03 November, 2011

Why Diablo 3 cannot be played offline

Blizzard announced it quite a while ago, and every time a new trailer is released, the comment threads on all the usual news site (RPS, Kotaku, ...) explode with bile. I am of course talking about the "feature" of Diablo 3 that a permanent internet connection is required. The amount of hate-posts this decision results in is downright astonishing. True, there are some issues with it. But I believe that most people have absolutely no clue as to why Blizzard chose to go with this. But let me start at the beginning.

The disadvantages
I will point out the big ones quickly to have something to argue about.
  1. We cannot play D3 during travel, or when our connection is bad, and if our connection drops for any reason, the game stops working.
  2. It's DRM, and DRM is always stupid and a hassle for the paying customer.
  3. If Blizzard goes bankrupt, or their servers die, the game just stops working. Which would be a shame, because (for example) many of the golden era games (System Shock 2, Deus Ex, Planescape: Torment) still run on a modern PC with some trickery, yet the companies that made these have been out of business for many years. If they had decided to disallow their games to be played offline, all of them would just not work any more.

We should just not care about it so much
First off, there are a lot of mitigating effects on many of the issues.
  1. The bandwidth we have available on our mobile phones and 3G networks is staggering. I can run Dungeon Defenders on my Android phone and play online, and that is by all accounts a more demanding game in all ways than Diablo 2 ever was. For years, I paid quite a decent sum of money to my ISPs to get a decently fast connection. This year, I was willing to halve my bandwidth for a meagre 10 CHF off the monthly fee, because even that is fast enough for a power-user like myself. At 20 MBit/s, I can download HD videos faster than I can watch them.
  2. Yes, DRM is still bad. Nothing I can do about that. On the other hand, I tolerate Steam, because it offers patching, chat service, cloud saves and keybindings, friend list and makes it a breeze to install my collection on a new machine. So in conclusion, DRM is still bad, but there are some perks that are worth having which are not possible purely offline.
  3. If Blizzard files for bankruptcy, Diablo 3 stops working. They might throw out a last patch, and make it truly offline-capable, but that is highly unlikely. If you're broke, you don't spend a ton of work on gifts to give to people who won't buy anything from you any more, because you're broke. We have seen this happen a few times in other cases, but I would never expect it. On the other hand, there will be fan-made servers anyway, probably as soon as a few months after release already. But let me point out another reason why this is not such a huge deal: I do not play those old games much anyway. I would rather play a fresh game than replay a really old one. When I was a kid, I could just not afford to play every game, so I replayed what I had. I could go and install Planescape: Torment right now, I own two copies in different languages. Yet I do not, because to be honest, it just doesn't hold up so well any more. Most games are a lot like films: You don't want to see the same thing twice if you can instead watch one that you haven't seen yet.
  4. Diablo 3 is a MMORPG without the monthly fee, just like Guild Wars. We don't complain about WoW requiring internet, do we? Diablo 2 wasn't like this, but that was ten years ago.
All of these are of course just excuses. I just want to point out that there is a difference between pure DRM (like Ubisoft) and the feature-rich version that Steam and Starcraft 2 already offer, and that "online-only" is not much of a big deal for the vast majority of people who play these games. 

Not the Point
Honestly, all of this is irrelevant and I just wasted ten minutes of your time reading these arguments. Sorry. We can all agree that there are good points (like Steam features) and bad points of an always-online DRM and if we are really forgiving, we can probably come to the conclusion that it's really not that much of a big deal to begin with. Actually, it's just like Guild Wars, and that is not such a bad spot to be in.

But all of these arguments assume that the DRM is there for DRM's sake. Which in the case of Diablo 3 is absolutely and utterly wrong. DRM is just a side-effect of a really gutsy design decision made by Blizzard, which gives me hope that Diablo 3 will be more than a boring Skinner Box. This is all about the Real Money Action House. Only EVE has done something like that, and their game is rather popular, despite being very unapproachable, complex and ugly. Blizzard really does not care much about the DRM on the game. What they care about, is the DRM on the items. They want to have absolute control over all item drops, over all loot and generally over the economy. And that is only possible if they stamp down hard on cheaters (which run rampant in Diablo 2), just like they can in WoW. 

Now you might argue (which everyone does): "But they could allow a separate single player mode, just like Dungeon Defenders (or hundreds of other games)"

And that is missing the point. Completely.

If Blizzard allows single player, they essentially allow everyone to create knock-off items. The value of a "real" Sword of Uberness would be diminished greatly by the existence of its brother, the Sword of Uberness that is absolutely identical, except it only exists in single player. Essentially, it's the knock-off Omega watch, which looks like the original, works like the original and cannot be distinguished apart from an invisible imprint on the bottom which says "SP" or "MP". Sure, one of stored on the server, and one is not, but with LAN play (and Hamachi) there is no reason to bother with the real servers anyway.

Consider the psychological effect: You want an awesome bow, yet none dropped for you. You go check the RMAH, and there is a Windforce for 50$. It's insanely rare, and nobody you know has one. People want status symbols, and will pay ridiculous prices for pointless trinkets such as WoW pets. How easy would it be to convince yourself that a Windforce is a good investment of money, especially since you can resell it later, and brag to your gamer friends with it?

But if there is a SP, the situation is different. You can either buy a Windforce in the RMAH for 50$, or you can just download a cheat tool and create a dozen copies. Why would you ever spend real money on something you can have for free? The difference between something genuinely rare, and something that is only rare as long as you suspend your disbelief is so big that our brain has completely different emotions for the two. I realized that when Diablo 1 broke for me when I figured out that I could dupe all items due to a bug. When you have access to infinite wealth, there suddenly is no point in playing a game where the only objective is to amass more wealth.

This is what the public does not understand. The DRM is there to make the RMAH work on a psychological level. The decision to control the game through servers imbues the items with value due to their enforced scarcity. That is the one and only intent behind this design, and everything else is just a result of that.

In the end, one can still argue against this decision, and claim that this is not a worthwhile feature. I am not going to tell you whether it will be awesome or horrible, because I don't know that yet. I only want to point out that this is the real reason for this unusual decision, and to be honest, I applaud Blizzard for it, because it's a huge innovative experiment. I want to see the effect this has on gaming, and on society as a whole. We (and our laws) are still unclear whether game items are worth money. I hope this will make people think about the issue, and result in interesting research for economics and social sciences. What makes me uneasy is that Diablo 3 might be too easy and therefore boring, and secondly, that it might fall under gambling laws.

Extra Credits also talks about this, and they don't disagree with me: http://penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/the-diablo-iii-marketplace


  1. So what you're saying is, players can't be trusted not to ruin the game for themselves by cheating? All the people playing single player games nowadays, they never play these games the "right" way, they always cheat and mess up the experience for themselves.

    Kind of like how people never read a book straight through; they always skip to the back to see how it ends.

  2. Cheating to ruin your own experience if half of it, yes. But at the same time, you ruin everyone else's experience too when you dupe items in Diablo 2. My legit items feel pointless when everyone runs around with duped uber-items which are vastly better than mine, but if I start to cheat, my experience is ruined. And as we have seen in D2, cheating does become incredibly common.

    The book comparison is flawed. We enjoy stories just as much if we already know the ending. Scientific paper: http://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/newsrel/soc/2011_08spoilers.asp

  3. I think the very notion of going out of your way and paying 50 bucks (or whatever amount) on an ingame item just so you can brag about it pretty insane. We are not talking about bonus content here, like an expansion or additional DLC content. We are talking about something that is right there in the game, you've just not acquired it yet.

    It's like selling ingame currency for real world money, and gladly this has been banned from most P2P online games (and is a reason why I despise most F2P games, because they usually revolve around buying ingame currency and buffs and items for real money, which means if you ever happen to meet someone with a loot of superb items, you know they just put down considerable amount of money, not skill or engagement into it). But wait, Blizzard is releasing their stand on that too. They new pet they sell for real money can be traded ingame, and I know that some people bought that thing multiple times just to put it on auction.