Diablo III & Ownership

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Like most gamers, I am looking forward to the release of Blizzard’s  Diablo III. However, also like most gamers, I have some concerns about certain aspects of the game. These concerns have nothing to do with the demons in the game-I’m fine with killing them. While discussing a video game would generally not be a very philosophical sort of thing, the game does raise some important general issues about ownership and fairness.

While Diablo II offered online play as a feature, it did not require players to be connected in order to play. This was, in part, due to the fact that Diablo II arrived on the scene before the days when people could be connected at all times and nearly all places. Diablo III, at least currently, requires that players be connected to Blizzard’s servers in order to play. The folks at Blizzard claim that this is to keep people from cheating in the game.

On one hand, the folks at Blizzard do have a point. People routinely hacked Diablo II to provide their characters with all sorts of goodies and this was made incredibly easy by the fact that character files were stored locally. On the other hand, if Diablo III is like Diablo III, then cheating is really not a point of major concern. In the Diablo genre the player and a few friends (or strangers) travel about in dangerous places (dungeons) and click on monsters until they die. While it is possible to fight other player characters, this was not a significant part of Diablo II and presumably will not be a big part of Diablo III.  Of course, this is from my perspective-I did know of some folks who were obsessed with battling other players (and cheating to win). In any case, Diablo III is not a MMO like World of Warcraft (so you do not have to share the game world with people you do not like) and it does not have (as far as I know) competing factions or battlegrounds intended for player versus player combat. As such, cheating does not seem like it would be a big deal-it is easy to avoid and would have no impact on your game, unless you allowed it by inviting cheaters into your game and decided to fight them.

What is most likely the real reason for the online requirement is, obviously enough, to deter piracy. While this is not a perfect defense against the theft of the game, it does make it somewhat harder. Blizzard does seem to have a right to protect its games from theft and the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who would claim that people have a right to avail themselves of other people’s work without paying for it. As such, I will not argue that Blizzard should not protect their product. However, the means does raise some concerns.

In the past, one important concern would have been the reliability and accessibility of the internet. However, this is not  supposed to be a major concern these days since the typical gamer will only be disconnected (yet able to play) during rare outages and when flying (and only during certain parts of the flight). Also, as the Blizzard folks have helpfully pointed out, there are many other games than Diablo III that people can play when they are not connected.

One legitimate concern is the matter of what the consumer is paying for. When I buy a MMO game like World of Warcraft I accept that it is part of the very nature of the product that I have to be online in order to use my purchase. To use an analogy, when I buy a phone I accept that I need to be connected to a network for it to function as a phone. that is how phones work. While Diablo III does support online play, it is not an MMO and hence does not actually require being connected to the internet for the game to function (aside from Blizzard making it that way). To use an analogy, it would be like a company selling an  MP3 player that only works when it is connected into the phone network owned by the company. While being connected can add extra features, there is clearly no reason why a MP3 player needs to be connected in order for the owner to play her music on it.

As far as why this should be a point of concern, consider the following. Suppose I buy an MP3 player. I can put my music on it and play it for as long as I own it. If the company tanks or if I am out in the woods, I can still use my purchase until it finally wears out. But, suppose I buy an MP3 player that refuses to work unless it can check in with the selling company. This means that if the company tanks, changes it policies, discontinues the product or if I cannot connect, then my MP3 player is just a paperweight. This certainly changes the nature of the product in important ways in terms of what I am buying and what I actually own. In the case of the first player, I am buying a device that I own and control. In the case of the second player, I am handing over money in the hopes that the company will permit me to keep using the product. While this can be an acceptable situation (after all, this is how MMOs and phone contracts work),these conditions should be reflected in the price of the product. After all, if a product can simply stop working because of some external factor, then this changes the value of the product.

In a second post I will address the other concern I have with the game, namely the real money auction house.

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  1. Contracts or bills of sale with conditions are nothing new. Think of selling land with an environmental easement. The game is sold under the condition that it only be used when online. If there is a meeting of the minds I see no issue. Anyone who does not like this is welcome to not buy it (and presumably if sales are low enough this will not reoccur).

  2. I have yet to read a valid reason for why you would play offline. No actual gamer is using dial-up and no actual gamer has less than DSL which is always connected. What I do hear is that the pirates are going to have a terrible time getting the game to be fun when it is pirated.

    Take the WOW formula for instance. With a quick Google search you can find out how to ‘hack’ the game so you can play it. However, it will be you standing in the game with no one to interact with. You can give yourself a million gold and every item but it’s pointless. Even on a small private server it would just be you and your friends. The game loses its fun and you end up going back to the servers where it matters what gear you have.

    Diablo III is going to have a similar feel if I see where Blizzard is headed. It is not a one time sale like the old days, but an ongoing and evolving process. To ignore the vast profits LoTR Online, Star Trek Online and Everquest made by having IRL money involved in the purchase of items would be irresponsible of Blizzard to its investors (see also it’s gamers).

    I for one have had Diablo III pre-ordered since it was available on Amazon and since I will have a valid license I will be playing it. Those who don’t have a valid license will not be playing with me. That is awesome. I will have to earn my way to the top. The IRL money auction house will not be the game changer everyone thinks it is. I have played both Star Trek Online and LoTR Online which have such things and it simply was barely noticeable. Were I in the top 1000 players on either maybe I would have cared. But I have a life.

    As for the MP3 analogy I have a Zune HD which does what you speak of. I have to connect it to the internet once a month to continue to use my Zune Pass. That’s fine and reasonable. The player needs to know that my lease of the songs is still paid up. Then again, it is a totally different type of device. I do not know of anyone who takes their laptop hiking with them to play WoW or for that matter any game. That’s why I have a smartphone.

    /rant

  3. @BEN Sadly, there are plenty of places where the internet is not as sturdy and easy to access people seem to think. In my entire country of New Zealand, access is sluggish and unpredictable, especially in light of the recent earthquakes.

    As far as the game not being fun for the pirates and cheaters, that again is subject to the view of the player. I, personally, couldn’t give a rats ass about the online at all. I only want to play with my friends that I live with, and that should not be affected by our internet connection. If Blizzard should patch the game to remove the online only rule, I will happily buy the game. until then, I will not buy it, nor pirate it, as I do not need any game that badly.

  4. The problem with this sort of cloud computing is you don’t own your character, Blizzard does. Read the EULA and I’m sure you’ll find a statement in there that states that Blizzard can make any changes it wants to your character without any prior notice to include deleting it or blocking you from battle.net should you break the TOS.
    Then with the rising popularity of monthly bandwidth limits by ISPs, this sort of gaming structure is bound to run up your bandwidth, even if in small amounts. When you factor in mulitiple application usage, across the common wireless network found in many households even a few kbs can add up quickly.
    For these annoyances though, in a game as popular as the Diablo franchise I doubt it would take a week before a stable crack becomes available, that emulates battle.net servers and would allow you to store your character data locally.
    I for one am all for giving the developers there fair due by purchasing their product legally. For how long that product remains legitimate is whats in question.

  5. Ben, I think you’re missing part of the point in your comparison to MMOs.

    I don’t know much about the multiplayer component of Diablo III, but obviously people who play online need to be verified–both to prevent cheating and to keep software pirates from stealing the multiplayer service that Blizzard is offering.

    But why should this be required for the single player game? It will not prevent piracy. It will not prevent cheating. Mostly, it will add an extra requirement for consumers who legally purchased the game, and cause them headaches when they have trouble with their Internet connection.

    If your single player character is also your multiplayer character, then why not sync the multiplayer with the single player at the end of each single player session? Not nearly as invasive, plus Blizzard retains control of your multiplayer character in case cheating is detected.

  6. Ben,
    As you note, the lack of offline play is not as big a deal these days. As a practical matter, most gamers will only be disconnected for short periods of time, such as outages or when flying. However, the inability to play the game without being connected does change the nature of the product-after all, it is not a game that needs to be connected to be played (unlike an MMO). But, as you point out, there are some pluses to the online requirement.

    Like you, I’ve had it pre-ordered on Amazon and will play it. I would prefer being able to play it offline, but do not consider this a major issue since my main play style is to play online with my friends.

    For the service you mention, checking in seems fine. After all, you are leasing songs rather than buying them. However, what if you had to check in to use songs you actually bought?

  7. Matt,

    That seems like it would be a viable solution. Given the bad press Blizzard has gotten about this, they could recover quite a bit by allowing single player play unconnected (as Starcraft II allows) while keeping multiplayer online characters stored online.

    One thing I dislike about having to connect to use software (or even to activate it) is that I am effectively just leasing the software rather than buying it. While Blizzard probably won’t go out of business soon or even stop supporting its older games (after all, they still support games from the 1990s), if such a thing happens, then the software I “bought” becomes useless. It might be argued that I should have no reason to use old software and that companies cannot keep supporting software forever, which are reasonable points. However, it does seem like I have been robbed when I can no longer use software I bought because the company tanked or ceased supporting the activation.

  8. I’ve gotta agree with the first commenter, John. I understand the gripe with not wanting to have to be online to play, but….well, so what? I can understand the gripe with Subway sandwiches not having drive-throughs where I live. So I don’t have to go to Subway to eat, if I don’t want to get out of my car. This is not a philosophical issue, it’s just not wanting to deal a hassle.

  9. Honestly I never really looked at it form this point of view. I’m an IT Manager and handle licenses all the time. I game like crazy but it’s odd that I have never looked at these types of games as buying software licensing to some degree.

    With that said, this is something very interesting. I say that because because although you used an MP3 player in your analogy, we’ve been handling this software for years. I mean… we buy software products all the time and if they company goes down, you don’t get update or support for your software.

    Now that I think of it, the same goes for most Hardware you buy.

    Jesse

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