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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Diablo III And The Age Of Always Online

For at least the moment, I'm not going to actually tarry on with yet another Diablo III review.  I think I might have a purely mechanics based review later, when I've beaten the game at least on normal.  Instead, I think we can focus on one of the more controversial aspects of the game - the fact that it requires an net connection to play.

For Blizzard, this might not actually seem like much of an experiment.  After all, they are responsible for one of the most popular games in video game history, World of Warcraft, which is the grand-daddy of requiring a net connection to play. Most gamers, however, easily distinguish between the action RPG genre of Diablo and the massively multiplayer RPG of WoW - after all ... it is right there in the genre title. Massively.  Multiplayer.

For Diablo III players looking to solo - the always online requirement is nothing but a burden.  There is very little benefit aside from the credibility of the Auction House being maintained.  The big problem here is that the Auction House doesn't seem to really be taking off.  Sure, some people have gotten far enough ahead and they're already farming legendary items for decent amounts of gold - but for the common player there just isn't much action either in selling or buying items.  It's decent enough, but I think if you had asked solo players if they wanted the ability to play their game whenever they wanted or if they wanted access to the Auction House ... you would have gotten a nearly unanimous vote for the former.

For players with solid friends or those who like to do Pick Up Games (PUGs) - the requirement is far more of a mixed bag.  If there is one place Diablo III shines in this regard, it is the lobbying and matchmaking system.  Want to solo?  Just resume your quest where you left it.  Want to pick up some players a half hour later?  Just open it to the public - you'll get some new players nearly instantly.  Want to PUG right away?  Just look for public games, you'll be in a game very quickly.  Want to send a direct message to your friend to see what class you should play?  Just a few clicks away.

If Diablo III has any defense for being always online, outside of the the technical bits about piracy and cheating (more on that later) - it has that it has managed to create an action RPG with a lot of the best trappings of an MMORPG without the hassles of an MMORPG.  There is no monthly fee, you don't have to stand around an area like a tart for an hour flashing "LFG" (Looking For Group) to get into a PUG, you don't even have to feel guilty about ditching that group ten minutes later when your pizza arrives.  However, you do get the team mechanics, proper loot sharing, and the ability to start forming a community.  You might not be able to build a guild house - but the online components of the game are fairly compelling and so tightly integrating that it begs the question as to whether there is any point in playing Diablo solo at all.  There's no griefing, it's simple and easy, and you get better loot.

The real problems come with being directly tied to  If you have time to play, but there's a maintenance window - tough luck.  Lag seems to occasionally pop up and it can be difficult to tell where the cause is - but lag can be incredibly deadly when the hordes of hell are on your heels.  Of course, the Diablo III launch itself is now infamous for having about an entire day of downtime ... meaning Diablo III didn't really launch when it said it launched.  It launched when it was finally ready for players.

And of course there is the one main reason to solo: you're simply without a net connection.  On a plane.  On a train.  In a random room with not net connection.  Gaming powered laptops are becoming more and more commonplace and there are lots of Diablo III gamers on the go.  Blizzard should know this - it has been true for WoW players for years.

So the real question comes down to: does all of the MMO mechanics which are baked into Diablo III offset the fact that you simply cannot play whenever you want?  It's really a very tough call - but it is a question I think gamers should keep in mind.  I think it would be foolish to assume other game publishers aren't eyeing Diablo III to see how it all works out for Blizzard.  Forcing an always online requirement is a dream for game publishers as it neatly puts piracy, cheating and griefing issues into a neat little box for them.  If Diablo III players are willing to give up the right to play their game whenever - you can bet that other publishers will be looking to see what features they could put into their games to have them do the same.

For the time, even though I myself had a rage post on the whole launch thing, I'm still giving Diablo III a big thumbs up - but that is mostly because it is a neatly evolved product of the action RPG genre and less that Blizzard can simply pull the game out from under you whenever they want.  However, I wouldn't be surprised if always online is the next thing from publishers to come under the crosshairs of gamers (right next to day one DLC).

Fun Fact! While writing this post, Diablo III was offline from 3AM PDT to 11AM PDT for the 1.02 patch.