Diablo III and the DRM conundrum

The launch of Diablo III was marred by server issues, with customers who had parted with US$60 (more in certain cases) being denied even a basic single player experience. It's unfathomable, if you think about it. Why does a single player game need to be perpetually connected to the Internet? Blizzard PR (and then subsequently, the designers) came out in defence of the ‘always-on' DRM. It wasn't about preventing cheats and piracy apparently, having more to do with adding value to the experience (supporting the in-game auction house, for instance) while offering a solution to problems players of Diablo II faced, such as creating separate characters for online and offline games. Also, we were told that players would immediately see the value in having a game that was always connected to the Internet. It's been a week since release, and gamers are still left shaking their heads, but fortunately, they seem to be thoroughly enjoying the stand-out action-RPG experience of this decade.

Gaming is social, and there's no doubt that Diablo III is best enjoyed with other players, but it's unfair of the game makers to dictate the nature of a player's experience. Fundamentally, Diablo's experience is personal, and the player should decide whether his friends can crash his party or not. But the problem is a lot simpler than the interpretation of Diablo III's experience. Somehow, Blizzard overestimated their server capacity despite nearly three million pre-orders for the game, and as a result, players simply couldn't log on to play it on launch day. Imagine for a second that the game didn't require a constant Internet connection for solo players. That's right, Blizzard's servers would not have tanked since only those with a keen inclination to partake in the game's multiplayer (far fewer in number, undoubtedly) would even have tried logging in. And while the problem has been “fixed” (in the sense that you can actually play the game now), it's still only a temporary solution to a long term problem. What if you want to play Diablo III, in say, the year 2025? Chances are, you probably will have to settle for playing something else (say, Diablo or Diablo II) because all the servers will be down. There's no doubt that the decision to retain the always-on DRM contributed to the server problem, and Blizzard could have fixed both with a single, positive step.

The incident was a sickening reminder that the entertainment industry is an adamant child, refusing to learn, adapt or evolve — a classic case of taking two steps forward and three steps back. It is the gamer publishers' unwillingness to budge from their comfort zone (in this case, Battle.net, a strong online infrastructure), because, hey, World of Warcraft works just fine and players are always connected to the Internet. But let's face it, even if they deny it, this is just a publisher looking to make sure that their game doesn't make a dramatic appearance in a “most popular torrents” list. Job well done, mission accomplished. But, at what cost? Loss of goodwill, angry gamers and Internet jokes? Whatever that cost is, it's insignificant because there are going to be millions of players who are willing to endure the excess baggage in the shapely form of ridiculous DRM. The now-famous ‘error 37' will be remembered only as an Internet meme or trending topic on Twitter, and not for what it is: Blizzard's indifference to its customers. It would seem that the pirates have won.