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Axel Cushing has a lot to say about Blizzard's decision to make Diablo III a game where players must be connected to the Internet to play, even to play the single-player campaign.

 

No words are minced and he makes a bold prediction in this open letter to Mike Morhaime, President and Co-Founder of Blizzard Entertainment.

 

And remember, any opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not constitute an endorsement by The Armchair Empire. Feel free to email us with feedback though, we'll endorse that!

 

Other Editorials:

- Ethical Gaming (Aaron Simmer)

- Well, It's New to Me! (Mr. Nash)

- Here We Go Again (Aaron Simmer)

 

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An Open Letter to Mike Morhaime

 

Dear Sir,

Doubtlessly you will recognize the purpose of this letter well before you finish even the first paragraph, but I believe a certain amount of introduction is required prior to the purpose of this missive. There is little question that I am and have been a long-time fan of the titles that Blizzard Entertainment has put out over the years. I enjoyed The Lost Vikings in my teens, the WarCraft series and Diablo during my college years, and have purchased the Collector's Edition of every World of WarCraft release. Yes, I am a great admirer of the work that Blizzard has put out

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over the years. It is as an admirer and a member of the gaming press that I must put the following question to you.

Have you taken complete and thorough leave of your senses?

The recently announced decision to require Diablo III players to maintain a persistent Internet connection has caused a good deal of uproar in the community, and rightly

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so. Since the game was first officially announced, there has been nothing to suggest that it is anything other than the third installment of the series up until the announcements of the auction house handling and the persistent connection. I will not say that the development history which is public knowledge has been without controversy. Even when it was announced, there was consternation and even outrage that the moody Gothic feel of the first two installments appeared to have been softened for what some dubbed a "World of DiabloCraft" art style. Yet there is a world of difference between the aesthetic choices made for a game's art style and the fundamental method of playing the game.

diablo-3-5.jpg (658579 bytes)The idea that such a persistent connection is somehow beneficial to all parties and noble in purpose so completely fails to persuade that my impression of late has been that you, or the individuals under you involved with the management of the Diablo III development team, have in fact lost your ability to recognize reality. Let's take an honest look at what precisely your proposition entails, not as it operates in the ideal environment of QA, but in the grim and often harsh environment that is The Desert of The Real. Just in the United States, at the end of 2010, there were roughly 85.7 million wired broadband subscribers according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or about 27.7 wired broadband subscribers for every 100 people. While the overall level of Internet access may have risen in the US, the percentage of broadband subscribers barely reaches a third of the total number of Internet users in the nation. Granted, even if you could only get a tenth of those broadband subscribers to buy Diablo III, you'd have an unequivocal hit upon your hands.

What you may have failed to consider is that precisely 0% of those broadband subscribers has 100% uptime on their lines. What looks like a fine idea in the highly controlled environment of the QA testing area, with perfect conditions designed to isolate external factors contributing to bugs in the software, will invariably fail miserably once that software is exposed to those external factors you have controlled for up to this point. Sure, you can run a closed beta test outside the QA environment, run a lottery to see which lucky fans get an early look at the game, but even then your sample will be skewed. Your own beta testing protocols will have a wide range of hardware, which you will be able to control for in the process of hunting down bugs, but there will be a wide range of Internet connections with technical and geographic elements which you will not be able to control for. Scheduled downtimes, line quality issues, natural accidents, human carelessness around fiber bundles, internal wiring quality, all of these and more can and will
diablo-3-31.jpg (335474 bytes) conspire to turn your latest work into a lump of wasted hard drive space on a lot of computers. While some of the scenarios your tech support staff will run into fall into the category of "acts of God" or can be easily ascribed to external actors such as ISPs or careless utility workers, others will not be so easily dismissed. Having worked in the tech field, I can very easily recall the frustration of an ISP customer when they were informed that their internal phone wiring was not up to snuff to handle their DSL signal and would require a complete rewiring. The moment your tech support staff tells somebody who dropped $60 on a copy of your game that they need to spend several hundred additional dollars just to play the game they've purchased, either by upgrading their internal wiring or suffering the early termination fees and setup fees involved in moving from one broadband provider to another, that customer will very bluntly tell your company to go pound sand. And they will be perfectly right in doing so.

To further complicate matters, the ISPs themselves are a potential impediment to the smooth functioning of this scheme. It may have escaped your notice, but there are persistent rumblings here in the US by major telcos and cable companies expressing a desire to be able to put bandwidth caps in place, ostensibly to "manage" the loads on their networks. And while recent events in Canada have proven that this argument is a farrago of lies and distorted truths that poorly camouflages a desire to squeeze more money out of subscribers, broadband subscribers in Europe are already operating under such caps, and I cannot think that a single one of them will be remotely pleased that their progress in your game is suddenly brought to a screeching and unsaved halt because they hit their cap for the month. In a perfect world of uncapped broadband with 100% uptime, insisting on a persistent Internet connection would at least have the virtue of being technically feasible without undue burden. The real world is far from perfect.

It could be argued that there is precedent for insisting on a persistent Internet connection in order to play single player content. I would argue that a bad precedent is not a good foundation to be basing any sort of strategy upon, rhetorical or commercial. Ubisoft has, for the last few titles, insisted upon a persistent Internet connection for their PC releases. Just as with Diablo III, there was a rather large outcry over this disturbing turn of events. Ubisoft proceeded heedlessly to enforce this new policy and they recently came out with an exultant announcement that there had been "a clear reduction in piracy of our titles which required a persistent online connection, and from that point of view the
diablo-3-2.jpg (278639 bytes)requirement is a success." You'll forgive me if I require large amounts of salt and a generous portion of tequila to take Ubisoft's stated success at face value. The qualifier of "from that point of view" strikes me as disingenuous. If I were to lay money down on a wager, I'd be willing to bet that they're not outright lying, but they're being considerably less than honest. If I were to double down on this wager, I would bet that the number of PC copies they've sold is rather less than what they sold on previous titles that didn't have the persistent connection requirement. I would further hazard that while the number of sales indicates a reduced absolute number of pirated copies, the relative rate of piracy is rather higher than what Ubisoft is willing to publicly admit.

Ubisoft may have set the precedent, but there is a rather different set of factors involved with Diablo III. The most obvious is that the community was not strictly locked into the PC as the platform for titles like Assassin's Creed II, and public comments in the past from Yves Guillemot and other executives at Ubisoft have expressed a strong desire to divest of themselves of any presence in the PC market. Blizzard does not have that degree of flexibility. The days of The Lost Vikings and Blackthorne are long gone. The PC is the only platform you have invested in, whether that's Windows or Mac, and there is no other place to go. For better or worse, you've tied yourself to a single platform, and forcing this scheme onto the community without the benefit of alternate platforms will not result in millions of fans falling in line like good little sheep to be fleeced. You may get some, but nowhere near what you were expecting. The rest will either forsake the game, and Blizzard by extension, or they will turn pirate.

You may believe that having a persistent online connection serves as an excellent, nigh on unbeatable, form of DRM. You would be sadly mistaken. Pirates had Ubisoft's scheme defeated in little more than a month. It was not a perfect crack, but serviceable enough to play the game. For a game with Diablo III's profile, the pirate community will go into overdrive, racing each other for bragging rights as the first to crack the game. If you'll recall, EA claimed that their DRM on Spore was unbeatable. It went on to be the most pirated game in history. I can't see how any hacker could resist the challenge of cracking Diablo III. Jail, fines, prison rape, all of that is meaningless next to a place in history as the person or persons who cracked open Blizzard's "impervious" game.

Of course, cracking the game is not the only possible scenario. Another scenario, and one which is far more likely now that it was a year ago, would be a coordinated hack on Battle.net instead of directly hacking Diablo III. Given the discontent that has already been generated by the announcement of the persistent connection requirement, it would not surprise me in the least that elements of Anonymous, LulzSec, or other hacker collectives have begun preliminary planning of such an attack. Such an attack would be considerably more disruptive than the PSN hack earlier this year. When the PSN was hit, you could still play disc-based games or titles saved to the hard drive, you just couldn't patch them. A PSN-style attack on Battle.net would kill access to World of WarCraft, StarCraft II, and Diablo III. While I can well imagine that Battle.net is a harder target compared to the pre-hack PSN, I cannot believe it is impervious to attack, and successfully bringing down Battle.net would only add luster to the reputation of the hackers who could pull it off. Moreover, the public relations damage involved would ravage your reputation and your subscription numbers. World of WarCraft has dropped to a little over 11 million subscribers. In the wake of a PSN-style attack, I would be surprised if even a tenth that number remained on the rolls.

I can appreciate the need to make money. I can appreciate the need to ensure "a high quality gaming experience" for players. I can even appreciate the need to cut down on cheaters, gold farmers, and other denizens who have the potential to cause personal and commercial grief. But this is not the way to go. If you want to make an MMO out of the Diablo universe, then set the release date back a year, retool the game to be an actual honest MMO, and come out into the open about it being an MMO. Otherwise, attempting to enforce MMO conventions on the single player experience will lead to the first genuine failure of a Blizzard title in recent
diablo-3-4.jpg (259577 bytes) memory. Consider what happened to your former colleague Bill Roper. He tried to have it both ways with Hellgate: London and the only noteworthy thing that came out of that fiasco was the addition of the term "flagshipped" into the community vernacular. I'm sure there are people like Michael Pachter who will tell you in breezy terms delivered in stentorian tones that you're going to be helping to bump that stock price up and making the shareholders happy. But there is more to business than pumping up the stock price and avoiding making the shareholders unhappy. There is the recognition that you will not always make a profit this quarter. There is the understanding that your customers are not simply bags of money that you can reach into and pull cash out of at will. There is the calculus which says a buck off the stock price for removing this onerous requirement of a persistent Internet connection is a bargain compared to the potential crash of a stock when nobody is buying the game while hackers rape and pillage across Battle.net like the Golden Horde. This is one time, Mr. Morhaime, where doing the right thing and the smart thing coincide. Decouple the single player content from requiring a persistent connection. You may have more headaches because of it, but your loyal fans will remain loyal.

Regards,
Axel Cushing
The Armchair Empire

 

(August 12, 2011)

 

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