[Article first published as Diablo III and "Always On" DRM on Blogcritics.]
Over time, publishers have resorted to multiple methods of enforcing digital rights management (DRM) on many forms of media, but it started with games. Of course this had its humble beginnings in software keys, but some games had some fun with it. The very old Monty Python’s Flying Circus game for example (yeah, it existed) was DRM equipped way back in 1990, where to begin my quest I had to correctly identify a brick of cheese based on a list provided with the game. LucasArts had a similar system with the Monkey Island series of games in the 1990’s, having the user match up three sections of the included “dial-a-pirate” and enter the corresponding code (earlier titles also featured DRM). But of course soon a bunch of companies dropped the gamification of DRM methods (for lack of a better term) and started going the more straightforward route. More recently Ubisoft led the charge with their hated “always on” DRM system – meaning that even if you wanted to play one of their single player games, the game still had to check in with Ubisoft servers to make sure your copy was legit. Internet not working? Well that sucks for you, Chuckles, because neither is your game.
The reason I bring this up is due to the number of users having always on issues with the still-fresh-out-of-the-oven release of Diablo III – including myself. Last night I joined a game with a few friends and we started chugging along the first questline for the Skeleton King. As we were just getting to the final dungeon for that quest, my friends started dropping out of the game one by one, until, while exploring the dungeons, enemies stopped chasing me and I realized something was wrong before I got the boot. Trying to log in several times after this I was greeted with multiple errors that all pointed to the Diablo servers being down, from authentication issues to being unable to connect to the servers to a message that flat out told me the server was unavailable. So now what? With the servers being down, logic would dictate that I could no longer play a group game with my friends. Sure, makes sense. But the real issue to me was that I couldn’t even play alone. Without being able to connect to Blizzard servers, I couldn’t even see my character list. This happens in Blizzard’s MMO World of Warcraft as well when I can’t connect, but I have no problem with that. The point of an MMO is that the game is based online. So what the hell is this MMO feature doing in my single-player game?
This was never an issue with Diablo II. My copy was registered to me and if anyone else that wasn’t me tried to get onto battle.net they simply wouldn’t be allowed. I had the freedom to play the single player campaign which gave me randomly generated maps every time through, let me pause the game if I had to step away from the computer, and most importantly, play it whenever the hell I wanted. And if I had the desire to play with friends, which I did frequently, we would simply start a LAN game or get on open battle.net and go to town. Or play my separate battle.net characters. So why on earth would they change stuff up now?
Last August, Blizzard’s VP of Online Technologies Robert Bridenbecker sat down with MTV to discuss the always on issue and said the following: "Internally I don't think [DRM] ever actually came up when we talked about how we want connections to operate. Things that came up were always around the feature-set, the sanctity of the actual game systems like your characters. You're guaranteeing that there are no hacks, no dupes. All of these things were points of discussion, but the whole copy protection, piracy thing, that's not really entering into why we want to do it. I'm a huge purveyor of online sites and from my standpoint, I don't look at DRM solutions and go, 'Wow, those are awesome.' I look at those and say, 'Wow, those kind of suck.' But if there's a compelling reason for you to have that online connectivity that enhances the gameplay, that doesn't suck. That's awesome."
Diablo III Senior Producer Alex Mayberry also cited World of Warcraft as evidence of this being the direction gaming is going, but as I mentioned I don’t see how comparing a game with single player component to an MMO that has no single player components is valid. I still think the shortcomings outweigh the benefits. Sure, I understand that in Diablo II, since the characters were stored on my computer, I could lose my character in a computer crash or alter and create characters and equipment out of game. But I could still play whenever the hell I wanted. And Diablo III now has a battletag system for communication and stores characters safe and sound on their servers. But I still can’t play whenever the hell I want. Worthless account-wide achievements so players can show off? Sweet! But I still can’t play whenever the hell I want.
You sensing a theme yet?
In addition to that glaring shortcoming, what happens to “hardcore” mode characters? When a disconnect happens or you log off or even if you join someone else’s game, you still take 10 seconds worth of damage from anything you happen to be around. In regular mode that may not be too big of an issue but if your internet drops in hardcore mode, you could in theory be waving bye bye to that character forever.
Even if, as Mr. Bridenbecker says, that the always connected systems were built around features and not with DRM in mind, I’m sure other publishers who are watching this topic will be taking it the other direction. They’ll look at Diablo III, which is still going to be wildly successful and sell nothing less than a ridiculous amount of copies, and more importantly how they did it all with an always on DRM methodology. It’s what makes publishers drool dollar signs and lawyers thankful that they’re on retainer. It may inspire other publishers to make this the standard, locking out single player modes and ultimately turn gaming into a type of enterprise-grade software as a service that my colleagues and I have to deal with in IT. This in turn would act as a deterrent to piracy, sure, but could also end up actively working against consumers. Some people travel a lot. Some people don't have access to super high speed internet connections. And with rumored methods of blocking used games in next-gen consoles, I shudder to think what the combination of both would be, as well as the eventual spread to other forms of media like movies and television. It could set a horrifying anti-consumer precedent.
Bottom line – with the exception of MMOs, players shouldn’t be locked out of single-player content. Period. Ever. It is sad because Diablo III is otherwise a very well put-together game with far more polished mechanics than its predecessors. But unfortunately, its “always on” methodology strikes me something ill, and it’s still a single player game I can’t play whenever the hell I want.