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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Recently, Arena Net has unveiled more of the upcoming MMO title Guild Wars 2 to the press in a closed beta. It is assumed that the public will have a chance to be selected for another closed beta by the end of this month. The game itself has been in development and discussion for many years, but the recent press beta resulted in the largest exposure of the game to the enthusiasts, even out-weighing the various demos covered at conventions.

Arena Net, from here on referred to as ANet for my convience, has touted their design philosophy behind Guild Wars 2 as a selling point, a promise to gamers to break away from common perceptions and expectations about MMOs. The game claims to have done away with the holy trinity of tank, healer and dps. The game’s open world content is based on interconnected Dynamic Events. There are no longer quest NPCs spotted around town with text boxes and accept/decline options. Instead, things just happen and you can participate or choose not to. The skills in the game are mostly tied to weapon choice and you learn them from using your weapon. There is no mob tagging or kill stealing as you are given credit once you participate and rewarded via how much you participate. The list of departures from standards of MMOs goes on from here.

The reason I am writing this is not to go over what Guild Wars 2 is or to list the changes in the game. There’s plenty of people filling the webspace with rundowns and information dumps. As the title suggests, this blog entry pertains to raiding and its absence from Guild Wars 2 and to what the essence of raiding really might be.

Raiding has become the stand-in for PVE endgame content not due to any victory over other options or due to any great, involving and joyful aspect naturally found within raiding, but because there simply hasn’t been much else to challenge it. In MMOs, PVE endgame content consists of a wee pinch of choice in ventures and to-dos. A max leveled character’s gameplay options include re-rolling as a new character, completionist goals of filling out achievements in the game, farming and playing the market for gold, or the monolithic world of raiding and its accompanying gear treadmill.

A lot of people have put forth their worries about investing their playtime in Guild Wars 2 if it will struggle to persist without a raiding endgame to prop itself up. The reasoning here tends to be backed by an idea that people desire raiding. I contend that nobody actually enjoys raiding, but only enjoy the special things found within raiding and have no experience accessing those fun elements without the dreary elements that raiding binds with them.

I have experience raiding in World of Warcraft. I had no desire to be a virtual millionaire, so farming and playing the market wasn’t a big draw as a time waster to me. I did not find the quests in MMOs to be special enough to be played out if I did not desire any of their rewards. I rolled new characters, but then I was just retreading the same old quests again. This left raiding as a goal for myself when I maxed out, and I continued to play the raid game from Burning Crusade through to the start of Cataclysm, but even before Wrath of the Lich King had spat out its final aria, I was getting burnt out on the whole thing.

What I realized was that there were parts of raiding that I enjoyed and that these parts were similar to things found in other video games. These were the fun elements, these were giant bosses and beautiful, interesting dungeons with an epic feel to the fights and surroundings. I enjoyed working with others and the cooperative element was sometimes able to add an even more heroic and adventurous feel to the encounters.Then there were all the things which turned raiding into work instead of play.

Raiding often involves the gear treadmill, and the encounters are based upon this ladder climb of stats. Your tier 1 content is hard if you don’t have tier 1 gear, but it becomes a yawn when you’re hitting it with a sword and staff two steps above its tier. While I enjoyed playing with others, scheduling a playtime and the required dependency on others became a problem. Sitting around for an hour or two waiting for the last important member of your raid was never and never will be fun. Making sure they have all the potions and elixirs and whatnots needed to get by was a test of patience, but also a devourer of one’s own time.

Pretty soon raiding wasn’t just taking up the time you were in a raid, but asking you to spend your free time in support of the raid. You had no choice but to farm for gold because raiding was designed as a money sink and as such became a constant hit to your virtual-wallet. You needed to farm materials or farm for money to buy the materials you needed. Then the guides came out and you were researching your weekly dungeon and boss, learning a dance pattern to play out with each step planned for you and the only human element to your playtime including the difference between your finger press and your latency, and the goofy name you had chosen for yourself. Then there’s a chart to read to determine your threat, how well you’re doing and what dance step is coming up next. My screen was flooded with menus. I was watching health bars and not the game.

Finally, there was the loot, perhaps the last fun element to a raid. You had a chance at a shiny new reward, but you better have the DKP for it. In other words, you better have shown up to work a lot and sacrificed more of your life to a routine that was becoming less and less enjoyable. And I don’t claim a subjective “fun” here but an objective “fun”, as in that we separate the concept of work from play for a reason. Some people enjoy their work if their work is something they enjoy. There was something in raiding that was fun and enjoyable, but it had been buried underneath layers of artificial difficulties and pain. I was not a masochist and I was no longer enjoying the game I was paying every month to play.

But this whole time, there were those fun elements to be had, so what I contend is that Guild Wars 2 does not need raiding. What Guild Wars 2 needs is those fun elements without the painful bonds attached. I also contend that many raiders will find the same truth I found if a game delivers on providing the feeling of epic encounters and captivating dungeons that put those elements forefront. These elements include good boss design, fantastic dungeons, epic feels, challenging gameplay and some sort of reward or sense of accomplishment. These are things players desire, but raiding has packaged these things in a box full of time sinks and annoyances. Since nothing has come along to challenge raiding, nothing has moved forward in the design and delivery of the sort of elements gamers enjoy. People have begun to think the box these good elements came in is what they wanted, and it’s created a weird masochistic gentlemen’s club of raiders. People just wanted into the club without thinking of why.