The New Cash Cow

Diablo 3 is one of the biggest PC game releases in some years. Being a Blizzard series and the sequel to one of the most popular PC games of all time holds a lot of weight with the consumer audience. It’s pretty much a holy holiday for PC gamers. Being that Diablo 2 is one of my favorite PC games, every word or whisper of the sequel would catch my attention, so I’m not innocent from the fanaticism myself.

Well, now the game is here, and I don’t feel like talking about playing the game would be interesting at all. Instead, what’s interesting is the disaster of a launch the game had and the continuing problems, and future issues the game presents.

The largest issue is the always online DRM that forces even single player games to be played online. To enforce this, Blizzard chose to keep much of the Diablo 3 game server side, keeping item information out of the hands of the players. The defense of this decision is based on the idea that it helps prevent hacking, duping and piracy.

Well, the whole thing has been a disaster. The crush of players to Battle.net has continually kept players out of the game, crashed the Auction House and lead to constant latency issues. Many people do play Diablo in single player mode, and many of these players are angered by the fact that they can’t play their single player game due to not being able to get past a login screen.

It’s hard to hack an offline player

Beyond this, there has been numerous reports of players getting their accounts hacked and items stolen, which makes the defense of DRM seem almost silly at this point. Furthering the issue, fan reaction has been rather vitriol towards the people who have been hacked, blaming them for the problem. A new mantra has sprung up that everyone should get an authenticator. If you get hacked and ever visited a website or reused any password ever or don’t grab an authenticator then it’s apparently all your fault. I’ll remember that the next time I buy a gun to go to the ATM. Even still, people have claimed that they’ve been hacked with an authenticator on their account. Of course, the greater issue is that if the only secure way to play a game that the company forces you to play online is to have an authenticator, then shouldn’t such a thing be included with the game?

Of course, the real reason behind the DRM is to protect RMAH transactions from being based off of faked items and also to force everyone into being a part of the Auction House system. The large ethical question here is whether greed has impacted the game’s design.

Diablo 3 works in a repetitive manner. You clear the game on normal difficulty, then proceed to Nightmare mode, then to Hell mode and finally Inferno mode. Diablo 3 itself is largely a loot based game, but Diablo 3 has emphasized this by making all difficulty in the game a gear check. Blizzard’s World of Warcraft followed this same pattern. In gear check games, all progression is linear and vertical. You have an item, then get a similar item with upgraded stats numbers which replaced the old item. The new item allows you to handle higher level content. This works until you reach a new tier of difficulty which requires the process to start all over again. In WoW, this progress was often tied to dungeon and raid tiers with select item drops on bosses and later token drops which could be handed in for gear. Diablo 3 turns this into a bit more of a lottery by making drops randomized, and then it makes the legendary drops (the really high tier items) appear at a very low rate until you hit Inferno mode. What makes the whole thing sinister is making Inferno mode a huge jump in difficulty that requires these sort of rare items to survive.

It has become clear to the userbase that its far easier to get these items through the auction house than it is through farming kills int he game. You will get drops by farming monsters, but there’s no certainty that the drop will fit your character. This in turn leads to selling the item on the Auction House and making gold to buy the items you need off the Auction House. It is unfortunate that progression has been tied to the Auction House, but it’s probably tolerable up until the point the Real Money Auction House launches. At that point, you may start finding all the items you need and all those items hackers stole appear only on the Real Money Auction House. When this happens, Inferno mode will become a Pay to Win game.

So far, the hacked account problem hasn’t been given a clear answer. Blizzard says their system hasn’t been compromised, but that sort of avoids any responsibility on their part. Even if the hackers haven’t found a way to exploit their system, creating the Real Money Auction House and forcing every player into it has created a bat signal for hackers. Blizzard isn’t so opposed to a shady enterprise being run through their game as they are opposed to not getting a cut from it. By including the Real Money Auction House into their game, they will be taking a cut on every transaction done through it. While this may cut out duplicate items and make buying items safer, it also makes less work for farmers, botters and hackers. They no longer have to run seperate websites and set up their own transaction system.

Costumers Respond?

The Korean government  has already raided the Blizzard Korean offices over consumer complaints. Are the complaints about the online DRM? Not exactly. The Korean government is responding to claims that players have asked for refunds from Blizzard due to the DRM system them keeping them from being able to play the game they played for because Blizzard’s servers can’t stay online ad that Blizzard is denying them a refund. Blizzard is hiding behind their EULA to deny consumers refunds. Yes, ye old EULA, that devil contract companies present to you after they’ve got your money. Apparently, the Korean Fair Trade Commission is looking into the EULA as being unfair to consumers. Is it unfair? Of course. Will the Korean FTC go through with this investigation? I’m not sure.

The funny thing is trying to figure out how a company that has run World of Warcraft for years was unable to handle the launch of an online game. One possible answer is that WoW exists on a different server system from Diablo 3, which is fit squarely under the larger umbrella of Battle.net. While WoW and all Blizzard games are tied into Battle.net, WoW has its own system of separate servers to split up their userbase, auction houses, mail systems and chat systems. Diablo 3 exists under the large umbrella of Battle.net, likely using a non-SQL system that may dynamically shard itself in some manner, but for which all those different databases and servers must talk to each other and depend upon each other. If one system goes down then it can cramp the other systems or keep a player out of the system. The D3 launch disaster didn’t just knock out Diablo 3 players, but locked WoW players out of their login due to WoW’s login being one of the systems tied to Battle.net. Blizzard forums and websites also went down due to the crush.

So while things are ugly now, they could get uglier.While Blizzard had beta tests for Diablo 3, they are just now running into the issue of millions of people hitting Battle.net at once. These issues will be figured out over time, and activity will slow down over time, but the Real Money Auction House lingers in the near future, presenting a brand new problem.

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