Error 37: The future of always-online

Eurogamer asks the games industry whether it plans to follow Diablo 3's lead.

It's fair to say that Diablo 3's launch did not go to plan. Had it gone smoothly, Blizzard's always-online Trojan Horse would surely have snuck quietly by, with few gamers batting an eyelid. As it stands, its horribly botched release has invited a furious consumer backlash, igniting serious debate on the ethics of demanding players maintain a permanent internet connection, even if they're attempting to enjoy a seemingly solo, offline gameplay experience.

So strained was the game's record-breaking release that the South Korean government launched an investigation into Blizzard's Seoul office. As a result, Blizzard was forced to offer players a full refund.

Is an always-online future inevitable? Can it ever be good for gamers? Are developers even interested in following Blizzard's lead? We reached out to a number of key industry figures in search of consensus.

First things first, what is always-online really about? Is it, as Blizzard would have us believe, all about enabling new features, widening the gameplay experience and keeping the player safe? Or is it, as more cynical internet commentators might argue, merely thinly-veiled DRM administered to make the lives of honest gamers ever more miserable.

Chris Delay, founder of Darwinia studio Introversion, is unequivocal in his take on the issue.

"From the gamers' point of view, there is no pro to always-on," he tells Eurogamer.

"This is not something that's for gamers. It's something that's for game developers to protect their game. I don't know how Blizzard has successfully done it, actually, but they've obviously found a way to make it un-pirateable. Because I'm certain if it was possible it would have been done by now. But I'm under no illusion it's done for piracy reasons, not for functionality reasons.

"[Blizzard] dressed it up as, 'your save game is held online in the cloud and will be synchronised, and you get all these online features and achievements and you get the auction house' and all that nonsense," he adds.

"I don't think anyone actually believes that, right? It's a DRM system. It is, fundamentally, a DRM method, with added benefits for providing some additional online functionality."

Chris Delay, founder, Introversion

"But I don't think anyone actually believes that, right? It's a DRM system. It is, fundamentally, a DRM method, with added benefits for providing some additional online functionality."

He may well be right in Blizzard's case, but put aside the scorn and it's not too far a stretch of the imagination to envisage exciting - and pragmatic - new opportunities for making games both fairer and more immersive.

"With the online model, there is automatic, online storage for your game save data that is accessible anywhere the game is installed," argues Jeremiah Slaczka, CEO of Hybrid and Scribblenauts developer 5th Cell.

"It also mitigates hacking and piracy. With less - or no - hacking, a fairer game space is created that prevents players from altering their characters offline and then bringing them into online games where they devastate the players who chose to play fairly.

Diablo 3 trailer for series newbies

"This in itself opens the door for the use of monitored real-money trading as we've seen with Diablo 3. Something like that would have never been possible with Diablo 2.

"Of course if the online-only model was perfect, we'd all be using it already," he adds. "As we saw with Blizzard's launch, sometimes online-only just doesn't work. No matter how much a developer prepares for an anticipated amount of traffic, there's simply no way to know if you are under - or over - prepared."

Christofer Sundberg, boss of Just Cause developer Avalanche Studios, also sees potential in the system, musing that a constant internet connection could facilitate the creation of immersive persistent worlds.

"I can clearly see some benefits to [always-online] if you, as an example, want to create a more persistent game experience and a world that evolves and reacts even when you are not playing.

"On the other hand, if it's just another excuse to limit second-hand sales or prevent piracy then it's a limitation in the entertainment experience and is only bad for the consumer."

"I think always-online is only a problem when it's forced into something. If it works in the context of the game you're building then it's fantastic."

Alex Hutchinson, creative director, Assassin's Creed 3

Everyone we spoke to agreed that if always-online is to work, developers and publishers need to learn from Blizzard's mistakes. Two recurring messages came up again and again in our conversations: players should always have a choice as to whether to play online or offline, and it should only be implemented in the first place if it's there to enhance the experience for the player.

"Games like that should have an online facility, but it shouldn't need to be there," argues Delay.

"You should be able to go onto a plane and play the game single-player and then when you land you can connect again to the internet and get your online features."

Diablo 3's connection error in action.

Chris Lewis, Microsoft's European Xbox chief, agrees: choice is a must. While connectivity has always been a major focus of its business, he suggests Microsoft has no plans to make its next machine online-only - despite reports to the contrary.

"We've had online architecture at the centre of our platform from day one," he explains.

"We believe that was fairly prophetic in terms of how many games are now online. But I think giving people the choice of either playing offline or online is important. And our plan is to continue to offer that choice.

"My own personal view is that consumer choice is key and critical in all of this and I think we're always highly attentive to what our consumers want. We listen attentively to what they're looking for and we continue to appeal to those tastes."

"Unless there's an actual reason you have to be online I don't know whether that's something we would ever want to do outside of an MMO."

Pete Hines, marketing chief, Bethesda

Indeed, many of you will be happy to hear that we couldn't find a single developer or publisher willing to commit to an exclusively-online future. Ubisoft has caught plenty of flak for its approach to DRM in the past but Assassin's Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson suggests the publisher is approaching this particular issue with a degree of caution.

"I think always-online is only a problem when it's forced into something. If it works in the context of the game you're building then it's fantastic," he muses.

"I do think you're going to see more and more of it - both as a way to combat piracy and a way to make you feel less alone in the experience. And I know it's something that Ubisoft is thinking about a lot.

"I just think you need to be really careful about which games you use it in and how you implement it so that you're not accidentally changing your game so radically that you're making something your fans don't want."

And Elder Scrolls/Fallout developer Bethesda is even more suspicious.

"Not unless we had a really, really, really good reason you had to be online, which I realise is a very vague and evasive answer," says marketing chief Pete Hines when asked if it has any immediate plans to jump on Blizzard's bandwagon.

"Unless there's an actual reason you have to be online I don't know whether that's something we would ever want to do outside of an MMO.

"Our basic philosophy is this: we want you to play our game legitimately and we want you to have a good experience if you've paid for it," he adds.

"So we don't want to do anything that is even remotely draconian that makes you jump through hoops just to prove you have or own a legit copy that makes the experience a bad one just because we're trying to stop people from pirating it.

"The stuff we've done to date with Skyrim and Oblivion and Fallout 3 and Rage has been a pretty low barrier to entry from a DRM standpoint and from an online connectivity standpoint. So I don't see that being something we're looking at getting into any time soon."

"I can see mostly cons ... Also, such requirements demand the publisher maintains server architecture which is expected to be flawless and capacious to service all the customers."

Ivan Buchta, creative director, Bohemia Interactive

Perhaps predictably, given its traditional championing of the customer experience, The Witcher 2 developer CD Projekt Red is also circumspect. According to marketing chief Michal Platkow-Gilewski, if always-online enhances the gameplay experience then the studio is interested. However, if it makes life harder on the player, forget about it.

"It depends on the purpose of using this feature and if it brings value to the player," he explains.

"You know that we are against DRM - so if requiring an online connection is a form of piracy protection, you probably know what we think of it.

"In [the case of Diablo 3], being online only hampers the players' experience. But if being online gives you some benefits - it's a different matter. Some solutions and game design possibilities are possible only by being online, even in single-player games. Our games don't require a permanent internet connection. In the future you can be sure that the player experience will remain our priority."

Not only do developers seem wary of negative player feedback, let's not forget that actually building an always-online infrastructure is both difficult and expensive. If Blizzard failed to guarantee players stability with its huge resources, you can be sure smaller developers won't be in a rush to try their hand.

"I can see mostly cons," notes Ivan Buchta, creative director at ArmA studio Bohemia Interactive.

"It may be highly impractical for some potential users, limit the game's usage, and put an additional obstacle between gamer and the game. Also, such requirements demand the publisher maintains server architecture which is expected to be flawless and capacious to service all the customers."

Finally, Avalanche's Sundberg also offers a few words of reassurance for those concerned that Blizzard's recent skullduggery has inspired others to follow suit.

"So far, only one of our games in development supports multiplayer as an online component so there's really no reason for us to force the player to be always-online unless there's a requirement from the publisher or hardware manufacturers," he says.

More on Diablo 3

"Things might change though, but that's how it looks like right now. We're still over a year away from releasing our next game so we'll see."

Of course, ours isn't a fully representative cross section of the games industry and it's unlikely that Blizzard will be the last studio to attempt it. Indeed, a shift towards increased connectivity across all aspects of gaming is surely inevitable, for better or worse. The good news is that as technology improves so will the general experience for the gamer. That said, if you don't like the direction that your hobby is going in, then you can always vote with your wallet. Does always-online upset you enough to skip out on Diablo 4, or Borderlands 3, or Final Fantasy 15, or whatever the next major title is to demand you stay connected?

We'll give the final word to Introversion's Delay.

"The so-called backlash makes a lot of noise on forums and makes for a lot of great headlines, but it doesn't amount to anything," he says.

"Whenever a Steam group decides to boycott a game, somebody comes along and takes a picture of that Steam group on the day the game launches, and they're all playing it. Ultimately, gamers care so much about the games they're playing. Diablo 3 has such a rabid following and everybody wanted to play it so badly they were even willing to put up with that crazy launch process.

"Probably everyone who complained bought it anyway," he adds. "Probably the people who bought it complained the loudest because they were the most upset.

"They've launched the game. They've had record-breaking sales. They've successfully stopped piracy of their single-player game. Always-on, yay!"

Additional reporting by Wesley Yin-Poole, Robert Purchese and Oli Welsh.

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