Dave, Reading, 2002

Like I ever post in this thing anyway.

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Dave, Reading, 2002
Diablo III. Oh, man.

I got into Diablo largely thanks to its perceived similarities to Nethack, perceptions which turned out to be largely accurate. I also remain a PC gamer at heart (yeah, I've got an XBox, but eh). So when the next instalment of a pretty good game turns up, I'm on it.

Released on May 15th, it took me a week to get hold of it because no shops sell PC games any more - or if they do, it's at a stupid price relative to everyone else (£45?! THIS IS WHY YOU ARE GOING BANKRUPT, GAME); however, it hit my doorstep on the 23rd and I blitzed through the first act in my two days off.

It's great fun. I love that it's retained plenty of the Diablo basics while making levelling up a bit less punishing. I love that it's still structured virtually identically to Diablo II (second act goes east to a desert land with a locked off palace... hmm, where have I seen that before?), and thus it's still fundamentally Diablo.

I don't love the DRM.

Diablo III's DRM represents what some games companies see as the future - a mechanism whereby the game is registered and attached to a single account online, and the online status is constantly tracked to ensure that it's only being used by one person. Kills the second hand market dead (and boy do games companies hate the second hand market) and maintains company revenue.

That in itself is relatively fine. Piracy has been a thorn in gaming's side ever since gaming has existed (how well I remember poring through a C90 cassette with about fifteen Spectrum games on it back in the day) and I understand the desire to fight it. I don't like the hatred of the second hand market - a lot of games these days aren't really designed with replay value in mind so it makes sense that somebody would want to pass it on after they've finished. But I also don't like the way certain companies - Game again - see the second hand market as their primary business model when it should be a back seat to, you know, the promotion and marketing of new games.

Game made massive headlines recently by very nearly going bankrupt. I wouldn't have particularly mourned them - online is usually cheaper and their business practices have made them few friends - but several journalists noted that Game does perform one vital function. Gamers can pretend otherwise, but the fact remains that playing games is and will always be nothing more than a hobby; Game's ancestors were those tiny little shops tucked in back alleys that sold model aeroplanes and Hornby train track. What Game does, therefore, is give gaming a High Street presence; it keeps a (slowly growing) hobbyist market in the minds and eyes of the masses. That's why existing through their second hand market is a failure of an idea - because it puts the emphasis less on the promotion and development of new product and more on the raw cashflow of giving somebody £5 for a game and promptly sticking it back on the shelf with a £20 label on it.

But I digress. Second hand gaming is a shit business model as long as it's a business model and not just mates swapping tapes, and Blizzard (Diablo's makers) are right to try and stomp on it.

The other much touted reason for Diablo's permanently online presence is the auction house. Diablo is ultimately a hack and slash game in which you acquire vast quantities of probably useless loot, and so you can trade it off to other players for in-game gold. This is fine - MMORPGs like World Of Warcraft and EverQuest have been doing that for years. But Diablo also have a new thing up their sleeves - an auction house where you can trade in-game items for real-life currency.

Again, this isn't really new. EverQuest had people selling good in-game items - and in some cases, entire characters - on eBay ten years ago. Blizzard are merely formalising this process to ensure they can get their cut of the trade. The problem is that good items are - by definition - rare, and Diablo II had a couple of known bugs which allowed people to duplicate rare items more or less at will. Duplicated items flood the market, economy crashes, Blizzard doesn't get their cut.

Blizzard's solution, therefore, has been to make Diablo III an MMO in all but name. All character details are stored online, all item information, most of its randomly generated locations are hosted through an online server. The disc that you buy, or the "client" or whatever they call it, basically only holds the graphics used to render the location code the servers send down, and some of the story-related cinematics and sounds.

The problem is that Diablo has never been an MMO. Hack and slash games are typically single player affairs, usually played locally on one's own system, with an occasional online presence for teaming up against bosses and maybe a certain amount of player-versus-player interaction so that people can wave their dicks at each other. So the company merely needs to maintain a few servers for those who want to do the multiplayer thing - or even let people host themselves through local area networks - and if they don't work one day there's always single player to fall back on.

And all this rambling has finally reached a point. The always online component requires working servers otherwise the game is unusable. And, right now, they don't work. "Too many simultaneous login attempts crashing the server" is something they really should have planned for. Blizzard have been running World Of Warcraft and its servers for the better part of ten years now, and they've just cooked up the most anticipated PC-only title since... a very long time ago. The game sold 6.3 million copies in no time at all, and it's fast becoming obvious that Blizzard simply cannot cope with developing servers to host most of those people being logged in simultaneously. Which is leaving a lot of people pissed off that they just spent £35 on something that they can't use.

I understand why Blizzard have made the decisions they have. If it sold 6.3 million then there'd probably be about the same again who'd pirate it - and maybe half of those who bought it would have pirated it too - and 9.45 million times £35 is a lot of money. But the fact is - it doesn't work. The perpetual online requirement means that they need to make sure that the system is operational; and while maintenance, upgrade, development and plain ol' technical issues may mean it's not going to be available 24/7, the amount of issues they've had so far have been frankly unacceptable. They knew how big the launch was going to be, they had ample time to plan for it (Diablo II came out 11 years ago), and they simply haven't figured it out even two weeks later. The launch of the real currency auction house has been delayed another couple of weeks with rumours that it's on indefinite hold. In other words, the single biggest reason they made the thing online only in the first place may end up not even happening.

Ultimately, I think other companies will look on this as an interesting attempt to realise a thought experiment that they've all been pondering for a while - the idea of permanent connection to an account online as an attempt to circumvent second hand sales is something all the major players have been thinking about. And I think they'll realise that without colossal infrastructure outlay and maintenance for years and years - nothing annoys me more than the notion that they'll switch off the Diablo III servers in fifteen years and I'll never be able to play it again, but thanks to emulators it's all but certain that Diablo II will still work - all they're going to end up with is a very pissed off fanbase. And a very pissed off fanbase isn't one that's inclined to fork over the dosh.


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