Always Online: What Diablo 3's Battle.net Does Wrong

It's had a rough start - but don't stop roughing it up just because it works now.

Here's one to file under 'lessons we probably should have learned from writing stuff on the internet for over a decade': if you're planning to publish a couple of different perspectives on a contentious issue, either publish them together or lead with the one that reflects the prevailing consensus. Otherwise everyone calls you a c***!

As Oli Welsh points out in Always Online: What Diablo 3's Battle.net Does Right, Diablo 3 is an online game. There are definitely benefits to this approach, which Oli outlines - the links to other players are simple and appealing, griefing and loot-stealing are impossible, and trading looks like it could become hugely addictive - and, if you're playing Diablo 3 on a completely reliable internet connection, it's easy to focus on this stuff and make peace with whatever else is going on, because it makes the game more fun.

However, as anyone who has followed me on Twitter for any time will know, even people who pay over the odds for supposedly top-of-the-line fibre connections are just as vulnerable to the quirks and eccentricities of networking architecture as the people paying 8 a month for capped ADSL. It's bloody annoying when it hiccups during football matches on Sky Go. It's going to be even more annoying when I'm playing Diablo 3 on my own.

The point is: there is no such thing as a completely reliable internet connection.

This is what happens when you lose connection playing Diablo 3 on your own.

And hey, even if there was, I wouldn't be able to use it outside my home. I imagine I will play more Diablo 3 on my MacBook Pro than I will on my desktop PC, because I like to have something to unwind with when I travel to see friends and relatives. I guess I'll have to make do with playing New Star Soccer on my iPad on the train instead. Even Apple doesn't insist that I'm always online.

The main justifications for Blizzard's approach to Diablo 3 go like this:

1) Diablo 3 needs the internet to be the game that it is. It uses the combined output of millions of people clicking repeatedly on the undead to help make that experience consistent and balanced for everyone; being always online makes the game better.

Here is my magical idea for continuing to extract those benefits without compromising the gameplay experience: save the data locally and ask to upload it later. Like every other program on my computer.

2) Diablo 3's auction house will use real money so it needs to be secure. Offline play breeds hacked accounts, cheaters and other ne'er-do-wells.

This is a trickier one, but good news! I have an idea for how to solve this too! It's surprisingly simple. Don't have a real-money auction house. There you go. The reason Blizzard needs a real-money auction house is because of the incredibly self-indulgent way that it develops its games, taking up to a decade and scrapping huge chunks of its output at intervals in pursuit of higher quality. The argument is that Blizzard won't compromise on quality so it has to come up with other ways to make its game pay for itself. Well, guess what? This is still compromising on quality - it's just a different way of doing it.

3) Diablo 3 will be rampantly pirated if Blizzard doesn't take steps like this.

"The [real-money auction house] argument is that Blizzard won't compromise on quality so it has to come up with other ways to make its game pay for itself. Well, guess what? Always-online is still compromising on quality - it's just a different way of doing it."

This may well be true. However, as CD Projekt RED's success with the Witcher games and GOG.com prove, there is an alternative to digital rights management. You just have to want to make it work. As executive producer John Mamais tells Eurogamer in a feature on The Witcher 2 going up tomorrow, "When Witcher 2 pirates openly converse on forums they are often lambasted by other would-be pirates because of our policy - look at the comments on 4chan, where pirates were getting trolled for trying to download our game.

"To some extent, that's evidence that our way is not only right, but actually makes an impact. We need folks to buy the game so we can earn enough cash to make the next one - but customers should feel that they want to buy it. That's why we put so much care into our community."

Customers should feel that they want to buy it. That's what we're up against here. We're being bullied into accepting a future where we don't actually want to buy the things that we're buying, because there is no other way to experience this phenomenal entertainment medium that we've all come to hold so dear unless we do so on terms that we find unacceptable.

The answer isn't to just live with it and try to make the best of a bad situation; the answer is to tell people that we don't want things to be this way.

I used to make the point on our podcast that the only way to vote on issues like this is with your wallet, and that when publishers say they are "listening to consumers" it just means that they are counting your money and using that to decide whether what they did was justified. But while that's true, of course I don't think it's hypocritical to buy Diablo 3 and at the same time make a stand against games that demand a permanent internet connection. If nothing else, it's our right to buy things in full knowledge of their flaws and then moan about them: that is pretty much the foundation of the internet! Publishers should listen to us anyway.

And, on a more serious note, we - core gamers, hardcore gamers, whatever you want to call us, who grew up in the golden era of 16-bit platform games or at the height of the PC real-time strategy genre or whatever might be true for you - are still the overriding force behind the success and failure of some of the most expensively produced games on the planet, not least of all Diablo 3, and it's our duty to hold the people who make them to the standards we would want for the gamers who follow us.

Because, you know, the gamers of the future will probably have better internet connections than us, and that still won't be a good enough reason to demand one in order to play games that can function perfectly well offline.

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