Diablo 3's first expansion, Reaper of Souls, launches at midnight tonight - in fact, if you're in the UK, a bit earlier at 11pm GMT - and the mood among players is upbeat. A month ago, Blizzard released the 2.0.1 patch which introduced many of the base changes of the expansion; it's been well received, while last week the decidedly less popular auction house for trading items was turned off.
But some are still wary that, come tomorrow, they may not be able to play the game at all. Diablo 3 is an always online game and its launch in May 2012 was marked by stellar sales and disastrous service, as the famous Error 37 denied many players access. Is there a chance that the influx of players brought by the expansion will cause history to repeat?
"I think it'll be fine," lead producer Alex Mayberry told me in a London hotel today, sounding confident. The reason for his confidence? That patch, which means that players have effectively been playing the expansion, and Blizzard testing its performance, for four weeks now.
"When 2.0.1 went live a couple of weeks ago, that was the same codebase as Reaper. I mean, it is Reaper with Act 5, Crusader and Adventure Mode turned off," Mayberry explained. "Come tonight when it's time to launch, we just turn those things on." It will even be possible for players to log in before their local launch time tonight and play the game as normal; the expansion features will become available in-game at the allotted time without them having to log out or patch.
"We planned it out this way," said Mayberry. "We planned to give ourselves a good month of time where we could get the code out, get people on and resolve issues. The worst part is going live and having all these issues and having to resolve them while players are upset. It's much easier to do this pre-patch and then have the time to react to the things we saw, especially on the server side.
"Everything's looking really good for tonight... Volume of people plus new code usually equals problems, so we've got the code out, we believe the infrastructure's in place - I don't anticipate that degree of problems that we had at the initial launch. I think it's going to be fun."
None of this would be an issue if the game were playable offline, and despite repeated insistence from Blizzard that it won't consider this, it's a question that refuses to go away. Last week SimCity, another always online game that suffered a troubled launch, was given an offline mode; the console version of Diablo 3, released last year, allowed offline play; and the removal of the auction house also removes part of Blizzard's reasoning for making the game always online: ensuring the security of its real-money auction house.
"We have no plans to make the PC version offline. To do so would require us to completely rip apart the game and recreate it."Alex Mayberry
Mayberry, though, was adamant that an offline mode would mean rebuilding the game from scratch and couldn't realistically be done even if Blizzard wanted to - and he gave no indication of wanting to. "We have no plans to make the PC version offline. To do so would require us to completely rip apart the game and recreate it. [The console version] took Diablo 3 and then rebuilt it for console. And the console's a very closed system, unlike the PC's open architecture.
"There are still many many good reasons to continue having an online mode - all of the Battle.net features, all of the social features, security, persistence of character... And then if I combine that with the fact that technology's evolving, broadband's everywhere now - it doesn't make sense for us to go back and change it for something that in a few years may not even be relevant.
"From a standpoint of developing the game and being able to put out future content, we have to make choices, and I don't see us going back to do that. There's other things we would rather do than that." Things such as Diablo 2-style ladder play, which Mayberry hinted might be announced soon - he recommended keeping an eye on game director Josh Mosqueira's Twitter - and a player-versus-player mode, which he said was challenging, but "I don't think that there's a week that goes by that we don't talk about PVP... It's something that we'd like to do, but it's gotta be right. And getting it right is going to be hard."
And beyond? Will Diablo 3 be the first game in its series to receive more than one expansion pack? "It's too early to tell. We're looking at the long view... but I think before we can know that for sure, we really want to get Reaper out and gather feedback."
He's not necessarily being disingenuous. There's a lot riding on Reaper of Souls. Diablo 3 was an enormous sales success for Blizzard - it has shifted 15 million copies across PC and consoles - but its troubled launch and the compromises made to the gameplay to accommodate the auction house have dented Blizzard's reputation in some quarters. Meanwhile, the closure of the auction house also means the closure of an additional revenue stream for Blizzard. Will that need to be replaced?
"No," said Mayberry, firmly. "That decision was made at the top. Our executive staff, particularly our CEO Mike Morhaime - his first motivating factor is player experience. It's not about the money side of it. I mean, that's always a factor at any corporate level, but I've seen him so many times say, 'OK, what's best for the players?' That same question came up for the auction house and in the end, it would be best for the players if we didn't have the auction house. And he said, 'We should close it, then.' It really is that simple. There was no, 'We should close it, but...'
"It was a great decision - as bold a move as it was to create the auction house, I think it was just as bold to shut it down when it was obvious that it needed to be." And the people making the game were delighted. "For those of us on the development team, I think we were real happy with that decision, and really liked the way that that came about."
Smiles all around, then. Reaper of Souls - which introduces a new story act, a new character class and the wonderful new Adventure Mode - is an expansion pack made with one purpose: to bring the game, its developers and its community back together again. Will it succeed? We hope to have a review for you within the week.