Forcing Diablo 3 users to always play online is assumed to protect against piracy, but it turns out that the real reason for this strategy is for Blizzard to make more money.
Fans of the Diablo series of games have been waiting 11 years for a new game to appear, but a series of errors, overloaded servers and the need to be always online have led to fan revolt and an interesting revelation about the real reason you have to be always online.
Blizzard is a games developer and publisher with over a decade of experience running online games such as Starcraft and World of Warcraft. However the launch of Diablo 3 has led to outrage from fans across the globe who have been unable to get the game to work, thanks to overloaded servers and random errors.
The launch of Diablo 3 was highly anticipated and ahead of the launch on 14 May (in the UK, 15 May elsewhere) Blizzard unlocked the installer, meaning those who had pre-ordered the game - and there was a record number of them - were ready and waiting when the Blizzard servers went online, to re-enter the fantasy world of Sanctuary.
However, the servers could not handle the huge volume of traffic with many gamers unable to log in, with most getting an Error 37 message, which quickly became a trending topic around the world on Twitter at the time.
Fans vented their anger on Twitter and YouTube and posted negative reviews on Metacritic, where it currently has a average user score of just 3.6 out of 10, in comparison to its Metascore of 87 out of 100.
How Blizzard underestimated the amount of servers it would need is really surprising. The game was the most pre-ordered PC game in Amazon's history and with 11 years of pent-up anticipation among Diablo fans, the developer surely must have known it would be facing an unprecedented number of people looking to log on at one time.
Of course all of this frustration could have been avoided if Blizzard had not insisted on the need for a permanent connection to one of the developer's servers in order to play the game. Even if you want to play a single player mission, you are still required to log on to the remote server in what is seen as a bid to limit piracy.
When a developer opts for a digital rights management (DRM) system where you need an always-on internet connection, it almost always leads to problems. Earlier this year Ubisoft, who have a similar system on many of its games, transitioned a lot of its servers and as a result games like Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell and The Settlers were all unplayable for a time.
While we understand a developer's and publisher's right to impose copy protection, we have two issues with the always-on connection method. One is that when the game gets cracked (and it will), a pirated copy of Diablo 3 will be a better option, and two, the real reason for this type of DRM is not to prevent piracy, but in fact to make more money.
Blizzard believes the Diablo franchise is essentially a co-operative experience and is at its core a "circle trading game" the game's director Jay Wilson told PC Gamer last year. This means Blizzard thinks you need to be online all the time in order to get the most out of the game.
It believes that those who play in single player mode may want at some point to partner-up with a friend and, if they have been playing offline all along, to do this would mean having to re-roll your character and lose any level-up and new items you may have acquired.
Yes this is certainly an issue, but as Nate Lanxon, editor of Wired.co.uk says: "My advice would have been a nice warning screen. Something like: 'Play in offline-only mode? If you play offline, you will need to re-roll a new character should you later choose to play with your friends.'" A sensible solution to our mind.
The result is that despite having to download a huge 7.5GB file in order to play Diablo, you cannot play it wherever you like. It means that playing it on trains, planes or automobiles is out of the question, which is a shame.
The upshot is that those who download a pirated version will be in a better position than those who paid full price for Diablo 3. The downloaded version will have the copy protection cracked already so the DRM will make no difference and those with the pirated copy of Diablo 3 will be able to play a single-player campaign on trains, planes and automobiles.
Within a day of Assassin's Creed 2 being launched, which had a similar system in place, pirates had cracked the DRM. While Blizzard is believed to have put in place some more sophisticated anti-piracy protection, including putting some files needed to finish installing Diablo 3 on its own servers, it is only a matter of time before a cracked version appears.
Always online, always making money
However, piracy is not the real reason why Diablo 3 has this always-online type of copy protection. The real reason is much more basic: money.
Blizzard also publishes World of Warcraft, a completely online world where players pay a $15-a-month subscription to play. It is expected that a lot of these players may move to playing Diablo 3 which has a one off cost, which would mean a loss of revenue for Blizzard.
To this end, Blizzard is betting big on the Auction House in Diablo 3 which they hope will be a big money spinner for them. Auction House allows for the legal farming and selling of virtual items within the fantasy world, but for real money.
Making this an official in-game system means these trades will not take place on eBay and Blizzard will take a cut of every transaction. In order for this to work however, everything in the game has to take place on Blizzard's servers, which prevents the introduction of fake or hacked items.
Paul Tassi, writing for Forbes.com, says that Blizzard will not be able to simply issue a patch to let players play offline in Diablo 3, as was the case with Assassin's Creed 2.
"Those who are requesting such a thing don't have a grasp on why Blizzard is going all-online, or how hard it would be to actually craft an "offline mode." It's not as simple as cutting the Ethernet cord. To make a stand alone single player game that wasn't based on the servers would practically take as much work as making an entirely new title."
While initial reviews from games journalists have praised Diablo 3, user reviews have been markedly different and if Blizzard wants to hold onto its loyal fanbase, maybe it should rethink its always-online strategy for its next release.