Did Blizzard Blow Diablo 3’s Launch?

Twelve years in the making, the sequel to the fastest-selling game in history, the new thing from Those Guys Who Do World Of Warcraft, Blizzard, Diablo III hit last week and… let’s just say it failed to live up to expectations.

Some players are complaining that it’s too short, or that they didn’t care for the story, but the real problem for the legion of players who paid sixty dollars for Diablo III on Launch Day was the fact that they couldn’t actually play it.

Unlike the last two games in the series, Diablo III requires a constant connection to the internet in order to play it.  There have been quite a few other games that required a constant connection to play them too.  This is a method to prevent people from using pirated copies of the game.

The first Diablo game came on a single CD, and anyone could make an illegal copy of the disk it then play online without having to worry about anti-piracy security.  These were the days when all the data for an online game was kept right on the Player’s computer.  It not only made piracy easy, but it also make hacking and cheating simple.

Since then, game publishers have gotten smart.  Diablo II required a unique code to be entered with each copy of the game.  Character data for the single-player game was kept on the Player’s computer, but players had to create entirely new characters for online.

Hackers could screw around with their local files as much as they liked, but it was a lot harder to bring such shenanigans to the online world.  This sort of security was a minor annoyance for players, but it was one of the best ways to inconvenience pirates while not oppressing legitimate buyers too much.

With Diablo III, this isn’t the case.  Playing the game in single-player requires an online connection, which many gamers were willing to tolerate because it allowed friends to join the adventure anytime, but when the game launched it seemed that Blizzard was the one having internet trouble.

The game wasn’t playable for many people on launch day due to problems on Blizzard’s side.  Gamers were logged in, paid up, and ready to click away on the bad guys, but The Lord of Terror and his minions were no where to be found!

Outrage is almost always pre-mature, and disproportionate, especially when coming from video game fans, but this time around the frenzied cursing in ALL CAPS was justified.  This wasn’t a new MMO experiencing the typical over-crowded servers at launch, or long waits to find a match in a new shooter.

This was a new single-player game being rendered unusable for fans who had shoveled out launch day prices just for the opportunity to beat the thing first, and to discover all that the game had to offer without fear of spoilers.  They wanted to find the Secret Cow Level on their own!

“Why does Diablo III need such a stern battery of anti-piracy features at all”, one might ask.  Blizzard has an excellent track record and its many fans around the world are more than happy to buy the next Blizzard product.  But retail sales aren’t the only way that Blizzard is going to make money on Diablo III, and this is prompting fans to take extra umbrage from the inconveniences of the anti-piracy tactics.

Diablo III will have an in-game auction house where players can sell their items for real-world money.

Selling in-game treasure for actual real-world currency is nothing new, the right combination of Paypal, eBay, and World of Warcraft has resulted in a roundabout way of selling virtual gold to other players.  But Diablo’s marketplace cuts out the middleman by making it a fully-supported feature in the game.

“Gold Farming” will get players banned in other games (Including a certain MMO made by Blizzard), but in Diablo III, it’s legal, and easy.  The catch being that Blizzard takes a dollar for each item sold, and 15% of the take for crafting items (Like gold).  There’s also an additional fee for “Cashing out” through Paypal.

This is a great way for Blizzard to earn extra money, without having to charge a monthly fee, or continually charging for new content packs.  Yet, in order for it to work, Blizzard has to prevent anyone from hacking the game.

In the first Diablo, hackers were rampant; they could produce endless quantities of any item and distribute them to anyone they met online.  This was tightened up in Diablo II, although players still found the occasional bug that allowed them to “Dupe” items.  If this sort of thing were to occur in Diablo III, it could ruin the economy, destroying the profit machine that the Auction House will surely become.

This time around, gamer outrage is well justified.  The prime reason why players fear “Always Connected” Digital Rights Management has just come true, and gamers were unable to play single-player through no fault of their own.  This problem is added to the other issues players will have when trying to play Diablo III when in a place where they can’t connect to the internet (Yes, PC gamers do play on laptops when out of the house).

Why do gamers have to deal with this?  It isn’t so much to dissuade pirates from making copies of the game, or to keep hackers doing like turning on “God Mode” and “Town Kill”.  It’s to keep the Auction House safe.

The Auction House will have some good impact too; it will keep players safe from scam sellers who take payments without making good on their end of the bargain.  And it will stop the lamentable practice of sweat-shop labor in third-world “Gold Farms” where players grind the most profitable areas of the game just to sell their virtual wares.

Still, this a case where the outrage should continue, and Blizzard needs to consider their options carefully.  Going back to the Diablo II method of making players maintain separate characters for offline and online mode is a reasonable solution, and most players will be happy to build new characters for each mode if that’s the price to pay for being free from DRM that requires a constant connection.

Those who bought the game at the first opportunity will have to learn a bitter lesson about early adoption, while those who had the foresight to hold off have found themselves once again rewarded for their caution.