Fighting a Lost Battle for the Wrong Reasons – the Diablo 3 DRM Controversy

While what seems like the entire gaming world – myself included – has gotten caught up in the rush to buy and play Blizzard’s Diablo 3, some fans have been less than pleased about some of the design decisions that went into the game. The culprit: the decision to make Diablo III a game that absolutely requires being online to play. And this is no mere forum-bitching by a dissatisfied few – there’s been a bombing of the user reviews of the game over at Metacritic, and some major gaming sites are throwing their weight behind the user complaints. The rallying cry is that this isn’t just about Diablo III- it’s a line in the sand to tell companies that gamers will not stand for mandatory online DRM in their games. It’s a very reasonable sounding complaint leading into an important battle for gamers to wage. Which is why it was already waged years ago.

The problem is, the battle was lost. And what’s more, it was lost for very good reasons.

Putting the Problem in Perspective

Before I go on, I want to make something crystal clear: if you don’t like mandatory online requirements for games, that’s a legitimate complaint. Maybe you prefer to exclusively play single-player games – I understand that entirely, and there are plenty of games I love to play while detached from the increasingly omnipresent internet. Or maybe you live in an area where the only available online services are rotten – again, you have my sympathy and condolences, and not just because you apparently live out in the freaking boondocks. Maybe you just plain don’t like seeing the emphasis in Diablo III changed so much, and even there I think that’s an entirely fair complaint. As gamers, everyone is going to have their standards and preferences, and if a game fails to meet them, then the game is flawed as far as that standard is used. Nor is this just a matter of personal taste: there are standards which are reasonable to hold a game to even in a professional review sense. If a game has enough bugs, if it fails to deliver on promises made on the box, then I don’t believe it’s necessarily a matter of preference – you may well have a truly bad game on your hands.

$10 Virtual Hats - no longer controversial!

The problem for the Diablo III DRM controversy is that this cuts both ways: sometimes a game is legitimately good, even if some users dislike it. Heck, even if some of them are enraged by a design decision. The more I play it, and the more I think about it, the harder it is to escape the conclusion that the DRM controversy is simply misplaced. The anger directed against the decision to require an active online connection to play Diablo IIIis largely – not wholly, but largely – misguided. The attempt to treat the controversy as a kind of Battle of Antietam for gamers looks more like the tale of Japanese holdouts continuing to fight World War II, despite it being well into the 1970s. The battle’s over, guys, and that side lost. Lay down your arms and come home – enjoy the amnesty and a complimentary 5 dollar credit in the online cash shop. That’s almost enough for a hat!

Where the Anti-Online Argument Goes Wrong

The case against Diablo 3’s online-only requirement would be cut and dry if it were simply about what a lot of people suggest it is – DRM and anti-piracy measures. If that’s all Blizzard was accomplishing here, I wouldn’t be playing the game, or at least I wouldn’t be playing it until someone came up with a method to circumvent that. But the situation is more complicated: while requiring an active internet connection certainly will have some kind of anti-piracy impact, that’s not the extent – and arguably, not even the primary purpose – of the requirement in the game. Instead, the goal is to address one of the most long-standing problems in Diablo: economy- and experience-wrecking bug exploits and item duplication, which impacts the multiplayer aspect of the game. I don’t think anyone who played Diablo 2 can deny that these things were problems, or that they had the bad impact just mentioned – duplication and bug exploiting does a whole lot of damage to a game, first and foremost wrecking the economy. And the whole ‘mandatory online, largely centralized server-side activity’ aspect of MMOs is one of the most effective ways to cut down on bug exploits – or undo a lot of the damage done by said exploits after the fact.

Which means that it’s wrong to treat the Diablo 3 online-only aspect as mere DRM, as if the only intended purpose for it is to discourage piracy. It’s about protecting major facets of the gameplay, facets which aren’t even new to the Diablo series. The fact that some people don’t care about the economy or any multiplayer aspect of the series whatsoever does nothing to change the fact that it’s an intended part of the game, and something it makes perfect sense for both Blizzard and players to want to protect, even emphasize. More than that, it’s an area Diablo III plays up even more than Diablo II – just look at the introduction of the in-game auction system, the considerable focus (in terms of everything from general design to specific achievements) on co-op play. Once all this is realized, then the argument against requiring an active internet connection to play becomes far harder to make – it’s no longer a case of a careless company implementing a ‘feature’ that will do nothing for legitimate owners except add a hassle to their experience. Instead, it is – at worst – a case of a company implementing a controversial feature that some players will benefit from, and others will not. But to recognize that is to take a lot of wind out of some critics’ sails.

And it’s just as well they lose their gripe-wind, because the battle they’re attempting to fight has been over for years anyway.

If you want to stop online-only games, you need a time machine and an AOL disc.

When DRM Isn’t Called DRM

You’ll notice that the acronym “DRM” – digital rights management – comes up a lot in articles and comments talking about Diablo III, with it strongly hinted that requiring players to be online whenever they wish to play their game is some brand new, ominous DRM territory for video games, one gamers should push back against lest the idea take root. As a rhetorical strategy, it’s effective, since 99% of the time the only reason DRM ever comes up when discussing a game is to either bitch about its presence or take pleasure from its lack. As a result, DRM serves as the explosive diarrhea of game development – developers who have it don’t want to admit it, and they would prefer anyone who knows they have it not run around telling the world about it. And in both cases, most people are actually content to remain blissfully unaware of it unless it becomes impossible to ignore, or if they know someone has it and they want to cause that person some embarrassment.

But consider the long, long list of games where an online connection is mandatory, or essentially mandatory, in order to enjoy it. For starters: just about every MMO in existence, from World of Warcraft to World of Tanks to Dungeons and Dragons Online, whether Free to Play or subscription-based. And, of course, multiplayer-only games, whether or not they call themselves MMOs. In each case you have games, some of them extremely popular, which absolutely require being online in order to play. Typically, this isn’t called ‘online-only DRM’ because DRM functions as a slur you only apply to a game’s implementation when you dislike the game or want to raise a little hell. But DRM is exactly what it is and functions as, and it is ridiculously wide-spread. It’s not a novel idea that someone came up with for Diablo III, and it’s showing no signs of going away anytime soon either, because people – demonstrably, en masse – don’t seem to really have a problem playing or paying for games that require them to be online. It simply hasn’t been a controversial idea for a very long time.

Now, this is where a standard reply usually comes in: “But those games, Victor, are MMOs. Diablo III isn’t an MMO!” And while I’d love to talk at length about how the “massively” part of “massively multiplayer” games is in practice rather deceptive, that’s a whole other editorial. It’s enough to point out that mandatory online DRM is around, it’s extremely common, and most gamers accept it – indeed, it’s accepted to the point that no one even bothers to point out the DRM aspect when discussing the titles, because it’s typically a non-issue. The key question is, does forcing this requirement function as a feature for gamers – does it positively contribute to their experience in a major way? Or does it merely serve as a pain in the ass that they’ll have to put up with, and the only party to benefit will be the publisher? And with Diablo III, the case is clear: if this DRM works as Blizzard intended, the result is going to be a direct benefit to those playing the game. The economy will be protected and better maintained. The online experience will be more enjoyable and positive. Exploiters and people intent on ruining others’ games will be dealt with. Yes, this means that the person who wants to play Diablo offline suffers – but we shouldn’t pretend that nothing positive is intended to come of this for the rest of the Diablo community.

Fighting Pointless Battles, and Ignoring Real Ones

As I wrote at the start of this editorial, the argument here isn’t that people who want a singleplayer, offline game from Diablo are wrong to want it. These are gamers, probably many of them fans of the Diablo series, with entirely reasonable hopes for what they wanted to see in this game – it just so happens that Blizzard wanted to prioritize different things with their game this time around. The problem is that not enough emphasis is being placed on the rationale behind the decision to make Diablo III online-only – the (at least intended) direct, tangible benefits to the gamers is being ignored in order to over-simplify the issue. Worse, people are suggesting that a fierce outcry by jilted Diablo fans is important, because it will act as a bulwark against more games coming out which require being online in order to play. Sorry, the trend there has been decided – online-only games may never dominate, but they’re now a solid part of gaming, as surely as paying ten bucks for a virtual hat is.

Worst of all, the time and effort spent on misunderstood ideas and failed arguments is time not spent where it should be. As I said, the intended benefits of Diablo III’s online-only aspect are real and reasonable. But intended needs to be emphasized. We’re about a week into this game’s launch – and considering that Diablo II was around for roundabout a year, that means there are long-term concerns ahead of any Diablo fans. While one of the aims of Blizzard’s DRM is to make Diablo III a game with a protected, thriving economy and a grief- and exploit-free experience, we’re still firmly in the ‘promises’ portion of this agreement. It remains to be seen if Blizzard will actually deliver. Because if they do not deliver – if Diablo III becomes just as rife with hacks, exploits, duplicated items and the like that we saw with Diablo II – then we really did get collectively screwed. Purchasers would have given up a fair amount of convenience they previously had and gotten nothing in return. And that’s where the pressure should really be coming in: making Blizzard deliver the goods they promise are coming as a result of this DRM, instead of bitching them out for making an entirely reasonable design decision.

Lesser known inflation causes: cackling, gold-spewing treasure goblins.

And what do you know. We’re barely a week into Diablo III’s launch and already accounts are being hacked, gold and items are being stolen, and rumors are that the hackers can even circumvent authenticator software. The last part is particularly troubling – hacked online accounts are nothing new and only so much can be done to protect them, but if it turns out that these authenticators are being bypassed, this would represent a serious failure of online security on their part. That’s the other side of the online requirement that so many seem to be missing: this isn’t a one-sided affair, with Blizzard demanding something of players, but players being in no position to expect anything of Blizzard. We’re playing in Blizzard’s house, and it’s their responsibility to make sure they keep it in order.

Gamers shouldn’t just expect greater policing of security concerns in exchange for this arrangement. There’s another issue to consider: the game economy. With Diablo III integrating an auction hall system for both in-game trading and (soon) RL cash purchases, the long-term economy of this game is part of the package being sold to gamers, complete with upkeep. Frankly, this may turn out to be an even bigger concern than the security issues in some ways: gear inflation is already being seen, with prices of everything from gear to crafting materials to gems trending cheaper and cheaper. For whatever reason, Blizzard has decided to create a game economy based on gear that doesn’t bind on equip, gems that aren’t irretrievably lost when slotted into equipment, and considerable ease to trade with absolutely anyone else playing the game in your region. As with the security issues, the online aspect of this game means that if these decisions lead to a wrecked economy, it won’t merely be a lesson for Blizzard to learn when creating their next game. It will be an issue gamers would rightly expect to be adequately fixed in the here and now, every bit as much as if they were in a full-fledged MMO.

That last line is the key concept here. Trying to resist the existence of games that require an internet connection to play is pointless – that ship has sailed, and it took billions of dollars of gamers’ money with it. Instead of trying to turn back the clock on this, gamers should be matching the greater demands developers are placing on them with demands of their own – particular in terms of patches (both bug-fixing and content additions), upkeep, and more. If Blizzard wants to make demands on gamers we’d expect to see out of MMOs, then gamers should expect that the games they play will receive upkeep and attention beyond what used to be the norm. Best of all – unlike the battle against the existence of online-required games – it’s a fight that gamers can actually expect to make some headway on.

Victor Grunn has been a gamer since the days of single-button joysticks and the Atari 800XL. When not lamenting the loss of the Ultima series or setting people on fire in Team Fortress 2, he's an aspiring indie game developer and freelance writer.

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