before. Well, the game finally launched on May 15th and there were some hiccups on the server side of things. Apologies have been issued, and efforts to get everything running smoothly are undoubtedly in full swing.

But the outrage has, once again, boiled over. Or at least you would think so given all the media coverage of this issue, not to mention the expected barrage of zero score user reviews from angry (former?) Diablo fans on Metacritic. Some sites are even encouraging people to stay angry about the requirement, because, the argument goes, it sets a dangerous precedent that other developers might follow. Nevertheless, Diablo 3 seems likely to break a sales record or two, and so far, there haven't been a whole lot of complaints about the gameplay itself.

Of course, in some respects we've been down this road before. You may recall the hysteria that surrounded the launch of Steam, which effectively ties every game you buy on the service to an online account. Now Steam is widely praised by gamers for including a variety of convenient features, as well as offering irresistable sales on a pretty regular basis. Granted, Steam does have an "offline mode" if you have the foresight to activate it while you're online.

Ubisoft has also employed DRM that requires a constant connection and it was certainly not well received, although I haven't seen any evidence that it hurt sales.

People have legitimate reasons for disliking the need for a constant connection to play a single-player game. There are still places where a reliable connection is hard to come by or has bandwidth limits, particularly if you do a lot of traveling. Even with a good connection, there will inevitably be outages, and there will inevitably be times when the game servers go down, however briefly. It also seems to be an impediment to game mods and LAN play, although I'm not sure these issues are actually related.

Given that Starcraft 2 can be played offline, one has to wonder why a similar feature wasn't included in Diablo 3. The obvious solution is to let people create offline characters which can only be used offline. Most of the reasons Blizzard has provided for not doing this strike me as rather weak. One case they've made is that it reduces cheating, which will help maintain the integrity of the game's auction houses. So, don't let offline characters use the auction houses and everyone's happy.

As well, they allegedly wanted to avoid a "separate path" which a player might go down, only to find later that they wanted to take their offline character online and couldn't. Really Blizzard? Here's a crazy idea: put a warning in the offline character creation interface that says, "Offline characters cannot be taken online."

We've also heard the excuse that everything is going online, and Internet connections should henceforth be taken for granted. Sounds terrific, but as noted above, we're not quite there yet. Nor is it time to mourn the death of offline single-player games, even if that day does eventually arrive. While they might not come from Blizzard, there are still developers willing to make games for those who prefer to play offline.

The only reason that makes any sense to me is DRM, although Blizzard has stated that piracy was not their primary motivation for requiring a connection. Either way, as a form of DRM it is relatively effective, and I think Blizzard is entitled to do whatever they see fit to protect their product. Gamers can decide with their wallets whether the potential inconveniences of this approach are unacceptable.

Personally, I'm not that bothered by the requirement for a constant connection. I'm big on multiplayer, so I've come to accept a connection as part of gaming. Similarly, I've come to accept that my game of choice may not be available periodically because of a problem with that connection. I wasn't angry enough about Diablo 3 in the first place to stay angry, but I fully understand those who refuse to buy the game because of the always-on single-player. Fortunately, Diablo 3 isn't the only action-RPG on the market, and there's a real chance that the competition will see the outrage over this issue as an opportunity.

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