Diablo III and Always-Online Gaming: Bad for Us and Here to Stay?

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I’d rather talk about playing Diablo III, but since I’m working on a poky-band smartphone connection that makes playing much of anything online a lurching debacle, let’s talk about Diablo III‘s always-on requirement, or digital rights management, or hacker-repellent — or just “Blizzard’s albatross,” as I’m sure some of you would rather it be called.

I’m talking about the need for a persistent Internet connection to play Diablo III. Blizzard, in its infinite 800-pound-gaming-gorilla wisdom, hath from its lofty baroque tower decreed that Diablo III be played at all times online. Oh, there’s a play-by-yourself mode of sorts, one that lets you carve off a chunk of embryonic demigod before launching down gaming’s longest (and slowest) loot-stuffed waterslide, bringing death-by-a-thousand-clicks to groaning/chittering/frizzling throngs of woefully inferior enemy riffraff that shuffle/scurry/sprint toward you like iron fillings to an electromagnet.

(MORE: How to Play ‘Diablo III’ on Your iPad)

But no, to do what in other games you’d be able to without the providence of cyber-tethering, you have to log into Blizzard’s equivalent of that primitive CGI face at the end of Tron: Battle.net, Blizzard’s master control program, the 800-pound-cyber-gorilla worrisomely redefining the whole “how-we-play-games” thing.

Or is it? I know many of you are angry, and part of me feels the same way you do for probably the same reasons. How dare Blizzard require we connect to the Internet to play in solo mode! How dare the company require we connect to buggy servers, for that matter — servers that have been demonstrably knocking players offline whether they’re playing with others or just by themselves! How dare the company force honest, paying buyers — the majority, that is — to pay for the sins of those who’d crack and pirate the game! (Which, incidentally, looks to have happened already.) How dare they pitch their business-minded decision as a consumer win-win by removing all that old school brain-defeating complexity of, you know, manually downloading a patch to keep the game updated!

But walk with me a bit here. World of Warcraft requires an Internet connection to play. Even the hacked versions that involve pirate servers, still, by definition, require a client/server-style network connection to get the job done. And here’s the thing no one talks about: WoW can be played, at least for virtually all of the core leveling parts, as a solo game, too. And if you play on one of Blizzard’s PvE (player vs. environment) WoW servers, with the player vs. player angle off the table, hewing strictly to NPC storyline quests, fellow players become like the ghostly passerby in a game like Dark Souls. Could Blizzard have offered that offline? Of course. Why no “always on” indignation over that aspect of WoW? Because it was pitched as an MMO — a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game — from the start, and the expectation levels were set. All MMOs, by definition, have “always on DRM,” we just don’t call it that.

But with Diablo III, Blizzard’s ambiguity about the game’s modus operandi and post-launch technical incompetence are a double-whammy. Blizzard allowed its marketing department to pitch the game as single-player in the traditional sense (like Diablo II and Diablo before it), presenting the online modes as supplementary instead of the core experience. And the company loused up post-launch because its servers weren’t prepared to handle the tsunami of new player accounts, culminating in game-snapping glitches, including ones that can yank a solo player out of the game simply because the server goofs and drops the connection. What a mess.

(MORE: Diablo III Battles Battle.net Blues as Players Slam the Game in Reviews)

In theory — that is, one where Diablo III‘s servers perform impeccably — the only genuine negative about Diablo III‘s always-on play requirement is that we can’t play it without a solid Internet connection. That’s still a legitimate point. One of my annual travel stops is a farm in Nowhere, Iowa, limited to my cellphone’s sporadic data connection. Playing online games like WoW or Lord of the Rings Online is a crapshoot. So my holiday gaming usually involves offline stuff. At some point someone’s going to pull areas like these out of the Pleistocene, but until then, I’m stuck, as are most of you with residences (or vacation cabins) in the middle of nowhere, on planes, in deserts, visiting either of the arctic circles, or anywhere else without a dependable broadband link.

But it’s less and less of an argument. Companies can’t design around extreme cases, and there’s no design or consumer rights principle that says offline games are inherently superior to online ones. Given the industry shift to always-connected gaming, I can’t really fault Blizzard (or anyone else) for having always-on requirements in games. The issue in this case is how Diablo III was marketed (that is, ambiguously) exacerbated by how it’s actually performed, stability-wise, post-launch. Blizzard should have sold the game as an explicitly multiplayer experience from the get-go, and done more to ensure its stability out of the chute.

Given what’s happened, Blizzard could do a lot to mend fences with Diablo III buyers by patching in an offline play checkbox, ala StarCraft II. It wouldn’t just be “angry masses” placation, either, given the way the game was pitched (even while noting the always-on requirement). And going forward, Blizzard, along with the rest of the industry — laser-tuned to the precedents companies like Blizzard are setting — needs to be clear that games like these are multiplayer first and solo-play, if at all, second. Always-on as a way to thwart piracy and hacking, or just to make updating more “convenient,” isn’t enough — that’s just public-relations-speak for lazy “can’t think of anything better-to offer” design. Diablo III‘s solo mode is arguably an afterthought to its more robust cooperative-play angle. Blizzard should have sold it as such. It’s paying the price in low-starred Amazon reviews and savaged Metacritic user averages for not doing so.

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