The lights are on
After over a decade of waiting, I’m excited as the installation bar fills to 100% and the Play button pops up. Diablo III is finally out, and I’m ready to settle in for a sleepless night of demon slaying and loot collecting. After I get my feet wet, I may decide to invite some friends to come fight at my side, but tonight I want to see the game on my own without any distractions. However, the forces of darkness have conspired to end my fight before it begins. Before I pick up my first piece of gold, I’m stopped by the gatekeeper of the login screen. Whether the servers are full or just plain not working, I can’t play the game. I’m not alone. Millions of players are at my side banging at the gate demanding entry, and we’re all being turned away.
Thanks to several seemingly separate server-side issues, Diablo III has been unavailable to play for extended periods of time during the first hours of its public release. I’m going to skip the entitled recriminations against Blizzard for ruining my fun – there are plenty of those to go around these last couple of days. More likely than not, the same players who are the most pissed off about the shaky start for Diablo III will be the ones who will be pouring the most time into the game once everything is running smoothly. However, Blizzard’s unfortunate server problems during the launch of one of the year’s most-anticipated games throws the situation into stark relief; forcing gamers to log into on an online server to play single-player games is an awful idea.
At this point, most dedicated gamers have a way to play online. Many do just that on a regular basis, blasting their friends in an online arena, or wandering a dungeon in an MMO. So what’s the big deal about asking them to take the next step to be online all the time? For one, it means that we as gamers no longer own the games we play. By purchasing a game like Diablo III, you are no longer buying a product, you are buying the right to use a product at the discretion of its owner. It’s the equivalent of leasing a car for an indeterminate period of time, during which the owner can withhold the use of the car at any time without penalty. The car owner can take the car back once the car isn’t as popular as it is today; at some point the servers for online games shut down, and that game is no longer available for play. Few, if any, other products or media in your home have this same restriction. Most that do are because online usage is absolutely essential for operation, like a computer anti-virus program or a streaming TV service.
But let’s step past semantic arguments about ownership rights in the 21st century and confront the more central, pressing issue. Whether because of maintenance, server problems, or other issues, online games aren’t always available. And it's not always a server side problem; internet outages from your service provider can cut you off from any game that requires you to play online. No matter where the problem originates, it means we can’t play the title we paid for when we want to. Contrary to popular belief, most adult gamers I know have precious little free time to enjoy their hobby. If the only time you have to play is between putting the kids to bed and finishing up that presentation for work, and your chosen entertainment won’t work, it won’t be long before you choose a different form of entertainment. It’s one thing to give players the option to play a game online so they can choose to interact with others, but a profoundly different thing to make a game unavailable unless you’re online, even if you’re playing by yourself.
The move toward online-only games is also one more barrier we’re putting in front of new players before they can get involved in “serious” gaming. Like the opening night of a movie, the best marketing in the world for a new game is one person telling a friend or family member they should try it out. What is the message currently being relayed to non-PC casual game players about Diablo III? Should they take the plunge to try out this big new fantasy game? Or should they instead worry about what accounts they’re going to have to set up first, whether the servers will let them play online, and if it’s worth their time to try and figure it all out? Online single-player games send the wrong message to consumers. It’s the equivalent of a gated community – a members-only club that demands you sign a contract before getting to tour the grounds.
While it’s probably the last thing on the minds of most consumers, online games also present fundamental challenges to the chronicling of gaming history. Twenty years from now, will it be possible to play Diablo III in its original form? Will it be possible to play the game at all? This has been a dilemma facing the world of MMOs for over a decade; it’s sad that it is now also something we have to worry about regarding some single-player games.
So why do it? Why court the very public and vocal displeasure of the gaming community, and risk the sort of flub that Diablo III has faced? From a publishing and development perspective, there are growing concerns that must be addressed. The challenge of piracy is undoubtedly an issue. Online-only games also cut off the possibility that it will be sold used. From a consumer perspective, it can be argued that online-only server-side games also assure consistency and integrity of the game; if a character is stored on the server, there’s no way a player can cheat or mod the content, and unbalance the play experience for other players.
All those arguments are well and good, but they just don’t meet muster. There are better and less obstructive ways to confront piracy. If used game sales are considered an issue, a one-use code at purchase is enough to halt the practice. And if there really is deep concern about maintaining the integrity of the online play experience, then give players the choice to opt in or out of keeping their character online. At the very least, the player should be entitled to create an offline-only character to utilize and mod as they see fit.
Diablo III is a test case, and it’s just the right one for a publisher like Activision Blizzard to prove its point. Diablo III is so deeply anticipated and long awaited that gamers are willing to put up with a lot of nonsense in order to finally try it out. As a result, it’s a game that will use be used to reinforce the case that online-only single-player games can succeed. But those same game makers should take note; angry gamers don’t forget the hoops you make them jump through for a game, and even the most beloved franchises aren’t immune to a mass exodus. There will always be someone else out there willing to give players an easier, less stressful, and most importantly, offline option as an alternative.
Email the author Matt Miller, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.