By John Walker on September 22nd, 2011 at 12:56 pm.
Diablo III‘s ‘always-on’ DRM is obviously a matter of much controversy, albeit a more nuanced one than that of Ubisoft. Where Ubisoft implemented the grotesque system purely as a claimed measure to fight piracy, Blizzard’s logic at least has some elements that offer benefits to the player. Battle.net, online ranking, drop-in-drop-out co-op, the auction house, and constant live monitoring of your progress, and monitoring to prevent cheating, can all be argued to be in the players’ favour, in a way that Settlers VII crashing its single player because the internet blipped does not. But it doesn’t make the problem go away, and I want to strongly argue that Blizzard reconsider their decision, in the face of its simply breaking their game. Because no matter how perfect your connection, it will affect you.
My intention with Diablo III is to solo the game. I realise that’s not the way many will play it, it’s not what the Diablo series is most famous for, and it’s arguably not the primary way Blizzard intends the game to be played. However, crucially, it’s a mode of the game that’s deliberately programmed to work, with NPC story-based characters to join your party and interact with you, and a single-player plot to hack through. It is, undeniably, designed to be played as a single-player game.
However, the always-on DRM makes this the most remarkably annoying process. During the beta, Blizzard’s servers have dropped a few times. Of course, that’s expected during a beta, but it’s also not unexpected once a game has gone live. And here, when the server goes down, you’re left with a ghost of the game until it eventually stops you from playing at all. I found that suddenly when I fired my bow no arrows came out – I could wander around, enemies were still there, but clearly something was wrong. And then it froze, a message popped up saying there were connection troubles, and I was dumped back to the main menu with no way to play. For no discernible reason. I still had the game installed, had no desire to be online or use any online functions, and yet still couldn’t play.
Clearly that problem only arises when something goes wrong, or when there’s server maintenance, which obviously will only be a very small proportion of the time (still time when the game needlessly doesn’t work, of course.) But a more striking and regular problem has shown itself over the last couple of days of playing with the beta levels.
You can’t pause. In fact, in most ways, the game acts like an MMO. For instance, quit it, and you’re given the optional cooldown to have your player clear the server properly. But it’s not an MMO. It’s not even close to an MMO. So when I’m playing the single-player game, and I’m in the middle of a frenzied mob, and there’s a knock at the front door, there’s nothing I can do. As happened to me yesterday. Twice. On another occasion I was surprised by a phone call that led to my having to do some other things. I’d safely left my character in a cleared area, but long between checkpoints. When I came back to the PC, I’d been idle for too long and the game had logged me out.
I’d been logged out of a single-player game because I was away for an hour. And thus lost all my progress (although not my items and stats) since the last checkpoint, a long, long way back.
In fact, currently, losing your connection (either by idling or the server going down) resets huge chunks of what you’ve already played, such that the map is blank, and you need to battle through it again. Whether that’s an issue with the beta, or something that will also carry through to the finished game, we obviously don’t know. But it’s another clear example of how having your single-player, offline game require a constant connection is massively idiotic and counter-productive.
Games with occasional checkpoints are obviously a massive pain for anyone who might or need to stop playing at that moment – something that’s not exactly an uncommon occurrence. But a game where that’s the case, AND you can’t even leave it running in the background, is beyond acceptable.
And this is all never mind that you can’t play it on trains, planes, at your gran’s, on the day a workman cuts through your phone line, if you’re in the army, or simply cannot afford a broadband connection.
Blizzard must address this. Yes, their motivations don’t appear to be a misguided and ignorant attempt to prevent piracy. Although I doubt they’re too upset that this is a believed by-product. But no matter how much they have argued that their always-on system is of benefit to players, it absolutely isn’t proving to be the case. And maddeningly, the solution is incredibly simple:
Create the option to create an entirely offline character. A character that can’t then be imported into an online game, one that can’t invite others to join in. That way any of the concerns about those finding ways to artificially improve their characters and then dominate online (something that really doesn’t seem a massive issue in opt-in co-op, but there we are) are removed, and anyone who just wants to solo the game can do so.
Sure, you can’t use the auction house. And sure, that means Blizzard will make a fraction less money from you. But since they already made the money when you paid them for the game, it would seem not unreasonable to let you be able to play it. Right now, in the state it’s currently in, it’s an inherently broken product. A single-player game that won’t pause, and if you leave it running will boot you out and cancel your progress. That’s insane.
And it’s all the more maddening in what’s, so far, an exceptionally good game.